"We`ll shoot it in the morning": The life and work of

"We`ll shoot it in the morning": The life and work of
Philippe Garnier
"We'll shoot it in the morning":
The life and work of Charles Brabin
FESTIVAL LUMIÈRE | INSTITUT LUMIÈRE
The present text runs much longer than the published French version.
It is actually the original and goes into details of the films, some would say to the
point of incontinence. I am aware of this, but as I have the feeling this will be the
only published data on the works of Charles Brabin I might as well include my
viewing notes, as the pictures might not become available for some time, or ever.
I hope this will be read in the spirit it was written.
03
Crime writer W. R. Burnett, who had a hand in most gangter movies
produced in the early 30's and didn't think much of any of them, ranked MGM's
The Beast of the City as the "best of them". The author of Little Caesar, who had
known crooks and gangsters first hand in Chicago, was always dismissive of
Hollywood's habit of casting Hungarians or East Side Jews as Sicilians. But he
found Walter Huston and Jean Hersholt particularly fine in The Beast of the City,
even if on second thought he had to laugh: "And yet the director on this picture
was an Englishman! What did he know about gangsters? He didn't do a bad job
of it, though."
Burnett couldn't remember the director's name, and neither would most
film buffs today. Charles Brabin's place in film history rarely rates more than a
footnote, and a rather injurious one at that, his main claim to fame being getting
fired from important pictures – notably Ben-Hur and Rasputin and the Empress. His
most well-known work today, The Mask of Fu Manchu, is possibly his worst, or rather
his least interesting. Otherwise, Brabin is mostly dismissed as a "picturialist" in
the Maurice Tourneur vein, a master of detail, more succesful with particular
scenes rather than whole features. But this just won't do to account for a career
spanning twenty-two years (1912 - 1934), and for a man who was once deemed
good enough an organizer to be entrusted with the arduous shoot of Ben-Hur in
Italy, and who six years later, in spite of that well-documented fiasco, was called
upon by the same studio to helm The Great Meadow, MGM's first picture to be
shot in the short-lived wide-screen process Grandeur (The MGM process was
called Realife, but they borrowed Grandeur cameras from Fox.)– the same year
as William Fox's and Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail.
Brabin did make his share of duds, largely due to the sort of creaky Victorian
material he worked with in his silent days, and to the bad plays he was handed in
his last years at Metro, and he did have a disconcerting way with pace, alterning
slow, detail-cluttered and mundane scenes with thrilling action set-pieces – for
which he was anyone's equal in the field. It is hard to dismiss delightful pictures
like Sporting Blood, rousing spectacles like Valley of the Giants, or his casually brutal
portrayal of city hall corruption in The Beast of the City. The vitality of his silent
work, however, nose-dived considerably in his talkies, with the exception of the
two films mentioned above.
04
Charles Brabin dirige un film Edison (circa 1913)
Charles J. Brabin was born in Liverpool in 1883, the son of a butcher
(C.J.Brabin & Sons, "the oldest Firm of Butchers in the City, established 1848").
His mother was an invalid, and he had three siblings. He was educated at St
Francis Xavier, a Catholic grammar school in Liverpool, and at Mayfield College
in Sussex. Family lore indicates that he was shipped off to America early by his
father, possibly to avoid a sexual scandal.
Barely in his twenties, Brabin worked in Manhattan first as a hotel clerk and
a traveling salesman, then, starting in 1906, acquired some acting experience,
playing six years for Broadway producers Henry W. Savage, Charles Frohman,
David Belasco, among others. He acted in his first motion pictures in 1908, a
Lubin production called The Yarn of the Nancy Bell. A 1930 MGM bio mentions
the fact that, at six feet three and a half inches, he bore a striking resemblance to
Abraham Lincoln, both in size and features. He actually played him on the screen
in 1911 (His First Commission, part of an Edison series on the life of Lincoln).
Charles Brabin acteur chez Edison (1912)
06
Other parts included Uriah Heep in a Cecil Hepworth production of David
Copperfield. The same bio mentions that he directed his first film in 1910, a onereel propaganda picture called The Usurer's Grip. He was soon put in charge of
props and sets at Edison, while appearing in two Edwin Porter films, The Romance
of the Cliff Dwellers (1911) and The Strike at the Mines, in which he played with two
of his future regular collaborators, actors Marc McDermott and Charles Ogle.
