More Pre-Code Valentines for All You Swell Sinners

Back by popular demand! Last year I followed up my tragically hip noir valentines with a pack of naughty, bawdy pre-Code valentines.

For Valentine’s Day 2017, I cooked up a totally new batch of pre-Code love letters to keep the spark of censor-defying romance alive. 100% guaranteed to add oodles of whoopee, sizzle, “it,” hot-cha-cha to your day.

Why Be Good? (1929) – Colleen Moore gets her man—and teaches him a lesson or two—in this delightful feminist flapper romance.why_be_good_valentine

The Divorcee (1930) – Norma Shearer is looking for a revenge fling. And Robert Montgomery is very willing to be flung.

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Morocco (1930) – Sure, Dietrich ends up with Gary Cooper. But the real heat in the movie comes from that tuxedo kiss.

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Frankenstein (1931) – You had me at “experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.” Colin Clive doesn’t need a lightning bolt to give me life.

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Miriam Hopkins goes from drab to fab to impress Maurice Chevalier.

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Horse Feathers (1932) – If you need me, I’ll be writing some Groucho-Thelma Todd fan fiction. The line comes from Monkey Business (1931).

Movie Crazy (1932) – Harold Lloyd gets himself into an adorable mess—all for his lady love.

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No Man of Her Own (1932) – Years before Lombard and Gable became a real-life item, they played an unlikely couple in this steamy romantic drama.

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One Way Passage (1932) – We all know what those dreamy dissolves mean… William Powell and Kay Francis make the most of their time together (especially the bits we don’t see) in this intoxicatingly beautiful film.

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Rain (1932) – “Who’s gonna destruct me?” Joan Crawford is a force of nature as Sadie Thompson.

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Scarface (1932) – Tony Camonte likes Poppy’s class and sass. What does Poppy like about Tony? The fact that he’s not making it out of this movie alive.

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Footlight Parade (1933) – It’s a silly caption, I admit. But I honestly just can’t with these two.

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I’m No Angel (1933) – The perks of being an auteur of box office gold comedy? You get to write your own happy endings, like Mae West did.

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The Thin Man (1934) – Nick and Nora Charles remind us that excitement is the key to a long-lasting marriage. (Booze and money don’t hurt either.)

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Romancing the Talkies: 10 Favorites from 1930

joancrawford_microphoneA few weeks ago the marvelous Katie of Cinema Enthusiast invited me to participate in a poll and name my 10 favorite films of 1930.

I enjoyed the exercise of putting together my “ballot” and, as I combed over the other submissions, I realized that I wanted to write a bit about each of my picks.

3,000 or so words later, here we are. (Make it to the end of this post and you’ll get a Lubitsch GIF. That’s a promise.)

To call 1930 a year of transition in Hollywood would be a tremendous understatement. Sound was here to stay, but the industry was still scrambling to reshape production protocols, star images, and film properties for the talkies. Directors working during this fraught period faced a steep learning curve as they negotiated unwieldy technology and unpredictable audience reactions. All the panic and overhaul led to some very bad, dull movies, for sure, but 1930 gave us far more good American movies than popular opinion suggests.

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Delight Evans, critic and editor of Screenland magazine.

Delight Evans, the perceptive editor of Screenland magazine, noted in March of 1930 that the advent of sound pushed narratives towards realism—and often reduced romance to absurdity: “Talkies leave little to the imagination, you see. We [each] wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses. Now we have to look and listen to a deliberate and diagrammed dissertation on the love scenes. Gone is the mystery, the mood, the enchantment.”

Evans was a sharp cookie. She wasn’t sounding the death knell of celluloid romance as much as she was making a simple observation—and reporting industry news. With the calamitous reception of John Gilbert’s ludicrous dialogue in His Glorious Night (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, his voice) and similar hoots of hilarity from audiences watching early sound love scenes, many producers baulked at flowery declarations of passion and green-lit gritty, hardboiled dramas instead.

