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Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood History’

John Bailey, ASC on Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I have often written on Nicholas Musuraca, and here DP John Bailey weighs in on this Hollywood master.

As Bailey writes in his article “Nicholas Musuraca, Cat People and RKO Film Noir,” “cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was, from his start, a ‘team player.’ In 1927, at the twilight of the silent era and several years after beginning his own cinematography career, he joined with director Robert De Lancey to make low-budget Westerns for Joseph Kennedy’s production company, The Film Booking Offices of America. A few years later, after elaborate stock swaps between Kennedy and RCA’s David Sarnoff, this newly minted studio became RKO Pictures.

Musuraca spent nearly the next half-century at RKO, a record for artists even in the studio-contract era. He left RKO after shooting the 1954 comedy Susan Slept Here to begin a more than decade-long career in episodic television, where his signature film-noir cinematography was nowhere to be seen. His final credits were on McHale’s Navy and F Troop, two of the most popular and unimaginative-looking sitcoms of the 1960s. It was a curious journey for a cinematographer who, along with John Alton, had defined the contours of expressionistic lighting and composition in the highly stylized, low-budget noirs of the 1940s.

Like his peers James Wong Howe and Leon Shamroy, Musuraca began shooting in the early 1920s. His first six credits, from The Virgin Queen (1923) to The Passionate Quest (1926), were for director J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton was one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His first credit was in 1897, after a meeting with Thomas Edison inspired him to buy a Kinetoscope. He also became a passionate exponent of animation. It was as Blackton’s chauffeur that the Italian-born Musuraca gained entry into the film business. Musuraca remained loyal to Blackton, who retired from filmmaking in 1931, shortly after his last movie with Musuraca.

During the 1930s, Musuraca was a go-to cameraman for RKO, mostly for low-budget programmers and Westerns that ran a little over an hour. Between 1933 and 1938, Musuraca averaged at least a dozen movies a year, which helps account for his amazing career tally of 221 credits, only two dozen of which are shorts. He graduated to A-list pictures with back-to-back credits on Five Came Back and Golden Boy. In 1942, when writer Val Lewton left David O. Selznick to become producer for the new low-budget horror-film unit at RKO — the supportive Selznick even negotiated Lewton’s contract — Musuraca became part of Lewton’s team.

Given free reign to do what he wanted creatively, provided he remained within the $150,000 budget, Lewton formed a team than included composer Roy Webb, designer Albert S. D’Agostino and editors Mark Robson and Robert Wise (both of whom he soon moved into the director’s chair).

Lewton produced 14 films for RKO in less than a decade. The first six, from Cat People to its not-quite-sequel Curse of the Cat People (the title was imposed by the studio over Lewton’s objections), have become signature films in the noir canon. Musuraca photographed five of them, from Cat People to Bedlam. After that, RKO unceremoniously dumped Lewton, who then wandered to Paramount to MGM to Universal with dozens of projects that were not picked up.

His three films after RKO were not successful, and Lewton died from a second heart attack in March 1951 at age 46, convinced he was a failure. Unhappy about Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO and about being assigned to mediocre material, Musuraca hung on there for only a few more years.

Were it not for his four years with the Lewton unit and his stunning cinematography on Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (also for RKO), Musuraca might well be regarded as one of the legions of near anonymous cinematographers with long careers but no singular identity. In 1948, the year after Out of the Past, Musuraca received his only Academy Award nomination, for George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama, a film that, ironically, bears no trace of the cinematographer’s noir lighting style.

What does Musuraca’s noir style look like? There is no better example than a sequence from the second film he photographed for Lewton, The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson. It is a woman-in-jeopardy sequence very reminiscent of the park transverse scene in Tourneur’s Cat People, made the year before. The similarity offers a good indication of Lewton’s tight oversight of the visual details of the production and of his reliance on Musuraca as a key element in his vision. The pools of light from streetlamps, the looming shadows, and the dark corners ahead of ill-fated actress Jean Brooks’ panicked walk are all signature tropes of Musuraca’s work in this period.

