a few quick thoughts on…The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

January 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

There are so many crutches to the plot, to the fabula, in the film:

  • staging: scenes with Robin Hood are dynamic, filled with movements and people; even when making love to Lady Marion, Robin Hood is walking among a crowd. By contrast, scenes with villains are static, dialogue-centered, the camera fixed on facial expressions.
  • sets: scenes with Robin Hood are outdoor: forest, archery tournament. Does he own a castle ? It is never shown. Scenes with villains are in Nottingham castle (except when they’re outside and meet with Robin Hood), renedered in huge volumes, massive masonry works (the very Faribanks-like* staircase), empty halls, long tall windows and slim windows.
  • colors: scenes with Robin Hood are green and brown, scenes with villains are in darker tones (dark velvets and the likes; even the white robes of King John are egg-colored).
  • themes: modern resonances are built into the story to purposefully take you far from the world of Saxons and Normans barons. The fight for ‘England’ (1938), the picture of Normans as proto-Nazis with their concern with ethnic identity (Normans see themselves as master race, while Saxons don’t care), the relaxed (American?) disregard for etiquette (Robin is his own man, even with his king)…

Such referencing and adapting and aesthetic distancing (even my kids could enjoy color for color-sake in the film, as in “look at that red robe” or “hey, his clothes are the same green as the leaves around him”), while absolutely not original in Hollywood films, is a symptom of how little value is placed on the plot itself. I think you could call that distrusting your plot: as if the implicit message was that the plot was hackneyed, well-known and well-used, a pretext for action sequences, a springboard for other concerns (aesthetic enjoyment, moral values and education, desires). The point is not really the fight of Saxons against Normans, but rather the contrast of happy, creative dynamism (another Fairbanks echo) with rigid, dull authoritarianism.

In other words, the classical Hollywood film is constructed as an artificial product: it does not believe it is telling the story of two real characters  (contrast with any modern Hollywood film, where the dialogue, the use of sets, the staging does its best to bring characters down to earth–and too often succeeds, thus producing boring films), it knows it is an artefact, a work of art in the simplest sense of the word, a work of craft. Its story is abstract, its colors are too vivid, its staging is too organized and methodical, its dialogues too crafted: everything screams “construct” in it. Its characters are from the theatrical tradition, as its plots. But that’s its greatest strength: this artistic, constructing distancing  from and reworking of traditional plot-lines. 

Even its naturalness is a construct–an artistic form to be tasted, and enjoyed, at leisure, with a wink in its eye. (I’ve approached the subject of the “twinkle in the eye” of American silent or sound, but so-called “classical” films here (about Lady of the Pavement) and here (about Pickford’s Sparrows), but one would have to mention Marion Davies too..)


* there is, of course, a LOT of Fairbanks in this Robin Hood: the constant smile, the jumping up and down, the sets, straight from the 1922 version.

W. C. Fields, repeats, and VoodooPad

November 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’m in trying-out software mode these days. Voodoopad uses the simple power of wikis to link thoughts and bits of information and allows for a web-like growth of your reflections.

My first use is the W.C. Fields repeat project, which you can read about here. Note that this is a work in progress and will be updated as I have time to work on it…

Indeed you may find other web notes and thoughts in progress wiki-like under the “My web notes” page on this site. 

That same page has also links with updated info on film conferences, film festivals, and bits of information collected reading the web, all related to silent films…

W. C. and repeats

October 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

During last Pordenone festival, it became obvious fairly quickly that W.C. Fields had a habit of using the same gags in several films. We had the following instances:

  • the golf routine of The Golf Specialist (1930) had been already filmed in So’s Your Old Man (1926) (the Lescarboura prince being the plot motivation for the gun shot that downs the bird that ends the skit in 1926, as opposed to the cops in 1930).
  • the whisky and water gag, where Fields fill a huge glass with whisky, and then adds just a drop or two of water, appeared in Janice Meredith (1924), and then again in So’s Your Old Man (1926) — where it is expanded with the realization that it is not whisky but roach exterminator that he just drank, and the further gag that when given actual home-brewn whisky, he prefers the roach exterminator.

And with Fields’ background in stage stand-up variety comedy, there is no reason why the gags he had perfected on the stage before his film career should not be used in films. 