Sound films do indeed occupy another of our senses, shaking up the gauzy, dreamlike pace of silent movie lovemaking. Talkies clipped cupid’s wings by grounding romance in our terrestrial scheme, our space-time continuum. We lost a part of the movies, a pleasing parenthesis that the viewer could fill with his or her own fantasies. After all, love in reel life as well as real life is often not a matter of what’s said, but what’s unsaid.

It occurs to me that most of the films on my list explore the talkies’ potential for romance, whether cheerful or star-crossed. Whereas many early sound films have a tendency to blurt feelings and messages (“I love you! I love you! I love you!”), I tried to choose movies that fiercely guard their subtext and keep it… sub. Hidden. Unspoken. Tantalizing.

Several great directors seized the opportunities afforded by sound: Capra, whose empathy and belief in human goodness could redeem the oldest clichés in the book; Lubitsch, whose winking ellipses and whimsical reversals celebrated the unseen and the unpredictable in our nature; and Von Sternberg, whose lush mise-en-scene permeated his films mystery and desire.

That said, this list also embraces the boldly anti-romantic side of 1930: gangsters, soldiers, spirits in limbo, and badass shopgirl Joan Crawford interrupting love scenes with feminist zingers.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to the coming of sound if I’d been a moviegoer way back then. Would I have mourned the silents and written angry letters to magazines, as did many fans? Perhaps. Change hurts. And we lost a great art at the zenith of its powers when the silents died. But I like to think that any of the movies on this list would’ve changed my mind and made me fall in love with cinema all over again.

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The Devil to Pay – George FitzMaurice

I defy you not to adore any movie that features Myrna Loy simmering in a steam bath and Ronald Colman conversing with a dog. An elegant trifle, The Devil to Pay hints at the madcap joys of the high screwball comedy, which wouldn’t blossom (depending on whom you talk to) for a few years at least.

Lovable n’er-do-well aristocrat Willie Leyland (lovable because he’s Ronald Colman) returns to London to sponge some more money off his crotchety father. Willie succeeds in getting his cash, but then falls in love with a spirited—and engaged—linoleum heiress, Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). Nobody seems to approve of the match, except the girl herself. And that’s all that matters for Willie. Now, will he have the guts to break off his long-term affair with a stage star (Myrna Loy) before Dorothy gets the wrong end of the stick?

Early talkies about the upper classes—especially the British aristocracy—often ring false, with stilted dialogue, awkward accents, and unconvincing relationships. In The Devil to Pay, the familial bonds feel, well, familiar: sweetly critical and teasingly affectionate. The cast carries a lightweight plot off with breezy chemistry. 17-year-old Loretta Young, already a screen veteran, makes Dorothy, a character that could’ve been a living prop, into a delightfully strong-willed woman who’s not afraid to stand up to her father, her fiancé, or the man she loves.

The film begins as Willie auctions off all of the furniture from his hut in Africa. His bed comes up on the block. One woman asks: Does the bed come with the owner? I suspect that cheeky line elicited yearning sighs from every lady in the audience 86 years ago (and it still does for me, 86 years later). As Willie, Ronald Colman glows at the peak of his handsomeness and exhibits a dashing fluency in sound comedy that most other film actors could only envy in 1930.

Where can you see it? It’s, alas, not available on DVD. But let’s just say it’s around online.

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The Doorway to Hell – Archie Mayo

Before Scarface, before The Public Enemy, before Little Caesar, there was The Doorway to Hell, a bitter, gory talkie gangster film frequently punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of a “Chicago typewriter.”

Louie Ricarno, a precocious mob boss with aspirations towards respectability, organizes vying factions in the mob like a business, then tries to go legit. (Sound familiar? The Doorway to Hell might be the nearest classic Hollywood relative to The Godfather films in terms of narrative DNA.) When former associates threaten Louie’s beloved family, our anti-hero rides back into town for the bloody vengeance that triggers his inevitable downfall.

