The Song of Songs (1933)

Poster - Song of Songs, The (1933)_03This is my contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon, organised by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please take a look at the other postings – there’s a wide range of films being covered.

Marlene Dietrich’s series of films made with Josef von Sternberg are her most famous pre-Codes. As a result, The Song of Songs, made by another great director, Rouben Mamoulian, tends to be overlooked. However, here too she gives a powerful and varied performance, in a film which is packed with pre-Code content and really pushes the boundaries. I was lucky enough to see this film during the recent pre-Code season at the BFI in London, and Victor Milner’s cinematography makes a powerful impression on the big screen. It’s also available to watch on DVD – I have the standard DVD from Universal in the UK/region 2, which doesn’t feature any extras. In region 1 it’s been issued on a more expensive DVD-R from Universal and TCM.

The excellent cast includes Brian Aherne and Lionel Atwill as the two men in Dietrich’s life, but this is her film all the way, giving her a chance to put several different spins on her screen persona. She also sings two great songs, which encapsulate those different versions of her personality.

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Anna Sten

This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star  was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.

Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.

Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.

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Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1935)

This is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, which is running from January 22 to 25. Please do visit and read the other postings!

Poster - Becky Sharp_01 I’ll admit I expected a lot from Becky Sharp. It has a great star, Miriam Hopkins, in a powerful role giving her plenty of scope, and a great director – Mamoulian, who made such classic pre-Codes as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Love Me Tonight. It’s adapted from one of the best-known Victorian novels, Thackeray’s glittering satire Vanity Fair, set around the Battle of Waterloo. And, what’s more, it was the first full-length feature ever made in glorious three-strip Technicolor. What’s not to love?

The movie didn’t quite live up to my expectations, though it certainly has its moments and I’m very glad to have seen it. One problem is that it seems to be hard to get hold of a decent print. This film has fallen into the public domain, so many versions around on the net and on DVD are almost unwatchable – very sad, since early Technicolor can look fantastic if properly restored. There is a version restored by UCLA, but this isn’t available on DVD, although it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931 and 1941)

Following on from my posting about the silent 1920 version starring John Barrymore, here are some thoughts about the two talkies made in 1931 and 1941, starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.

SPLIT PERSONALITIES: Fredric March, above, and Spencer Tracy with Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, below

After watching the two talkies, I definitely think the Rouben Mamoulian version from 1931, starring Fredric March, is by far the stronger of the two, largely because, as it’s pre-code, it can be a lot more daring in sexual terms. This version amounts to a powerful attack on oppressive Victorian morality, making the story all about sexual repression. It’s suggested that Jekyll, who in this version, as in the Barrymore one, is again young and beautiful, is being driven to despair by being forced to undergo a long engagement to the virtuous Muriel (Rose Hobart).
He is tempted to take on his second identity in order to have a sadistic affair with music hall singer/prostitute Ivy, leading to murderous violence. Something I liked about the movie was that it is sympathetic to Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, who is shown as beautiful and alluring and does her best to tempt Jekyll, but certainly isn’t dismissed as a “bad girl”. The scenes with Jekyll and Ivy in this version are the sexiest scenes in any of the three, I’d say – a shadowy outline of her swinging bare leg is still there in the next scene, showing how he is haunted by her. This is just one of the scenes which uses striking experimental effects, with another being the one where Jekyll first transforms into Hyde, a moment which is also one of the greatest sequences in the Barrymore version .

The film might seem anti-feminist in that Muriel’s refusal to enter into a sexual relationship before marriage drives Jekyll/Hyde to his crimes – but, complicating this, she only rejects her lover because she is too dutiful a daughter to her overbearing father.
Unlike Barrymore or Spencer Tracy, whose features are still clearly there when transformed into Hyde, March looks unrecognisable. His heavy ape-like make-up is apparently to suggest that he is turning back into the beast beneath man’s civilised surface.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the 1931 movie in ‘Dangerous Men’, by  Mick LaSalle – unfortunately I’ve taken this back to the library, but I remember that he looks at the film in the context of March’s other pre-code films, which often see him suffering from alcoholism, in tears and caught in a spiral of self-destruction. I’d be fascinated to see a few of these. LaSalle says that March says the line “I’m in hell”, which in this film he speaks to Muriel, in several other movies too. I do find his performance powerful and can see why he won the Oscar, though for me Barrymore is even better.

The Victor Fleming version of 1941, starring Spencer Tracy, seems rather weak and watered-down by comparison – there isn’t as much openness about sexual repression, although the opening, with a man screaming out abuse in a church, struck me as quite disturbing. Again, Jekyll is torn between “good” and “bad” women, but in this version Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) is a barmaid and singer without any suggestion that she is a prostitute, something made clear in the pre-code version.

For me the biggest problem with this version is that Tracy is miscast. I do usually like him as an actor, and think he is fine in the scenes as Jekyll, where basically he just plays the sort of character he usually plays – tough and slightly world-weary, with a sort of abrupt charm. But things go wrong as soon as he turns into Hyde. Unlike both Barrymore and March, he doesn’t have the sort of volatility to make him believable as a snarling psycho – he just seems to be going over the top, and it doesn’t help that he hardly has any make-up and still looks like himself! I feel pretty much the same about Tracy in this film as I do about Bogart (one of my very favourite actors) in another horror film, The Two Mrs Carrolls, where Bogie plays a tortured painter with a split personality – he too is fine in the more realistic scenes, but not where he has to chew the scenery and turn into a psycho. There’s the feeling of the studios shoe-horning both these fine actors into roles which just weren’t suited to their talents.

At first I thought Ingrid Bergman had been miscast, too – her attempt at a Cockney accent is wildly unconvincing, with every third word sounding Swedish. (Tracy sticks to his usual accent.) But after a minute or two, it’s clear this doesn’t matter – I think she is brilliant as Ivy, giving a shimmering intensity to her role, and seeming so terrified of Hyde that she makes him frightening to the audience. I’ve read that Bergman was originally supposed to play the good girl, Jekyll’s fiancee Beatrix, but wanted more of a challenge and swapped parts with Lana Turner. If this is true, then I definitely think Bergman made the right choice – for me this version is her film all the way. Turner is also fine as Beatrix, but has far less scope.