The Patsy (1928) So much funnier than Carole Lombard.
So many things about Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane
make sense now. Until yesterday, I had never seen Marion Davies
do anything, because I just assumed
I wouldn't like her on accounta that big ape, William Randolph Hearst
. Well, we all know what happens when we assume,
and I don't know about you
but it sure made an ass out of me
directed by King Vidor
(a guy I already love for The Big Parade
), is a light romantic comedy about a goofy kid sister (Davies) who is in love with her elder sister's boyfriend. The sister (Jane Winton
) has her eye on a more devil-may-care playboy, whose fortune their social-climbing mother, the magnificent Marie Dressler
, finds very attractive. The usual crazy, mixed up stuff happens and it's no surprise when everyone winds up with who they're supposed to be with; even the parents get a little closer together.
It's a sweet, fairly modern, often hilariously funny film, with every player contributing. Davies (who by all accounts was a very generous actress) insisted that Dressler's funniest bits stay in the picture, and it was The Patsy
that revived the 62-year-old actress's flagging career.
I'm now going to ruin one of the funniest bits of business for you. This is the part of the film I had heard about and was kind of bracing myself for: Marion Davies spoofing popular film stars of the day. I wasn't worried so much about her
, but the crowd. There are many kinds of lovely, interesting people who attend silent films in this day and age, but there are some who laugh too loud at period jokes, hiss at villains, and titter or boo at outdated depictions of women and non-white people. Davies was So Good at this that all laughter was genuine and raucous. I've never seen Pola Negri
on screen, for instance, but after Davies' portrayal I could now pick her out of a vamp lineup in a hearbeat.
Her Lillian Gish
will knock your socks off.
The First Born (1928) Don't trust him, Sister!
Spectacular film written and directed by Miles Mander
(from his novel, Oasis
) who also starred as Sir Hugo Boycott, an extraordinarily bad husband to Madeleine (Madeleine Carroll
, a few years before she went blonde and got handcuffed to Robert Donat
in The 39 Steps
). The main characters are rather heavily drawn -- Boycott is the worst kind of rogue: leering, cruel, almost certainly syphilitic; she is a clinging, clueless doormat who inexplicably loves her husband in spite of everything.
Sir Hugo wants an heir and Madeleine hasn't produced, so he runs off to Africa to hang out with foreign rakes and loose women while she stays home and contrives to adopt the child expected by her unwed manicurist on the advice of her very bad friend, Nina (Ella Atherton
). He buys it and they reconcile, even having a child of their own a few years later. But Hugo soon gets bored and takes up with Nina (mmm-hmm) while Madeleine tortures poor David, Lord Harborough (John Loder
) a friend of friends who is hopelessly in love with her. But the marrieds muddle through, mostly because Sir Hugo is running for Parliament and needs the wife.
All the supporting characters are fabulous; they are more or less fully realized (comparatively) and realistic in their kindness and occasional meanness. Even David, the eye candy waiting in the wings (and man, is he handsome), seems like a real person. A real good looking person. In spite of his one-dimensional wretchedness, even Hugo shows surprising sweetness and affection to a crying child in Tangiers or wherever the hell he went to drink and whore, and when he plays with the child he thinks
is his son. I'm afraid I never quite felt any particular warmth toward Madeleine.
There are surprisingly few title cards in the film, the story told very effectively through inventive shots, montage, and camera movement. It was, after all, co-written for the screen by Alma Reville
(you may know her as Helen Mirren
from the recent film about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho
), wife of the famous director and no slouch at editing, scenario writing, and directing. She -- and I have to believe it was her, or her heavy influence on Mander -- introduces so many delicious details; a workman's bicycle knocked over by a callous aristocrat, the realistic camaraderie between dinner party guests, the world's most fabulous coffee pot in a drawing room. One touch I particularly enjoyed is on the night of the election, when Madeleine puts on "Hugo's favourite dress" (it's a British film), which it most certainly is, because it's the least flattering thing she's worn all through the picture, and he's just that much of a tool.
I won't tell you what happens, because I really think you should see it if you can and I don't want to spoil anything. It's so very worth the effort to find, particularly this print, meticulously restored by the British Film Institute.
Interior Castro Theatre: My excellent vantage point.
Prix de Beaute (1930) European Meat Market
It's opening night at the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival and we got the un-dubbed version of Louise Brooks
in her last starring role in film as Lucienne, a typist turned beauty queen.
