The Walking Dead (1936)

I think we all have films that we have always meant to see but never have got around watching.  The Walking Dead, starring Boris Karloff, was one of those films for me, not helped by the fact that it was only available within a boxed set only available in America.  Anyhow, finally this week I got around to watching this little horror movie directed by the under-rated Michael Curtiz.

When watched alongside other horror movies of the early and mid 1930s, one thing about The Walking Dead stares you right in the face:  it has no sense of humour, not even a witty line here and there.  Most horror films of the era have a brilliant dark sense of humour, but this is a most dour affair, which sees Karloff framed for a murder he didn’t commit and being sent to the electric chair before being revived and seeking revenge – or, at least, answers. Karloff is truly wonderful in what is one of his best roles, and is hugely sympathetic throughout, but especially as the seemingly depressed down-on-his-luck tragic figure of the man framed for murder.  Edmund Gwenn gives fine, if unlikely, support as the scientist who brings him back to life.

The film takes a long while to get where it’s going, especially considering it is only 69 minutes long and, indeed, the second half feels somewhat rushed after the overlong exposition.  As with the best horror films, the monster itself is something/someone the audience feels sorry for, and in that regard the film echos Frankenstein and even The Mummy from a few years earlier.  Well worth a watch if you can find it, but not a particularly fun ride due to its dark tones.

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Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1916)

Spoilers included!

On a visit to London this week, I paid a visit to the British Film Institute to see the 1916 British film adaptation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.  The film is written and directed by Rex Wilson, who was  active until the mid-1920s.  Parts of the film are available on the BFI’s Screenonline section, which is viewable through universities and libraries etc, and shows the film to be in very good condition and certainly led me to wonder why the whole film hadn’t appeared through a DVD release by the BFI.  A viewing of the whole film shows why this is the case.

Aside from the three sequences available online, the film is, frankly, a bit of a mess.  Rather like the short adaptations of classic novels that were prevalent during the early 1910s, the film is merely a succession of scenes from the novel rather than a cohesive narrative, and a relatively in-depth knowledge of the novel is required to make full sense of what is going on.  However, there is a major change within the plot.  In the film, Tom’s sister runs away at an early age with a young man.  Tom’s father chases after them, but it is too late and they are already married.  Tom’s father says he never wants to see her again.  In the second half of the film, Tom finds himself looking out for a young boy called Arthur who, at the end of the film, we find out is daughter of Tom’s sister.  Quite why this sentimental element to the film was added and yet key elements (such as Arthur’s illness) were edited out is not clear.

I was rather surprised when I returned home to find that the younger version of Tom was actually played by a girl, Joyce Templeton – this was not at all obvious when watching the film, so all credit to her for that.  In the second half of the film, Tom is played by Jack Coleman, who appears to have made no other films.  The acting throughout is all fine, with neither any standouts or problematic performances – but this may be as much to do with the potted style of the film’s narrative as much as to do with great performances.  Because of the style of the film, the viewer feels as if they don’t really get to know the characters, which is ultimately the film’s downfall.  Like much British film during the late 1910s and early 1920s, the film is adequate, but little else.

Some parts  unintentionally amusing, especially the intertitles which often have a different meaning in 2012 than they did nearly a hundred years ago.  Not only are we told that Tom “hungered for his sister’s love”, but he also says to Flashman: “Please, Flashman, don’t toss me!  I’ll fag for you.  I’ll do anything only don’t toss me!”  Show that to a bunch of young film students and they are likely to be in hysterics.

It’s unlikely that Tom Brown’s Schooldays will ever see the light of day on DVD, although it is no better or worse than some of the material on the “Silent Shakespeare” and “Dickens Before Sound” releases.  Perhaps the BFI could put together a third set featuring other adaptations of classic literature.  There is a very nice print of an early 1920s adaptation of Bleak House directed by Maurice Elvey, for example, which, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays has a simplification of the plot.  Putting these films together might not make for gripping viewing, but they would help to fill in the missing years of British film history from the beginning of the Great War to The Lodger.  

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (book review)

Beyond Paradise, Andre Soares’ biography of silent and early talkie film star Ramon Novarro paints a vivid picture of a man who was charming, frustrating, generous and self-destructive.   Novarro will forever be remembered as the star of the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur – which to this writer is far more entertaining than than the lavish but sterile 1950s remake – as well fine roles in Old Heidelberg and Mata Hari.  However, his fame as a great film star is all too often overshadowed by his violent murder at the hands of two hustlers.  Kenneth Anger’s sensationalist and frankly rather vicious book Hollywood Babylon started the rumour that one of the murder weapons was a antique sex toy, but Soares manages to put this rumour to rest for good – although no doubt it will linger for as long as Anger’s book remains in print. 

