Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today.’ And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene where the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her: when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks spend apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot to be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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“it will always be modern”: Emmanuelle Riva Revisits Hiroshima Mon Amour

poster“Happy” isn’t a word that comes to mind when we ponder Alain Resnais’s harrowing, innovative Hiroshima Mon Amour. However, according to Emmanuelle Riva, it was a joy to make.

At the Reflet Medicis movie theater in Paris, the stage and screen veteran shared mostly glowing memories of the intense production in Japan and France. “I can still feel the happiness of those days, it hasn’t left me,” She told a rapt audience. “It was so extraordinary to live that adventure.”

Elegant and lively at age 87, Riva introduced a screening of the New Wave masterpiece under the auspices of the Paris Cinéma Festival, which launched a series showcasing 50 of the greatest female roles. More than deserving of its place in the program, Hiroshima Mon Amour presented Riva with a unique challenge in film history. And, in only her second movie appearance, she rose to it.

Her character in the movie, a French actress, embarks on a torrid affair with a Japanese architect in Hiroshima, thus reawakening trauma from a doomed liaison with a German soldier during WWII. Within the context of a nonlinear movie, Riva movingly conveyed one woman’s passions and sorrows while still grappling with the film’s abstract themes of memory, loss, and identity.

“I was very pleased with the role because it will always be modern,” Riva said of the complex, liberated woman she played. “Her freedom exists naturally within her.”

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Riva with Noël Corbin, Paris Director of Cultural Affairs, and Aude Hesberg, Director of the Paris Cinéma Festival

Penned by Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour also used Riva’s crystalline voice to hypnotic effect through extended voice-over monologues. “Marguerite has her own rhythm,” Riva noted. “There’s a precise, childlike quality in her writing that you can’t ignore. You can’t escape it, but it’s actually a pleasure.”

Still, Riva wanted to set the record straight about those famous voice-overs. “Not long ago,” she recounted, “I was listening to some old interviews and I heard Alain Robbe-Grillet talking about Hiroshima… He said that Marguerite Duras had sent out cassettes of the text. I must have listened to them—and there was nothing left for me to do but mimic her. And he laughed and laughed.”

“Well, I never heard these cassettes,” She attested. “It’s totally untrue. And I’m very glad to have the chance to tell you this!”

With a subtle glimmer of accomplishment in her eyes, she explained, “I didn’t have to imitate. That doesn’t interest me at all. I like to create.”

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Over the course of a month of filming in Japan and two weeks in France, Riva found plenty of opportunity to create, both onscreen and off: “I took pictures while Sylvette Baudrot [the script girl] and Alain Resnais figured out how the film would be shot. I had about 4 or 5 days and I walked around the entire city that was still largely in rubble. I photographed everything I saw… I ended up putting together a series of very precious photos, because soon afterwards the city was totally reconstructed.”

Her stunning street photography has since formed the basis for an exhibition and a book. Riva’s own interest in documenting the changing face of Hiroshima no doubt informed her contributions to a movie preoccupied with history as both a collective narrative and an individual experience.

As for the production itself, Riva fondly recalled the atmosphere of “sympathy” that reigned among the cast and crew. Resnais directed his actors with sensitivity: “[He] would come up close, talk with each of us intimately, and quietly tell us what he hoped to achieve in the scene.” The actress also praised her co-star, Eiji Okada: “He learned all his lines phonetically… His work was just amazing and he has a magnificent presence in the film.”

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Riva shared only one negative recollection of the production, but a painful one at that. During the drawn-out tearoom scene, interspersed with numerous flashbacks, Riva’s character breaks down as she tells the story of her tragic first romance. Reacting to a moment of borderline hysteria, her lover slaps her with such force that the entire restaurant turns to gape. “This was very difficult, because the camera was on a crane that would drop on a certain syllable of a word—it had to be that precise,” She explained. “So, I received quite a few slaps. And I got very angry, because I’d had enough of being slapped.”

A key part of Riva’s most difficult work didn’t take place on the set, however, but during a week in the recording studio: “The film was entirely dubbed, since we had a camera that squeaked.” As for re-recording dialogue after the fact, “I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s very tough, working from recording with lots of background noise.” The conviction and unsettling honesty of the dialogue scenes in Hiroshima Mon Amour stand out as even more impressive, considering that the emotions had to be recaptured.

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In the 55 years since the movie’s acclaimed release, nearly all those involved in the production have passed away. Riva noted, “I’m the last one left from Hiroshima Mon Amour,” apart from her friend Sylvette Baudrot, the film’s script girl. The actress lamented the recent death of Alain Resnais this past March, “I was really stunned. I’d grown to believe that he would live forever.”

These days, when Riva is called upon to watch Hiroshima Mon Amour, as when Argos Films invited her to present a new restoration at Cannes, she never does so willingly: “It’s as though I were watching somebody else.” Just as the film reveals the surreal distances injected into our experiences by the passage of time, Riva observed, “We each have many lives. And Hiroshima is in another life for me.”

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Nevertheless, the actress—who estimated that she’s on her seventh life—expressed her pleasure at seeing so many young viewers in the audience. (This is the point where she smiled at me in the front row and I nearly passed out.) Asking how many first-time viewers were present, she exclaimed, “Wonderful!” at the significant show of hands.

As the actress cheerfully shared clear, detailed memories of a production long ago, her deep love for her craft, at its best and its worst, seemed to illuminate her from within. Grounded and sincere, she’s the very epitome of humility, yet her every measured movement and syllable seems to announce, “This, kids, is a pro.”

Only unimportant people try to seem important. Great artists don’t have to. So, it’s fitting that, when her interviewers thanked her for coming, Emmanuelle Riva smiled and simply replied, “I live quite close.”

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Please note that all quotations from Riva in this article are my own translation of her words. For an article about the screening in the original French, I recommend this one on Paris Cinéma’s own site. You should also watch this interview (with subtitles) that Riva gave at Cannes in 1959. It’s great. 

You can also  learn more about the 50 Grands Rôles de Femmes series at the Reflet Medicis, which will be continuing until December 2014.

Thank you to Paris Cinéma for allowing me to include their photos of the event, taken by Clara Baillot and Camille Griner, on this blog.

The Greatest Film Performance that Never Was? John Barrymore’s Lost Hamlet

jackEvery film buff has his or her pet candidate for the Greatest Movie Never Made, from Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted An American Tragedy to Buster Keaton’s proposed Grand Hotel send-up to Sergio Leone’s dream of a Gone with the Wind remake.

These ghostly might-have-been films haunt us, tantalizing the director of the mind that lurks within all cinephiles. The impossible possibilities dare us to imagine them, to make the movie in our heads, despite the knowledge that such a thought experiment will doubtless result in more pain than pleasure.

