Sunday, 19 May 2013

Silent film special: City Girl, Clara Bow and cross-dressing - Reviews #159

As promised, here are some films without any audible talking.

City Girl (F. W. Murnau, 1930) - Murnau's follow-up to Sunrise is a pictorially stunning comedy-cum-melodrama that reunites the leads of Frank Borzage's The River, made at Fox the previous year. Charles Farrell is a mummy's boy who travels to the big city to sell his family's wheat crop, where he meets waitress Mary Duncan, her incredible emotional attractiveness (in a kind of proto-Jean Arthur vein) not even hampered by her subliminally Satanic hairdo: the numbers "666" spelled out in big curls across her forehead. They fall in love, amidst much sweet interplay and gentle comedy, and decide to marry. But uh-oh, what's this? Farrell's dad is a complete twat? And he hates her? What's he going to do, make a film about how all girls from the city are pure evil, and call it Sunrise?

Some great European filmmakers never quite fulfilled their potential in the States: Lang and Renoir moved too late, finding a studio system that shackled visionaries. Not Murnau, he pitched up at just the right time, and in just the right place, being given carte blanche by producer William Fox, and creating films in an altogether different league to those that had come before. 4 Devils no longer exists (apparently Mary Duncan lost it!), but Sunrise and City Girl are vastly superior - far more nuanced, engaging and entertaining - than his German movies like Nosferatu, Faust and The Last Laugh, one of the worst films to have ever attained "classic" status. I think part of that is down to the extraordinary speed of technical advancement during this period, part of it is down to the talents and resources he was surrounded by, and part of it is attributable to both his thirst for innovation and his growing desire to tell human stories.

City Girl - which is essentially Sunrise, if the characters had made different choices - can't equal that earlier film, but that's hardly a criticism: Murnau's first American film remains one of the enduring high-points of soundless cinema. City Girl is still a remarkable achievement, a slight sagginess in its mid-section compensated for by Mary Duncan's terrific performance and some astonishing direction, including a dizzyingly brilliant "bringing in the harvest" montage, the central couple's joyous run through a wheat field - one of the most intoxicating things I've ever seen on screen, the score rising to meet it - and the entirety of the final reel, a vivid, painterly portrait of a rural idyll lit by lamp-light.

In The River - or what remains of it - Duncan gives one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, starring as an eye-wateringly seductive "kept" woman who's watched over by an absolutely terrifying crow. Here her pet bird is rather cuter, and she is too, instantly entranced by her visitor, then repeatedly brutalised by the environment that she has idealised for so long. There's a definite parallel with Sjostrom's The Wind - perhaps the greatest silent film of them all - but whereas Lillian Gish was a virginal waif, Duncan is a pure-hearted but hardy sort with a smart mouth and a Suarez-sharp set of teeth. Duncan didn't really make the transition to talkies, and jacked in movies when she got married (one of her final films was 12 Women, a notorious entry in Myrna Loy's "ethnic psycho" oeuvre, that also starred Irene Dunne and the tragic Peg Entwistle), but City Girl shows just what she was capable of.

Murnau never actually finished the film - his assistant completed it, after the director had a row with the studio - but his fingerprints are all over its many and varied highlights. The blissful, stunningly-directed rom-com opening is like a mini-film in itself, completely at odds with anything else Murnau ever did, and oozing with invention, romance and charm. While the film does dip a little in the middle, as its penchant for unsmiling melodrama becomes almost self-parodical, I was still absolutely entranced by it, especially the way Duncan's displacement from the cruel city to the cruel country is so evocatively and heartbreakingly rendered. Then, after a slightly iffy passage in which some of the plot threads are tied up in less than convincing ways, Murnau drops the big one: a finale that's among the most intensely moving and beautifully-shot I've ever seen. (3.5)


Clara Bow:

Mantrap (Victor Fleming, 1926) - Ah, Clara Bow. Often you'll find yourself watching a '20s movie, and see all the men in it cooing over some pan-faced woman with bad hair. "Well, tastes have changed," you'll shrug conciliatorily, because you're a nice guy. Eighty-seven years on, though, and you can still see why Clara Bow was the defining sex symbol of her era: it's not so much her looks, though these have never gone out of fashion, it's more the erotically-charged way she carries herself: her kittenish manner, the way she winds men around her little finger, or just jumps into their lap.

