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Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: CAMERAMAN, DON’T SHOOT UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYEBALLS’ Category

The Temptress

25 Jan

The Temptress  — directed by Fred Niblo. Drama. 117 minutes Black and White 1926.

★★★★★

The Story: A gorgeous woman, married to a jerk, has an affair with a dam-builder from the Argentine, to which she follows him, to dam-busting seismic disturbance for all.

Greta Garbo is the most sexually voracious actress ever to have appeared in film.

Her films are all the same. She has been kept by older men or beset by unwanted suitors, too old, silly, callow, married, dense, young. They come upon her and desire her wantonly. They betray all their scruples for her. She laughs, treats them like children, and doesn’t let them off the hook because they pay for her fancy apartment. She keeps them dangling. Obviously no one is the right one. They appear in uniform, with medals, naked, clothed, in rags. They present her with diamonds, furs, and food. Nothing turns her head. They tire her. She makes her living on them. Until there swans into view some young man, so pure, so devoted, so delicious of aspect and potential, that Garbo, who has spurned Dukes, walks over to this young man, seizes him with one hand by the back of the head, grabs his chin with the other, drapes her body upon him, leans her face down over him, puts her mouth on his, and drinks and drinks and drinks.

This skill as an actress she had when she was twenty, when she made The Temptress, her second film. The vamps, such as Nita Naldi and Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, were all dark and tiny wild gypsy bitches. Garbo was a lanky blond, and she was not a bitch. She was a master flirt, but also second-by-second sensitive, open to the subtlest influence, inner or outer. She was simply a lone operative in the big-time world of men with nothing but her female wiles to survive on, and an acting instrument strung like an Aeolian harp.

She brought to MGM the caché of class. She was the top money maker there. As Louise Brooks said, as soon as Garbo appeared in films, every other Hollywood actress had to exist in relation to her. She was able to do on screen what no other actor was able to do before or since, and no one knew exactly what it was. When the war came, MGM did not know what to do with her. They had exalted her in their own eyes. This was stupid and unimaginative of them. It was quite simple, for Dietrich and Lamar and Bergman went on playing Europeans in war stories. Garbo was still a big money-maker – her last film, too. The war cut off her European audience, which was huge. And her American popularity in the sticks had waned, in part due to the number of fancy costume dramas she appeared in, and a certain distance she had created for herself on screen and which was created by her studio as well. She drew a circle around herself and acted inside it, as Brando was later to do. Who could imagine actually wooing her and marrying her? Adoring her, yes. Keeping her, or trying to, yes. But who could imagine actually settling down with her? Her eyes had gone private. So to stand next to her and do the dishes?

Stiller, her mentor from Sweden, began this film, was taken off it, and although it was reshot, he may have coached her here into the Garbo we came to know playing these parts. For it does not seem quite yet to exist in her first film, The Torrent. 

Anyhow here, in The Temptress, she is  young woman, not even of age, and already in full possession of her technique, which originated in her lower-middle back and travelled north. She made it up in the shower. She was already That Thing, Greta Garbo. Cary Grant did the same. They made something up and let it respond in accordance with the scene they were presented with. It was indissolubly manufactured and real at once. William Daniels said that Garbo made love only to the camera. True, and we wouldn’t have wanted her to do anything else. It means her real love-affair, her most intimate sexuality, is actually with us.

 

 

Suds

21 Sep

Suds – Directed by John Francis Dillon. Comic Melodrama. A scrubgirl rides a magic horse to true love and salvation. 65 minutes Black And White Silent 1920.

* * *

Pickford’s Amanda Afflick is a reprise of a character from Stella Maris, but without the deformed shoulder. The face is a grimace, the mouth flattened, the eyebrows thickened. You would not recognize her as Amanda until the princess scenes, where she appears as the Mary Pickford we know. The real difference, however, is in the interior of the Stella Maris character which is another person entirely from Stella Maris herself. Here, in Suds, the actress instead gives herself over to large gestures and cartoon faces, even broader in the princess scenes, which is strange because Pickford was renowned for inventing screen acting as we know it today, a craft of interior and subtle registration. She also miscalculates the performance by crying, weeping, bawling, wailing at every slight and abuse. She leaves no room for us to participate in her situation. (See Judy Garland make the same mistake in A Star Is Born.) What does work is her execution of the physical comedy, which is imaginative and robust. The Extras include the three endings the film had, and a documentary on Pickford’s immense film career.

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The Taming Of The Shrew [1929]

22 Jul

The Taming Of the Shrew – Directed by Sam Wood. Shakespearean Comedy. An out-of-towner in town to marry wealthily hooks up with a harridan. 63 minutes Black and White 1929.

* * * * *

The first talking film of a Shakespeare play, this is also the first time (and the last time) Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford appeared together in a picture. They go at one another with bullwhips, which is less funny than the series of brilliant sight gags the film explodes with. (Tell me, please, how that business with the chair was ever done!) The screenwriter has balanced out the story rather neatly with the conceit that Kate, in order to reach a truce, by succumbing to his outrageous demands is actually taming Petruchio. The movie begins with the camera looking admiringly at the sets by William Cameron Menzies, and it ends abruptly and bafflingly by omitting the buildup scene to Kate’s submission speech. Pickford was a wonderful actor, but here she plays into her husband’s huge theatrical style and not to her advantage. Fairbanks throws his arms wide upon every occasion and tosses his head back and laughs longer than even his three thousand white teeth can lend reality to. If you handed him a cup of tea, he would do the same. But this style both suits the role and suits his limitations but does not suit Pickford’s genuine genius for realistic performance. Make-up gives her wasp-stung lips, and Costume wimples her head like the Mad Queen. She ends up visible as a character to us only when she shows her hair. The script is cut to include only its famous big set pieces, such as the moon scene and the dinner table scene. But that’s all right. The show is far more lively than the lumbering version with the Burtons. The Taming Of The Shrew a very great comedy, on three counts: It has dialogue that an actor can swing around like a cat by the tail; it has a supersonic plot; it has two leading roles that never misfire.