But I wasn’t quite prepared for the shock of You’re Telling Me! (1934), a complete remake of So’s Your Old man (1926), and a plodding remake at that. It is telling that although the film is correctly identified on imdb.com as a remake of the Silent La Cava film, the trivia section still insists that the golf section is taken from the (sound) Golf Specialist. Time for film history to break from the industry’s practice of ignoring all film silents, to the point where remakes were made that do not even come close to the quality of the silent original (as in this case), and to recognize the continuity between 1927 and 1930.

A detailed study would be necessary to establish exactly how the 1934 version bombs where the 1926 version was jogging along at a clip pace. The early sound practice of motivating and explaining and justifying every plot element with some dialogue

as in when he makes it back to his town, and the women shun him like a social pariah. The sound version lets them comment audibly, and the gag becomes that much belaboured

, an unhappy delivery of lines from Fields himself who seems to suffer under the plot (where in the 1926 version he tries to guide the plot, but fails)

a good image of that would be the choice made to replace the fantastic poney he wants to offer his wife, in 1926, with an ostrich he barely can manage in 1934,

and you have the elements of a fiasco. In 1926, Bisbee had invented an unbreakable window-pane glass, the resistance of which he attempted to demonstrate by hurling bricks at cars parked in the street (under the delusion that one of those cars was his)–thereby promptly destroying several cars before high-tailing it.

Need I point out the childish delight of seeing such a childish thing to do as to hurl stones at windows ? See Bringing Up Baby with Ginger Rogers’ stone…or Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and its own stone-throwing incident

in case you missed it, this is the moment when Carole Dempster wants to throw a rock at a rich man’s house; her father, Fields himself, stops her, reproachful, and picks up a smaller stone for her to throw.

What do you think happen in 1934 ? Bisbee’s invented a flat-proof car tire

he does attempt to bring back the old childish flavor by rolling his tire home with a stick

but the demonstration consists in a more elaborate set-up: he uses a gun to shoot at the tires, just one car, and a police car to boot (which ties in too nicely with the plot).

(Fields also remade Sally of the Sawdust in Poppy (1936)…)

Danger Ahead

March 21, 2007 § Leave a comment

Danger Ahead (1935)

Sub-par B fare but with very good fighting (long silent fighting sequences) and a very good number by Fuzzy Knight at the piano. Something funny happens after the first 15 minutes. To all purposes the film is as good as over — but then it just has to fill another 45 minutes of screen time. So more nonsense and changes of hand of “that dough” — but wait ! Fuzzy Knight gets going at the piano in a pretty funny act.

The goings-on are quite erratic but those B-films are what you’d get if Hollywood went cheap and realistic on you: filming in the streets with non-star quality material in the leads, and very simple shooting techniques (for once we see the dolly tracks as the dolly pulls back — but they’re motivated as railway tracks along the docks !). No rhetorics. Very straighforward drama. Sounds like the Danish Dogme 95 ? Apart from that bit in the Danish contract about the drama being born of the situations and characters themselves, it could almost be. (except that Dogme 95 films are not opposed, in practice, to a lot of rhetorical effects, high angle shots, parallel editing, and so on)

Funny thing about that basic Hollywood realism: it’s never very disturbing. The plot is foolish and naively sunny enough to fend off any nastiness.

A Bride for Henry (1937)

March 19, 2007 § Leave a comment

A Bride for Henry (1937)

An interesting Monogram B program picture. If only for its funky Architectural art deco titles
monogram pictures

The film itself is like an aborted “comedy of remarriage” à la Stanley Cavell, since the girl does marry the wrong man but does not remarry the right one in the end — rather, the wrong man reveals himself to be quite the playboy (hey, he’s a lawyer!) and to be the right one after all.

Was this really made in 1937 ? It looked more like 1931 to me: the social-cultural background of big honeymoon hotel in some very fake , do-nothing American gentry, very awkward frontal staging at all times
awkward frontal stagingit just doesn’t look like Gone with the wind is a mere 2 years away ! The only 1937 element I can identify for sure is the Ginger Rogers-like performance of Anne Nagel as a vivacious, messed-up, but deep-down good minx.

The most interesting element is the absolute lack of any non-diegetic music. Even in the titles: the organ playing the wedding march is linked to the very first scene (the bride waiting for her bridedgroom). The only exception is in the closing title where the same wedding march is heard with no diegetic justification. But otherwise,, this takes place in eery silence, and every time music plays in the background, someone is sure to remark that the orchestra plays beautifully, or “did you hear this music” — in other words, they make double sure that we don’t think the music comes from anywhere else. Such emphasis seems rare to me — and it can’t be just a way to save money from Monogram (even their B westerns from that period have background, non-diegetic music).