Thankfully, a good two-thirds of this biography is concerned with the young Novarro, his rise to fame and his sudden fall from it.  During this early period Novarro comes across as remarkably charming, energetic and naive, and by the time the actor is dropped by MGM in the mid-thirties, the reader feels as if Novarro is their own personal friend.  In fact, it is this more personal side of the autobiography which makes it so readable.  So many biographies are really quite clinical affairs – a detailed list of dates and events – but Soares’s effort is really quite different from this.  Yes, the dates, facts and figures are there, but so is Novarro the person.  While Soares is frank about the actor’s flaws, such as his heavy-drinking and his seeming inability to fight for decent roles at MGM, he is also non-judgemental and certainly there is no dwelling on the heavy drinking or, in the later years, the actor’s penchant for hustlers. 

The final third of the book is not quite so addictive reading.  Novarro was largely inactive as an actor by this point, and sometimes one gets the feeling that Soares is having difficulty making the actor’s last thirty years as interesting as he would like them to be.  There is not so much detail of either the work Novarro was doing during this period, or the filming process (something which has vivid detail during the MGM years).  Novarro’s tragic end is covered matter-of-factlyand without sensationalism, but the effect of Novarro’s death is not felt by the reader as much one might imagine it would be when reading the first half of the book.  By this stage Novarro has gone from being an intimate friend to a casual aquaintance and, in many ways, an enigma.  The charming, naive young man has largely left the building to be replaced by a solitary man approaching old age who is struggling more and more with a drinking problem.   This isn’t Soares’s fault, of course, it is simply that Novarro’s life was far less eventful by this point.

Much of Novarro’s MGM output is now available to us on DVD, mostly through the Warner Archive series, but the most frustrating element of the book is reading about films we know we shall never see due to their status as a lost film.  As is so often the case, it is the missing films that seem the most interesting.  One can only hope that some of them re-appear in the future. 

Novarro was a charismatic, always charming figure on film and a fine actor, even if sadly largely forgotten today outside of the film buffs.  This book manages to bring to life this unfairly neglected star and is an absorbing read that is thoroughly recommended.

Cecil B Demille and the Youth Film: The Godless Girl and This Day and Age

It will become clear as this blog progress that I don’t have much time for Cecil B Demille.  To me, he is as a director what Mary Pickford is as an actress – an instant turn-off.  I am sure that at some point I will write at length about the reasons for my dislike of most Mary Pickford films, but in the case of DeMille I object to his moralising, often ridiculous length and sense of self-importance.  However, I have recently watched two DeMille films that I have liked very much: The Godless Girl (1929) and This Day and Age (1933).

These two films are quite a departure, and both can be classed as early examples of “youth” films.  The Godless Girl is a late silent about a group of teenagers (played by rather older actors and actresses) who find themselves in a juvenile prison or detention centre following a mini-riot that takes place following a meeting of an atheist society.  Whilst there, a romance blossoms between the leader of the atheists, Judith, and leader of the Christian Youth Organisation, Bob.  Conditions are harsh and unfair in the detention centre, with physical cruelty being a common occurance.  In many respects, the tone of the piece is very similar to The Mayor of Hell made a few years later starring James Cagney and other films of that cycle.  Unusually for a DeMille film the action moves along at a fast pace and, despite clocking in at around two hours is remarkably entertaining throughout.  The two leads (Lina Basquette and Tom Keene) are effective, even if they are noticeably older than the parts they are playing, but it is Eddie Quillan who really steals the acting credits here, making the token clown within the bunch of kids into a human being that the viewer really does care about.

Surprisingly, DeMille revisited the youth film a few years later with one of his hardest to find sound films, This Day and Age, which stars the ever-likeable Richard Cromwell as the leader of a gang of kids who decides to bring about the downfall of a group of gangsters who killed their (adult) friend. With the exception of a couple of well-executed crowd scenes, one would be hard-pressed to name DeMille as the director of this work if they did not know in advance.  The film is a hoot, not least because of a cracking performance from Richard Cromwell and a fine script which includes some welcome pre-code snappy dialogue and other pre-code faithfuls such as sex, violence and references and accusations of homosexuality.  At 82 minutes it, too, moves along at a fast pace and is remarkably entertaining.