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The Thief Of Bagdad

19 Jun

The Thief Of Bagdad – Directed by Raoul Walsh. Fairy Tale. A daring thief of old enjoys his calling no end, until the end, when he learns his lesson. 2 hours and 31 minutes Black and White With Color Filters Silent 1924

* * * * *

The style is Silent Gestural, with the body cocked back and the arms thrown wide and hair tossed rakishly. There are no small gestures, there are only gesticulations. And Fairbanks is an excellent actor in this style. No pose he strikes does he strike too long, and he knows that the purpose of the style is to provide the narrative with an exuberant foundation. This is one of the great silent films because of his keen acrobatic sense of himself in film, because of his fine physique which is bare to the waist at all times, and because of the irrepressible impudence of the character he makes for us. All this is played against sets of unheard of magnificence and spectacle, elaborate, yet quite spare and because spare, surprising. It is the film which launched the young designer William Cameron Menzies, and the sets are revolutionarily entertaining, as are the highly imaginative and varied costumes by Mitchell Leison (later to become a director). So in a sense there is not an ounce of spare flesh on either the actor or the settings, and these elements works brilliantly together. When you are not entertained by the one, you are by the other. Arthur Edison (who later filmed Casablanca and many another masterpiece) held the camera. But it is Fairbanks’ vehicle or rather he is its vehicle, as all this whizzes by this speed demon of a character, who never walks when he can stride and never strides when he can fly. After a bunch of establishing escapades, all of which are comic in a way which only silent pictures can make them, he sets out to woo, since after all this is a fairy tale, the princess. Never mind what happens then; we know there are dread feats to be faced. With his narrow glittering eyes, he accomplishes them all. He’s very good in love scenes: he’s perplexed, which means he doesn’t know whether she loves him or not; in nothing else is he uncertain. And opposing him is the Mongol Highmuckymuck aided by the princess’ handmaiden, played by the great Anna May Wong, who slinks. Fairbanks, however, bounds – with bowed arms always swinging in determination, so how can he lose. In the meantime, never have you seen such headdresses as on the men: hats the size of skyscrapers, turbans the size of hot air balloons, all towering above Fairbanks to make him appear like a boy, which at 41 he was. Raul Walsh was a master director of extras (see The Big Trail), and here he has several thousand, so it’s well worth waiting to the end of this, Fairbanks’ longest film, to see them moving through Menzies’ fantastic sets as Fairbanks wins the day.

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Tess Of The Storm Country

10 Jun

Tess Of the Storm Country – Directed by John S. Robertson. Melodrama. Will the man in the mansion get rid of that bunch of smelly folks at the bottom of his hill? 118 minutes Black and White Silent 1922.

* * * * *

A full-blown melodrama, nothing omitted but a train wreck. I marvel at what silent film asks of one, for what it asks is one’s imagination. And the way it goes about that is to be mute. So one must interpret, lean forward to hear, pay attention, fill in the blanks. And one is given a lot to pay attention to, a lot to engage with. Mary Pickford is a dream actress, quick, imaginative, experienced beyond measure, and always willing to appear foolish. Here she’s a little hellcat of a fisher shack girl, whose hometown a rich nasty is trying to close down. I have nothing more to say, except watch her fight scenes, and there are a lot of them. And watch her business with the rake. She’s a master. A master actor and a master entertainer. She produced this film. She was the most powerful and capable woman Hollywood has ever known. She founded and personally ran Untied Artists, she wrote certain of her own films and produced a number of them, and some of those of her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She founded the Academy. She founded the Actors Hospital and Home. She founded the School of the Cinema at UCLA. And she was the superstar female actor in the world in her day. Hooray for Mary! The picture is also accompanied by a first class modern score.

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Stella Maris

22 May

 

 

Stella Maris – Directed by Marshall Neilan. Melodrama. A sequestered rich girl wakes up to the reality of life in her love for a man also loved by a poor orphan. 84 minutes Black and White Silent 1918.

* * * * *

If you can accept the rubrics inherent in silent pictures as entertainment of a kind, you will likely have a good time with this film. The requirements of story-telling in silent pictures are different from what we have become used to in modern films, and the stories told, while, like ours, still melodrama, are executed on a different level of value, since, let us say, in black and white films, values themselves are more black and white. So patience with the unfamiliar is called for to enjoy what is before us. What is priceless is what the actors do within these confines, and Mary Pickford is an extraordinary example of genius and charm in dealing with them. Here she plays Stella Maris, a Happy Prince character preserved from the woes of this world because she is crippled. The character would be intolerable were she played for pathos, but Pickford plays her as happy, open, and without calculation. You never feel sorry for her. You only want to be in her company. But Pickford also plays another character, the orphan Unity, in one of the shrewdest portrayals I’ve ever seen an actress attempt, for she gives Unity a hunched shoulder which makes her appear also crippled. Standing together in the film, you would not believe they were being played by the same actress. Homely Unity’s inner life in no particular resembles that of pretty Stella Maris’s. Neither in appearance nor being are they the same person. And the actress is completely realistic and in the moment with both. Mary Pickford was the most popular female film star of her time; she was also the most brilliant businesswoman ever to work in Hollywood (She founded and ran United Artists); what is more important still, she clearly was one of the greatest actresses of her era.

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