Fade Out/Fade In

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My final home video column for the New York Times is here. I get to go out on the greatest, John Ford, thanks to a five-film box set from TCM and Sony featuring Ford’s work at Columbia: “The Whole Town’s Talking,” “The Long Gray Line,” “Gideon’s Day,” “The Last Hurrah” and “Two Rode Together.” Let’s hope the last one, at least, makes it to Blu-ray.

I’ve heard from some members of our little community who are working on setting up an equivalent discussion space, and I’ll pass along the appropriate information when that becomes a reality. In the meantime, I won’t be updating this blog very often, but I have placed a toe in the turbulent waters of Twitter, where those so inclined can follow me at @dave_kehr.

The new job begins at MoMA on Dec. 2. Curating, I hope, will be an extension of criticism by other means. It’s a big change, but after a few decades of daily journalism, a welcome and reinvigorating one.

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121 comments to Fade Out/Fade In

  • Robert Garrick

    Charles Brabin was a major director who made important films in all genres, but he’s almost completely forgotten today because he left the business in 1934. By then he was presumably wealthy, a twenty-year veteran with dozens of titles under his belt, and happily married to Theda Bara, the exotic silent film vamp (actually: Theo Goodman, a Jewish girl from Cincinnati). Brabin and Bara married in 1921 and stayed together until the end, which came for Bara in 1955 (she is buried in Forest Lawn as Theda Bara Brabin) and for Brabin in 1957.

    Like the Beatles, Brabin came out of Liverpool (born 1882), but unlike them he moved to America as a teenager and spent his entire life in the United States. Apparently he joined the Edison Studio as an actor in 1908, but began directing in 1911. In 1923, Brabin directed a film called “Driven,” a violent rural story about bootleggers and federal agents, that garnered considerable critical attention. Was it any good? Who knows? It’s lost now, and I’m not sure anyone living has seen it. But on the strength of that film, Brabin was selected to direct the epic “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” That star-studded mega-production, in Italy, was a costly disaster, with such long delays that some of the stars were able to make other films, and go on multi-country vacations in Europe–all while drawing a salary for “Ben-Hur.” There are stories of dead extras as well. Brabin shot a lot of footage, but finally Irving Thalberg fired Brabin (hiring Fred Niblo as his replacement) and moved the production to Culver City. The film wrapped in 1925, the most expensive film ever, with the most edited scene in history. That would be the chariot scene, shot at the intersection of Venice and La Cienega Boulevards in Los Angeles. The scene looks lethal on camera, and it was–for quite a few horses. As in many films prior to 1940, they carted the tortured and mutilated (but still living) animals off the set, turned them into dog food, and brought on more for the next scene.

    Dave, several years ago on this blog, pointed out that William Wyler didn’t direct any part of the chariot scene in the 1959 “Ben-Hur.” For the 1925 film, however, Wyler was one of sixty assistant directors for the chariot race. Kevin Brownlow has written extensively about this film, and you can see it next Sunday (22 Dec) on TCM. Just try not to think about the horses.

    Back to Brabin: After being yanked from “Ben-Hur,” Brabin sued MGM for breach of contract and was rehired by the studio in 1929. He directed another dozen or so films for Metro, almost all of them major productions with big stars. The best known title is “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932), an atmospheric James Bond precursor about a super-villain who wants to enslave the world, with only a few Englishmen to hold him off. Boris Karloff plays the lead, a “yellow man” who wants to kill the “white man,” and Myrna Loy is his psychotic sex-crazed daughter. Another major film directed by Brabin during this period was “The Beast of the City” (1932), a sexy gangster film with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow.

    Then there was “Rasputin and the Empress” (1932), starring all three of the Barrymores. Brabin was hired to direct. He clashed with the Barrymores–Ethel apparently referred to him as “Mr. Theda Bara”–and as with “Ben-Hur,” the production dragged. Brabin was replaced with Richard Boleslawski, though some of Brabin’s work survives in the final cut.

    Brabin made a couple more films and then quit the business forever. His last film, the ironically titled “A Wicked Woman” (1934), stars Mady Christians, who many of us remember from “Letter From an Unknown Woman.” Also in the film: Jean Parker, Charles Bickford, Betty Furness, Robert Taylor, and Sterling Holloway. It’s one of those stories about a parent who sacrifices everything for her kids, from the era when parents were expected to sacrifice everything for their kids, and it’s supposed to be quite good. If they’re showing it on January 2, I’ll be watching.

  • David Cohen

    Associated Press is reporting that Peter O’Toole has died.

  • Great summary, Robert Garrick, of Totter ‘s terrific noir resume. To this I ‘d add Bernhardt ‘s THE BLUE VEIL and note the great beauty of Berry /Straddling ‘s pharmacy scene visuals for TENSION, which rival Wyler /Toland ‘s apotheosis of the drug store IN BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Charles Brabin got some genuinely shocking violence into his films. BEAST OF THE CITY kills off virtually the entire cast, and the early-talkie frontier tale THE GREAT MEADOW leaves no doubt what Indians did with their tomahawks.