But what exquisite agony it is to imagine!

I am fortunate in my chimera of choice, because a morsel of the project was realized and survives as a clip that every lover of cinema, of Shakespeare, or of great acting needs to see.

Now, I’d get myself into a hell of a fight if I asserted that John Barrymore was the greatest Hamlet of the 20th century, so, to be diplomatic, I’ll just argue that he was one of the greatest Hamlets of all time. The waggish among you might make a crack about borrowing my time machine, because—duh—I’ve never seen Barrymore perform Hamlet onstage.

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Instead I base this praise on two short fragments: one is a bitterly ironic clip from a show biz parody, the other from a rare screen test for a film that never materialized. To tell the full story of what makes that masterpiece manqué so poignant, I need to make a few detours through the story of an extraordinary life.

In the film Twentieth Century, Barrymore, playing hammy Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, castigates his protégée for working in Hollywood: “Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.” One has a similar feeling 455px-Portrait_of_John_Barrymorewatching much of Barrymore’s filmography.

Attracted to Hollywood by the unprecedented money and the prospect of respite from the rigors of the stage, Barrymore wrote, in 1926, “The most wonderful accident that ever happened to me was my coming to this God-given vital, youthful, sunny place.”

It took less than a decade for the “wonderful accident” to seem more like a car crash, one which attracted the avid rubbernecking of audiences.

As depression and alcohol ate away at Barrymore’s professionalism, his films, in the words of the astute critic Richard Schickel, “now offered a kind of horrified fascination—had the star slipped another notch, was he holding his own in his battle with this lingering illness of spirit or was he, as sometimes happened… actually rallying?” Despite the virtuosity of some silent performances, a few suave early 1930s leads, and his gut-busting comic bombast in Twentieth Century, Barrymore’s screen career devolved into painful self-parody.

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At the low point of his career, literally playing his washed-up self, Barrymore was called upon to deliver Hamlet’s most famous speech. The film, Playmates (1941), would be his last. Get yourself a tissue and watch the scene now:

If a great artist is this great at his worst, one would need astronomical terms to describe his talent at its zenith. The lines that we’ve all heard so much sound both natural and theatrical in Barrymore’s voice; he turns a tune that viewers know by heart into an utterance that drives home man’s universal battle with—and longing for—death.

He makes us forget that he’s reciting the soliloquy in the midst of a somewhat lackluster grab bag of actors. This is Brahms playing in the brothel. This is Tasso scribbling away in prison. In the midst of mediocrity, Barrymore the buffoon delivers the artist that was Barrymore and the genius that is Hamlet—parallel figures representative of all inscrutable greats humbled and confined for what the gods gave them. Denmark is a prison, Hollywood is a prison, the world is a goodly enough prison for Hamlets everywhere.

I’ll admit that I’m pirouetting on the edge of cliché here, so I’ll give you someone else’s much more articulate assessment of Barrymore:

“That was a highly complicated man… a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror—a gallant old acrobat limping over the abyss on a tightrope that was badly frayed,” as Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. Welles’s films might’ve questioned the value of remembering a man after he’s gone, but, in real life, he knew how to eulogize a brother genius.

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A sketch of Barrymore by Welles

Orson Welles actually saw Barrymore, a friend of his father’s, as Hamlet on Broadway in the early 1920s: “I used to stand in the wings when he was playing Hamlet—matinees, that is; I was a baby then—holding his private bucket of champagne.”

Absorbing the performance like the prodigy he was, Welles retained a vivid memory of Barrymore’s finest hour and cited it as the greatest Hamlet he had ever seen.

At the respectable other end of the auteur spectrum from enfant terrible Welles, Laurence Olivier also extolled Barrymore. Sir Larry lauded the Great Profile not only as a great actor, but also as a key figure in the revival of genuinely passionate portrayals of Shakespeare.

In On Acting, Olivier wrote “My Hamlets in later years owed a great deal to Jack Barrymore. It seemed to me that he breathed life into the character, which, since Irving, had descended into arias and false inflections—all very beautiful and poetic, but castrated. Barrymore put back the balls… When he was on stage, the sun came out.”

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In 1933, 51-year-old Barrymore—his Hamlet stage triumph over a decade behind him—performed a brief scene from the play as a test for a potential motion picture. Whoever approved the test clearly understood that he was preserving history, because the snippet was captured in expensive two-strip Technicolor.

Barrymore’s gifted voice coach Margaret Carrington and Broadway production designer Robert Edmund Jones contributed to the unusually polished screen test. With fine character actors Reginald Denny as Horatio and Donald Crisp as Marcellus, Barrymore acted out the scene in which Hamlet decides to follow what appears to be the ghost of his father. Here it is:

Certainly, this is a rather stagy echo of what the film—an early Technicolor period Hamlet—would’ve been. Yet, listen to the descant of dread and sadness Barrymore sings before the likeness of his father and the low scrape of desperation as he asks what the ghost could do to his soul. There’s immediacy to this man, the sense that he’s living two lives at once and feels suffocated by both. Despite the generally respectful tenor of this clip (I would’ve loved to see Barrymore take on some of Hamlet’s bawdier stuff), one still detects something “dangerous,” as Welles said, about this prince. He’s a time bomb, fuming poetry instead of smoke as his fuse burns down.

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Indeed, Barrymore irreverently described Hamlet in 1942 as “[a] ranting pious pervert! But clever, mark you, like all homicidal maniacs! And how I loved to play him. The dear boy and I were meant for each other.”

The story goes that the movie failed to move forward when Barrymore, at a dinner party with his financial backers on the project, began to recite one of the Dane’s speeches and faltered with a lapse of memory. Now, I don’t entirely believe that anecdote, because he could quote Shakespeare with fluency even in the darkest days of his “idiot board” promptings. So, I suspect that other film commitments, the liability of his alcoholism in general, and Barrymore’s own assessment of the limits inherent in his age probably drove the poisoned blade through this Hamlet. But we have an amazing color document—and on YouTube no less.

Please note that the color fragment is not the complete test. I have only been able to locate one more complete version of the test and it is in black-and-white with distracting timestamps. But here it is, for what it’s worth:

(I also recommend this audio-only recording of Barrymore reciting the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech.)

So watch these and re-watch them. Share them, please! Let Barrymore’s lost Hamlet production take on a new life in your mind. We are blessed to have this time capsule, the only moving images to survive as a relic of the immortal, yet ultimately ephemeral performance.

The rest is silence.

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Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926): Problem Child

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“Lulu always wants to do what the folks don’t want her to.
When she struts her stuff around, London Bridge is falling down!
She’s the kind of smarty who breaks up every party,
Hullabalooloo, don’t bring Lulu, I’ll bring her myself!”