Lucienne does her typing at a French newspaper and lives with (possibly, it's not clear) her fiance, a linotype operator for the same paper who thinks beauty pageants are immoral. But uh-oh, she already entered the contest and is now a finalist for Miss France, even though she half-heartedly tries to withdraw since the boyfriend with whom she (possibly) lives and is (almost certainly) sleeping with disapproves. Things get bad when she *wins* Miss France and worse when she snags the whole enchilada and becomes Miss Europe.
The moral boyfriend follows Lucienne to wherever the Miss Europe contest is held and convinces her to give it all up and come back home, where she soon becomes bored and miserable. There are many shots of Brooks framed in the shadow of a birdcage and an excellent sequence of her reacting to the people around her and realizing how much she hates the life she lives. Eventually, Lucienne returns to the glamor of life as Miss Europe -- a film deal, a handsome if slightly unctuous playboy, and fame -- cutting out on her lover in the middle of the night. He follows her and it doesn't end well.
Louise Brooks was a fine actress, but a mighty hearty party girl. She was only 24 when she made this picture and it was to be her last feature role. Apparently, Louise would wander off set only to be found drunk in some chateau by the cops and returned to the company. Brooks never cared for Hollywood, was never a critical success at the time she was most active, and preferred to work on stage or with G.W. Pabst
in Europe, who co-wrote Prix de Beaute
and directed her in Pandora's Box
and Diary of a Lost Girl,
unarguably her best films.
Alas, at only 5' 2" she was a pretty big boozer and it was a bad time for booze.
Native Son (1951)
Say, isn't supposed to be the 30s?
Very interesting evening at Noir City
last night. We had the rare opportunity to see Richard Wright
(then 43) acting in the role of Bigger Thomas (age 25) in the film version of Wright's 1940 novel Native Son
. Wright took the part because Canada Lee
), who played Bigger on Broadway, declined the role, saying he was too old (he was 44). Apparently, no studio in the United States thought the movie would make any money outside of the larger metropolitan areas and sure as hell wouldn't play in the South, so it was shot in Buenos Aires (standing in for Chicago) and directed by Pierre Chenal
. And I'm sorry to say that the backstory was the best part of the film; there wasn't one decent actor in the bunch. Made me want to see the Matt Dillon/Elizabeth McGovern version
all over again.
Intruder in the Dust (1949)
After hearing how hard it was going to be to show Native Son
in the U.S., I was a little surprised to learn that the adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust
was shot entirely in Oxford, Mississippi by MGM, no less. Claude Jarman, Jr
. himself introduced the film, saying Louis B. Mayer did not want to shoot it, but director Clarence Brown
, who had seen a lynching as a young boy, convinced Mayer to make the picture. Jarman told us that many of the townspeople who appear in the film as extras were on hand for the poor optics arounds the integration of Ole Miss two years after this film was shot and that the star, Juano Hernandez
, couldn't (of course) stay at the same hotel as the rest of the cast.
40 feet high and 60 years younger
The story is of a black man arrested for the murder of a noted local racist, who was found shot in the back, said black man found near him with a pistol that had recently been shot. Young Chick (Jarman) has formed an unusual friendship over the years with the accused, Lucas Beauchamp (Hernandez) and happens to be the nephew of the local lawyer, an annoying jackass who doesn't listen to ANYONE, but is presumably the voice of White Reason in this film and who agrees to defend the man. A gorgeous alliance of Chick, his black buddy Aleck, and the elderly white lady Miss Eunice (played by the excellent Elizabeth Patterson
) help vindicate Lucas. The town is all excited by a prospective lynching and make a carnival of it. When said lynching is not forthcoming, they all wander off, kicking the dust, going "Aw, gee." All is tentatively OK by the end, with the local black population feeling safe enough to go back into town and Chick and Uncle Smugly comment on the condition of mankind.
It's a real good picture, actually, and very much worth seeing.
Like church, really.
My favorite kind of flight is generally the kind where no one speaks to me. At all. So I was delighted when I slipped past the nicely-dressed man in the aisle seat who clearly wanted to sleep and set up my social barrier by the window. It wasn't until we began to touch down in San Francisco that he made light chit-chat and I mentioned I was here for Noir City 11
, the annual film noir festival.