In 1910, he was given a chance to direct at Edison, a propaganda film called
The Usurer's Grip. Starting with The Man Who Disappeared, Brabin then made a
number of one-reelers for the studio at their Bronx facility. In 1912, predating
Gasnier's Perils of Pauline by two years, he made what is believed to be the first
serial in America, What Happened to Mary?, with Mary Fuller in the title role. This
was a series of twelve monthly one reel episodes, each a complete entity in itself.
The ones preserved at MOMA are in the process of being restored, and I was
only able to see three of them, mostly from the latter part of the series. It is the
usual tale of a waif (Mary) who inherits a fortune without knowing it. Mary Fuller
was a very plain actress who didn't do much else, and Charles Ogle plays "Craig",
a portly villain, who with the help of his accomplices is constantly pursuing Mary,
up and down the Hudson River. In the wonderfully titled episode 10, "The High
Tide of Misfortune", we find Mary in New York working at the Salvation Army.
But Craig tricks her onto a schooner, claiming there is a sick sailor aboard. The
cabin features a rolling painted landscape we see through the porthole, à la
Letter to an Unkown Woman. The schooner anchors in sight of Martha's Vineyard,
and Mary tricks the woman feeding her, ties her up and escapes in a lifeboat.
A lighthouse guard rescues her and takes her in, his girlfriend helping Mary
and giving her some clothes. "A Race to New York" (episode 11) has Marc
Mc Dermott ("Lieutenant Striker") escape from a stateroom, where he was locked
up by two detectives from New York. In this he is aided by a woman, who pretends
to faint, distracting his captors. He then dives and swims out to freedom. He's
told the woman to meet him at the State Educational Building in Albany. This
is filmed on the Hudson, with Adirondacks landscapes. An earlier episode, "A
Will and a Way", seems to have no bearing with the rest of the story. It finds Mary
in New York holding a dactylographer job at a lawyer's firm. One of the lawyer's
client is dying and cuts his no-good son from his will. The lawyer prepares the
document, but still has to get the signature. The client's disowned son makes
this impossible. Time being of the essence, Mary offers to try. But the wastrel
spots them; he's a real hellion, mustached and sickly looking. Drunk on whiskey,
he sets fire to the old man's furniture with a lit cigarette. Mary gets in through
the back, hidden under an old woman's shawl. We see startling stock footage of
fire trucks. Mary gets the signature and the witnessing from the nurse, and they
are about to be rescued. But the son gets her as she's trying to escape through a
window. A fireman gets Mary onto the ladder, but the son , in a strikingly savage
scene, kicks him in the head repeatedly, before falling to his fate. This thrilling
action scene features big crowds and contrasts with the cramped look and cheap
sets of the rest of the reel.
07
Tim, made the same year and preserved at MOMA in a very good print, gives
an idea of Brabin's art and output at Edison, but also of the kind of Victorian
material he had to work with. It is well photographed and starts with a striking
shot of stokers at work in a foundry. Tim is introduced as "A Worthless Son"
– seen playing craps in the factory courtyard, fighting with roughies, missing
dinner at home. The working class family interior is shown in great detail (linen
on clotheslines in the kitchen, etc). The father berates him, but Tim sneers
back. The next night he comes home late again, after cavorting with a band
of no-goods. He enters on tiptoes, strikes a match, to good lighting effects. His
father upstairs is having what looks like an asthma attack. Mother wakes Tim up.
In contrast with the location shooting at the plant, the father's room sports a
moon crescent clearly painted on the window. The father gives him his "valued
possessions", a work bandana, his badge of courage, and a pipe. Tim reluctantly
replaces him at the plant, and we see him being pushed around by his father's
fellow workers. He obviously doesn't make the grade . At home, Tim acts bossy
and surly with his mother, smoking his father's pipe. On the next night when
he comes home, there is no supper and no fire waiting for him. His mother
comes down the stairs, "Your father is dead". Tim feigns indifference, and walks
up. TITLE: "The highest moment of his life". Tim finds the foreman next to his
father's body, and he breaks down. Skinny Herbert Yost, who plays Tim, acts very
hammy. From now on Tim will be good; he even helps his mother set the table!