These lyrics from a popular 1925 Ray Henderson tune could’ve been written about Louise Brooks, the most incandescently fatal woman ever to Charleston her way through film history. Once Brooksie swung into party mode, you might expect the whole world to evaporate under the scorching heat of her peculiar alchemy of hedonism and innocence. Her borderline-apocalyptic beauty could not breathe in any other medium but cinema.

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I suspect Brooks would bristle at the fact that her black helmet hairdo and “decadent… Aubrey Beardsley makeup” have been seared as a static afterimage on our collective cultural retina, as a stripped-down icon of flapperdom.

Brooks as a floating face with pearls. Brooks staring down the camera in a gallery of scornful publicity portraits. Brooks striking an oblique Follies pose.

These photographs resonate even in their stillness. Thousands of people who have never seen Brooks’s films—and aren’t likely to—could doodle the minimalist curves of her exotic glamour as an archetype of the Roaring Twenties. And that’s both a glory and a pity.

Brooks’s sorcery captivates an audience by the way her spirit billows forth unreservedly from her movement, as if the camera had “caught her by surprise,” in the words of Henri Langlois. Recognizing Louise Brooks without watching her dance through the most mundane of tasks, gestures, or scenes is like recognizing a bird without ever having seen one fly.

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I wanted to write about Love ’Em and Leave ’Em (1926), a skillfully executed but pretty standard dramedy, because even in her role as an aspiring vamp, Brooks displays the dazzling naturalness that would shine so brightly in her later celebrated performances for Pabst. The film also seems to have been one of her more felicitous Hollywood experiences. I can’t find a negative word out of her about the production—a rarity, for sure, since she had to put up with everything from surly co-stars to predatory producers to overprotective directors and wrote about it in exacting detail afterwards.

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Brooks praised her director, Frank Tuttle, as “a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood. An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of authors—great actors and non-actors.” Indeed, Tuttle had a knack for giving unknown or up-and-coming talents the space they needed to deliver breakout performances, as he would demonstrate two decades later with Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. The director deployed “non-actor” Brooks’s dangerous appeal to great effect.

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In Love ’Em and Leave ’Em, Brooks essays an early variation of the role that would define her on and offscreen: the eternal problem child, too clever, too beautiful, and too reckless for her own (or anyone else’s) good. She is the chief plot obstacle in both storylines—stealing her sister’s beau and nearly getting her sister jailed for money she stole. And yet the audience cannot bring itself to condemn this pouty, precocious con artist. She doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, so, consequently, it’s hard to blame her.

From the outset, Brooks serves as the terrific pay-off to a carefully drawn-out introduction. Our story begins in a cramped boarding house, where dutiful Mame (Evelyn Brent) wearily arises for a day of work, after waiting up in vain for her wildcat sister. The intertitles inform us that Mame’s mother made her promise to watch over Janie. As the put-upon goody-two-shoes lurches over to the window, she notices the Jazz Age still life of kicked-off pumps, lingerie, and a wisp of a dress strewn on the floor. Then Mame opens the window to let in dawn’s tender rays that fall on her girlish, still dozing sister, looking as innocuous as a china doll. Really? This is the wicked babe we just heard about?

Big sister pauses to pick up a doll from the floor and examines its conspicuous tag: “Ladies 1st Prize, Charleston Contest.” As a playful sibling reproach, Mame puts the doll’s motorized dancing feet against Janie’s. And then and only then do we watch sleeping beauty turn into a lippy hell-raiser as she swings up from her pillow and starts bossing her guardian around, telling Mame to go wake up her boyfriend down the hall.

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She goes to meet this total dud, Bill (Lawrence Gray), whom even the intertitles mock as “a ninety million to one shot for President of the United States.” While the drippy pair are arguing about who gets to use the communal water supply first, Janie flounces unceremoniously in front of the camera into the bathroom. So long hot water, hello snow showers.

storeMame and Jane work at one of those ubiquitous silent movie departments stores, populated by the usual assortment of pretty young ground troops and officious managers who boss the harried workers around. (I kept hoping Harold Lloyd would show up and woo Janie with his devamping routine out of Girl Shy, but, alas, to no avail.)

Mame trudges along, giving all the credit for her artistic window dressing to Bill. Meanwhile pert, popular Janie has honed her Pollyanna charade so well that she’s been appointed treasurer for the Employee Welfare League, charged with collecting money for the annual costume dance.

Now, this is one of those movies where the characters act like they’ve never seen a movie, which is odd, because we even see characters go out to the cinema for a date. Janie, you see, has a penchant for betting whatever cash comes into her lily-like hands on horses—with Lem (Osgood Perkins), the oily n’er-do-well who lives in the boarding house, acting as her bookie. Seriously, Janie? You’re going to leave the Welfare Dance money with Lem? Have you not seen The Cheat? Fortunately, the actors are so delightfully shady that these sorts of concerns barely trouble us.

16In fact, Brooks, who shared screen time with quite a few fine actors, named Osgood Perkins (father of Anthony) as the best she ever worked with.

Years later, in an interview with Kevin Brownlow, Brooks praised Perkins and explained how he bolstered her performance: “You know what makes an actor great to work with? Timing. You don’t have to feel anything. It’s like dancing with a perfect dancing partner. Osgood Perkins would give you a line so that you would react perfectly.”

Brooks and Perkins do an elegantly choreographed comic two-step in their routines together, all tease and greed on her part, all lust and greed on his. Once, while Jane turns around to count her money, Lem surreptitiously inches closer to her, though leaving a safe margin of I’m-not-touching-you hover space. Janie, without so much as a backwards glance, instinctively elbows him away with a coy little stab. She is apparently well-versed in the ways of oily creepers.

20But back to Plotline A: Mame decides that she wants a vacation to think over Bill’s marriage proposal and asks Janie to help him out with his window dressing work while she’s away. Good thinking, Mame. Leave your jelly-spine boyfriend and your conniving nymphet of a sister to arrange a luxurious boudoir window display. Faster than you can say “Hotsy-Totsy,” Janie is practically wearing Bill as her anklet.

And this is where Brooksie gets her big scene.

Night. The department store. Whereas Mame would be actively sharing her best ideas with Bill, Janie arranges two creepy Harlequin dolls to look like they’re kissing. When Bill objects, she sulks and admires herself by the beauty display, sampling the pricey products. Her hands put on a little ballet for us, dabbing on powder with a huge, cottony puff and dotting scent on her lips.