Some might argue that devilishly pretty 22-year-old Lew Ayres lacked the grit to take on a tough-guy role. James Cagney, cast as Ayres’s right-hand man here, would obviously go on to define the pugnacious bad-boy allure of the gangster better than anybody else. Today’s viewers might find it difficult not to focus on Jimmy throughout the movie.

From where I’m sitting, though, Ayres infuses Louie with enough dead-eyed, tight-lipped weirdness to make one’s skin crawl. No, he’s not a swaggering punk like Cagney, nor a bravura stereotype like Muni, nor a ferocious pocket thug like Robinson. Ayres plays Louie as nothing less than a stone-cold killer.

His stiff posture and smugly placid resting expression (bastardface?) convey stuntedness; we’re looking at a little boy who absorbed too much reality too early. This man carries something still and unnatural in him, we feel, something spookier than pride or greed. It’s as though the American Dream were a corrosive substance that ate him away from the inside, leaving only a slick shell and the barest remnants of humanity. Louie is the return of the repressed, the monstrous product of a drive to survive that we all share—and of a society that refuses to take responsibility for him.

The Doorway to Hell packs its share of gut-punch moments. A kidnapping attempt on Louie’s untainted little brother goes awry, pushing the child into the way of an oncoming truck. A few scenes later, Louie shows up at a plastic surgeon’s operating room, asking if the doctor can make his brother look the way he did. “Where is he?” Asks the doctor. “At the undertaker,” Louie replies. Thus the film informs us that Louie’s one hope of transcending his inner meanness has died. Tough, laconic, devastating. (And, gee, doesn’t that foreshadow Don Corleone’s plea to the undertaker Bonasera?)

The dialogue offers a treasury of punchy and creative underworld euphemisms, such as “a handful of clouds” for a fatal spray of bullets. When Louie finally resigns himself to his handful, he struts out of his hideout with a wild paroxysm of laughter, boldly meeting death and renouncing this ugly, pitiless existence as just so much ill-smelling ether. It’s one hell of an ending to one hell of a movie.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive. So that’s nice.

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Follow Thru – Lloyd Corrigan and Lawrence Schwab

I’ve already gushed at length about this bawdy two-strip Technicolor romp, which I saw at last year’s Capitolfest. The film offers, among other joys, gobsmackingly vibrant close-ups of Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd wearing little more than beads and feathers, a splashy musical number about misbehaving (backed up by a chorus line of dancing devils), and Eugene Pallette in drag. It’s so much fun that it borders on gluttony.

Where can you see it? Ahem, you might find it around online. But the available prints don’t do the film justice. How I wish the glorious UCLA restoration that I saw would get a DVD/Blu-ray release!

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Journey’s End – James Whale

Overshadowed by the more technically adventurous All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale’s drama of the Great War opened in theaters several months earlier. Adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed stage play, Journey’s End evokes the claustrophobia of trench warfare with grim authenticity. (Whale had served in WWI, and the horrors he witnessed over there carved a crooked smile into all of his films. His macabre revision of Frankenstein owes as much to the daily crushing terror of total war as to the solemn grandeur of Gothic literature.)

Its auteur aside—and Whale surely deserves the distinction of auteur—Journey’s End makes my list of 1930 favorites because of its star, Colin Clive. Though best remembered today as Doctor Frankenstein, blueblooded Clive rose to fame in the 1920s for his stage portrayal of Captain Stanhope, the doomed commanding officer who numbs his shellshock with alcohol and hopes he’ll die in a blaze of glory before his loved ones learn what he’s become. (Side note: Laurence Olivier was first cast in the role, but didn’t quite click and left the play. Clive took over and scored a hit.)

Brought to Hollywood to reprise the role, Clive made a haunting film debut and demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film acting—at a time when even experienced movie actors were struggling to adapt to the talkies.

Nobody could come apart at the seams before a camera like Clive. He specialized in blow-ups and breakdowns, the emotional trapeze parts that seem overacted unless grounded by utter sincerity. Clive brings Stanhope to life in all of his tortured contradictions: snappish yet gentle, petulant yet wise, terrified yet brave, exasperating yet endearing.