The Unsullied Shield, made a year later, is another morality tale, but this time
putting Brabin's mastery of double and triple exposures and other visual trickery
to good use. McDermott is a wastrel who forges one of her mother's checks to
cover a gambling debt. As he lays in the parlor in a drunken stupor, the painted
family ancestors all step down from their frames to shame him. Their exploits
and accomplishments are featured in double-exposure (we see the admiral win a
naval battle, etc). Visual tricks were very much a thing of the time (Edwin S. Porter
also used them a lot at Edison), but Brabin seems to have acquired a reputation
for them, and Shield was a great commercial success. By contrast, The Ambassador's
Daughter was made on the cheap, but is a lark compared with the usually creaky
material Brabin had to work with. McDermott sports a vile mustache in this one,
playing the villain who steals a document from the Ambassador's office, but her
daughter (Miriam Nesbitt) follows the blackguard and retrieves it to clear the
Ambassador's secretary (her fiance) from suspiscion. Charles Ogle and Mary
Fuller play a "couple of conspirators" who rough Nesbitt up.
08
Brabin at work in Wales (1913)
In 1913, Brabin sailed to England with Nesbitt and McDermott to make
films for Edison. This wasn't the first time for the latter: the studio had sent the
real life couple to London the year before with director Ashley Miller, whose trip
was plagued by weather problems similar to those Brabin would encounter. With
the exception of Chicagoan Nesbitt, everyone from the company was Englishborn, including cameraman Otto Brautigan and screenwriter Bannister Merwin.
Marc McDermott was to be a lifelong collaborator to Brabin. He had first found
fame in Australia, before being brought to London to play Sherlock Holmes. His
stock in trade was playing villains, as in Clarence Brown's The Goose Woman in 1925.
Brabin kept a diary during this trip, which is in his papers kept at the Margaret
Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los
Angeles, and it gives a rare glimpse at the many mundane chores a director had
to do in such circumstances. 1 Not only did Brabin write and direct, but he also
organized trips to locations, booked hotels and transport, and arranged for the
shipping of reels to New York; he even replaced McDermott on an outing to
Ostend when his actor injured himself in a riding accident and played his part.
Brabin had scheduled his trip a bit later than his predecessor, but still was
plagued by bad weather. Twelve titles were produced, including a few travelogues,
but most were dramatized travelogues filmed in Devonshire and Cornwall, Wales
and Kent, and in Berkshire (a rural county near London, where they made Keepers
of the Flock, and took the opportunity to film a rowing race on the Thames, to
make The Stroke of the Phoebus Eight at a later time. The drama shot in Wales was
The Coast Guard's Sister, and the one made in Belgium sans McDermott was a car
chase thing called Stanton's Last Fling. When sets were needed, they filmed at
Henley and Twickenham, as Edison didn't have studios of his own in London.
1 Brabin's
journal was reprinted in Richard Koszarski's Film History (vol 15, 2003) and edited by Stephen Bottomore.
09
Thanks to Brabin's diary, we know it was possible to stage an explosion in a Welsh
mine for only twenty pounds, and still have the reviewers back in America find
it "spectacular and effective" The whole trip is also interesting for documenting
Brabin's organizing skills, which will serve him right later when making Driven
on location in the Blue Ridge Mountains – but less so in Rome with Ben-Hur.