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Having sufficiently beautified herself, Janie slinks over to a divan and flashes her come-hither stare at Bill. He tries to pull her off the sofa, but she gives him a coy smile and shakes her head no. Since Bill, despite his faults, does possess a Y chromosome, he succumbs and flops on top of Janie who lies there immobile, her hand resting on his back like a talon. As Bill plants his clumsy kisses on Janie’s disdainful face, Tuttle inserts a wry shot of the Harlequin dolls falling onto each other.

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Seized by the sudden realization that this is wrong, Bill bolts to a safer corner of the room. Janie, angered and vexed by this reaction, sits up and hatches a cunning improvisation. She dips her hands into a nearby fishbowl, wets her cheeks with artificial tears, and proceeds to cry her crocodile tears. “You hurt me,” simper the intertitles. And the battle is lost for William the Conquered.

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It’s hard to imagine what Janie sees in Bill, who has all the personality and verve of a packing crate. I can only deduce that she’s practicing, to keep her skills sharp.

Throughout her career, Brooks was pursued by the accusation that she simply didn’t act, and that she didn’t try. In my opinion, that’s a compliment to the purity of her performances. For instance, in the scene above, the only conscious theatrics she projects come when she starts acting within the scene, acting her faux devastation for Bill’s benefit. The anti-theatricality of this seduction scene adds to its hilarity. The true vamp has to practically do the Dance of the Seven Veils before devouring her prey, but not Janie. I tend to think of parody as exaggerated, but this parody makes the viewer chuckle at the inevitability of Janie’s ruse—a complex ruse that goes as follows:

1. Sit there and look sexy.

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Yep, that’s about it. Sprinkle a few fake tears here and there and you’ve got comedy gold. As Brooks remembered, Tuttle discouraged her from giving an overblown bogus performance by deliberately concealing the tone of the scene from her. “I didn’t even know I was playing comedy until I saw that picture with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that’s the way he wanted it.”

Whether prancing out to the ball after wrecking her sister’s life or dancing like a fiend in the middle of a crowd of tame store employees, Brooks’s Janie is too self-centered to consider that she might be funny. You have to play it straight to be this crooked.

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Though lacking the electric charisma of her co-star, Evelyn Brent manages to engage our sympathy with a thoroughly likable comic performance. When Bill tells her she smells “like a rose,” she responds with charmingly paced pause of dry incredulity at this poetic outburst before finally replying, “Marmalade!”

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She also pulls off some awfully funny knockabout comedy at the end. In a droll reversal of the typical dramatic crosscut conclusion, which often sees the fragile heroine being attacked by a slime-ball, it’s the tough, athletic Brent who ends up tackling seedy Osgood Perkins, wrestling him for his wallet. Instead of the cavalry arriving to save her virtue, it’s just useless Bill who finds her in control of situation. She tells him…

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While sister Mame is grappling for the cash with Lem, Janie is shocking the community with her frantic dance moves in a room of tame, older employees. Tuttle indulges us with a slow tilt up from her melodic legs to her waving arms. She does this erotic shimmy to enthrall Mr. Schwartz, the window manager, appropriately dressed as Mephistopheles. Her gobsmackingly obvious bid for his, ahem, favor succeeds. Actually, it succeeds more than even Janie intended. The last we hear of Janie, she’s upgraded her window manager date to a better conquest, the store manager! An intertitle announces that she’s gone off in his Rolls Royce.

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Dancing with the devil has its rewards in the rather cynical universe of Love ’Em and Leave ’Em. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this film so thoroughly. That girl’s gonna be okay, we think, smiling at Vice Triumphant. Call me a philistine, but I relish a movie that ends with a badly behaved rebel making her getaway and laughing at us all. It’s certainly more enjoyable than a film in which she winds up passionately stabbed in a squalid garret. There’s something to be said for wish fulfillment. Louise Brooks certainly had a taste for it; her own favorite films were An American in Paris, Pygmalion, and The Wizard of Oz.

They say that tragedy becomes comedy in time, so maybe comedy is just tragedy paused before the real denoument. Janie’s Rolls Royce gets off at the comedy stop. Brooks’s story didn’t. But I’m not sure she would’ve wanted it any other way.

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Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman rarely given enough credit for her depth and strength in her own time—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. Exploiting a position of power and trust would be a kind way to describe Barrymore’s behavior. The forbidden relationship between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age was a problematic echo of the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people on the screen leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those memorable films that captures the spark of an off-screen relationship. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the way Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this exquisite, delicate girl.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

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This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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Do Not Pass Go: Each Dawn I Die (1939)

poster“When I first came here, I believed in justice. I believed that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure on weeks and months and now I hate the whole world and everyone in it for letting me in for this. Buried in a black filthy hole because I was a good citizen. Because I worked my head off to expose crime—and now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict. I think and hate like a convict!”

—Frank Ross (James Cagney)

If you’re looking for a feel-good flick, I wouldn’t recommend William Keighley’s Each Dawn I Die—as the title might suggest. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking one of James Cagney’s most poignant, edgy performances, you came to the right movie. 

In this indelibly brutal look at America’s prison system, Cagney plays neither a fearsome gangster nor even a petty hustler, but rather a good guy locked up due to a miscarriage of justice. Crack reporter Frank Ross got a little too close to the corruption he was trying to expose—so the crooked politicians he threatened decided to keep him quiet with a nasty frame-up. Sent to Rocky Point with a twenty-year sentence, Ross forges an unlikely friendship with big shot racketeer Stacey (a sly, swaggering George Raft) who offers to help Ross dig up evidence of his innocence… if Ross helps him escape.

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Now, whenever two stars at the top of their game appear in the same movie—receiving equal billing—it’s mighty tempting to see them as competition in a zero-sum contest of “who came off better?” In this case, I applaud how well Each Dawn I Die both stretches and showcases Cagney’s and Raft’s respective talents. Right off the bat, I’ll confess my bias: to my mind Cagney possessed the far greater range as an actor—and I think even George Raft would agree with me.

However, Cagney’s earnestness, his relentless intensity, and his ability to structure his performances, usually building up to a climactic freak-out—all these qualities are nicely balanced out by Raft’s laconic, under-emotive coolness. Frank Ross’ sensitivity to the world and his awareness of the moral stakes of any given situation provide the catalyst for glib tough-guy Stacey to grow as a person. Ross’s energy and his righteous indignation force Stacey to actually weigh the ethical consequences of his actions for once. In this way, Cagney’s and Raft’s acting styles (and abilities) translate beautifully into their onscreen characters.

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If Raft plays a more automatically charismatic character—a slang-slinging outlaw—Cagney certainly rips into the more difficult of the two lead roles. We understand his Frank Ross as a wronged man; yet, Cagney brings a strength and complexity to this risky victim role, a part that could have easily seemed like a wimp or a weakling in the hands of a less capable performer.