  • Robert Garrick

    I don’t want to turn this into an obituary blog, but now Tom Laughlin is gone, at 82. He’s known almost completely for “Billy Jack” (1971), one of the most laughably ponderous films ever to become a huge hit. The “Billy Jack” follow-ups, including “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” (1977), a rip-off of the Frank Capra film, were even more absurd, and they were also boring. They weren’t hits, either.

    But Laughlin is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, he was the lead in Robert Altman’s 1957 film “The Delinquents.” It’s written up in “Kings of the Bs,” if you have that volume handy, and TCM shows it from time to time.

    And second, there was “Born Losers” (1967). Laughlin directed and starred, creating the character of Billy Jack. The co-star was an extremely fetching young lady named Elizabeth James. She also wrote the script–and it’s a good script. This film was the beginning and end of her Hollywood career, save a walk-on role in “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” (1974).

    “Born Losers” is an exemplary exploitation film. It’s entertaining, well-acted, suspenseful, and even moving at times. I give Elizabeth James a lot of credit for this–and where is she today?–but I imagine Laughlin was an important part of the collaboration. And it’s obviously a personal project for Laughlin. It’s the kind of film we don’t see anymore.

    Unfortunately, Laughlin’s films got even more personal starting with the next one, “Billy Jack,” and that wasn’t a good thing for him. Like Lennon and McCarthy, he required a little bit of creative tension.

  • alex

    Peter O’Too;e, 1932-2013.

    No film performance has quite the range — Petite Prince to Sir Richard Burton, Achilles to architect of the post-Ottoman Middle East — of O’Toole’s portrayal of young T. E Lawrence.

    Few satirical performances have half the bite of O’Toole’s The 14th Earl of Gurney.

    Lots of grand histrionics for the Theater and Academy crowds, to boot.

    Not to speak of sweetness personified.

  • David Cohen

    Agreed, Robert, but hard NOT to make it an
    obituary forum with news of Peter O’Toole, Tom Laughlin and Joan Fontaine all in the same day.

  • David Cohen

    Agreed, Robert, but hard NOT to make it an obituary forum with news of Peter O’Toole, Tom Laughlin and Joan Fontaine all in the same day.

  • Barry Lane

    There are far worse things to do than remember these people on this board. On a personal note, Joan Fontaine’s death is devastating.

  • David Cohen

    Will be a shame if the Fontaine obits focus on the famous feud, rather than her performances, particularly during her formidable 1940s.

  • Robert Garrick

    With the death of Joan Fontaine, we lose a good part of the living memory of an entire generation of Hollywood production. Joan Fontaine made a Fred Astaire musical in 1937, for goodness sakes! Also in the 1930s, she starred in “Gunga Din” (1939) and “The Women” (1939). She worked with Hitchcock in his first great American films, then with Welles on “Jane Eyre” (1943), much of which I’m convinced Welles directed. She convincingly played spunky and adorable teenage girls in “The Constant Nymph” (1943) and of course in “Letter From An Unknown Woman” (1948). She even has a solid noir to her credit, with “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (Norman Foster, cinematography by Russell Metty, 1948), opposite Burt Lancaster. As Fontaine’s career faded, she still worked with good directors: “Born to Be Bad” with Nicholas Ray (1950); “The Bigamist” (1953) with Ida Lupino; and “Serenade” (1956) with Anthony Mann.

    “The Constant Nymph” is, as a matter of fact, the last film I’ve seen, and while watching it yesterday, I marveled that its star was still alive.

    Orson Welles, in those transcribed recordings with Henry Jaglom, said that Fontaine had “two expressions, that’s it.” But it’s not for no reason that great directors kept choosing her to be in their films. Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland was probably the bigger star, by a slim margin. (My friends and I have had discussions about this.) But wasn’t Fontaine in better films? We know the sisters were competitive and that basically, they couldn’t stand each other. Back around 1940, I imagine Olivia thought she was in the lead, with “Robin Hood” and “Captain Blood” and “Gone With the Wind” to her credit as starring vehicles. Then Joan pulled close with her Oscar for “Suspicion” (1941), and with nominations for “Rebecca” (1940) and “The Constant Nymph” (1944). But Joan started to fade in the mid-1940s and Olivia surged ahead with two Oscars of her own, and with lots of big roles in films that, at the time, seemed pretty important. Look at Olivia, winning Academy Awards for “To Each His Own” (1946) and “The Heiress” (1949). And look at poor Joan, wasting time in movies like “Letter From an Unknown Woman” that nobody wanted to see.

    Both women had great careers, and Olivia did make some terrific films with Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz. And she was in “The Great Garrick” (1937), lest we forget. In retrospect, those were her career highlights. But Joan’s best films were a lot better than Olivia’s best films.

    With Joan Fontaine’s departure, we have her sister and Luise Rainer still alive from the 1930s. There’s also Maureen O’Hara, who made “Jamaica Inn” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” right at the end of the decade. A few child stars are still around too. But that’s it. The light is going out.

  • David Cohen

    Indeed, Robert, well-said. One could add the names of Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Joan Leslie but not many more.