But you haven’t heard of This Day and Age?  Well, that’s hardly surprising, for it has never seen the light of day as a home video release since the era began in the early 1980s.  It is seemingly never shown on TV either, and as far as I am aware not shown at festivals or conferences in recent years.  This is a shame, for it is an entertaining work and deserves to be better known and would fit  nicely into a boxed set of pre-code features.  Meanwhile, The Godless Girl has seen a DVD release, but only as part of one of the volumes of the Treasures from American Archives boxed sets.  This is a shame, for it really deserves to also  be released separately from one of these pricey sets (wonderful though they are).

Update:  This Day and Age has now been released via Universal’s burn on demand series, and is available from amazon.com.

The Picture of Dorian Gray and Hurd Hatfield

From the ill-fated Wallace Reid in 1913 to Ben Barnes in 2009, the onscreen representation of Dorian Gray and his Adonis-like good looks have gone through as many different interpretations as there have been film versions of the novel, but perhaps still the most memorable is that of Hurd Hatfield in Lewin’s 1945 film.  This is not to say that Hatfield bore a great deal of resemblance to Wilde’s description of the character, which states that “he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his fine-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair” (Wilde, 1891: 19).  One would be hard-pressed to say that Hatfield was “wonderfully handsome”, and his hair is dark rather than golden, and yet he does fit a different, often ignored, description which comes slightly earlier in the first chapter of the novel where the artist Basil Hallward, looking at his unfinished portrait, described Dorian as looking “as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves” (ibid: 6).  This notion of Dorian being delicate, even precious, may be what Lewin was trying to portray when he cast Hatfield in the title role of the film.  Richard Barrios concurs with this idea, writing that he is in fact “a memorable Dorian, wearing his youth like fine pottery wears its glaze, with an extra shimmer courtesy of Harry Stradling’s Oscar-winning cinematography” (Barrios, 2003: 195-196).   This fragile, breakable version of Dorian clearly plays on Lord Henry’s comments that youth is short-lived, and that, one day, a look in a mirror will confirm that it has gone without us realising it.  Of course, due to the magical painting, Dorian’s fragile face, never cracks or becomes crazed in the way that pottery would.

Even though an argument can be made that Hatfield was a valid choice as Dorian Gray, it still seems slightly bizarre (even reckless) that a relative unknown actor who had made just one film prior to this was given the title role in a film which was such a massive undertaking for MGM.  Interestingly, the advertising posters for the film contain artistic impressions rather than photographs from the film, and make Hatfield appear considerably more conventionally handsome than he actually was.  Despite this, MGM were taking no chances; Hatfield’s name appears in joint 2nd billing on the poster (alongside Donna Reed), and in considerably smaller lettering than top-billed George Sanders, with Angela Lansbury (in a showier role than Reed) and Peter Lawford sharing 3rd billing.

The film was both a blessing and a curse for Hatfield in his subsequent career.  Despite a number of substantial supporting roles during the 1960s and 1970s, his career as a leading man was effectively killed off by The Picture of Dorian Gray, and he did relatively little film work during the 1950s.   Just four years later he was reduced to playing The Prince Of The Lionians in Tarzan And The Slave Girl (Lee Sholem, 1950), quite a drop from the title role of MGM’s most expensive production since Gone With The Wind.  Hatfield said The Picture of Dorian Gray  “didn’t make me popular in Hollywood.  It was too odd, too avant-garde, too ahead of its time…The decadence, the hints of bisexuality and so on, made me a leper.  Nobody knew I had a sense of humour, and people wouldn’t even have lunch with me!” (Barrios, 2003: 194-5).   This would clearly not have been helped by Hatfield’s performance, which was hardly conventional, with Crowther suggesting that he, “yielding plainly to direction, is incredibly stiff as Dorian Gray, and walks through the film with a vapid and masklike expression on his face” (Crowther, 1945).   Hatfield’s characterisation certainly does not give an audience the impression that his life is happy after he realises he will indefinitely remain young.  He rarely smiles throughout the film, and is as if he is carrying a huge weight on his shoulders.  It would be fair to assume that this is guilt for his sins, but then surely this would be unlikely for someone who has given away his soul? And would the guilt not be portrayed in the painting itself?

