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The Temptress (1926) – The Greta Garbo Blogathon

Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.

I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.

The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.

No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.

Opening scene

But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.

The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.

Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.

The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.

Dangerous woman

Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.

Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.

It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.

This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.

The opening sequence of The Temptress.

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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Movies

 

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Right Cross (1950)

Ah, to be June Allyson. She has her pick of men in Right Cross, a boxing drama where both Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban are deeply in love with her. Poor Dick Powell, though, doesn’t have a chance in the film, despite being married to June Allyson in actuality.

Right Cross is a boxing drama, a love triangle, and a not fully fleshed-out examination of what it means to be Hispanic American. Pat O’Malley (June Allyson) is the daughter of fight promoter Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore), but runs the business for him because of his ill health. The business is on the decline, but they do manage the current boxing champion, Johnny Monterez (Ricardo Montalban).

Pat and Johnny are in love, but Johnny won’t propose because he’s afraid that if he were no longer champion, she would no longer love him. He can’t believe she would really love him for himself, a man of Mexican background who has had to fight for everything he ever had.

There is also a plot-thread involving Johnny’s hand, which has been injured several times. The doctor warns Johnny that his hand could go at any time, spelling the abrupt end of his career. For Johnny, it is a race against the clock, to find a way to make enough money to deserve Pat before he ends up back where he started: with nothing.

The third wheel to the romance is provided by Rick (Dick Powell), a sports journalist carrying a torch for Pat, but he is also a good friend to Johnny. His hobby seems to be drinking and brawling.

It’s a very intriguing set up and the characters are all appealing, though the plot is imperfectly executed. For one, June Allyson and Dick Powell actually have the better chemistry in the film (which isn’t exactly an imperfection, because it is delightful). Not all off screen couples have good on screen chemistry, but June Allyson and Dick Powell did (they are also adorable in The Reformer and the Redhead). Rick comments that “it’s either there or it’s not,” and we are supposed to believe that it’s not there in the film, but it actually is. The scene where Rick tries to cook a spaghetti dinner for Pat (unsuccessfully) and shows her how he would play a love scene is very sweet and almost made me wish that Rick and Pat could be together.

They even have chemistry in this picture

But the main problem is how the film lets some very interesting plot points drop conveniently at the end. Johnny’s mother does not trust “gringos” and is not pleased that Johnny is dating Pat. Johnny is also ashamed to bring Pat home to meet his mother. At the same time, he does not want his sister to date a “gringo.” And Pat’s father is not thrilled that Pat is dating Johnny. The plot sets up these problems, only to let them disappear at the end.

That being said, the cast is highly appealing. Especially June Allyson and Dick Powell. It’s not that Ricardo Montalban isn’t appealing, but his character is callow and has the unfortunate habit of using others to do things for him that he should do himself, like constantly sending Rick to patch it up between him and Pat, which seems callous, unless he’s oblivious that Rick does love Pat. He has some growing up to do.

June Allyson, on the other hand, is very mature, without being matronly. One of the things that is appealing about June Allyson is how naturally she wears her charm. She seems down to earth, utterly capable, unpretentious, like someone you would like as a friend. She seems natural. Like she’s hardly acting at all. Like she just IS.

That kind of persona is easy to overlook and I’ve always rather taken June Allyson for granted. Thanks to Simoa of Champagne for Lunch, who is hosting “The June Allyson Centenary Blogathon,” I’ve had a chance to think about her roles afresh. And to appreciate  how she can make acting look so easy and natural. I believe that she could be a fight promoter. She can play a professional person without looking like she’s trying too hard to convince us that she’s a professional. She seems totally comfortable as a woman, as a woman in love, and as a fight promoter. Quite an accomplishment. It actually might have been nice to see more of that side of her character in the film!

More posts about June Allyson from the blogathon can be found here.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2017 in Movies

 

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Beginning Silent Films

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Buster Keaton behind bars (except it’s really just a gate and not jail, as he initially leads you to believe)

I’m somewhat nervous about writing a beginner’s guide to silent films because I am still so new to silent films and because my own path to silent film fandom was somewhat unorthodox. I have not seen many great classic silent films. However, I do believe that silent films are far more accessible than is generally supposed. Last month I showed my thirteen year old cousin two Buster Keaton shorts and he loved them and wants to see more. Sometimes, I think the trick is simply finding the genre or actor that appeals to you, rather than trying to watch the ones that are considered the best or most definitive.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding silent films and in this post I would like to outline a few thoughts, as well as make a few recommendations for some good films to start with.

Some Silent Film Thoughts

Silent films are watched in a slightly different way than talkies. My sister likes to knit, cross stitch or crochet while watching movies, but she has discovered that it is harder to do so with silent films. You can more easily get away with looking up and down with talkies because a significant amount of information is conveyed through the spoken word, but in silent films you have to be watching the entire time. Blink and you might miss something significant. If my mind ever wonders or I look away, I will sometimes realize that I lost the thread of the action. As I’ve quoted before, biographer Scott Eyman (he’s written some excellent biographies on Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, as well as some others) says that silent movies affect our minds differently, putting us in almost a hypnotic state.

One thing I had to learn was that intertitles do not actually take the place of dialogue. They are there mostly to convey information or context that we cannot otherwise infer, but the bulk of communication is done visually, through facial expressions, gestures, mime and context. In Eileen Whitfield’s biography of Mary Pickford, she argued that silent films are just as easily compared to ballet as talkie films.