It was typical of him to shoot a three-reel detective drama, The Necklace of Rameses,
from Paris to Venice and Rome as the troupe was travelling to Naples to board
the Carpathia on November 9 for the trip back to New York. They arrived there
on the 24th, and Brabin was back at work in the Bronx as early as New Year's
Eve. According to a World report, he even filmed the ship's captain during the
crossing, as this was Captain Rostron, famous for having rescued the Titanic
survivors, and started shooting a story on board. For a man who later in his
career would often be called a time waster, or worse, Brabin in those days seems
to have been relentless. He even managed to get married on Xmas Eve, to a
Suzette Moshier, Mc Dermott acting as his best man. Brabin worked for Edison
until May of 1915, his last films there being The Stoning, with Viola Dana, who
was also starring in The House of the Lost Cord, a five-reeler which is Brabin's first
feature 2, although he made a version of Thackeray's Vanity Fair which, judging
from the cast, must have been a feature as well. Maybe an Edison advertisement
promoting the films he shot in England sums up his growing reputation at the
time: "Charles Brabin does drama and likes the picturesque and the ancient,
while he can do modern plays equally well."
2 Variety reviewed it at the time as The House of Lost Court, a title that often figures erroneously in Brabin's filmographies.
The review deemed Brabin's direction "superior".
11
Upon leaving Edison, Brabin made a brace of shorts for Essanay. The House
of Revelation (1916) has a flashback structure, with a modern character dreaming
of Louis XV action (sword fight). 3 Her Husband's Son is a parlor drama with Harry
Beaumont and Gertrude McCoy, and in The Woman Hater, Brabin himself stars
next to Henry B. Walthall. The Raven, which has recently been restored by UCLA
and is available on DVD, is interesting only when compared with Griffith's 1909
Biograph Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven only survives today in a 28mm Pathescope
print, which before the invention of 16mm safety stock was the gauge of choice
for the non-theater amateur collector market. Unlike Griffith's earlier film,
which focused on Poe's poem and his wife Virginia's death exclusively (Poe,
inspired by a clearly stuffed crow, jots down "The Raven" in three seconds and
hustles it from newsroom to newsroom until he sells it, but when he returns with
cash, Virginia is already dead), Brabin's version is all over the map, and, at six
reels, longer by far. Both the UCLA print and the DVD released by Televista in
2008 are of very poor quality, and Brabin's artistry in this one is hard to judge.
In very static shots, it starts with Poe's ancestors, all the way back to Irish
immigrants landing on America, to the patriot of the American Revolution (a
blacksmith), to Poe's parents (show people). Then we get to Henry B. Walthall,
smiling wrily in the pose of the poet's famous DAGUERREOTYPE. There are very
few titles, and a few exterior scenes, including a funny duel sequence in which
the two men are seen standing about two feet from each other aiming pistols –
so that Brabin can have them both in the frame! Then there is a "once upon a
time" film-within-the-film showing Poe buying a Negro fugitive for $600 to save
him from a slavedriver. Clem and Edgar elope, after being banished by Allan.
The slave, played by a white actor in black face, follows them as a servant. Then
Poe courts Virginia. Then there is the poem – the filmed poem being a genre
in itself in the early days, stemming from itinerant theatre and circus skits. This
one is very elaborate, sparing us nothing, letting Walthall a free reign to emote.
It is full of allegories in double-exposure, also a convention of the times. Those
are pretty creaky: a Sisyphus figure pushing a boulder with WINE inscribed on
it, the gates to something in the form of giant lyres, etc. Then a death angel
comes to claim Edgar's soul. The poem takes forever, and then it is more or
less the Griffith film: Virginia sick in the house in the woods, Poe peddling his
poem all over Baltimore to buy medecine, coming back empty-handed. She dies
in his arms. "and the fever called living is conquered at last. . . " But there is none of
the suspense Griffith achieved through his celebrated editing. Both films were
probably based upon the play by George Hazelton (The Raven: The Love Story of
Edgar Allan Poe), which exercised much poetic freedom about chronology, for
the benefit of drama: Virginia Poe died two years after the publication of The
Raven. Likewise, Brabin introduces Baltimore spiritualist Sarah Helen Whitman
in-extremis in the film, for no apparent dramatic reason. No mention is made of
their planned marriage, or the cancellation of it. Brabin wraps things up with
two more lines from the poem.
3 The
House of Revelation is not included in the IMDB filmography of Brabin.
