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Posts Tagged ‘MGM’

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

Filming the MGM Lion Roar

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Here’s a blast from the past: filming the MGM lion roar used in the main title of every MGM film.

But to the trained eye, this is obviously a publicity shot, circa 1930 or so, because the camera is clearly not “blimped” – covered with sound proofing to prevent the noise of the camera from spoiling the sound track – or even “barneyed” – a more primitive method of sound proofing, effected by piling blankets or other material around the camera, again to prevent noise from leaking through. But the set-up itself seems real enough; here is Leo the Lion, ready to perform for the camera, and a typical sound-to-disc recording set up to capture the soundtrack, with technicians at the ready. Even if it is a staged publicity shot, it’s almost like seeing the real thing.

A fascinating tidbit of Hollywood history.

Tex Avery on DVD

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The French are always ahead of us, it seems, when it comes to the cinema, not only in their own films, but also in preserving and presenting classic films of all kinds.

A few posts back, I video blogged on the birth of the auteur theory, the invention of André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma, the then-revolutionary idea that the director — who’d have thought? — was the primary creative force behind the creation of a film. Now it’s a commonplace concept; once, it was absolutely groundbreaking.

The French have also been in the forefront of preserving the films of the past, as witness the tireless and pioneering work of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who was among the first to save Hollywood films from destruction when the studios short-sightedly no longer thought they had any commercial value — before television, DVD, steaming video and the like — and they were the first to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, certain key directors were worth extensive study, as one discovered the themes and obsessions that circulated throughout all their work.

This extends to cartoons, as well, and once again, it’s the French who are in the forefront with an extensive set of DVDs covering the work of one the greatest animators who ever lived — a contemporary of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and the rest of the Termite Terrace gang — the one, the only Tex Avery. Avery was one of the originators of the animated cartoon in the United States, and as Gary Morris notes, “[Avery] steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery’s speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.

Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience.”

Avery did all that and more at Warner Brothers, but he arguably did his best work when he moved to MGM, where his anarchic vision found full flower in such brilliantly warped shorts as Blitz Wolf (1942), The Early Bird Dood It! (1942), Dumb-Hounded (1943), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), the utterly twisted What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Screwball Squirrel (1944), The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Jerky Turkey (1945), Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), Wild and Woolfy (1945), Lonesome Lenny (1946) and many, many others.

But amazingly, there isn’t a collection of Avery’s work available on DVD in the United States. Some of his cartoons featuring his signature character Droopy are available in a domestic DVD, but if you want a larger selection of Avery’s best work, well, you’ll have to go to Amazon in France, where you’ll find a superb collection of Avery’s best work available in four separate volumes, as well as two collections of DVDs.

Though some have criticized the transfers here, I am not one of them. They are sharp, clean, and almost perfect. The DVDs are, after all, official Warner Brothers releases, and they feature many of Avery’s best MGM shorts, and also — as extras — some of his earlier work for Warners. The cartoons come with optional French subtitles, but these can easily be clicked off so as not to interfere with one’s viewing pleasure; in addition, they’re also viewable in a dubbed French version, in which both the dialogue and the voice characterizations are lovingly detailed and surprisingly accurate.

Avery’s brilliant cartoons obviously aren’t going to be released on DVD in the US anytime soon, though I have no idea why. If anyone cries out for a DVD box set of their best work, it’s Avery, so don’t hesitate — before the DVDs are gone, get them now, and enjoy the work of one of the most obstinately individualistic auteurs the medium has ever known.

Yes, these are Region 2 DVDs, but if you don’t have a Region 2 player by this point, why not?

Classic Cinema: Red Dust

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Red Dust (1932), a steamy melodrama set on a run-down colonial Indochinese (now Vietnamese) rubber plantation, is the film that made both Jean Harlow and Clark Gable stars of the first rank, after both had been working in films for several years with modest but not major success. Directed by Victor Fleming, Red Dust was shot on a large set that convincingly depicted the day-to-day activities of the plantation, which Gable, as Dennis Carson, rules with an iron hand.

Bored and angry at the ineptitude of his drunken assistant, Guidon (Donald Crisp), Carson is in no mood for company when prostitute Vantine Jefferson (Jean Harlow) unexpectedly arrives on a riverboat, on the run from the law, looking for a place to hide out for a while until things quiet down. Gable reluctantly gives her a room, but when Barbara and Garry Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor) arrive to help Dennis bring the plantation back up to speed, things become complicated.

Barbara is initially repulsed by Dennis and the rustic surroundings she must endure; but when Dennis is stricken with malaria, Dennis sees him through it with quinine and his primitive skills as a doctor, winning Barbara’s admiration, and Garry’s dog-like devotion. But more is going on; Barbara is falling for Dennis, who tries to push her away, but eventually gives in to her advances. Garry, young and ambitious, is also remarkable naïve, and fails to see what’s happening right in front of his nose, but Vantine soon sizes up the situation, and makes a play for Dennis herself.

In the film’s climax, Dennis tells Barbara that her place is with Dennis, a “decent guy,” and that he is “no good” for her. Outraged, Barbara shoots Dennis, wounding him seriously. Barbara and Garry leave, with Garry outraged that a man whom he idolized has made love his wife. Vantine nurses Dennis back to health, and the film ends with Dennis and Vantine still on the plantation, very much in love, and looking forward to their future.

The film is unusual for a number of reasons. For a MGM film, it is remarkably frank in its sexuality, which is due in part to the fact that it was produced before the production code of 1934 took effect, but also to John Lee Mahin and Donald Ogden Stewart’s crisp, pungent dialogue. Then, too, it was a “problem” film that has been kicking around for a while with several unsatisfactory scripts, until Mahin and Stewart successfully tackled the project.

Fleming’s direction wrings every ounce of atmosphere out of Cedric Gibbons’ steamy sets, and the cinematography of Harold Rosson and Arthur Edeson, who suffuse the film with a soft-focus, romantic blur. Fleming, who would go on to be the principal director of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, shrewdly used Red Dust to boost his reputation; the film was thus a crucial turning point for the career of not only it’s two main stars, but also its young director.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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