Turns out this fellow had caught an old movie on TCM just the other day and saw something so amazing that he grabbed his phone and took a video (of his television), because it was so cool. Then he showed me (on his phone) a portion of the fabulous duet at the "West Indies Club" scene from Another Thin Man
I took it as a good omen for this year's program. My first night (the fourth of the festival) was very early nearly-noir; borderline horror and psycho-drama, billed as a:
Pre-Code Proto-Noir Triple Feature
No more Mr. Nice Guy, Dodsworth?
First up was A House Divided
(1931), a crazy melodrama directed by William Wyler
, set in a fishing town straight out of Popeye — the scary Max Fleischer Popeye — where everyone is singing shantys, mending nets, and every other person has a wooden leg. Walter Huston plays a sociopathic brute who, on the day of his wife's funeral, tries to get his namby-pamby son (Douglass Montgomery
, a.k.a. Kent Douglass) drunk and laid at the local bar...to cheer him up. And that's just the first three minutes.
Enter pretty teenage Helen Chandler
(I forget how or why), who Huston declares he's going to marry even though he's a pig and she's half his age. Namby-Pamby goes along at first, thinking at least if his father has someone, the kid can finally leave that stinkin' town and have a life, but realizes how very yick that would be (for her) and intercedes by getting in a fist fight with his father on the wedding night. During the course of this very brutal fight, Huston goes crashing through the upstairs bannister and winds up paralyzed and even more hateful (while Chandler remains in tact, as it were). There are some very creepy scenes of Huston dragging himself around, useless legs trailing behind, menacing the two young people who have, of course, by now fallen in love.
Anyway, there's a big storm with thunder and raging seas and the girl out on a boat having to be rescued and crippled Walter Huston dragging himself into a dinghy and disappearing. The end.
I don't have much to say about the second feature, The Kiss Before the Mirror
(1933), except that it started out well, then drifted into quasi-psycho drama with much shouting and crazed eyeballs and all from the usually affable Frank Morgan
It's the story of a lawyer who is called to defend a man (Paul Lukas
) who has just shot his wife (Gloria Stuart
) in a jealous rage after finding her naked in the apartment of a Greer-Garson-less Walter Pidgeon
. While crafting the defense, Morgan comes to learn that his own
wife (Nancy Carroll
) is cheating on him
! Will he kill her? Will he not? Will he get the other guy acquitted by reason of insanity? Meh.
The film was directed by James Whale
, who must have been directing it on the weekends and evenings around the time he was working on The Invisible Man
, a much better picture.
Not *that* Jean Dixon
For all the scenery chewing from those around her, it was
very good to see Jean Dixon
in the role of Hilda, Lady Lawyer. Dixon is one of my favorite wise-cracking sophisticates. Watch her playing off Edward Everett Horton
and you'll agree.
I couldn't stay awake for the third of the triple features, sadly. I'd been up for 21 hours at that point and not even something called Laughter in Hell
could give me strength.
Wait a second, cantcha, I got sumpin in my shoe.
Wait while I look up who did the singing* for Gloria Grahame
on the excellent and terrifying number, "Ace in the Hole," in Naked Alibi
, because it was so not her. She certainly did her own her "dancing."
It was a packed house at the Castro Theatre
last night for the "Bad Girls" Noir City X
double feature, Naked Alibi
(1954) and Pickup
(1951) and worth every yawn and creaking joint this morning. What a wacky picture Naked Alibi
is. Everyone was slapping somebody or shootin' 'em or stabbin' 'em or kissin' 'em...hard. Sterling Hayden
plays a seemingly-psycho cop who is convinced that the seemingly-innocent Gene Barry
, local baker and family man, has murdered a few cops (one of whom was the ubiquitous Max Showalter
) and becomes obsessed with proving it even after he is dismissed from the police force for brutality. Then for some reason they all go to Mexico.
Once over the border, we learn that Gene Barry has a hot cookie on the side in the form of Gloria Grahame and that Sterling Hayden has virtually no police instincts, as he is lured into a dark alley, stabbed and robbed within an hour of arriving. Billy Chapin
, shoeshine boy, becomes the catalyst for Hayden meeting Grahame so they can begin their doomed romance. Eventually everyone (except Billy Chapin
) goes back
over the border and Gene Barry is revealed to be the murderous heel Sterling Hayden always knew he was. Gloria Grahame doesn't make it, sad to say, and I'm sorry, but Sterling Hayden is still psycho.
