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Archive for the ‘Harry Davenport’ Category

The Story Of Emile Zola

25 Nov

The Life Of Emile Zola – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. 219 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★★

The Story: A famous writer mounts a polemic against the injustice of a Jewish Army officer falsely accused of treason.

~

The word Jew is never mentioned. But it is seen written down on a list. From this we are able to deduce that Dreyfus was scapegoated to Devil’s Island for years – for his taste in  neckties perhaps?

Idiotic. And forced. Forced into silence by the Hollywood style of the era, which ten years later would produce Gentleman’s Agreement, which the Jewish moguls in Hollywood begged Daryl Zanuck not to film. Zanuck had been turned down at a Hollywood country club because he was Jewish; he wanted vindication; he filmed it anyhow. And he wasn’t Jewish at all.

Here we have the same cowardly, goody-idealism and naiveté of approach. Here everyone is wide-eyed and jejune, everyone’s eyeballs stuffed with white bread. In contrast to this, the execution of the material is coarse, one big bang scene following upon the one before, like a rhino in a puce tutu jetéeing en pointe from one Alp to the next. This is the Warner’s bio-style of the ‘30s. To call it crude would minimize its delicacy.

The piece is overwritten wherever it can manage, and the actors tend to fall into the trap of that, which is to say, they emotionalize. You have to watch Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport neatly underplay their parts to appreciate the peril of such a script. As Cezanne, Vladimir Sokoloff himself barely escapes with his life, but has a lovely reading of his exit line when Zola asks for him to stay as a reminder of the old days: “You can never return to them, and I never left them.” Gale Sondergaard, with her poisonous smile, can’t help herself but emote, although she has one lovely moment in court, and even the magnificent Louis Calhern has trouble keeping his corset on. The script writers should be spanked.

The problem is that the script is mostly exposition and narrative. Because it jams in Zola’s life from age 22 to his accidental death forty years later, the dramatic scenes are foreshortened and perforce glib. In playing scenes that are purely expository or narrative, an actor’s temptation is to goose them up with emotion to provide them with human interest, but the emotion involved is generally ungrounded or generalized or forced, and the humanity resulting becomes spurious. The audience has to sit through this pretension in order to endure The Story Of Emile Zola. It’s a story that has it’s value, to be sure, and, although I don’t know from the placard which opens the film how factual the screenplay is, there is certainly a general inauthenticity in the enacting of it.

Muni took it on just after his Louis Pasteur, for which he had won The Oscar. It had the allure for him of playing another good guy, a hero of history, someone to admire, a ”moment in the conscious of mankind”. After playing parts like Scarface, Muni may have come up against the problem Cagney had after playing public enemy number one – the frustration inherent to be always shooting men and slapping women. For Muni, Zola’s story might prove another perfect antidote – on the surface of it: Emile Zola! What a mensch!

However, the question one must ask of a performance is: is this a credible human being?

Here, for me, the answer is no.

Jerome Lawrence in his book on Muni recounts Muni’s preparation for the role: how he researched Zola’s gesture, his pince-nez, his tummy-tapping, his ancestry. Muni was a great master of stage makeup so Muni prepared the makeup for the part four months in advance. He grew his beard and hair to the length they would be at the end of the film; the beard would be shortened as he youthened to 22. Thus the film had to be shot backwards. The Westmores, the makeup and wig family at Warners, met with him and photographed Muni over and over to perfect the makeup for each of his four ages.

All of this is interesting, but all of it is surface. Muni made his living in the Yiddish theatre playing old men from the time he was a teenager to age 33, so he was a master of stage whiskers. And I notice as I watch that I am more interested in the whiskers on him than I am interested in Zola himself. Actually, I thought the whiskers were pretty good, but false.

In fact, I believe the whiskers may have sabotaged the performance, for obliging Muni, at 42, to start filming Zola at 62 may have tricked him into believing that acting-for-age was called for to distinguish him at that age from his younger versions still to be filmed, so Muni makes him somewhat doddering. A sort of foolish, fond old man, and cuddly. The result is that I never believe there is a real person there, but only A Noble Personage-who- is-sometimes-rather-dear.

If you consider the texture of the performance, you can see that Muni’s craft as an actor leads him often to a specious and superfluous craftiness. He seldom fails to overdo. He seldom keeps it simple. His idea is to entertain us with his acting and for us to like him. His performance might work all right on a New York stage. But here, inside it all, I do not detect a recognizable human being. Opposite him, as a corrective, Joseph Schildkraut must underplay even his own shouting. Muni did not win the Oscar for this. Schildkraut won it.

One wonders why. A put-upon Jew? If so, the award supplies an irony to the anti-Semitism which the movie timorously avoids.