Frank Ross initially recalls Paul Muni’s similar role as a man incarcerated through a quirk of fate in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. However, Cagney’s Ross ironically “earned” his punishment, by fighting long and hard against unscrupulous politicians who unjustly imprison him. Indeed, in the opening scenes of Each Dawn I Die, Cagney channels all of the virile aggression he displayed in his gangster roles, only turned to serve a social purpose.

20Stalking through the rain in a trench coat, scaling walls into a fortress of profiteers, and smiling to himself as he watches the bad guys incriminate themselves, Cagney exudes a malevolence twisted for good, an anger born of hard-knocks and displaced onto corruption. His risk-taking star reporter doesn’t just want a story—he genuinely despises the grifters and crooked politicians he strives to unmask.

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He wants to bring them down—and he pursues their downfall with the same sort of single-minded ferocity that we tend to associate with Cagney’s less benevolent characters, like Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett. Cagney’s variation on the muckraking reporter adds a deep subtext to that stock character of the 1930s. He doesn’t just breeze through the world of racketeers looking for newspaper fodder, like many a wisecracking movie journalist. Frank Ross, who, as we later find out, rose from the slums to make something out of himself, hates criminals and exploiters of the public confidence. He hates them deeply. Personally. Intensely. Implacably.

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About to spill his big scoop on the district attorney and the governor, Ross leaves his office one night, only to be seized by two ugly henchmen who hustle him into his car. Even in a moment of danger, Ross exhibits the typical Cagney moxie—he bares his teeth like a frustrated shark. We can practically hear his thoughts, saying, “Why, I oughta…!”

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Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t have a chance to fight back. The baddies knock him out, force him into the driver’s seat of the car, smash a bottle of liquor, and send him out into the city traffic—to make the killing look like a drunk driving accident. Even more unfortunately, Ross wakes to discover that, although he survived the collision, three people in the other car were killed on impact. Pleading innocence, Ross nevertheless receives a harsh sentence from a judge most likely in league with the hypocritical politicos that engineered the frame-up.

GO TO JAIL. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

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When Ross first meets ‘Hood’ Stacey, on the way to Rocky point, he’s chained to him. Unsurprisingly, given his disdain for all manner of crooks, Ross hates the kingpin on sight. Their immediate baiting dialogue offers one of the rare moments of levity in this grim movie.

Stacey: Write a piece about me when you get out, will ya? The name’s Stacey. Life sentence. I like to read my name in the papers.

Ross: If you don’t shut up, you may find it in the obituary column.

Stacey (sarcastically): Oh my goodness! Hey, deputy, willya change my seat? I don’t like to play so rough. He run over a coupla guys so he thinks he’s tough. You know how it is with the first coupla guys.

29Cagney doesn’t take that talk from anybody, so, with one well-placed swing, these very different men enter into their first brawl—and win a modicum of respect for each other.

Although the unusual bromance between Raft and Cagney sustains the film, the emotional core of the movie witnesses Ross slowly transforming into a hardened, bitter man. He quickly learns to curry favor with big gangsters like Stacey. On his first day, he saves Stacey’s life by tripping a man who was about to stab him with a shiv. Soon, Ross has made the choice to look the other way when Stacey decides to murder a fellow inmate, a dirty rat called Limpy Julian.

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The scene where Ross catches Stacey practicing his knife technique—but agrees to remain silent—stands out as a key moral reversal for our protagonist. “I don’t see any shiv,” He tells Stacey, with a grin, pretending not to see what’s right in front of his face. Denying physical reality, even in a metaphorical way, Ross signifies that he’s splitting from the ethics that he cherished “on the outside.”

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I don’t see nothing… Cagney, Raft, and shiv.

Ross’s behavior shifts to reflect a logic more germane to outlaws and gangsters, because those social menaces at least embrace their own code of honor. We perceive less justice operating in society at large than in the tightly knit circle of cons and shysters who follow their own unwritten laws of loyalty.

Ross’s eventual descent into madness proves that prisons don’t turn bad men into good ones—on the contrary, they beat an exemplary citizen into a feverish con. Seeing his basically decent comrades being abused by guards, Ross learns that Rocky Point, like the outside world, is a playground for underhanded tyrants.

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In one particularly chilling scene, Pete Kassock, the sadistic head guard, accuses Ross of helping Stacey escape and proceeds to slap and punch our hero around a cell. As the camera follows Ross, being propelled around the room by the force of Pete’s blows, we the viewers can hardly believe that we’re watching Cagney passively taking this. But, then again, any protest would only equate out to more beatings.

Finally, Pete gives the nod to his men to take over the interrogation and the camera turns away, although we can still hear the dull thuds of hard punches. Whenever off-screen violence occurs in a Cagney movie, it’s usually Jimmy dishing out the beating! In this case, we the viewers feel totally helpless and shocked by the brutalizing of our protagonist, so awful that we’re not even allowed to see it. When the camera turns back, Cagney hangs limply, a broken man.

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During his days in solitary confinement, in a cell quaintly nicknamed “The Hole,” the fighting spirit returns to Ross. He yells at his guards and alternately begs to be released and threatens to be worst con any of them have ever seen. Unjust punishment has turned the crime-fighter into a criminal. When Ross’ girlfriend intercedes on his behalf and the kindly warden arranges a brief respite from The Hole, we can hardly recognize the man that the guards drag into the warden’s office.

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Ross sports a ratty beard and speaks with an almost mechanical rhythm, as if he’s spewing invective that he rehearsed many, many times in his head while chained in his cell. An exemplary citizen has devolved into an animal. It’s a horrific spectacle. The burden of this film’s social critique lies squarely on Cagney’s shoulders. And, boy, does he make it work.

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Cagney’s performance astounded me not only with the facet of rage that he brought roaring out of the character, but also with the moments of vulnerability and tenderness. When his mother comes for a visit, bringing a basket of sweets and goodies, the ashen-faced prisoner can barely manage to eat a bite. You can tell by his halting delivery and the little catch in his throat that he’s choking back tears at every moment. When his mother eventually breaks into sobs, his whole face crumples. Those luminous eyes fold under their lids. With a nod, he lets the guard know that he can’t take his mother’s pain any more and she’s escorted away.

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As Cagney walks back to the workroom, the camera tracks back in front of him and we watch him cope with his own anguish during the rare few seconds when he’s not surrounded by guards and prisoners. He wipes two tears away and steels himself back into his impassive tough-guy act.

