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Archive for the ‘Lewis Stone’ Category

Mata Hari

25 Jan

Mata Hari – directed by George Fitzmaurice. Turgid Melodrama. 89 minutes Black and White 1931.

★★★★★

The Story: A beautiful spy sleeps with and plans to run off with the enemy.

It’s quite stupid. The writing is scenically dead. But no scene in which Garbo ever appeared is dead. Each scene is perfervidly alive. She is 24 yet she is older and wiser than anyone else in the neighborhood, which includes, as usual, Lewis Stone, who is quite inert, as he often was playing opposite her. Stone has the George-Brent-foible of imagining that to come alive opposite a female star would be to pull the rug out from under her, not realizing that great female stars depend on the surprising and advantageous occasion slipping rugs provide. His woodenness is at one with the balsa of the script.

So here we have her already in power as the fatal woman who drives men wild and who  murmurs to their adavances, “Later.” Lionel Barrymore is one such dumbstruck dumb cluck, and sweet Ramon Navarro is the antidote to him. He’s a Russian pilot carrying messages back and forth to Moscow. She is a spy intent on intercepting them. Barrymore is the military go-between betraying his nation. It all takes place in Paris, and Garbo dances, or, one should say, prances about in skin-tight, gold, toreador pants. Indeed she is never without weird far-Eastern rigs and odd chapeaux. To see them is not to believe them. She is more manly than any of the men. Which is maybe why they throw themselves at her glittering boots. From whose vicinity she nudges them humorously aside.

Mata Hari, in the film (although not in real life, for she was married and the mother of two and over forty) was a woman alone, as was Garbo, and Garbo frequently played such women, women getting by through superior intelligence, daring strategies, consummate allure. Whatever tools that come to hand to promote their survival, her characters seize upon with the ready address of a hardened feminist. Garbo almost never plays a mother. Is almost never actually married, and never happily. In her roles she sleeps her way to the top or has done so. In the enneagram Garbo, a high Virgo, would be not a sexual or social, but a survival type. And perhaps her screenwriters were helpless not to conspire with her vaunted solitude and yet, in blind addiction made role after role of that solitude, a corset that limited her to the range of the isolate. MGM kept her playing these fallen women, fallen, though somehow still unavailable.

This sort of part, Mata Hari, was crazy for Garbo to do, but maybe she felt it would be a change of pace. After all, she was the top actress, the top moneymaker at the top studio. Adrian was doing the things, Douglas Shearer was recording it, Cedric Gibbons was to design it. The director had a reputation for taste and being good with women – yet Mata Hari is not well directed, and the continuity is lousy. But, of course, that is not the point, for it was extremely well filmed – by William Daniels, whose great lighting created her, for herself and for us. This is the period when Garbo does not let anyone on the set, including the crew. The scene is surrounded by black screens. Occasionally Thalberg alone stood far off in the shadows. He watched in admiration, amazement and respect, as we do to this day. Yes, the story is preposterous. But watch it and see how Garbo conjures something out of nothing. Into this grotesque shell of a production, this pearl.

 

China Seas

10 Feb

China Seas — directed by Tay Garnett. Low Adventure On The High Seas. A ship captain endures pirates, monsoon, and the forward attentions of two desirable dames. 87 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★

Drama at every turn, so, why are you complaining – ain’t you gettin’ your money’s worth? Yes, you are, but it’s a crazy film. Clark Gable is before us, aged 34 and at the peak of his masculinity. There’s a lot to say about Gable as an actor, for he loved his craft, was absolutely in earnest about being good at it. Technically he is the perfect film star, with the most beautiful head of hair, shape of head, face, eyes, mouth, nose, and photogenicality. He has a voice unmatched for male ardor. He is absolutely sure of his sexuality, which is really the foundation of his appeal, and which means not only that he can go after what he wants, but that he can decline what he does not want, both without shame. And what he does not want in this story is the neediness of the dame he has been screwing, played by Jean Harlow. How different a sex idol she was than Monroe, who has all the seduction of pliability, soft as perfume, whereas Harlow is rapacious and hard. The peroxide hair of Marilyn made her look soft, that of Harlow tough. Interesting huh? The difficulty with the material lies in these two stars’ acting. Gable had a lot more talent and technique than Harlow, but he barks and barks, and Harlow is cacophonous. She is so monotonously raucous in her playing that the character looks insane, and you never think that Gable would put up with her for a minutes, much less possibly end up with her. They needed a suggestion of more variety from the director. Rosalind Russell, such a tonic as an actress, plays the English lady Gable really loves, a gal friend from his better days. Aboard this ship of fools is Robert Benchley as a droll drunk, C. Aubrey Smith, that firm but kindly hatchet, as a bemused ship owner, Lewis Stone as a deposed captain, Edward Brophy playing out that great Somerset Maugham story about the necklace opposite Akim Tamiroff, he of The Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky, along with Donald Meek, Hattie McDaniel delicious as the greedy maid, and, last but never least, Wallace Beery as the loveable heavy. Harlow’s and Russell’s dresses are by Adrian and are masterpieces of the costumers’ art. Dwell upon them. The story is by one of the most gifted screenwriters of the day, Jules Furthman. The filming of the typhoon at sea is worth the show – but all of it is worth the show. If only to just watch Gable, and see how good an actor he is, a factor almost impossible to scope past his personal presence, confidence, and beauty.

 

 

Red-Headed Woman

09 Feb

Red-Headed Woman — directed by Jack Conway. A gold-digging vamp seduces her way to the top. 79 minutes Black and White 1932.

★★★★

This is Harlow’s tenth principal role, and by this time she sure knows a thing or two, and one of the things she knows is Don’t Hold Back One Inch. She plays this fiery tart without a blush of shame, and it’s a treat to see. Harlow is in her early twenties here, and her hair is not the platinum blond it was to more or less remain. She is being thrust forward by MGM as a sex symbol, which annoyed her and baffled her, as it did Marilyn Monroe later on. Both women realized it was quite unreal and unnatural, that nobody was really like that. Several things militate against our respecting Harlow, but being a sex bomb was not one of them. In fact, aside from apparently wearing no undergarments, she is neither sexy nor pretty. Her face is boxy and her lips are puckered with rouge; her nose is from some other face; her voice is completely untrained, grating, and badly placed. As to her being sexy, well, that may have been so at the time to those who were of her own generation and were in their twenties when she was, and saw her first in Wings, where she is quite remarkable and quite unlike her later incarnations. One has to set these things aside to notice her range and how robust an actor she could be. She drives this uncompromising story forward like a steam engine, plowing every cow off the tracks before her. As an actress, she never asks permission. Gentlemen prefer redheads is what she says and she acts on it roundly. Chester Morris is the stolid mid-western millionaire she finagles into marriage, and bounds on from to score all the money in the world. In fact, if there could be such a thing, she is a female bounder. Una Merkel plays her lemony sidekick, and the great Charles Boyer in an early film appearance, plays the chauffeur who becomes her tidbit. The movie is pre-code, and delightfully impenitent as such. Lewis Stone is the first of many fathers-in-law. Henry Stephenson is one of her willing victims – later to be remembered as the speech therapist around whom Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance in the “Moses Supposes His Toeses are Roses” number in Singing In The Rain. Liela Hyams plays Morris’s wife in a lovely and giving performance. May Robson plays the society dame who warns her son too late. Paul Bern one of Harlow’s husbands produced it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the first screenplay and Anita Loos the last. The film caused a scandal in America, and Britain refused to show it. It was a huge financial success for MGM.

 

 
 
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