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The Lord of the Rings, If Warner Bros Made It in the 1930s-40s

So, I’ve always liked to kick around the idea of what a Lord of the Rings would have looked like if a studio like Warner Bros. had dedicated all their resources (and perhaps resources of other studios) to making a version during the height of the studio era, discounting the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy was not published until the 1950s. Admittedly, I have not solved all considerations. How would they have portrayed orcs? What about Gollum? And the hobbits? The technology was not there, but it is still fun to speculate.

I have also still not solved all casting conundrums and would like to invite other opinions! Since studio productions of the 1930s and ’40s were always the product of multiple voices and opinions, it seems appropriate.

But rather than present a comprehensive rubric, I would like to offer thoughts for consideration. Actors, composer, make-up artist, production code considerations.

Cast

I don’t think there is any doubt that Warner Bros. would have cast their leading male star as Aragorn: Errol Flynn.


When I taught a class to high school students on the early history of American cinema, I was told that Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood looked like Link. I always thought of Link as an elf, so perhaps Errol Flynn would have made a better Legolas, who is far merrier in the book than he is in the movies, but there is no way Warner Bros. would have given him anything less than the all-important role of the king.

I’m also inclined to think that any studio era production of LOTR would, like the Peter Jackson films, have given Arwen a bigger role. With that in mind, it seems fitting that Arwen should be played by none other than Olivia de Havilland, who would have been an excellent elf.

For Gandalf, I’m partial to the casting of Claude Rains. He’s brilliant in almost anything, but as Gandalf,  he would have brought a wry wit and wisdom – and a lovely voice – that would have been ideal, especially since Gandalf has to carry the heavy lifting of cinematic plot exposition.

Alan Hale might possibly have been cast as Gimli, though the Gimli of the book is far more dignified than in the movies. Though I’m also tickled by the idea of casting Edward G. Robinson, as well. And Patric Knowles for Legolas, perhaps?

Boris Karloff as the Witch King, hands down. And for the important role of Eowyn, quite possibly Bette Davis. I could see her riding her horse, taking on Boris Karloff and raging against being trapped in a cage. And falling in love with Errol Flynn.

How about Sir Cedric Hardwicke for Saruman? And Vincent Price needs to be in the film somehow. Maybe as Wormtongue? John Garfield was a star and would need a role, but I’m a bit stumped on that one. Any thoughts? Also, if James Cagney can appear in a Shakespeare play as Bottom, then surely he could appear in LOTR as somebody…even a hobbit! Okay, so maybe not.

Lionel Atwill should also undoubtedly have a role…perhaps as Elrond. We need a Galadriel, too. Hmm…

Basil Rathbone likewise deserves a role, possibly even a heroic role. Like Boromir or Eomer, though I’m leaning towards Boromir. It strikes me, though, that he could have played the stern Strider who morphs into a king, but it’s doubtful he would have been given the part.

Score

Max Steiner was Warner Bros. most prolific composer of the era and scored over 300 film scores, which boggles the mind. He scored King KongGone With the Wind, CasablancaThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Big Sleep, and The Searchers. He clearly had the epic score down pat.

Costuming and Makeup

In all probability, Warner Bros. would need the experience of Universal Studio’s Jack Pierce, who designed the make-up for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. This reminds me that Lon Chaney Jr. should surely have a role in the film, as well. Maybe he could play an orc leader or Uruk-hai? Or Gollum. He actually might be the best bet for Gollum and would certainly bring pathos to the role. Though Bela Lugosi could handle Gollum, as well.

Studio era Hollywood didn’t have a track record with fantasy, so it’s possible that a Lord of the Rings would look more like a medieval horror movie. And actually, we can learn a lot about how a studio era LOTR might have been handled by examining Universal Studios films. The make-up in The Wolf Man was designed not too look realistic. There was concern that it would be too frightening, which means that in all probability the makeup for the orcs would have been muted.

The costumes (or at least the gowns) could be designed by Vera West, who specialized in costuming for Universal’s horror movies: The Bride of FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, various Mummy movies, Dracula. But Walter Plunkett also designed a lot of period garb, most notably for Gone With the Wind, but also The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Three Musketeers, and Singin in the Rain. Perhaps they could design together.

I suspect that for the monsters – like the Balrog – Warner Bros, would also have need the assistance of stop motion animator Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame.

Direction

Probably Michael Curtiz. He established his bone fides for epics and large crowds with the 1928 silent/talkie hybrid Noah’s Ark. He also directed many of Errol Flynn’s best films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Motion Picture Production Code

On the whole, I think there is not much in LOTR that the Breen Office would have objected to, except excessive violence and gruesomeness. The gruesomeness in particular would have been in relation to the orcs and Uruk-hai. This means the battle scenes, along with the makeup, would have been far less intense, less bloody, more on the line of the battle at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Universal Horror monsters as the villains.

An adventure/horror film! Which means the movie might end up more lighthearted, more in the spirit of The Hobbit. Though it might depend on whether they took horror or adventure as their model.

What do you think?

This has been my contribution to “the Great Breening Blogathon,” hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For more posts on this topic, be sure to check out their site, here.