Similarly, when Frank Ross comes up for parole only to discover that the man who’s going to make the final decision actually participated in the frame-up. Overcome with injustice and disgusted by the “sanctimonious” speeches of the parole board, Ross yells at the whole pack of them. He leaps from his seat and we’re not quite sure what he’s going to do. He shouts and screams… and then realizes that he’s killed what little chance he had of winning parole. Back-pedaling, he begins to weep, to implore the stony men before him for a second chance, for something he knows he’s not ever going to get from them.

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Just as Cagney’s strength and cockiness taught America how to be strong and cocky, his grief and despair taught America how to grieve without self-pity: “You ain’t so tough,” as he sneers to himself in The Public Enemy.

In Each Dawn I Die, his wild cries of defeat howl from the heart of America’s dark side. He gives us the shadow of the American Dream: the man who rightfully clawed up from the gutter, and got wrongfully kicked back to oblivion. His passionate dismay holds all the power of a wake—a one-man wake for the freedom that was supposed to be his, but never really was.

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Cagney can wring the spectator’s hearts because, through the emotional arcs he creates in his performances, his characters earn their breakdowns. His characters weep only when the situation becomes truly, utterly hopeless. Long before today’s “sensitive manhood” and overactive male tear ducts (I mean, James Bond cries these days; God help us all!), Cagney merged toughness with the occasional glimpse of raw emotional wounds and boyish tenderness.

I especially love the way he puts one caring hand to protect George Raft’s head as guns shatter a glass window above him. Orson Welles once praised Cagney for the way he could take the truth of his roles, then expand the scope of the performance to be larger than life, but no larger than truth. Never more so than in Each Dawn I Die.

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Because this film was made after Joseph Breen and his reinforced Production Code, Cagney is denied the opportunity to give his performance the haunting ambiguity that we get from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, for instance. The movie insists that innocence and virtue will eventually be rewarded. Each Dawn I Die lacks the hard-hitting conclusion that could have made it a masterpiece.

If you’re a “square guy,” eventually the system will come through for you. That seems to be the affirmative message of Each Dawn I Die. But I don’t buy that redemptive claptrap, the stuff that the screenwriters clearly slapped onto the end to show us that the world is just. The ending of this movie should comfort us. It doesn’t. The echoes of the beatings and the miscarriages of justice and the dirty political deals still chill us to the bone.

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In the world of Each Dawn I Die, a man is guilty because the right people say he is. A shiv dematerializes because one man decides to be loyal to another. Rage against criminals galvanizes into an uncontrollable criminal rage. Reality warps under the dehumanizing rhythms of days, weeks, months in jail.

And, through the magic of Cagney’s searing interpretation of Frank Ross, a happy ending doesn’t seem so happy anymore.

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I didn’t end this post on such a happy note, so here’s a fun fact. According to Cagney’s autobiography, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he tried to rid Hollywood of mob influences. So the mafia decided to put a hit out on him. However, lucky for Cagney, a friend of his had some pull with the gangster crowd and decided to convince his buddies to spare ol’ Jimmy. That friend was George Raft. Life imitates art, doesn’t it? 

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This blog post is part of the Cagney Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector. Cagney was a fascinating and versatile guy, so be sure to check out the other entries and learn as much as you can about this screen legend.

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Journey’s End: Remembering Colin Clive on His Birthday

Journey's End“I’m no Clark Gable in the matter of looks; I require a good dramatic play before my fatal charm is discernible.” —Colin Clive

Fatal, indeed.

On this date in 1900, Clive Clive came into the world. In 1937, he died alone and unhappy in an oxygen tent, succumbing to alcohol-exacerbated tuberculosis. He didn’t stay here for long, but in some ways he never left.

He lives in a thousand imitations of his broken-reed voice, in horror movies that he hated making, in the dormant celluloid of films not available for distribution, and in my cinephiliac obsession. He always seemed to be a bundle of nerves—even beyond the diegetic gallery of tightly-wrapped characters he played, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope to the blasphemous Dr. Frankenstein to the traumatized Stephen Orlac.

The twitchy, overblown energy of Clive’s performances, his harnessed panic, makes you somehow more aware of what the film critic Laura Mulvey has called death at 24 frames per second, the poignant passage of time as captured by the camera.

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There are many things that I would like to say to Clive, but someone else pretty much wrote it all down and actually sent it to him when he was still around to read it:

I want to thank you for the little bit of rare beauty you have given me, a real spark of something which does not exist in the world today. I am not speaking of your great acting nor the great part you brought to life so expertly. Others have done great acting before, and there have been many great parts written. I am speaking of something which, probably, was very far from the mind of the author when he wrote Journey’s End, and from your own when you acted it. Perhaps that which I saw in you exists only in my own mind and no one else would see it, or care to see. I am speaking of your achievement in bringing to life a completely heroic human being.”

This is an excerpt from a beautifully written fan letter by no less than Ayn Rand (!) who saw Clive perform in a stage revival of Journey’s End in 1934. She was herself a successful playwright at the time. Clive replied that her praise meant a lot to him. I hope that he internalized some of it. Whatever anyone may think or feel about Ayn Rand, I must admit that she seized on a key aspect of Colin Clive.

Journey's EndIt’s ironic that Rand, who championed iron wills and inner strength, should have so admired a man whose weaknesses and insecurities destroyed him. And yet, Clive was not just a downward spiral, but an aspiration towards something higher.

All of his performances have a grace and beauty to them, as if even the most loathsome characters could have been better people—should have been, but were cut off by some cruel twist of fate.

When Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein delivers his speech about clouds and stars and eternity, he becomes my personal definition of the heroic in mankind. In this case, I know exactly what Rand was on about.

Some actors have fans, and that’s just fine. Colin Clive has a cult. I wonder what he would have thought of us, the endless Googlers of his image, holding vigil over his memory. I’m not entirely sure that he would have been pleased. He may well have been a trifle freaked out.

But I would like to remember him on his 113th birthday with a few words about his first film, in which he recreated his signature stage role: Captain Stanhope, a part he seemed born to play.

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The cast of Journey’s End and James Whale listen to the radio on the set.

Directed by James Whale, Journey’s End reminds me a lot of Das Boot: quite long, claustrophobic, and character-driven. After two hours, confined almost entirely to the trench set, we feel as though we’re really in there with these damned, laughing fellows. We come recognize and cherish their foibles and mannerisms through the intimacy of the camera.

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I must confess, though, the first time I saw this, I found myself disappointed by how terribly uncinematic it seems. Then again, overwhelmingly stationary shots are par for the course in an early talkie.

Whale matter-of-factly plunks us down in the trench and lets most of the action unfold in medium long shots, with the occasional significant close-up—a yucky blancmange, a box of candles, hands opening a letter. Apart from the striking chiaroscuros of a few bombardment scenes and some muddy tracking shots, we get little sense of the innovating flair James Whale clearly had for making horror jump off the screen.