Gloria Grahame to Sterling Hayden: "I don't understand you, you don't understand me. We have a lot in common."
* The singing was done by Jo Ann Greer
, says the excellent site "Movie Dubbers
" and the angel who posted the song on YouTube (it starts about a minute in).
Whadder YOU lookin' at?
is my new best inappropriate girlfriend who my parents think is a bad influence and forbid me to hang arround with. I can't express how much I enjoyed her performance in Pickup
, a surprisingly funny, moderately suspenseful glimpse into the life of bored bad girl in a small town.Hugo Haas
starred in, wrote, and directed this picture. Apparently, this was the first in a series of films Haas made throughout the 1950s on exactly the same topic — hot, mean girl takes shlubby middle-aged man for all he's worth (this from Eddie Muller
, the Czar of Noir, who gives a short lecture before each movie. Muller, bless him, is kind of a toolbag, but he really knows a lot
, so it's worth sitting through the smarm). I'll be trolling for more of Haas's pictures, so stay tuned.
Contrary to what the posters would have you think, Pickup
, isn't especially hardboiled. Each character is believeable and flawed; their choices stupid and human. Yes, it's a B noir, but the story is ultimately about loneliness, companionship, and forgiveness — even "Betty" (Beverly Michaels) isn't completely rotten. I'm not going to elaborate, because you really should see it if you can.
Not the Best Line, but a Good One
Betty stepping out of Hunky's jalopy once she sees the railroad "shack" he lives in: "When's the floor show start?"
Somebody tell this guy I'm not Sean Young
Just under three weeks until the 10th Annual Noir City Film Festival
in San Francisco. I saw the preview last week while waiting for Singin' in the Rain
to start (second on the program with On the Town
) and wished they'd cut it about 40 seconds shorter. Alas, they did something unfortunate typographically with the "X" that signifies "10" and the "Y" in "City" and decided to go soft porn in the promo, which is both a misinterpretation of noir and a lame design treatment. Very 1982.
Happily, The program
itself looks good. I'll miss Angie Dickinson
and a bunch of great San Francisco-based films, but I will get there just in time
and The Money Trap
and won't have to leave until right after The Great Gatsby
(with Ruth Hussey
!!) and Three Strangers
Stay tuned for pre-program preparatory and in-program notes. Meanwhile: Happy New Year!
In honor of the heat and what's going on (or not going on) over the river in D.C., I'm having some friends over to watch a few films about political intrigue, power-mongering, and sensationalism. Updates to follow.
I've already done the Birthday of the Week, but today is Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
's birthday and the guy was great. What can I say? Sure, the scandal
was hideous and dreadful for all concerned — lurid and career-ruining — plus the woman died and everything.
Anyway, anyway... I used not to care much for slapstick at all and especially avoided the kind where the big joke was about being fat or drunk, so I didn't come around to Arbuckle until my early 20s — and then only just
, because he hung around with my girlfriend, Mabel Normand.
Then last July I saw him in "The Cook" at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival
with Buster Keaton and became a true fan, as I hope you will too if you aren't already. Remember, all the stunts are done by the actors and the dog. The whole thing's a ballet.
Enjoy. But don't try any of this at home.
The Cook (1918)
The other day I ran across the program to a private film festival my friend Monica and I held at her place on Shotwell Street in San Francisco some time in 1994. It was called "Nearly the 100th Anniversary of Going to the Movies" and we screened 15 movies in one day, with a half hour break in the middle to bestow Agnes Moorehead with the first (and only) Lifetime Achievement Award for Hollywood's Scandalously Neglected. The award was to have been forever after known as "The Aggie" and we never did it again, which in itself is scandalous.
It is time to set things right. I am hereby resurrecting the Aggie Awards, since it is Oscar Season and they've stopped parading the Hollywood Elders Miraculously Still Alive on the actual show. Date and details to follow once I've had a chance to gin up interest.
Meanwhile, I'll start the ball rolling with two lists of contenders for Scandalously Neglected Actor and Scandalously Neglected Actress — and a chance for you to throw a name in the ring.
Now the boys...
Nearly the 100th Anniversary of Going to the Movies Program (1994)
Here is the program that started it all. Looking back, I'm pretty impressed with how many studios and eras we covered. It was a 12-hour extravaganza with two rooms going at once: one for features (the first seven pictures in the slideshow) and one for diversions. There may have been some drinking.