More from MoMA's spectacular retrospective (see part 1 of our guide here), skimming the cream from the top of the William Fox archives, a major studio whose films, apart from a few known classics by Frank Borzage, John Ford, et cetera, have been sunk in obscurity for too long. Fox opened his doors to experimental geniuses like F.W. Murnau and Erik Charell, and encouraged major talents like Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Borzage to spread their wings.
In Borzage’s masterpiece 7th Heaven, how many viewers have any problem with the glaring fact that the garret where Janet Gaynor lives is apparently reached by two completely different stairwells, one that’s angular, for the crane shot, and one that’s spiral for the overhead angle?
The idea is consistent with the expressionist approach at Fox. Edgar G. Ulmer claimed that the German expressionists would build a new set for every camera angle, to get their compositions to work out just the way they’d drawn them. Murnau perhaps brought this approach across the Atlantic for Sunrise, and it caught on at just this one studio. John Ford’s 1927 Fox comedy Upstream (not showing in this season) starts off in a theatrical rooming house. In one dinner scene, the whole cast is gathered around a table—we see that the landlady is at the head of the table and her lodgers are arrayed along both sides. News comes that an important booking agent has arrived at the front door, and each struggling ham briefly imagines that the call is for him or her. And here Ford does something very strange.
Tracking laterally along the table, he captures the reaction of each of his cast—in a single, straight line.
The weird thing about that is that it’s impossible, since we’ve already seen that half the actors are at one side of the table, half at the other. But since Ford wanted an unbroken, linear track, he’s brought in a table twice as long as the one in the establishing shot and sat everybody along one side, like in The Last Supper. It'll be interesting to see if the newly-recovered pre-Code Ford comedy The Brat (1931), screening in the MoMA season, will showcase any of this bold spatial distortion.
East Side, West Side is an Allan Dwan romp set in a New York presented both with spectacular location panoramas and an impressive set that seems subterranean, cut off from sunlight. George O'Brien, the big lug from Murnau's Sunrise, plays a more appealing character here, one who's not always strangling women, in a drama that sees him washed up in the city after his barge sinks. He's such a hulking naif it seems we're being asked to believe he's never set foot on dry land before: a simple-minded Hercules, like Victor McLaglan in Dwan's later pre-Code Paris After Dark. It's a fascinating, starry-eyed melodrama of the melting-pot, selling the metropolis as its star attraction.
Here, George O’Brien, thinks about a brick and its possible destination, accompanied by a 2001-style conceptual-compositional transition.
Dressed to Kill and Romance of the Underworld are two silent Mary Astor vehicles from 1928, directed by Irving Cummings and following in the wake of Josef von Sternberg's Underworld from the previous year, the movie that reinvented the gangster picture as romance. With her marcelled hair outlining a rather pointy, Nefertiti-like head (the same shape as her cloche hats), Astor is slinky, melancholic and watchful, as a succession of rich heels court her through speakeasies and back streets. The ratty copies of the film I've had to look at hint at lambent and luscious cinematography, vaguely discernible through the patina of age and blurring of multi-generational dupings and transfers: the restorations on the big screen are going to look wondrous when that luminous face is projected the size of a house. Already, Mary Astor's bone structure bounces light with Dietrich-like faux-luminosity, as if her skull were a small sun shining beneath her skin.
My video versions are so messed-up that any white surfaces turn to a featureless glare, making several scenes of note-writing and book-reading surreally mysterious, as the pages appear blank and yet they provoke violent reactions in the characters who see them.
Mary's leading man in Dressed to Kill, the one whom the title actually refers to, is Edmund Lowe, a major Fox star now sadly neglected. It's a surprise to see him playing suave in silents, since his mellifluous voice was one of his most appealing features (he's not exactly handsome: his head is like a square with the corners rubbed off). He also turns up in Transatlantic, basically playing the Saint, a playboy con artist-cum-crimefighter (I know: this profession makes no sense) and in two Raoul Walsh knockabouts.
What Price Glory (1926) paired Lowe with Victor McLaglan in a military comedy in which the pair spent more time fighting each other over girls than they did trouncing the Germans in WWI. MoMA is showing two of the official sequels, which took the rambunctious love rivals Quirt and Flagg into the talking era. The Cock-Eyed World (1929) shows little sign of early-talkie lethargy, though it moves differently and oddly, with its stars' roistering badinage ("Sez you!" "Sez me!") played against wild tracks of oddly specific background chat: Hollywood's first stab at overlapping dialogue.