On Sept. 20, The Criterion Collection released a newly remastered 2K DVD and Blu-ray of the Lewton/Tourneur/Musuraca Cat People. Criterion producer Jason Altman asked me to provide a video essay on Musuraca’s cinematography and its centrality to the Lewton RKO films. I have long been an advocate of the primacy of John Alton as the key cinematographer of the American post-World War II film-noir period, and have written about him extensively on this blog, starting with this post. Most recently, I wrote about the controversy surrounding his Oscar for the ballet sequence of An American in Paris. (You can read that here.)

Alton was a dedicated self-promoter as well as the author of a 1949 book on cinematography that is still in print. Musuraca was the antithesis of Alton in terms of personal demeanor. He was non-confrontational, content to remain in the shadows; there is little biographical information about him online, and his interviews were rare. The best discussion of his filmography I have found appears in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema . . . [read more about Musuraca on my blog here]

A favorite movie-roundtable topic is, ‘What was the first film noir and who photographed it?’ Several cinematographers’ names always come up, especially John Seitz and, of course, Alton. My choice is Musuraca. A full year before The Maltese Falcon, a movie photographed by Seitz and long regarded as a proto-noir, it was the quiet and gentle Musuraca who photographed RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor, a perfervid, hallucinogenic film by Boris Ingster. Its nightmare sequence of John’s McGuire’s imagined trial for murder unleashes every twitch and tic that soon became the signature elements of noir style. Seven years later, the same cinematographer gave us Out of the Past, the movie considered by many cinematographers to be the apex of noir style.”

A superb set-up by Musuraca for Stranger on the Third Floor; I agree with Bailey; read the whole article here.

Bertrand Tavernier on Edward L. Cahn

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Edward L. Cahn – a much maligned American auteur – is finally getting some of the respect he deserves.

As John Hopewell and Martin Dale reported from the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France yesterday in Variety, “Time puts everybody in their place. But often rather slowly. The American director, Edward L. Cahn, was best-known, indeed notorious for his prolific B-movie output in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yet, this is the same man who, legend has it, oversaw or at least advised on the final cut of All Quiet on the Western Front, and made a clutch of movies in the early 1930s, one of which, Afraid To Talk, screened at the Lumière Festival on Sunday, being greeted as a masterpiece. ‘You might say he worked his way to the bottom,’ writes journalist Imogen Sara Smith.

Dave Kehr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included three of Cahn’s films in an Carl Laemmle Jr. retrospective this May. This week, Lyon’s Lumière Festival screens the same titles: Afraid To Talk, Law and Order, and Laughter in Hell, introduced by the celebrated French director-film buff Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Institut Lumière. Here Tavernier adds his voice to others who have rediscovered Cahn’s early work. It is worth quoting Tavenier [extensively; as he noted]:

‘For some time now I have wanted to show the films directed by Edward L. Cahn. He’s a key director that for many of us remains an enigma, because my generation first became familiar with his work in the 1960s, essentially in Belgium where his films were released theatrically. They were never released in France. The smallest minimalist productions. Zombies of Mora Tau. Five Guns to Tombstone, westerns and horror films.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which we could say was the forerunner to Alien. When we see the film it is however rudimentary because of the creature. It’s true that it circulates in the corridors of the space ship.  But it’s hyper rudimentary, in comparison with Alien. It’s a kind of a guy wearing a rubber suit. Not great. But I recently saw two or three films that he made at this time that were very interesting, such as Experiment Alcatraz.

Between 1932 and 1934 he made four-to-five films, which are amazing – which are very different from these subsequent Z-movie productions, very demanding with a great deal of visual style: Law and Order, the first film about OK Corral. It’s a revisionist western film before the genre had been fully established which is kind of unique in the history of film genres – a film that contradicts the canon before the canon is established. Laughter in Hell. And my favorite film, full of energy, which is Radio Patrol.