  • Barry Lane

    Why in the world would anyone think Robert Stevenson, a significant figure in film history, would step aside for the heralded, but unsuccessful Orson Welles on a film that, he Stevenson had been signed for. Had the studio wanted Welles, other than in his acting capacity, they would have signed him. To the best of my knowledge Welles does not claim authorship of Jane Eyre.

  • Robert Garrick

    Barry, there’s long been speculation that Welles added a touch here and there to several of his star vehicles, notably “Jane Eyre” (1943), “Journey Into Fear” (1943), and “The Third Man” (1949). Nobody is suggesting that the credited director stepped aside or was the victim of a coup. But it’s not hard to imagine Welles making suggestions about camera placement, lighting, acting, and who-knows-what-else.

    There’s no question that moments here and there in “Jane Eyre” look like Welles might have orchestrated them. I’m thinking of the lighting on Elizabeth Taylor as she’s standing alone; and I’m also thinking of the scene where the lightning hits the tree. As a matter of fact, I showed this film in Jay Leyda’s class at NYU in 1977 and argued back then that certain scenes had the Welles look. My arguments were based strictly on mise-en-scene, not on any historical research.

    David O. Selznick and Fox gave Welles $100,000 to star in “Jane Eyre,” and Welles also demanded an associate producer credit, which Selznick agreed to. The credit was not included on-screen, though, because Selznick didn’t want it to appear as though Welles had prepared the picture.

  • Barry Lane

    Robert, all of that certainly makes sense. I would add that the leading actor always has something to say about the presentation. This is why Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, to name just two, were so interested in lighting. With Welles my observations are of a different nature. Wherever he went, and he was certainly admired and, at least initially, in demand, the studio, whether RKO, Columbia, Republic, or Universal, found conflict. The films, no matter how arresting they seemed to any of us, neither attracted wide audiences, or left the door open for future productions. Orson just wore out his welcome, everywhere. And quickly. Even when he was his own master focus on the project at hand, for whatever reason, seemed elusive.

  • Joan Fontaine was also memorable, along theatrical lines, in Kazan ‘s 1954 production of TEA AND SYMPATHY.

  • alex

    In his “Orson Welles: Hello Americans” (2006, pp.164-166), Simon Callow indicates that Welles established a considerable, operationa directorial presence early in the shooting of Stevenson’s JANE EYRE (though, acording to Fontaine,”Stevenson quietly and slowly gained the directorial reins”). Callow also indicates that Welles did some editing work of a creative — not simply technical— sort after shooting was done. However, Callow takes pains to qualify his inidcations of directorial interventions by arguing in some detail that the final films is “not especially Wellesian in style.

  • David Cohen

    During the 1940s, of course, Welles was a rarity, a major director who also took lead roles in other people’s movies. That must have made his presence a little awkward for some of his directors. (Today, of course, you don’t even necessarily know how to act before you can land the job of directing yourself.)

  • Robert Garrick

    Film professor Sheri Chinen Biesen says that Welles played a rather major role in the making of “Jane Eyre.” (See link below.) Apparently Joan Fontaine, in her autobiography, confirms this, saying that Welles all but pushed Stevenson away from the camera on occasion.

    From the Biesen piece: “For years many have speculated whether Welles directed Jane Eyre. . . . Welles previously and subsequently produced Jane Eyre on radio, and the film Jane Eyre includes Welles’ Mercury Theater collaborators such as John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, and Erskine Sanford, and is thus evocative of Citizen Kane. Welles’ creative contributions to Jane Eyre are confirmed in production documentation and industry trades magazines, in a July 1943 correspondence, and by costar Joan Fontaine.”

    Read the whole thing.

    http://www.popmatters.com/feature/175397-orson-welles-and-film-noir-style-in-the-1940s/

    The look of the film is undeniable, and I would challenge Simon Callow to point to another Robert Stevenson film that looks anything like “Jane Eyre.” No, it’s not a Welles film, not completely. But it’s even less a Stevenson film. I’d say it’s a film directed by Robert Stevenson, with more than a few bravura touches added by Welles, which elevates it well above the Stevenson standard.

    To Barry Lane’s point above about Welles’s habit of wearing out his welcome–sure! What director would want a rival on the set? For a strong guy, at the top of his game, like Carol Reed, perhaps Welles’s input was welcomed. But I don’t imagine Stevenson was too happy to have Welles offering suggestions every step of the way.

  • Barry Lane

    I submit, subject to approval, that Jane Eyre is a not strictly the product of auteurs, but that if it were, Bill Goetz and David Selznick, especially the latter, should be in line for that credit.

  • x359594

    Several people who worked on “Catch 22″ said that Welles directed his own scenes and devised the scene of the two colonels huffing and puffing while he gives them orders in an apparently stationary shot only to pull back and show them jogging to keep up with him as he rolls along in a jeep.

    Somewhat related, in Basil Rathbone’s autobiography he talks about working with Marlene Dietrich on “The Garden of Allah” and describes how she took a hand in setting up the shots that he shared with her, and not necessarily to her advantage vis-a-vis himself. And then there’s Hitchock’s quip about Dietrich being an excellent actor, cinematographer and director.