Women of all Nations (1931) is shorter, faster and better, the picaresque plotting turned positively free-form, and our heroes playing bedroom farce in the harem of an Arabian prince played by, of all people, Bela Lugosi. Though pre-Code, the movie makes a big joke out of censorship: lipreaders have taken offence at the swearing in the first Q&F movie, so here they resort to ludicrous, W.C. Fields-style bowdlerizations, to conform to a new military ruling about bad language. "If I was to say you was a big quint, you'd know what I meant, wouldn't ya?" "And if I was to call you a big custard..."
If William Fox had a fault as producer, that fault was El Brendel. It's an interesting, heart-warming story: Fox was in a near-fatal car-crash and the only man on the lot with the right blood group was an unfunny dialect comedian who had somehow stumbled into silent movies. So from then on, in gratitude for his life-saving hemoglobin, the giftless bastard was never out of work.
But in Women of All Nations, El Brendel is actually funny, for one scene—an experiment that was never repeated. True, the unfunnyman has to stuff a monkey down his trousers to get laughs, but get them he does. And his worst characteristic—far, far worse than the phony Swedish accent—his smirking self-satisfaction at every punch-line "successfully" delivered, becomes, for one time only, an advantage, as the monkey sticks his head from a hole in the seat of E.B.'s trousers, like Leo the Lion roaring (Arse Gratia Artis), swipes a cigar and sets fire to the inside of the cavorting clown's trousers on the dance floor.
"Are you dancing with tears in your eyes?" someone asks of the smoldering caperer. "No, with a monkey in my pants!" simpers El Brendel, and his fatuous pride is momentarily hilarious, because what kind of idiot would be so self-contented with his pants literally on fire, a simian conflagration consuming his combination underwear as he gavottes and spasms about this sound stage representing a Swedish barroom?
None of the films in this season is missable. I'm sorry if you're on a tight budget, but that's the way it is. Prioritizing the more celebrated films and filmmakers would cause you to miss Sunnyside Up (1929) an extraordinary early musical with the stars of 7th Heaven, Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, who can't really sing, and El Brendel who shouldn't even be in front of a camera. Nevertheless, this is an astounding work, with a miraculous early crane shot weaving among studio mock-up tenements and a vast model of the Brooklyn Bridge, bobbing over a gushing fire hydrant, spying working-class life through every window, like the voyeur of Rear Window having an Out Of Body Experience. Director David Butler had a weird, erratic 40-year career that peaked early, right here.
Edwin J. Burke has little reputation either, but he's a rare-for-the-period hyphenate, a writer-director whose Now I'll Tell (1934) boasts one of the strongest screenplays of the season. We know Spencer Tracy best for his later, respectable roles, but in the early thirties he was as dirty a scoundrel as ever flashed a sweaty smile, as in this romanticized biopic of gambler/gangster Arnold Rothstein, here called Murray Golden and portrayed with a heart of gold pumping the blood of a stinker. Maybe studio boss William Fox identified: he was a bit of a crook himself, and was briefly jailed for bribery and perjury after rival studios conspired to ruin him. As with Tracy, we sympathize with the charming bandit when he opposes the charmless ones.
Along for the ride, and just as amoral as Tracy, is a young Alice Faye as his mistress, acting remarkably pre-Code, if you know what I mean and I think you do. And, just as Sunnyside Up presents a vestigial Mickey Rooney, practically gleaming with amniotic fluid, Now I'll Tell gives us Shirley Temple in a one-scene cameo, just as she was about to become the biggest star on the lot.
Wild Girl (1932) is Walsh's adaptation of one of Bret Harte's Salomy Jane stories, filmed in the Giant Forest Sequoia National Park with an oddly-cast Joan Bennett as the wild girl of the woods. The locations are magnificent and the opening titles startling, with the cast introducing themselves in character. Apart from Bennett, who Walsh clearly adored but who didn't really catch on until she dyed her hair brunette in Trade Winds (1938), saying, "I like trees better than men: they're straight"; we get Eugene Pallette's bullfrog basso profundo belch of a voice; Minna Gombell grinning as she tells us, "I'm called a lot of names... by different men,"; and Ralph Bellamy describing himself as "unlucky in love." Start as you mean to go on.
The overall plot of Call Her Savage (1932) fades in memory, but I am unlikely to forget the spectacle of Clara Bow thrashing her lover senseless with a whip, and smashing a guitar over the head of some inoffensive onlooker, both incidents occurring (as I recall) within minutes of the film's beginning. Start as you mean to go on. This is Clara's best shot at playing the kind of startlingly amoral, passionate and disgraceful specimen Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck did so well with. The movie's preposterous, but it's crowded with bizarre pre-Code moments (camp singing waiters, et cetera). Bow was never comfortable in talkies, but here she masks it by attacking every moment with insane gusto. In one mirror-smashing scene, she actually seems to break through the screen itself. Be careful if you sit in the front row.