The music is also extremely important in silent films. A good score can vastly improve one’s enjoyment of a film, even a mediocre film. There are a lot of silent films available on youtube, but with only a few exceptions, most of them have wildly inappropriate music or often no music at all. I’ve found the most success with companies like Kino and Milestone, which always release films that are in pretty good shape and have been given a new score. Robert Israel, Carl Davis, and Jon C. Mirsalis are three composers whose names pop up most often (at least in the films I’ve seen so far). Music varies from organ, solo piano to full orchestra. I must confess that organ – though traditional – is not my favorite. I once fell asleep to an organ accompaniment to Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers. Sometimes, organ accompaniment can be all-too soothing.

John_Barrymore_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_Motion_Picture_Classic_1920Some Silent Film Suggestions

I must confess that this list of suggested silent films is largely reflective of my own tastes in films in general, because they are the films that I have so far sought out, though I am hoping to broaden myself.

D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts – from 1908 to around 1913, D.W. Griffith worked at the Biograph Studios making short films, which means mostly one and two reel films. Kino released a wonderful collection called Biograph Shorts and they are a fascinating window into a time before feature films (which got going in America in 1914 with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man). So many future stars are in evidence: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Lionel Barrymore. It was particularly fascinating to see a young Lionel Barrymore playing roles ranging from romantic lead to scruffy gold prospector. Griffith’s shorts range all over the place: romances, social drama, thrillers, historical drama, adaptations of poems and literature. It is here that he practiced those techniques that he would later be famous for, like the close-up and the exciting cross cutting used to create tension and a sense of motion (most famously at the end of Birth of a Nation).

Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton – it’s hard to go wrong with silent comedy. Many critics consider silent films to be particularly suited to comedy with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the finest practitioners of the art. Charlie Chaplin was The Little Tramp, who also combined pathos and a social conscience (pathos being a word routinely applied to him) to his comedy. Buster Keaton was called The Great Stone Face because of his impassive expression no matter what mayhem was going on around him and he brought a highly acrobatic, daredevil and inventive wit to his comedy. Harold Lloyd, on the other hand, was the American every man who usually got into trouble while trying to win the girl or win respect. All their work is full of delights, but to begin I recommend Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, Buster Keaton’s The General and Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman or The Kid Brother.

Chang and The Lost World – if you are a fan of King Kong, then you can’t go wrong with Chang and The Lost WorldThe Lost World is an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World and features dinosaurs, created with stop motion animation by Willis O’Brien, the same man who would apply this technique to the creation of King Kong. Chang is more of a fictional documentary created by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack – creators, directors and producers of King Kong. They spent time in Siam (Thailand) where they constructed a drama, that feels more like a documentary, about a family living in the jungle and dealing with tigers, monkeys and an elephant stampede. The footage of the animals, especially the tigers and elephants, is thrilling and it does give a good sense of how people lived.

Douglas Fairbanks and Swashbucklers  – do you like Errol Flynn and swashbucklers (or Rafael Sabatini novels)? Than try Douglas Fairbanks (the original swashbuckler) and his The Mark of Zorro, a delightful, exciting and highly athletic romp of a costume adventure. Also fun are the adaptations of several Sabatini novels – Scaramouche (1923, with Ramon Novarro) and The Sea Hawk (1924, with Milton Sills). Both films are far closer to the novels than their later remakes with Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger. It’s not exactly a swashbuckler, but the 1925 Ben-Hur (also with Ramon Novarro) is also excellent and stands up just as well as the 1959 version (the chariot race is awe-inspiring).

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterGerman Expressionism – German cinema was extremely inventive during the silent era and the film that started it all was the 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. When I first saw it, I think the music put me off (it was highly discordant), but the Kino edition that I saw offered multiple scores and next time I am going to choose music that is less stressful to listen to. Other examples of German expressionism include most anything directed by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, though one of his loveliest films is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a tender romance which he made while in Hollywood that also demonstrates how sophisticated silent movie was.

Lon Chaney – Lon Chaney was The Man With a Thousand Faces. He did The Phantom of the OperaThe Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Unknown (with a very young Joan Crawford), and the crime drama The Penalty. Unrequited love, crime, physical deformity, beauty, redemption, revenge, longing and goodness are often his themes.

Josef von Sternberg – before he made his films with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous silent films. My favorite is The Last Command, with Emil Janning and William Powell. It takes place both in Hollywood and Russia during the 1917 Revolution. It’s not terribly accurate regarding the revolution, but the emotional and visual beauty is stunning.

Another way to get into silent movies is to take some favorite actors from the talkies and look for them in silent films. Greta Garbo, John Barrymore (my favorite of his films are Beau Brummel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford all appeared in silent films. Directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor, William Wellman, Tod Browning (of Dracula fame) and even Alfred Hitchcock made many excellent silent films.

Where to See Silent Films

Silent films are admittedly much hard to get hold of than talkies. Most of the ones that I have seen have come either from the library or Classicflix, which has a far better selection of silent films than Netflix. All the DVDs I have seen are also available from Amazon, though some are rather expensive.

There are even many silent films available on sites like youtube, though often the quality of the film is poor and the music is either missing or doesn’t match. There are, however, a few decent quality silent films to be found there.

Buster Keaton’s silent short: “The Scarecrow”.

MV5BMTY3MTkyMTc0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTI5MDgwMjE@._V1_UY1200_CR122,0,630,1200_AL_A gothic thriller (influenced by German Expressionism) with strong echos of Charles Dicken’s Nicholas NickelbySparrows is one of Mary Pickford’s best films. Along with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, she was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Clara Bow personified the flapper in the late 1920s and her most famous film was It. This copy on youtube has a score by Carl Davis.

Lilian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, made their debut in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short “An Unseen Enemy.” The video quality is a little shaky, but the music is not bad.

In Grandma’s Boy, Harold Lloyd is a coward whose grandmother shows him that he has courage and can win the girl and defeat the murderous tramp who is terrorizing the community.

 

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2016 in Movies

 

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