Little Caesar (1931)

February 12, 2007 § 1 Comment

Little Caesar: the gangster movie to start all gangster movies. While it seems easy to “dish it out” throughout the film the central moral issue is whether you can “take it”. Interesting how this is a non-female world, and I don’t think it is stretching it too far to suggest a homosexual whiff in the relationship between Rico the tough short guy and Doug Fairbanks Jr. as the gangster-turned dancer. Let me dance ! Now how often have we heard this in future gangster films ?

Pre-Code, full of slang and archetypal male problems (to be, or not to be, yellow), but also highly aware of public policy issues: Flaherty the copper is unbelievably calm and composed, an placidly ironic figure of law enforcement that just knows his time will come — a figure suggesting that society should not lose its cool and confont gangsterism with quiet fortitude. And there’s even less to like in the character of Rico than in that of contemporary Scarface: he’s a bragging, loud, violent and failed wannabee who enjoys pushing people around. He’s quite literally perverted: the first scene shows him musing that to “make it to the big time” he’s going to have to go “East.” Now that’s always a sign of trouble somewhere in an American movie (see opening sequence of 1945 Detour. Even The Postman Always Rings Twice conforms to this underlying, unstated law: whoever fails to make it out West becomes a social failure and a candidate for life on the run)

As a transition from silent to sound the film is incredibly stagey. It seems they could not yet decide whether they had to stage it silent or sound. Close-ups on characters speaking seem to hark back to silent days, while group shots make full use of the sound depth of field. Also, while there are still true intertitles advancing the narration in the picture, there is also an instance of something I’m yet to see in a silent Hollywood film: titles over a moving image. This happens when we move to Little Archie’s nigthclub for the first time.

It’s got to be stock footage of a nightclub somewhere in a previous film since it does not match the following shots (either in texture, in grain, or in settings), and I’m curious to know from what film. A crane shot looking above gambling tables would be a prize shot in any film, and it’s not hard to see why Melvyn Le Roy would be happy to re-use it. But apart from its origin (not to be taken lightly though; if it were to be established that the shot is from a silent film, this could become quite involved) the title-over-a-moving-image calls for some comments.

I’ve never seen it done in a silent film and I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t done in silent films. And I don’t mean the use of written filmed material, as the name of the nightclub (which functions just like an intertitle would) in this cross-fading shot:
club palermo

no, I mean real titles, handwritten. What a gain in visual continuity it would have been to have titles, whether descriptive or, even better, dialogues, flashed on the images while the characters were talking ! For some reason though, this was never done. My personal take on this mystery is that images and titles do not have the same aesthetic status in a silent film. Titles clearly point to an omniscient narrator (titles may be informative, ironic, or clearly comical), while images would tend to illustrate the story. With sound, images seem to have gained in perceptual realism: they seem to have been treated as referring so powerfully to a reality in the images that adding titles over them would not diminish their perceived realistic weight. They went on showing something that really existed there in the image, beyond the camera, even with words written on them (I’ve treated an example of words flashed on the image in a silent film here).

Titles in silent films are often illustrated — but like story-book illustrations. And one of the pleasures of silent films is that narration is so overt that one does feel taken in a story-book type of moment. Gather ’round and listen to this story, they seem to call out (I’ve analyzed this in this blog more in detail). Of course it’s not that simple and one of the points of my research is to establish just how silent films deal with the increasing annoyance of images that reveal more and more of reality as technology (film stocks, film lighting, portability of film equipment, etc.) and tastes (exotism, tourism, explorations, documentaries and newsreels create a demand for images of the real) evolve throughout the 1920s. But they maintain a pretty solid line: titles are for narration, point to a clearly fictive construction of the film, while images should not be tampered with because they’re not quite fictive (or not just fictive). I’m not sure this reinforces the reality of what is shown. Rather, at times, silent films seem to treat moving images as a mere illustration of a story written out in titles, though that’s a worst-case scenario. The medium ground seems to be that the material presented in images, because of the written interruptions, loses of its reality to be merged with the fictive world of the words.

This gambling table shot is an instance of how sound changes that perception — and ironically, I find it to reinforce the reality of what’s shown in the images rather than transforming it into more of a fiction.

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