(A few years ago I did a post on this film and Clive, whose brief life paralleled his tragic roles.)

Where can you see it? I believe that the film is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen murky prints around.

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Ladies of Leisure – Frank Capra

Capra and Stanwyck’s first collaboration is just as good as you’d hope and needs no introduction from me. I caught it on TCM years ago and can still picture the way Stanwyck’s eyes shine when her hardened “party girl” character realizes that love is not only real, but has come calling in her life.

Where can you see it? It’s out on DVD from Sony.

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Laughter – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Films that tackle the heavy side of life with a light touch hold a special place in my heart. Some movies wield their direness like a blunt instrument, but who wants to be clubbed half to death? One of the worst ideas about art in the history of art is that great art must somehow be painful—and that, the more painful art is to consume, the better it must automatically be. Art’s greatness is inversely proportional to the pleasure it gives to ordinary folk. Or so asserts a certain school of thought. Personally, I refuse to penalize art for entertaining me.

Laughter is about heartbreak, starving artists, suicide, and the wrench of choosing loveless wealth over romance and poverty. Yet, without diminishing any of those serious themes, this film nourishes the viewer’s joie de vivre. Director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a pal of Chaplin’s, understood that you don’t have to make the audience suffer to say something about human suffering.

One-time chorus girl Peggy (Nancy Carroll), now married to a decent but dull millionaire (Frank Morgan), longs for the bohemian good times of her past. When her ex-lover Paul (Fredric March), a vagabond composer, shows up, Peggy has to make a bitter choice: risk everything for love and freedom or entomb herself forever in a world of passionless material comforts.

Blending melodrama and zany proto-screwball antics, Laughter deserves all the critical praise it’s garnered over the years. When Pauline Kael describes a film as a “lovely, sophisticated comedy, an ode to impracticality” with “perhaps the best clothes ever seen on the screen,” you’d be a fool not to seek it out.

Best of all, the film defines healthy romance as continual playfulness. We recognize Peggy’s and Paul’s mutual love because they go for joyrides and get hopelessly, merrily lost. They roam around a stranger’s home wrapped in bear-skin rugs. They playact a gender-flipped husband and wife relationship. They discuss Paul’s work-in-progress symphony through an exchange of boisterous vocalizations. The irrepressible human need to love, create, and gather rosebuds while ye may bubbles forth from every scene.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD (Damn you, Universal/Comcast!), but you may find it somewhere around this jumble we call the Internet…

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Monte Carlo – Ernst Lubitsch

A minor Lubitsch film is one you can only imagine yourself watching, say, a half-dozen more times in your life instead of a hundred. Monte Carlo is a minor Lubitsch film.

In this musical confection, headstrong Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her effete would-be groom at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo, hoping to win enough at the casino to balance her hefty debts and avoid marriage. While losing the remainder of her money, she catches the eye of rakish Count Rudy (Jack Buchanan) who poses as her hairdresser—the better to woo her and save her from financial disaster. The countess soon finds herself falling for the faux coiffeur. But will she let snobbery get in the way of true love?

Reviews of this film typically heap scorn on leading man Buchanan. I’d been listening to his song recordings for years before I saw this film, so I must confess my disappointment that his considerable charms did not, to put it mildly, translate well to Monte Carlo. (Hell, in the image above he looks more like he’s contemplating cutting Jeanette MacDonald’s throat than her hair.) But, hey, Cary Grant cited him as an influence, so I’ll just squint and work a little harder to appreciate Buchanan here.

The script at least makes Buchanan himself work a little harder to impress us and MacDonald. His early attempts to pick her up meet with spectacular (if unsurprising) failure; he has to enter her employ and win her trust with a really, really sensual scalp massage. I like the idea that the hero has to serve a kind of romantic apprenticeship, proving himself a loyal and useful companion before his lady love gives him a second look. When Buchanan starts trying to assert himself as master and order MacDonald about, though, the film takes a nosedive.