Here she's at her absolute best as a combustible bundle of sex who heads to the country, and proceeds to drive all the men completely wild, including her new husband (Ernest Torrence) - a gurning lunk of a man - and an uptight New York divorce lawyer (Percy Marmont), who's driven to distraction by her coquettishness. And also her legs. Mantrap may be the name of the town where she pitches up, but really it refers to the woman who arrives there, and from whom there appears to be no escape.

Such heroics, though, wouldn't be worth much if the film as a whole didn't pull its weight. It does. Mantrap is a comedy, with a few concessions to drama, and it's a marvellous one, full of clever gags, witty intertitles and solid comic characters. Torrence, who began as a singer, became a stage comedian and was then reinvented as a towering bad guy in the immortal Tol'able David, is ideally cast as Bow's husband, who becomes an awkward "aww shucks" kind of patsy in the city, but is in his element back home. Marmont's character is interesting in that he performs none of the roles you would expect if this film had been made 10 years later: he isn't terribly dashing, but nor is he devious or a disposable idiot: instead he's a moderately charming man whose mannerisms (and money) make him stand out in an uncouth environment, and whose relationship with Bow becomes impossible to predict as a result. In support, there are bit parts for two actors who would make a successful transition to talkies: the ever-popular Eugene Pallette - whose gravelly voice and big belly were yet to be unleashed on audiences - and Tom Kennedy, the character comic who appeared in countless films of the '30s and '40s, including the Torchy Blane series, and my favourite movie, Remember the Night, where he played Fat Mike.

As well as being amusing and well-acted, the film is also breathtaking to look at, thanks to the work of director Victor Fleming (who had made his name helming Douglas Fairbanks vehicles and would go on to direct The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) and - more importantly - his cinematographer, the incomparable James Wong Howe. Some of the interior sets and shots are a bit bland, but when the film ventures outside it looks absolutely phenomenal, right up there with Louisiana Story, The River and, yes, Tol'able David, as a pastoral fantasy. The finest sequence is a gobsmacking journey, the same one taken by Torrence, in which Howe's ever-moving camera takes us from the bucolic tranquility of a boat on a lake, to a train flying past fields, then past houses, before the footage melts into a city scene, following at first a car and then a streetcar, before showing Torrence's shambling figure trying to avoid being run over. Several films of the period, including Murnau's Sunrise and City Girl, vividly juxtaposed city and country living, and Mantrap, despite its modest intentions, does it as well as any.

While 1927's It remains the definitive Bow vehicle: the one that engraved her on the public consciousness and lives on in the public memory, Mantrap was her favourite of her films, and you can see why. It's lovely to look at, zips by in a flash and has at its centre one of the funniest, sexiest and most startlingly charismatic performances I've ever seen. (4)

It (the marvellously named Clarence Badger, 1927) - Clara Bow is in luminous form playing the embodiment of "it" (sex appeal) in this legendary silent movie, which popularised the concept of the 'It Girl', first mentioned in Cosmopolitan. Bow plays a salesgirl who wants to marry the boss (Antonio Moreno), and decides the best way to go about this is to basically just throw herself at him, if a little slyly at times. In the judgemental Hays Code days, her character would have been a villain - women using sensuality as a weapon usually met terrible or risible ends - but here she's the heroine, a good, moral person who just happens to drive men to distraction with her plunging neckline and come-hither-now-get-in-my-bed-let's-do-a-sex expression. The film has a qualified reputation as a crucial pop cultural artefact that's likely to disappoint, but the criticism regularly levelled at it - that it's boring, dated, disposable - is a little unfair. Certainly it's no cast-iron classic: its baggage includes a daft walk-on by the author, a love rival who actually seems quite nice, and a slew of melodramatic improbabilities, but it has greatness in it.