Why did his career reach a hiatus at this moment in time? He left Universal and went to MGM. There’s something strange. He made a very personal and strange project. A film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in 1949. A film called Prejudice, which was only released in churches. Which I believe was a tremendous commercial flop. From that point onwards everything changed in his career. He became a mystery. Now just a little note.

He was also a film editor. He was the editor of The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni. He is believed to have been the person who determined the final edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which he edited on the train between Los Angeles and New York. It took four days. And that’s where he finalized the version.

Finally it was the producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who commissioned his first film, Law and Order, co-written by John Huston, based on a remarkable book by W. R. Burnett, which is still in available. And then Afraid to Talk which was a film noir, inspired on a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar.  Albert Maltz later became famous in Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten. He stopped working as a screenwriter under his own name and began working under a pseudonym.

He worked for example on the screenplay of Broken Arrow by Delmer Daves and other films. He returned with the films starring Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. So, Afraid to Talk was a stage play that had been heavily cut by the censorship, which had been adapted by Tom Reed – an ancient journalist who specialized in crime, the kind of person that Carl Laemmle Jr. employed as a screenwriter, to spice up the films – to give them reality.

So Tom Reed worked on three occasions with Edward Cahn and they produced quite amazing screenplays. For example Afraid to Talk. You will see that this is a film that is unrelenting. Which is incredibly strong in terms of its social content. Corruption, the problems of the gangs. On the cowardice of the public authorities.

It’s a very surprising film, almost expressionist in terms of its directing style, the search for light. It’s also a film that groups together a huge number of actors in the secondary roles that later became very famous. You will recognize them all. For example, Louis Calhern, but there are others. I hope you will be amazed.” Cahn’s work has indeed undertone a Renaissance of sorts, mainly because of the efforts of Dave Kehr, first writing for The New York Times, and now as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I’ve often noted in this blog, Cahn’s films all have a sense of awful, deliberate pacing, which smoothly moves from one set-up to another with the precision and calm of someone like Robert Bresson – never in a hurry to move the narrative or camerawork along, but always in precisely the right place with each new shot. I’ve seen this film, which is remarkable, as is much of the rest of Cahn’s work; I hope you get a chance to see it, too.

Edward L. Cahn – another director getting more attention – thanks to Bertrand Tavernier.

Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite Director: William Witney

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Action director William Witney: “Witney is ahead of them all” – Quentin Tarantino

As R. Emmet Sweeney writes of director William Witney on The Museum of The Moving Image website, Witney changed the way movie punches were thrown. It has become a cliché to say that fight scenes are like dances, but for Witney this was just common sense. He saw Busby Berkeley working on a stage spectacle, and adapted that regimented method to action sequences, essentially inventing the job of stunt choreographer.

A lifetime of movie production had left him rather unknown, except to some cult genre obsessives, one of whom happened to be Quentin Tarantino. He has been promoting Witney’s work for years by screening his personal 16mm and 35mm prints at film festivals and mentioning his name whenever interviewers ask for influences.

After Tarantino finished shooting Django Unchained, he shipped its prop dentist wagon to the Lone Pine Film History Museum in California. Witney spent the majority of his career in the hills outside Lone Pine, shooting Westerns in a week or two with Roy Rogers, creating a cohesive body of work out of bodies tumbling to the ground.

William Witney was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915. His father died when he was four years old, and he was raised by his mother Grace and two older sisters. William’s son Jay Dee Witney told me that William was ‘kind of heavy as a boy,’ so his mother shipped him to live with his Uncle Lou, who was an Army captain at Fort Sam Houston.

Witney was ready to follow his Uncle into the Armed Forces after high school, and started cramming for the entrance exam to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The exam was administered in Los Angeles, so Witney moved in briefly with his sister Frances and her husband Colbert Clark.

A director for the Poverty Row studio Mascot, Clark asked Witney if he wanted to ‘work for a couple of days making chase scenes with the cowboys.’ Witney agreed, and gradually moved up the ranks, from office boy to gofer to editor, where he worked alongside future B-auteur Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy).