In any case, MacDonald more than compensates for Buchanan’s shortcomings. This goddess of frivolity indulges in aggressively bad decisions and imperious diva tantrums, yet I still worship at her altar. Why? Because she has amazing hair. I don’t say that in jest. Perhaps only Ginger Rogers could match MacDonald’s use of her hair as a weapon in the arsenal of physical comedy. Monte Carlo’s funniest moment arrives when MacDonald flips out and pulls her lustrous locks into a half-marcelled frizzbomb of feminine whimsy—in hopes of ruining Rudy’s reputation as a coiffeur.

Monte Carlo doesn’t ascend to the giddy, constantly-pleasurable heights of The Love Parade or The Smiling Lieutenant, but Lubitsch dazzles us with MacDonald’s rendition of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” as the music mingles with the rhythms of a locomotive chugging through the countryside. Plus, one of my favorite songs of the 1930s, “Always in All Ways,” provides a sweet moment of harmony between MacDonald and Buchanan. (Note to self: Why do I have this weakness for foxtrots about codependency?)

Where can you see it? Rejoice, ye cinephiles, it’s part of Criterion’s Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse box set!

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Morocco – Josef von Sternberg

Movies melt out of our minds, leaving the occasional morsels of dialogue, gestures, and images. The greatest movies give us something to hang onto. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo will remain burned on my brain for as long as I can summon memories.

Marlene, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, tugging her bowtie in place as she looks into a grimy mirror.

Marlene tipping her hat back with crisp and cavalier gesture.

Marlene bending down to kiss a slightly shocked but excited female nightclub patron.

In her iconic tux, Marlene embodies a seductive, self-contained ideal, or rather two ideals, two binary fantasies, fused into one person. Behold, spectators: a woman as a complete and unassailable being, a woman who’s imbibed the best qualities of the gentleman and made them her own. When asked if she’s married, Dietrich’s character, Amy Jolly, replies, “Marriage? No, I never found a man good enough for that.” Of course not. She is her own woman and her own man.

Oh, yeah, there’s some plot going on here, too, involving wealthy Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legion soldier Gary Cooper as rivals for Marlene’s heart. But the point lies elsewhere, in the hypnotic visions of alienation and exploration that Sternberg orchestrates for us. Even the denouement, as Dietrich kicks off her golden sandals and trudges into the the blistering desert sands to follow her lover, strikes me as not a surrender of Amy’s self-contained power, but an enlargement of it. With a slight alteration of costume, this shape-shifting, convention-defying woman will reinvent herself as her heart commands.

Where can you see it? It’s available from the Universal Vault Series.

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Our Blushing Brides – Harry Beaumont

I’ve been working on a post about Our Blushing Brides for over a year. Why has it taken me so long? Because I love this movie and just when I think I’ve run out of things to say about it, I think of something else I want to analyze.

Joan Crawford radiates raw and righteous anger as a department store model fending off the advances of a dapper playboy who happens to be her boss (Robert Montgomery, of course, it’s Robert Montgomery; like, really, were you expecting anybody else?). The screenplay, co-written by Bess Meredyth, flips the shopgirl-Cinderella formula on its head and provides Queen Joan with numerous opportunities to shred male privilege until Prince Not-So-Charming-As-He-Thinks learns his lesson.

Did I mention the mid-movie fashion show? Seriously, go watch this now.

Where can you see it? It’s available on a DVD from Warner Archive and is also currently streaming HD on Warner Archive Instant.

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Outward Bound – Robert Milton

As I was making my late-breaking 1930 list, I “eavesdropped” (or whatever the Twitter equivalent is) on a conversation between two esteemed cinephile friends of mine, Miriam Bale and Kimberly Lindbergs, as they discussed their own lists. Both had selected Outward Bound, a film I’d never heard of. “Gee, if they like it, it must be swell,” I thought to myself. (And, yes, my internal monologue sounds like a 1930s chorus girl.)

Seized by curiosity, I dug up this unavailable film late at night, telling myself I’d check out the first few minutes and watch the whole thing tomorrow. An hour and a half later, it was 2 a.m., I’d watched the entire film, and I was sobbing.