However, trench warfare isn’t cinematic, is it? It’s not a sweeping crane shot. It’s not lyrical in the least. It’s creaky, stale, and soggy. Journey’s End manages to convey these qualities aptly, while still mobilizing the force of our bond with the characters to hold our attention. By about ten minutes in, we like these unfortunate chaps. We wonder which ones of them are going to die. We hope that the causalities will be minimal.

The cast works remarkably well together. David Manners, in particular, will surprise you if you’ve only seen him play juvenile romantic leads. As Raleigh, he transforms from the fresh-cheeked schoolboy soldier into a mortified, disillusioned young man. Returning from a raid in which most of the men died, Raleigh collapses onto a bed; Whale gives us a close-up of Manners who really did pull out all the stops. He looks shattered, hollow-eyed, sweaty, and broken—a far cry from his wooden pretty boy reputation.

Journey's EndWhale does occasionally oblige us with moments of conspicuous filmic brilliance. For instance, at the very end, when the cowardly Hibbert hesitates to join the front line, we get a shot of the doorway to the top of the trench, where a body is being carried past on a stretcher in silhouette. It borders on allegory: the doorway to death. The image shifts towards abstraction, like the famous reaper shots in Dreyer’s Vampyr. A WWI veteran himself, Whale knew how to reduce trench warfare to a bare, razor-sharp grisaille. This touch foreshadows the morbid, metaphysical resonance of Frankenstein.

Just as Frankenstein begins before it starts with the sounds of weeping that precede the opening images of the funeral, the deep, booming bass of exploding shells begins over the credits of Journey’s End—and keeps banging away through the film until the audience’s nerves have gone to pieces, too. Pretty astute use of sound for 1930.

Journey's EndReturning to our leading man, Clive became Stanhope. Or perhaps Stanhope became Clive. One can understand why Whale insisted that Clive be imported from England immediately, as no other actor would do.

This was rather unusual, that a stage actor unseasoned by cinema experience be brought thousands of miles for a single part only. Well, from the moment Clive enters the dugout set—his face half-hidden from the camera by his metal helmet, brushing briskly by, trying to drop his knapsack on his bunk, then pulling the strap off where he caught it on his shoulder with a weary tug—his every movement rings utterly true. We never feel that he’s playing for the camera, which I consider a small miracle, since he had never acted for one before.

Drunk parts are notoriously hard and perhaps Clive wasn’t faking drunk. Whatever Clive’s consumption of whisky was during production, though, Stanhope’s state of inebriation varies through so many shadings of prickly, dreamy, and cheerily garrulous that we’re watching a person shot through a prism—all the emotions that usually coexist in diluted form come through in vivid contrast. He portrays a man fractured and fragmented into pieces, pieces that some central, guiding insight is trying like mad to hold together.

Journey's End

The thing that nurtures Stanhope, his perspicacity, his ability to understand the point of staying strong in the midst of pointlessness, is also the thing that makes him need to numb himself out with alcohol. Like a plant which, when its growth upwards is blocked off, twists around but keeps on growing, Stanhope’s passion for life has been stunted by war into the desire to die like a man—the only option left. Part child and part old soul, Clive’s Stanhope shines with the feverish glow of the actor’s own incandescent torment.

I consider Stanhope the flip side of Clive’s Frankenstein. Both are individuals attuned to some higher significance. Stanhope delivers a marvelous speech about giddy stars and mortality that almost certainly inspired the famous monologue from Frankenstein (which was not in the shooting script, incidentally). We recognize in Stanhope, as in Frankenstein, a brutal hubris that holds everyone to a high standard—but himself to an almost impossible standard.

Journey's EndPerhaps most importantly, Whale shows both men (Stanhope and Frankenstein) to be rather childlike. Remember how Frankenstein, seeing Elizabeth, takes a few steps and collapses in his laboratory when his father comes for him? That moment echoes a scene in Journey’s End when, consumed by worries and heavily inebriated, Stanhope falls into his bunk and partially out of frame. His head and shoulders are off-screen as the fatherly Sergeant Osborne puts a blanket on him. It’s as if he disappeared for a moment, regressed into a place where he’s no longer trapped in the trenches, but he then calls pathetically, “Tuck me up!” In both films, Whale and Clive deliver moving depictions of men returning to helpless boyhood on the brink of exhaustion.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Osborne reads a letter from Raleigh, who happens to be the brother of Stanhope’s fiancée. Stanhope fears that Raleigh will unmask him as a drunkard and ruin his reputation with the girl he loves, but instead, as Osborne reads the letter, Stanhope hears nothing but kind words for his spirit and leadership. The play of emotions on Clive’s face is, as usual, extraordinary. We spot relief, yes, but also anguish, sadness, an attempt to gather his courage, as though he were facing down German machine guns. I have to commend Clive on this unique interpretation, but a very genuine one, as I believe that praise is the most humbling thing in this world. Praise frightens Stanhope more than criticism, because being a fine fellow is an ideal he has to live up to. Heroism is his curse.

Journey's End

Clive exuded a borderline ludicrous modesty in his interviews, claiming that anyone could have done his parts well, that it was the writing or the directing that did most of the work. This quote, from a 1932 issue of Picture Show magazine, characterizes his attitude towards fame and his obvious talent:

“It took me ten years to learn my job on the provincial stage—of course, I’m still learning now; but I’m afraid it will take me a lot longer to learn anything really worthwhile about films. The technical side is so interesting, and if ever I do master this part of making pictures I would like to produce pictures and give up acting altogether. 

“You see, I’m little more than a puppet really as far as film work is concerned. The director does all the brain work. He is the man who makes the picture.”  

I think that praise frightened this self-deprecating man as much as it scared Stanhope. Well, that’s too bad. I want to praise how he ruffles a dying friend’s hair, while looking away from the body in horror. I want to praise how disobligingly nasty and snappish he acts at times in the film, yet still makes us care for him. I want to praise him for “the little bit of beauty” he bequeathed to us with his performance.

Watch Journey’s End and I think you will too.

Journey's End

(Note: I refuse to post screenshots of this film because the print on YouTube, as well as the one on my DVD, look like they’ve been dropped in the mud at the Battle of Ypres. You can watch the full movie by clicking here, although it’s a crime against humanity that someone has not restored this magnificent film about the tragedy of war. Since no one has, I’ve decided to include a lot of publicity stills and materials in this post which I gleaned from the fantastic Tumblrs of missanthropicprinciple, sullivanstrvls, and, of course, colincliveforever. Do give them a look. They post terrific movie-related images and reflections and they have my gratitude.)