Why see this film? A number of reasons: To Have Seen It. To experience the very interesting oddity of a French courtroom of the 1890s. To consider the whiskers the many male actors wear, for it must have taken the makeup people three years every morning to get these men into their muttonchops and mustaches. And to see Muni deliver what William Dieterle called an uncut, six-and-a-half minute tablecloth speech in the courtroom at the end, which he does simply and well.

The film was highly praised by critics. Why? Zola was the Bernstein and Woodward of his day, a whistleblower for all time, and like Zola, the reviewers too were journalists. Muni won the New York Film Critic’s award for this one, and the film won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Also for best screenplay.

Oscar Wilde knew both Dreyfus and Esterhazy. Esterhazy, the real traitor, Wilde found to be charming, Dreyfus dull. “It is always wrong to be innocent,” was his conclusion, and in this, as in all things Wilde was not wrong.

 

The Magic Bullet Of Dr. Ehrlich

18 Mar

The Magic Bullet of Dr. Ehrlich – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. A German/Jewish doctor revolutionizes hematology and immunology. 103 minutes Black and White 1940.
★★★★★
Why I adore to watch Edward G. Robinson I simply do not know. Richard Burton said of him that if the most beautiful man in world and Edward G. Robinson were on the same stage together, no one would look at the beautiful man. He is my favorite actor. And he was one of the superstars of his era and his studio, Warners, along with a couple of other odd-looking blokes, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Robinson’s presence and authority, his ability to focus deeply, his ability to instantly switch course, his waking eyes which wake you up, his distinctive voice. Yes, all of that. But perhaps it is the simplicity and directness and immediacy of everything that he does. There is also his courageous heart, his kindness, his humor, his ability to take-it-in.

I don’t know. There is just something about him.

You would have thought he would be, like Charles Coburn, a hugely popular principal supporting actor. But no. He plays the lead always. The story is always about him. It is never about Coburn.

This is one of those biopics the era specialized in and that informed us, if not educated us, about Madame Curie (Greer Garson), Sister Kenny (Rosalind Russell), Gentleman Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) et al. Dieterle directed some of them, and directs this one well.

The story of this remarkable laboratory scientist – who advanced microbe-dyeing so that a specific disease, such as tuberculosis, could actually be diagnosed by an ordinary physician; who pioneered the vaccine for diphtheria, who discovered the first specific for syphilis – is fairly accurate, and at all points riveting.

What makes it so is the photography of James Wong Howe. Every angle, every scene, every movement by the actors is held in narrative coherence and importance by his camera. He makes the picture exciting and he, in fact, tells its story. And he never intrudes.

Max Steiner did the score. The film was co-written by John Huston and boasts a list of supporting players so deep no modern film could equal it: Otto Kruger who is quite touching as Ehrlich’s best friend, Donald Crisp, Sig Ruman, Donald Meek, Henry O’Neill, Harry Davenport, Louis Calhern. Maria Ouspenskaya, a really bad actress from the Moscow Art Theatre, performs her usual portentous teeny grand dame, and Ruth Gordon doesn’t seem to know what to do as the housewife and mother of Ehrlich’s children. But, if you really want to know what great acting is in all its magnitude take in the great German Shakespearean Albert Bassermann in the role of an early unbeliever in Ehrlich.

Anyhow, I found all three acts of this picture thrilling. For me it didn’t date, because I am of that date. If this picture were made today, it couldn’t be half as good. Like Steinbeck, it was of its time, and has not lost its value for all that.

 

The Thin Man Goes Home

18 Jan

The Thin Man Goes Home – directed by Richard Thorpe. Who-Dun-It. The city sophisticates in a small town offer murder and detection to it. 100 minutes. Black and White 1945.
★★★★★
This series was not really murder mysteries. but pleasing charades in which the audience colluded – which is why they were so enormously popular. The murders are inconsequential. But the poise of Myrna Loy carries everything forward. Or you might say that the terror-tone of the pictures was really determined by Asta, the faithful trick dog of William Powell. Or it might be set by Powell’s cavalier suits.

Or it might be that we are always reminded that we are watching a movie. Which is really what we came to the Bijou to do. We are in on the joke of Nick and Nora Charles. Flippancy was the comedy of the age.

Anyhow, we the audience certainly feel we are part of a marriage which is sexy and affectionate. And we also feel, although she rags him something fierce, that the wife really supports the husband’s work to a degree that she becomes really part of it. But everyone keeps his temper, until the wrap-up, when the dastardly killer is unwrapped in a series of explanations impossible and not even desirable to grasp. And we are all part of that too.