I'm happy to stomach a silly ending and that unintentionally amusing scene in which Bow essentially goes off on one about how terrible it is that her prospective husband thinks she might have had an illegitimate baby - right in front of her mate, who's had an illegitimate baby - given what other treats the film provides. There's that iconic set-piece in which Bow first catches Moreno's eye, after snagging a date at the Ritz, the fairground sequence, shot with an intoxicating joie de vivre that elevates it almost to the level of similar passages in Sunrise and Les quatre cents coups, and an aggressively sexual scene in which Bow cuts her work clothes to shreds with a big pair of scissors - whilst wearing them.The BFI cassette also comes with a stunningly beautiful Carl Davis score (from the Thames Silents run); what a wonderful composer he is.

Moreno is bland as hell, his pleasant best mate gets a raw deal and the plot degenerates into complete nonsense (partly courtesy of a young Gary Cooper, in a bit part as a reporter), but this romantic comedy is well-filmed, good fun for the most part, and has a game-changing, near-mythic performance at its centre: bubbling with life, individuality and "it". Not bad considering I was expecting a film about a scary clown who worked in computing. (3)


Early Lubitsch:

Die Puppe (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)
- One-of-a-kind Lubitsch comedy, supposedly set in a toybox, about an aristocrat who's so scared of girls that he decides to marry a life-size doll - but marries the model instead.

Like the baron's son, the film takes a little while to get warmed up, but once Ossi Oswalda appears, it sparks into life. She's simply wonderful as the impish heroine, walking on tiptoes, dancing on command (or whenever she feels like it), and finagling her way into the heart (and pants) of her frigid husband. When's she's not playing a doll, there's something charmingly natural and unmannered about her acting and, when she is, she resists the temptation to over-do the part, a restraint that few comedians of the period would have exhibited.

Lubitsch, too, is at his most playful, introducing the film by (supposedly) assembling the set before our eyes, and including cartoon inserts, dotty chase sequences (which aren't particularly funny) and even a "hair-raising" gag that Harold Lloyd used in Hot Water five years later. I don't know whether Die Puppe was ever screened in the States: if not, it's merely coincidence that the aristocrat is forced to flee on foot from a large group of prospective brides, as in Buster Keaton's Seven Chances. It's a shame that Chaplin didn't get in on the act by nicking that bit where a group of monks all stand around a cardinal, rubbing his head.

The film pokes fun at the titled, the greedy and the Catholic Church, but those satiric elements feel rather unnecessary and a little strained: the film is at its best when telling its slight story, and throwing in a bit of silliness alongside. The inventor's amorous assistant - not unlike Pepi in The Shop Around the Corner - is hilarious (at least until he toys with the idea of breaking his boss's neck), the gag with the pantomime horse is wonderfully surreal, and there are some very funny sex jokes that Lubitsch wouldn't have got away with in his later Hollywood career, as well as an, erm, climax in a monastery that he couldn't have tried even before the Code.

Die Puppe isn't as streamlined or finely-tuned as Lubitsch's later triumphs, but it's a very fun excursion, with a fantastically stylised aesthetic (partially revisited in Lubitsch's The Merry Widow), some big laughs, and an absolutely lovely performance from that charming vanity-vacuum, Ossi Oswalda. (3)


I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918) - Gender-bending one-joke comedy from the legendary Lubitsch, with Ossi Oswalda deciding that the only way she can party as hard as she'd like is by pretending to be a bloke. It's not Ninotchka, but it's not bad, with a very funny opening scene, a game central performance and a brilliant ending - a clear influence on the denouements of Wilder's The Major and the Minor and particularly Some Like It Hot - that puts the capper on a delightfully unusual final third. And Ossi's right - women have it easy, not having to wear starched collars. (2.5)

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