The Comedy Is Ended: Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

My whole career has been devoted to keeping people from knowing me.

—Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney could play just about anything—hunchbacks, legless gangsters, and all manner of “freaks.” However, Laugh, Clown, Laugh offers perhaps his most moving performance because, for much of it, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching Lon Chaney… as Lon Chaney. In fact, Chaney would remember the sad funnyman Tito as his favorite role.

As a traveling commedia dell’arte clown torn apart by his love for the foundling girl he adopts, Chaney gets the rare opportunity to inhabit a character devoid of menace and to act wearing little makeup for most of the film.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Indeed, apart from a brief show scene towards the beginning, the grotesque clown makeup doesn’t factor in until rather far into the film. Already, we have a chameleonic performer playing a performer and this kind of double fiction ironically flakes away at the illusion of the film and gives us glimpses of the Chaney buried under all those ferocious facial expressions and disguises.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

For me, the most powerful scene in the film, even more powerful than the emotional breakdown of the third act, takes place when Tito is visiting a psychoanalyst to discuss his depression—he is always prone to fits of weeping. While there, he meets a rich playboy struck with the opposite affliction: bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The doctor, unaware of Tito’s profession, takes him onto the balcony of his office and points to a poster of Tito as Flik the Clown that just happens to be plastered on a building below.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The doctor suggests that a funny show might do the melancholy man a world of good, but Tito reveals the flaw in this argument.

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No sooner does the celebrated jester announce his identity than the doctor and Count Luigi pay their respects to the great comedian who wearily thanks them. I may be projecting this, but the gracious but tired expression that comes across Chaney’s face reminds me of what you might’ve seen if you’d asked him for an autograph. His Tito conveys such exhaustion—exhaustion from living a life in which he cannot reveal his true self to anyone, much less his “daughter” with whom he’s fallen in love and who loves another man.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Obviously the plot is something of a contrivance to wring tears out of us, but you get the feeling that the burnt-out sadness, the gloom which Tito lugs around with him, when not in make-up, derives not from Chaney’s craft as an actor, but rather from personal reserves of angst. He even supposedly said in real life, “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” as if even all that pretending and creating of screen illusions had worn away his essence as a coherent individual.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Tito is expected to put on a show for everyone and has to lie about his feelings to Simonetta—and so he lives in a state of perpetual exile from himself.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Contributing to the poignant realness of the situation, the radiant adolescent Loretta Young plays a radiant adolescent ingénue, Simonetta. We seem to watch both Loretta and Simonetta come of age and blossom onscreen.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Apparently, during the making of the film, the nasty director, Herbert Brenon, liked to bully the 14-year-old Young, once even nastily telling her, in front of the crew, “I don’t know whatever gave you the idea you could be an actress.” As Young recalled, “[Brenon] would rip me up one side and down the other… but never when Lon Chaney was on the set.”

Well, Chaney caught wind of this and decided to protect the vulnerable girl by always being on-set—even when he wasn’t filming any scenes. Young gave him credit for coaching her sensitive performance: “He really directed me.” A lot of that genuine paternal warmth and mentorship comes across in their onscreen chemistry.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Tito’s fatherly love for Simonetta and her caring devotion to him light up the screen. Indeed, Young always remembered Chaney’s protectiveness and said years later, “I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die.”

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I strongly recommend that you watch this movie for a master class in the glowy, gauzy textures of the silent era. I love how much un-stylized information seems to fit into each frame of silent films, as though the lack of sound facilitated a fuller picture of reality, one untrimmed of its fringes, wrinkles, and unvarnished natural details. The brilliant cinematography shows that, even relatively early in his career, James Wong Howe could coax the heartbreaking shades and nuances out of every petal on a flower, every ruffle on a costume, every plane of a character’s face.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Almost all the silent tropes are there: the nobleman and the common girl, unrequited love, and lots and lots of scenes of characters longingly watching other characters.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The contrast between the buoyant, lily-like grace of an angelic Loretta Young and the pathetic, knockabout ugliness of Flik make this film remarkably striking.

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The juxtaposition of beauty and grotesqueness produces enough visual tension to sustain a story that really doesn’t have much to it in terms of intrigue. The difference between Chaney’s facial expressions and the constant painter smile of the clown makeup also interjects a creepiness into the scenes where he becomes enraged or breaks down into tears.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

And then there’s the brilliantly expressionistic final sequence. Don’t read on if you don’t want major spoilers.

Realizing that he could never make Simonetta happy, even though she agrees to marry him out of gratitude, Tito goes to the theater gets into costume and psyches himself up into a frenzy in front of a mirror—if he can’t be himself and be happy, he’ll at least die in the role that everyone expects him to play.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The visuals in this scene turn incredibly flamboyant and disorienting, providing a glimpse into his unhinged mind.

As he stands on the stage, the yawning theater dwarfs him.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Flik hallucinates an audience and we see a superimposed kaleidoscopic ring of spectators hovering around him

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh Finally as he ascends his signature head-stand “death-defying slide” he looks down on his partner from an angle so high and canted that it borders on total abstraction.

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Then he lets himself go into the slide—and slides right into the camera, as though crashing into the audience! Then he tumbles off the wire.

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Simon and the stage manager pick up the mortally wounded clown and, as they do, his big floppy fake feet swing towards the camera making him bitterly ludicrous even in his dying moments.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

As Simon cradles Tito in his arms, Tito turns to the camera, touches his nose as though taking us in his confidence, and breathes his last words—still in character.

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This announcement not only breaks down the forth wall, it widens the context of the movie’s theme of the actor as a kind of sacrifice, an object of consumption for an audience who fails to understand the pain behind the mask. By declaring that the comedy is over just as the film itself is coming to a close, Lon Chaney as Tito invites us to think of the story as a parable for the travail of anyone who hides his identity behind an act put forward for our amusement.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

As much as “the tears of a clown” are kind of a cliché, I can’t help but watch this without thinking of all the silent stars who succumbed to their own press mythology and died early deaths. I particularly think of my favorite silent clown, Max Linder, who slit his wrists (and those of his wife) just a few years before this movie was made.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

I imagine that’s one hell of a burden when thousands of people applaud you, but have no clue about the person you really are. In fact, when a person attains that kind of celebrity, and Chaney conveys this beautifully, I suspect that the performer begins not to know who he is himself! The essence of a person breaks down into frayed personae that will not be reconciled. An actor is something like a philosopher in the sense that he is always both himself and looking in at himself. This schism can be funny. But really it’s quite, quite sad.

And, on that happy note, la commedia è finita.

Oh, and I took all these screenshots of the glory that is Nils Asther. I’m certainly not letting them go to waste. You’re welcome.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh

Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh Laugh, Clown, Laugh