As we are part of the banter between Loy and Powell, here written by Dwight Taylor (son of the great Laurette Taylor), so we always feel part of the party. Yes, these two are New York Sophisticates; and we are not; yes, they drink more than regulation allows, and we do not (although not here; here, only cider), but we go along with their ride as to the manner born. MGM let’s one peek into a world that never existed. That is the MGM style in its heyday, which this is.

And MGM’s huge stable of fine actors is corralled into this piece to give it depth of talent if not of profundity. Harry Davenport, Edward Brophy, Lucile Watson. Minor Watson, Anne Revere, Leon Ames, Gloria DeHaven, Lloyd Corrigan, Donald MacBride, and that tiny mushroom of bashfulness, Donald (O rightly named) Meek. I look upon him with wonder. Year after year, in film after film, he played exactly the same part. Fumbling, uncertain, apologetic, timid. With his appealing Jiminy Cricket face, he performed perfectly, an actor whose skill we enjoy but do not explore. A cartoon. I wonder what his life was like. He could not possibly have been the thing he portrayed. But what? He died the following year, but not before having made three more films.

Along with the movie, on the extras, is an MGM cartoon. I only remember Warner Brothers Cartoons at that time, but here is a brilliant one (the Warners manner, true), so good it has the imaginative power of a nightmare, if a nightmare could be very very funny. It is The Type For Cartoons. Don’t miss it..

It affords a pleasing chaser to our visit with the Charles, in this their penultimate of seven excursions in the form.

 

Son Of Fury

10 Jul

Son Of Fury  Directed by John Cromwell. Costume Romance. The heir to a great English estate vows to take his rightful place presently occupied by a selfish Uncle. 94 mintues Black and White 1942.

* * * * *

In those days, the male stars were more beautiful than the female stars, but the female stars were better actors. Joel Macrea, John Wayne, John Payne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable were gorgeous guys, and the most gorgeous of all was Tyrone Power. His looks were black Irish with Garbo-long eyelashes – along the lines of George Clooney, except Power, of course, was better looking. Clooney has one advantage over Power in that Clooney is now alive and Power is not, which means that Power is no longer seen as sexually attractive by those who grew up with him in the 30s, people whose sexual development is simultaneous with his own. It’s what makes a star and keeps a star a star. In Power’s case, he also had talent, but, because of his scripts, it was banked – right into Zanuck’s account, for Power was the biggest star at Fox. Zanuck assigned him role after role the same. You can see the responsibility a superstar of that era had to meet by the dumbing down of their range, while George Sanders and Dudley Digges especially savor the scenery. Diggs really has a good time; playing a mercenary lawyer, he gobbles up the camera like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. In the scene Power has the want; Digges want is to deflect the want, but just imagine what Digges comes on with in this scene. Sits behind a desk the whole time, and plays, not a particular action or want, but rather a way of life, all-powerful and impressed by nothing. What a perfect choice to make to play the key moment in the scene. And later on, to make his entrance into court and dress himself in court. Also check out George Sanders’ opening moment when he has to oblige a ruthless close-up to tell us that his long-lost nephew has been discovered. His response is conventional; what lies behind it is the genius to have created the energy of a man who enjoys his own greed. And that, not his technique and not his want or intention, is the force that drives the truth of the moment into life. And so we have the great character actors of the movies doing the same thing forever and also in this film, Henry Davenport as the loving gramps, John Carradine (who was a bad actor but an understandable one), and Elsa Lanchester (who is also a bad actor, because self-conscious of her effects, but believable here). And Tyrone Power was just such a type-cast actor. He played the Tyrone Power type, and film after film duplicated the format, including an early childhood, here played by little Roddy MacDowell, completely devoid of sentimentality, firm in his energy, and fascinating to watch in his withheld ruthlessness. Power was a master at mediating the unbelievable lines he was given in these costume shows. He never overplays his hand, and so the lines sound believable. It is not that he believes in them, so much that the decency he summons plays off a certain challenge to carry him through them. He was a romantic actor par excellence, which means that his sexual instrument is not lustful but lyrical. In wooing a lady he is not rapacious but fun and kind and heart struck. Bolder with Frances Farmer as milady and more bowled over by Gene Tierney doing a South Seas hula-hula, but always respectful of the lady. If you can look beyond his mesmerizing beauty, into his eyes you can see how he comes alive and in what ways. The direction by John Cromwell is discrete, the filming by Arthur C. Miller is narratively helpful, unintrusive, and, in the London rather than the South Seas scenes, spectacularly convincing, as are the fight scenes between Sanders and Power, for they are cunningly performed by bewigged stunt extras.  The score by Alfred (too-many-violins) Newman is intrusive, the exact opposite of Power’s presence, and the perfect model of what not to do while performing balderdash.

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