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Posted by on October 15, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Jazz Singer (1927)

The_Jazz_Singer_1927_PosterThe Jazz Singer is one of those films I’ve intended to see a for a while, mostly for historical reasons, because I’d read that it wasn’t actually very good. Now that I’ve finally seen it, on the whole I agree. The movie is probably 70 or 80% silent, with some singing interludes and two scenes of brief dialogue. As a pure silent movie, it wouldn’t have been remembered at all. Not that the singing and talking makes it a better movie, but it does make it a more interesting one.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Bobby Gordon) has been trained by his father, Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland), to be a cantor like him at their local synagogue in a New York ghetto. But when Jakie is caught singing in a saloon, he beats him and Jakie runs away from home, saddening his mother’s heart (Eugenie Besserer).

Jakie grows up to become Jack Robin (now Al Jolson), a jazz singer struggling to make it big. He has a non-Jewish girlfriend, Mary Dale (May McAvoy), who does a novelty ballet act and he seems poised for success when he returns to New York and visits his mother and father. His mother is delighted, but his father still cannot forgive him. However, when Cantor Rabinowitz falls ill, his wish is that his son will sing in his place on the Day of Atonement, which happens to fall on the same day that Jakie is making his Broadway debut. There is about a half-hour of hand wringing until he makes his decision, feeling torn by conflicting identities as a Jewish man with a tradition and a history and as an ambitious, modern singer.

It’s pure melodrama, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, except it strings us out too long at the end and the acting is on the whole pretty hammy, especially Jolson. The Jazz Singer was not his first film. He tried to make silent movies before without success and he also appeared in a short talkie film in 1926 called “A Plantation Act” where he sings several of his famous songs in his trademark blackface. It was one of many short talkies that were released by Warner Bros., using the Vitaphone system where sound was recorded on a record and played simultaneously with the film (if the needle didn’t skip or some other catastrophe occur to mess up the synchronization a la Singin’ In the Rain). Originally, Warner Bros. was planning to use the system for sound effects and musical accompaniment, but decided to risk an actual talkie feature.

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenue

Warner Oland shows Al Jolson the door while Eugenie Besserer watches sadly

The Jazz Singer is actually not even the first talkie film. There had been different talkies made throughout the years, but never with any success. The sound was poor, the synchronization was poor and audiences never liked it. But The Jazz Singer was a hit and everyone knew that it had changed everything as studios rushed to make their own talkie features.

It actually took until Warner Bros.’ third talkie feature to make a film that was 100% sound. The Jazz Singer is still mostly silent, which ends up being distracting now, though it electrified audiences at the time. The transition between silent to song to talking works seamlessly, but as soon as Jolson speaks after the song, the silent spell is broken. It is a jolt when the film immediately returns to silent mode. This happens twice, with two scenes where Jolson speaks – though there are songs sprinkled throughout the entire movie, both contemporary songs and traditional Jewish songs.

He speaks his famous line, “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” and later exchanges a bit of dialogue with his mother while playing the piano and singing for her. Most of this dialogue was supposedly ad-libbed and it is when Jolson seems most natural (relatively speaking). At least it sounds better than some of the stiff, stilted way people spoke in many early sound films. However, Jolson is still over the top, which he evidently learned to control by the time he made Hallelujah, I’m a Bum. He rolls his eyes and widens his eyes and cries when he sings “Mammy.” His style of singing turns songs like “Mammy” into mini melodramas. Was this his standard performance style during vaudeville?

Al Jolson was perhaps the biggest star of the early 1900s and I remember being taken aback the first time I saw him in a film (The Rose of Washington Square). Supposedly seeing him live was unlike anything, his charisma and energy. On film, he looks like too much, like he’s going to burst out of the film. There’s also the barrier of blackface. He uses blackface in a very deliberate way in The Jazz Singer. The point of the film seems to be that as a jazz singer, he is still “singing to his God,” but he has to remain Jewish and not lose touch with that side of him. The blackface represents the modern jazz singer. The film actually builds to the moment we see, and then hear him sing, in blackface. Oddly, it’s almost presented as a liberating moment when he has become most fully himself.

al-jolson-in-the-jazz-singer-(1927)-large-pictureI find the popularity of Al Jolson a fascinating subject. He has a weird kind of magnetic energy and charisma. His style is hammy (or melodramatic?), but his songs have a way of lodging themselves in my head (even the way he sings them). He puts me off and yet he still produces this odd little emotional thrill. It’s unique. I can’t help but wish I could have seen him live, simply to gage how much my reaction is because of the passage of time and how much is lost on screen.

My great-grandfather saw Al Jolson on vaudeville and absolutely loved it when sound came in. He never talked much about the silents with my grandmother. I think it’s because he loved music and what he called “singin’ and dancin’ films.” Silent movies had nearly every genre, but the one thing they couldn’t provide was singing. The Jazz Singer not only talked, but it sang and I think that is what really made the film so electric at the time. People who had never seen Jolson suddenly could. And they could hear him sing.

Random note: there is a brief Myrna Loy sighting in the film. She plays a chorus girl and gets one piece of dialogue (via intertitles). Supposedly, William Demarest is also in a bit role, but I did not find him.

“Toot, toot, tootsie!” – We get the first bit of spoken dialogue in the film, but when the song is done, everything goes back to silent.

The second instance where Jolson exchanges some dialogue with his mother, but as soon as his father comes back, we are once again back to silent. Symbolic, perhaps?

Al Jolson demonstrating how to sing a mini melodrama.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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