In 1935 Hubert Yates consolidated six Poverty Row studios, including Mascot, into Republic Pictures. Witney would make nearly 80 features and serials for Republic over the next 23 years. After some personnel shakeups the nineteen-year-old Witney was moved from the editing suite to the set as a script clerk. It was B. Reeves Eason (known as ‘Breezy’) that got him thinking about action film aesthetics.

Eason was a flamboyant dresser, always in white silk shirts and pants, with a daredevil streak. In his autobiography Witney recalls a story in which Breezy performed a dangerous horse fall to convince a skittish stuntman of its safety, and ended up breaking an arm. Witney admired his bravado and fearlessness, writing that ‘I found myself using the same techniques that he had to make an action sequence come to reality.’” Witney is, in short, a master filmmaker.

See the video by clicking on the image above, and read the entire article here.

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come

Monday, December 21st, 2015

An absolutely essential book on one of the most influential cinema artists of all time.

James Curtis’s William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come is easily one of the best film books of 2015. It manages to pull off an amazing feat; it’s prodigiously researched, but it never succumbs to a recitation of mere facts; it includes an enormous amount of personal detail, but never gets lost in a forest of statistics.

It is above all a supreme synthesis of history and theory, treating all of Menzies’ work, whether as a director or a production designer (or often, as both simultaneously) with great care and respect, illustrated with a stunning array of color and black and white plates, including many rare behind the scenes shots that really put the reader into the center of the narrative.

Most of all, it is the careful, conscientious, but never pedantic style of the book that impresses. Curtis clearly knows Menzies’ work inside out, and yet he wears this knowledge easily, creating an accessible, reasoned, brilliantly written book, one of the most carefully detailed and critically measured volumes written on any historical figure, no matter what their profession.

Time and again, I was struck by the carefully reasoned tone of Curtis’s work, his sharp yet graceful prose style, and the remarkable way in which he managed to gather such an incredible amount of material in one volume, and make the whole thing flow so smoothly – it’s easily his finest book. The design of The Shape of Films to Come is another plus factor; the volume is overflowing with images, and the layout of the text and illustrations – something Menzies would appreciate – is impeccable.

Curtis’s book is thus a supreme achievement on every level, and for those who don’t know Menzies or his work, it opens up a world of wonder and amazement – often amazement at how much Menzies managed to accomplish on many of his assignments with very little in the way of a budget.

From Menzies’ production design on Gone With The Wind, to his science-fiction children’s nightmare Invaders from Mars, to the pioneering futuristic epic Things To Come, to his work on such projects as The Whip Hand, Address Unknown, The Maze, Around The World in 80 Days and numerous other films, Curtis meticulously details Menzies’ long career, a life filled with hard work and a good deal of tragedy, but one which ultimately left us with some of the most memorable images in cinema history.

In short, this is a must read for anyone with even the remotest interest in the cinema, and a singular accomplishment in every respect. The Shape of Films to Come gets my highest possible recommendation – this is literally a flawless book. And considering the massive amount of detail that went into it, that in itself is a stellar accomplishment. Once you pick this book up, I guarantee you won’t put it down.

This is a major work of scholarship, history and theory, and a genuine delight to read.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

Trumbo (2015)

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Diane Lane and Louis C.K star in the new film Trumbo.

In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs. Trumbo (directed by Jay Roach) recounts how Dalton used words and wit to win two Academy Awards and expose the absurdity and injustice under the blacklist, which entangled everyone from gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) to John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The film also stars Diane Lane, John Goodman, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The Hollywood Blacklist, of course, was one of the darkest periods in American history, both within the industry and throughout the nation as a whole. As Trumbo himself famously said of this era, “There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.”

Naturally, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy, and reviews that are all over the place, but at least one authentic voice of the era, the actor Kirk Douglas, who brought Trumbo back from oblivion by giving him the screenplay assignment for his film Spartacus, feels that the film accurately captures the paranoid tone of Hollywood under siege. As The New York Post reports, “Bryan Cranston personally delivered a copy of his new film Trumbo — in which he stars as the titular blacklisted screenwriter — to show Kirk Douglas, 98, at the icon’s home.