Hatfield’s looks and performance deprive the film of what, in fact, could have been an ultimate selling point: sex.  Unlike later portrayals by the likes of Helmut Berger and Ben Barnes, Hatfield is not as much sexy as sexless, not as much handsome as he is pretty. His androgynous looks, combined with the soft-focus cinematography which often accompanies his presence onscreen, sometimes makes him look more like a woman in drag a la Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935) than a man committing the sins of Dorian Gray.  One can only wonder what it is other than his pretty face that allows him to become the lothario in the film that we understand him to be following the giving of his soul to remain young.  While far more pleasing (and polite) in company than Lord Henry, one could hardly call him charismatic, although charming would be a fair description.  Of course, the androgynous nature of Hatfield’s appearance and performance help to instil the character (and, therefore, the film itself) with an unmistakable queerness akin to that in the novel itself but which would never have been allowed to be more explicit due to the production code.

Barrios, Richard., 2003.  Screened Out.  Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.  London: Routledge.

Crowther, Bosley, 1945.  THE SCREEN; ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ Film Version of Wilde Novel, With Hatfield and Sanders, Opens at Capitol Theatre.   In New York Times (online).  http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=980DE7D91F38EE3BBC4A53DFB566838E659EDE.

Wilde, Oscar., 1891.   The Picture Of Dorian Gray. 2003 edition.  London: Penguin Classics.

The Sissy in 1910s Cinema

The earliest known surviving film containing what we now call the “sissy” is Algie The Miner (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912), although with so many films from the period lost, it is likely that there were films prior to this which featured similar characterisations.  The narrative of Algie the Miner tells how Algie, a rather effeminate man, is sent away by his girlfriend’s father to prove himself a man within a year; if he fails the marriage cannot proceed.  Algie goes West, encounters a variety of cowboys, including Big Jim, with whom he becomes good friends and whose life he eventually saves.  Once the year is up, Algie returns to claim his girl, having slowly but surely changed from a mincing, effeminate pansy into a gun-wielding, butch and altogether more “manly” man.    Her father then “allows the two to marry under the watchful eye of Big Jim’s gun” (McMahan, 2002: 224).

Richard Barrios writes that Algie has a “dandified air, fluttering hands, pursed and apparently rouged lips, sly smile and eyes that he bats while fondling the barrel of a pistol” (Barrios, 2003: 17).  He goes on to suggest that “Algie is heterosexual in only that he has a girlfriend” (ibid).  Alice Guy-Blaché’s biographer, Alison McMahan is in agreement:  “At the diegetic level of narration the movie is about Algie becoming more virile, skilled and confident, but at an extra-diegetic level the film is a love story between two men…To satisfy American mores, [Alice Guy-Blaché] added the sweetheart subplot, but as we have seen the sweetheart is barely a presence” (McMahon, 2002: 223-4).

Yet if these characters do not have male partners within the films or refer to themselves as homosexual there is always going to be some element of doubt as to the intention of the filmmakers and the extent to which contemporary audiences would have read these figures as gay.  In other words, how do we know that Algie and other characters like him are homosexual, rather than effeminate and yet heterosexual?

Within this mire of uncertainty, one film from 1916 explicitly informs a modern-day viewer as to contemporary understandings of the sissy.  Behind The Screen is a short film starring Charlie Chaplin as a scene-mover at a film studio.  Chaplin’s regular leading lady, Edna Purviance, plays a young woman who dresses as a man in order to get a job on the set, and is employed when the other manual workers go on strike.  Chaplin is the only person to know about the disguise and falls in love with the young woman, eventually kissing her.  However, the kiss is seen by Chaplin’s boss who believes that he has just seen his employee kissing another man.  At this point he taunts Chaplin by impersonating a gay man, thus accusing him of being homosexual in the process.  It is this impersonation which is telling here, for he is mimicking a sissy character, therefore showing us that this type of portrayal on screen was linked intrinsically with homosexual behaviour, despite such apparent inconsistencies as sissy characters having girlfriends or, in some cases, wives.

Bearing this in mind, we can, perhaps assume that Algie the Miner was intended to be read as gay.  This in itself is problematic in that the notion of homosexuality as an identity did not exist in America at the time.  And yet Algie has a girlfriend, and returns to her at the end of the film despite seemingly enjoying his adventures in the West with his male companions.  Rather than an inconsistency, this is arguably a reflection of the experiences of many gay Americans of the time.  Algie is a character who is depicted as choosing a safe, heterosexual life despite obvious homosexual inclinations.  To follow those homosexual impulses would have possibly resulted in being ostracised from his social circle.  Therefore Algie does not miraculously turn straight at the end of the film, but makes a choice to become something he isn’t having spent a year in training during his travels.

 

Barrios, Richard., 2003.  Screened Out.  Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.  London: Routledge.

McMahan, Alison., 2002.  Alice Guy Blache. The lost Visionary of the Cinema.  New York:  Continuum