Before there was A Matter of Life and Death there was Outward Bound, a numinous meditation on the afterlife and the wages of our earthly actions.

A group of unconnected people from all classes of society find themselves on an eerily deserted ocean liner with no recollection of buying a ticket. They soon realize that they’ve recently died and now drift towards a unmapped port where they will all be judged for their sins and virtues.

The allegorical shipboard setting, with its winding hallways, simple gathering spaces and mist-shrouded decks, conjures a wondrous yet familiar atmosphere. Within this magically simple backdrop, the performances—from unfeeling grande dame Alison Skipworth to bullying businessman Montagu Love to meek charwoman Beryl Mercer—define a vivid microcosm.

As the first passenger to awaken to the horror of his situation, Leslie Howard balances faraway hopelessness with tightly-coiled angst. In his first sound role, Howard displays the otherworldly grace of a lost soul, a man dead long before he died. He need only run those fragile, tapered fingers of his across his forehead to convey all the broken dreams of the post-WWI generation. And that voice! Just listen to how he says “We are all dead, aren’t we?” in this clip. Listen to the beats between words, the rising pitch on “dead,” the resignation and relief of the last words. He transmutes a question into a phrase of music.

However, it’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler who anchor the film as a devoted young couple drifting on the edges of the doomed group. Boyishly gorgeous Fairbanks and angelic, spellbound Chandler cling to each other with quiet but frantic anxiety: will the great judgement cast them apart for all eternity? Chandler’s singsong voice and delicate gestures finally made me break into tears as she totters down the foggy ship deck in search of her beloved… whom she may never see again.

Perhaps a movie can give us viewers no greater gift than the desire to invest ourselves more earnestly in life—to embrace every fleeting sensation, to bear fate’s blows more patiently, to correct our faults more humbly, and to love more generously. Outward Bound does all of this with the feverish beauty of a sad, half-remembered dream.

Where can you see it? Sadly unavailable, Outward Bound is due for a release. How about it, Warner Archive friends? (I think you own it, n’est-ce pas?)

And about that GIF I promised you…

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Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 11

Film noir is a term that resonates far beyond the specific set of movies it originally described. Although fans, critics, and filmmakers alike bandy it about these days, we ought to remind ourselves every now and then that the people who actually made the great American noir classics didn’t think of them that way. Like many artistic styles or movements, noir needed critics to recognize, define, and name it.

Here’s how the ever-curious and inquisitive Joan Crawford discovered the phrase “film noir”:

“I was being interviewed by a critic of the cinema… He kept talking about this film noir style and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. When it came up again sometime later, I called Jerry Wald and said, ‘Darling, what is this film noir they’re all talking about?’ He explained it to me, which made me appreciate the film even more.”

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10 Favorite Femmes Fatales—in GIFs!

I never met a femme fatale I didn’t like. Whether they’re powdering their noses or filling their ex-lovers full of lead, the bad girls of noir still manage to draw my sympathy and admiration. Twisted, I know, but what’s the point of noir if it doesn’t tap into the darkest parts of our natures?

Let’s face it, film noir is a dame’s genre. Men of noirland might stumble around thinking they’re in control. However, more often than not, those hapless schmoes who pass for protagonists don’t realize they’re just playing a supporting role in somebody else’s plot—and that somebody is probably wearing lipstick and high heels.

Tumblr cannot hold them! Climbing up from the underbelly of Photoshop CS6! Here are 10 GIFs I made to celebrate my favorite dynamite dolls from classic noir…

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Jack Bernhardt’s Decoy (1946)

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“Reality? What do you know about reality?”

(You can stream Decoy right now on Warner Archive Instant. I can hardly think of a better way to pass 70 minutes in Noirvember!)

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)

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“I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them!”

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

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“I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”

Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947)

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“Go ahead and kiss me. You don’t have to mean it.”

Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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“I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never…”

Vera (Ann Savage) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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“Shut up. You’re a cheap crook and you killed him. For two cents I’d change my mind and turn ya in. I don’t like you!” 