Years ago, Douglas hired Dalton Trumbo to pen his 1960 hit Spartacus after Trumbo was banned from Hollywood for a decade and wrote a 1956 Oscar-winner, The Brave One, under a pseudonym. ‘Cranston brought the film to Kirk’s house,’ said a source. ‘They started at 3 p.m., took a break for dinner, then watched the rest. Kirk loved it.’” Trumbo opened in “select cities” on Friday, November 6th; it will get a nationwide rollout over the Thanksgiving holiday.

You can see a featurette on the making of Trumbo by clicking here, or on the image above.

Russell Hicks – Hollywood Professional

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

“I want to show you I’m honest in the worst way!” – Russell Hicks in The Bank Dick

Russell Hicks, the consummate Hollywood professional character actor, is seen above in one of his most memorable roles as the astonishingly corrupt con man J. Frothingam Waterbury in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940, directed by Edward F. Cline), who successfully unloads some worthless shares in “the Beefsteak Mines” (whatever that is) on Fields in a rundown bar with some memorably shady hard-sell dialogue.

As Waterbury tells his mark, Egbert Sousé (Fields) in the film, “Waterbury’s my name, J. Frothingham Waterbury. I’m in the bond and stock business. Now, I have five thousand shares of the Beefsteak Mines in Leapfrog, Nevada, that I want to turn over to your bank. I like this little town and I want to get some contacts. I think you’re the very man.

Now, these shares are selling for ten cents a share. The telephone company once sold for five cents a share. These shares are twice as expensive, therefore, consequently they’ll be twice as valuable. Naturally, you’re no dunce. Telephone is now listed at one seventy-three and you can’t buy it. Three thousand, four hundred and sixty dollars for every nickel you put into it.

It’s simple arithmetic — if five’ll get you ten, ten will get you twenty. Sixteen-cylinder cars, a big home in the city — balconies upstairs and down. Home in the country — big trees, private golf course, stream running through the rear of the estate. Warm Sunday afternoon, fishing under the cool trees, sipping ice-cold beer.  And then this guy comes up the shady drive in an armored car from the bank, and he dumps a whole basket of coupons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right in your lap.

And he says, ‘Sign here, please, on the dotted line.’ And then he’s off, to the soft chirping of our little feathered friends in the arboreal dell. That’s what these bonds mean. I’d rather part with my dear old grandmother’s paisley shawl or her wedding ring than part with these bonds. Gosh! Oh, pardon my language. . . I feel like a dog. But it’s now or never. It must be done. So take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it!” Fields responds, thereby setting off a chain of events that makes The Bank Dick one of the handful of films that has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But Hicks’ work in The Bank Dick is just one of more than 320 feature films and television programs the actor appeared in, including, among many other projects, such significant films as Scarlet Street,  Blood and Sand, The Great Lie, Sergeant York and The Black Arrow, racking up no less than 19 credits in 1942, and another 25 films in 1941.

For all of this, Hicks received comparatively little remuneration, as this employment card from for The Little Foxes from 1941 shows; he was a day player, with a rate of just $150 per day with a weekly guarantee for $600, and remained in constant demand because of his absolute professionalism, the fact that he could remember reams of dialogue and almost never blew a take, and could be relied on to essentially “direct himself,” so that even when the film he was appearing in fell apart, or the director had no idea what he was doing, Hicks would emerge unscathed, ready for his next assignment.

Russell Hicks’ employment contract for The Little Foxes, dated May 1, 1941.

Hicks worked right up until his death, and as you can see, he had to; for his entire professional career, Hicks was a perennial freelancer, moving from studio to studio, from the majors to the minors, without hardly missing a beat. With his sonorous voice, photographic memory, and dignified bearing, Hicks could move from playing a shady mob lawyer (in Hold That Ghost), to a judge (Tarzan’s New York Adventure), or an army colonel (They Died With Their Boots On), or a CIA “handler” (The Flying Saucer) without missing a beat.