(You can watch Detour on YouTube for free!)

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950)

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“I’ve been kicked around all my life, and, from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

(You can also stream Gun Crazy on Warner Archive Instant.)

Nancy (Laraine Day) in John Brahm’s The Locket (1946)

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“I want you to want me, very much.”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1945)

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“We’re both rotten.”

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1946)

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“Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

Happy Noirvember, you molls and mugs. Now, who’s your favorite femme fatale?

The Unknown (1927): Body Conscious

unknownThe Unknown is one of those miraculous movies snatched back from the edge of oblivion, presumed lost for decades until a print turned up in France. Amusingly enough, the reels had been marked “Inconnu,” meaning “unknown.” And nobody since the 1920s had interpreted this rather algebraic designation as anything other than the label for an unidentified film, not considering that it might be a title—the title of one of the most bizarre films ever produced by Hollywood.

Watching this potent entry in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m beholding some deep, primordial allegory masquerading as a gritty horror film. Chaney’s character, “Alonzo the Armless,” earns his living by sharpshooting and throwing knives with his feet at a carnival. (A real armless leg double, Paul Desmuke, did these amazing stunts for Chaney.)

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When Alonzo falls in love with the carnival ringmaster’s daughter, Nanon, the good news is that she likes his lack of arms. Coping with a pathological fear of men’s groping hands, Nanon cherishes Alonzo as a safe companion.

The bad news is that Alonzo isn’t what he seems. A violent, wanted criminal with a recognizable genetic defect—double thumbs on one hand—Alonzo hides his arms, strapped to his body by a harness. How can he get close to Nanon without betraying his secret? The answer is every bit as gruesome as you’d might hope.

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The Unknown bristles with an unholy energy, a tingling magnetic field mastered by hungry poles of repulsion and passion, pulling the characters back and forth. While my metaphor might seem a little overwrought, bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. Because The Unknown is a tragedy spiced with movement, a horror story about the way bodies carry themselves and interact.

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Tod Browning specialized in letting a sordid, macabre ambiance—almost a stench—ferment and rise from stagings that seem primitive on the surface, but actually reveal a multitude of complexities on a second look. As you watch the film, notice how frequently somebody walks towards the camera, eventually exiting on one side of the frame. We’re meant to feel these things, the motion of the characters, blurring, rushing past us. The world in general, we understand ,isn’t so very different from Alonzo’s dizzy carnival act, where he tosses blades at the lovely Nanon as they both stand on a rotating platform. The intoxicating, alarming movement of bodies governs the lives of the characters, agitated by crude, unconscious drives.

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In addition to the pluparfait body actor Lon Chaney, the cast offers up a pleasant surprise in the form of a super young Joan Crawford (another actor of powerful physicality) as Nanon. Crawford cited this film as a milestone in her career, the experience that ignited her desire to be a dedicated actress. Starting off as a chorus line hoofer, she initially wanted nothing to do with movies. Only when told that she would get the opportunity to dance in her pictures did she agree to sign a contract. However, working with Chaney changed everything. She later recalled: “I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera and acting. Until then, I had been conscious only of myself. Lon Chaney was my introduction to acting.”

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Although Crawford found Chaney’s dedication to his character somewhat daunting, she strived to keep up. The young contract player pushed herself and transformed a potentially implausible character into a nuanced, vulnerable young woman.

In keeping with the motif of contorted, unnatural bodies, Crawford lends credibility to Nanon’s phobia of men with her ability to suggest physical disgust and horror through body language. Crawford, usually so graceful, frequently swaps her poised posture for the stance of a frightened, cowering child, whenever in the presence of a threatening male.

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She fairly withers in the presence of the amorous strongman Malabar, shrinking into the corners of the frame. Or, unable to avoid a confrontation, she braces herself against a chair or a wall. When her phobia is first introduced to the audience, we get a medium close-up of her mortified face followed by an eloquent long shot, as she pulls herself into her caravan car. That motion, that backwards crawl offscreen, conveys more than words ever could.

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I might be reading too much into this, but I do think the audience is meant to infer that Nanon’s father has prostituted her out in the past or, at the very least, put her in a situation that resulted in some form of trauma. (Otherwise, why should he be so outraged at Alonzo’s advice that she stay away from men? My father and most others, I think, would hug him for such pearls of wisdom.)

Crawford suggests this history of abuse by the way her friendly, upbeat Nanon seems to switch off around the well-muscled Malabar and tries to disappear, to curl up into nothing. She might not totally understand why she acts like this, but, as my psychology professor would say, “The body remembers.”

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This tendency of our bodies to control us, to harbor our darkest secrets and ultimately betray them, returns in one of the most poignant and disturbing moments of the film. When Alonzo realizes that he can never fully possess Nanon’s love as long as he has arms, his foot, agile as his hands, rises to cover his face in despair. Alonzo’s hands are freed from their harness, but he automatically uses the limbs that, in his elaborate guise, substitute for his arms to express his pain.

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The gesture not only affects the audience on a traditional level—as an outward sign of sorrow—but also adds an uncanny overtone to the scene. Chaney covering his face with a foot etches itself on the mind as a surreal image, subliminally depicting the pain of unrequited love as a kind of emotional amputation.

As Alonzo’s accomplice, Cojo, watches from a staircase, the criminal continues to use his foot to light and smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, Cojo laughs, exclaiming, “Alonzo, you are forgetting you have arms!”

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A look of horror crosses Alonzo’s face. His eyes widen as he realizes what he had been unconsciously doing. Alonzo has so altered and fragmented his body that it believes it really is fragmented, incomplete. His charade has taken over. He has partially become what he pretends to be.

He has effectively trained his body to be an other, something unnatural and foreign to himself. Of all Browning outsiders, Alonzo may be the most freakish—because he is a self-created freak, a product of radical self-mutilation.

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But then again, aren’t we all? The Unknown probes the ugly side of human desire and self-perception. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserted that the deep fear of a fragmented body festers in all of us from childhood onward. As babies, we experience our bodies as parts. That is, we move each limb, but we never see ourselves in entirety, until we recognize our whole bodies in the mirror.

However, that reflection makes us feel insecure: the image is a powerful, unified being, in contrast to the divided sensations that otherwise combine to form our sense of self. Throughout our lives, we come to identify with the “I,” the ostensibly whole self or the mirror self that represents us… but that other, fragmented body haunts us.

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The Unknown resonates on such a raw level because it activates this underlying dread—not as a mere gore effect, as is too often the case with dismemberment in horror films, but rather as central conflict of the story. Alonzo is hostile to his whole body (just as we resent our mirror images because they seem more unified than we are) but his amputated body frustrates him even more.

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The frenzied cutting of the final sequence amplifies this fragmentation or division. Alonzo disintegrates into raging madness—because he succumbed to his obsession with a mutilated body—as Nanon triumphs, because she managed to stitch her mind and body back together.

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Interestingly enough, Nanon’s fear, her brokenness, her neuroses serve as major attractions for Alonzo. Browning provides some borderline obscene voyeuristic close-ups as the imposter watches Nanon recoil from Malabar. This disturbed individual, a thief and a killer who fragments himself and cuts himself apart in the most horrific of manners, compulsively seeks a similar dysfunction in another person.

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I have always wondered why Browning and company ended up entitling this film The Unknown. Sure, it could refer to Alonzo’s hidden identity, but I believe that it also alludes to something more subtle and psychological. According to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, what we desire in other people isn’t really a trait that belongs to them, but rather the missing parts of ourselves that we attribute to them.

Lacan described this thing, this source of desire, in algebraic terms as object a, an unknown that draws humans into their webs of attraction and frustration. Rather like Alonzo mutilates himself in pursuit of the illusory quality that he sees in Nanon.

Perhaps that’s the inconnu, the unknown that’s really at work in this sublimely twisted melodrama.

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Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

Handled

Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)