Amazingly, he even took on the role of an aging Robin Hood – surely a stretch – in the 1946 film The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, and managed to pull it off in style. Some of his roles took just a day; others a week or so, but Hicks could always be relied to show up, say his lines, and wrap up his portion of the project with smooth assurance.

Indeed, his career stretched all the way back to 1915, and his work on D. W. Griffith’s horrifically racist Birth of A Nation, as well as Intolerance in 1916, and he was never out of work for more than few weeks before the next job came along.

Hicks’ last work was in Betty White’s pioneering television fantasy sitcom Date With The Angels in 1957; he died of a heart attack at the relatively young age of 61 that same year. So his career truly spanned cinema from almost the medium’s inception straight through until the modern sound era. It’s always fun to watch him at work; no matter how small the part, he never disappoints, and plays each new role with conviction and style.

Son of Frankenstein Makeup Tests – In Color (1939)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Ever wonder what the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff, looked like in color?

In this incredibly rare, one minute piece of 16mm home movie footage shot in Kodachrome color on the set of Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), you can get a good idea of just how skillful Jack Pierce’s makeup was. In the opening section, the viewer is treated to a wide shot of Boris Karloff lumbering around the set in the heavy makeup, while a stagehand works behind the scenes, seen through the window, to prepare for the next take. Then there’s a closeup, capped by Karloff playfully sticking his tongue out for the camera, clearly taking the whole thing with a huge grain of salt.

In the film’s final moments, Karloff ostensibly sneaks up on Pierce and pretends to strangle him, but obviously, it’s all in fun. Son of Frankenstein is notable as the last time Karloff played the monster, although he continued to make horror movies, of course, for the rest of his career, and it’s also an odd film in that the sets were built and ready before the script was completed. The result is an eye-popping but somewhat disjointed film, yet still an honorable effort, and one of the last great classics from the Golden Age of Universal horror. And now you can see this rare piece of cinema history – a real find.

Thanks to the fan who posted this, with disabled comments, which is great – no comments needed!

Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Stewart O’Nan’s novel covering the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life is the real deal.

This was recommended to me by the writer Timothy Schaffert, who, knowing of my own work on Fitzgerald many years ago, thought I would find it interesting. And he’s absolutely right. Most Hollywood fictionalized bios ring rather false, given the fact that the era of classic Hollywood is now so long ago and far away, and the tendency to sentimentalize, or over sensationalize Fitzgerald’s last truly harrowing years, from 1937 to 1940, when he batted around Hollywood in a number of jobs, starting at MGM but eventually sliding down the ladder to near oblivion before his premature death from a heart attack in 1940, seems almost irresistible to most writers.

But here, O’Nan brings the story of Fitzgerald’s last days to life, when he struggled to stay sober in the face of crippling alcoholism – not always with success -and managed to alienate almost everyone around him when he fell off the wagon. Agents deserted him, his powers were declining, and he never really understood the way the Hollywood game was played. O’Nan captures all of it, in a book of such page turning intensity that I sat down and read it straight through in a matter of hours. As the end of the narrative nears, the velocity picks up with truly cataclysmic intensity, and one feels that one gets a new, and appropriately sympathetic vision of Fitzgerald, an artist who waged war against his own self-destructive impulses and lost the battle.

There may be one too many star cameos here and there, and Humphrey Bogart looms larger in the book than he did in Fitzgerald’s real life, but others, such as Hunt Stromberg, Robert Benchley, Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker, and of course, Sheilah Graham, the great love of his later life, a gossip columnist who seemed to understand Fitzgerald better than anyone else during his tenure in Tinseltown, and in whose apartment he died on December 21, 1940, are real and tangible presences. Not for the faint of heart, this is a novel about irrecoverable loss and isolation – the promise of youth and the collapse of overnight fame – and most importantly, about the Hollywood studio system, which never understood artists – then or now. O’Nan’s book is a stunning achievement, in which Fitzgerald appears as a fully rounded person, with all of his flaws and charm intact.

All in all, an amazing accomplishment.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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