12
The director then took McDermott with him to Vitagraph, and they worked
there for two years. In The Sixteenth Wife, a fantasy comedy, McDermott plays
a modern-day Turk named Kadur el Rashid, first seen at a London theater,
mesmerized by the star dancer of the show. He wears a sash and a fez. She
accepts to go to the Ambassador's ball with him, pressed by her sweaty and venal
impressario. "Kadur", a fast worker, wants to bring her to his harem, where he
has fifteen wives. We see the harem as he mentions it, with titles like: "Imagine
what his bill for wedding rings must be!" For Olette, the dancer played by Peggy
Hyland, "it would be like joining the Lounge Lizard Club". She won't marry him,
but she agrees to come and dance for the sultan in Constantinople. McDermott
looks (and plays) like Alec Guinness, all eyebrows and mustache. Upon arrival,
the oily impressario exclaims: "Give the Kadur credit, this is SOME harem!" The
"funny" titles contrast with the lack of wit of most of the cards at Edison. As when
Kadur explodes against his wives "Remove the chattering women!". The latter
all play in pantomime, arms raised and rolling eyes. Rebellion inside the harem
at the new arrival is promptly squashed. The favorite and ring leader is led to
the "bastinado", but we don't get to see the beating. Olette escapes by jumping
into the moat, gets to the gate, and as the slaves are about to catch her, she is
saved by the muezzin calling for prayer, thus stopping the action (this was of
course a familar gag, everytime the early motion pictures showed action set in
muslim countries, and was used as late as 1931 in Raoul Walsh's Women of All
Nations). Then Olette is back in Paris, where she triumphs again on the stage.
The Turk has followed her, but on the boat they play a trick on him. She comes
aboard with him and he believes she is going off with him, but he's got another
thing coming: "Stick to your fifteen, " she writes him in a note, "I'll be all sixteen
wives to my prince." This is a silly but well paced picture. It is clear that by 1915,
when he makes his first feature film, Brabin is on his way. Variety reviews The
House of Lost Cord under The House of Lost Court (which has caused confusion in
Brabin filmographies ever since), but of this adaptation of Mrs. C. N. Willimson's
"sordid tale" (sic), The trade paper writes: "If the film seemed slicker and more
professional than the usual Edison effort, it was no doubt due to the superior
direction of Charles Brabin, who has been with the studio since 1908."
But by 1917, Brabin was at West 61st Street, where Metro had set a studio
facility on a rooftop overlooking Central Park. There he made, among others,
the cleverly titled comedy Red, White and Blue Blood , with two personalities who
were to be of great importance to him later in his career: Metro star Francis X.
Bushman, and writer June Mathis. To the latter, he would owe his appointment
at the helm of Ben-Hur in the summer of 1923, when more prominent directors
such as Rex Ingram were expecting the plum assignment. At Metro he made
three more films with the screen as well as real life couple Francis X. Bushman
and Beverly Bayne (they made countless pictures together at Essanay and Metro,
including Brabin's The Poor Rich Man (which is said to be excellent, but only exists
incomplete), written by Mathis, who was story editor there, and they featured
Broadway characters actors like Louis Wolheim, whom Brabin would later use in
his early MGM talkie The Ship from Shanghai. Social Quicksands and The Adopted Son
were two more Bushman-Beverly Bayne features, the latter a western from a Max
Brand story.
13
Brabin seems to have made dramas and comedies in equal measure, and
continued to do so at Fox. He worked with McDermott and Evelyn Nesbitt again,
but mostly he directed William Fox's biggest star Theda Bara in two films (he
pulled out from a third, The Lure of Ambition, replaced by Edmund Lawrence).
The hoary story of Kathleen Mavourneen (a song that became a favorite during the
American Civil War) had been filmed many times before 4, and would be again,
but none caused as much uproar as this one with the IRISH audiences, who were
upset to see the heroine of "the sweetest irish love story" played by a Jewess from
Chicago, née Theodosia Goldman. Egged on by two Catholic priests, members
of an outfit called the Friends of Irish Freedom bombed and trashed the stage
of a San Francisco theater where Brabin's picture was featured, and the film
was swiftly pulled from circulation in urban areas with immigrant population,
even though Louella Parsons in her column had earlier called Theda Bara's
performance "one of her best".
Brabin and Bara (they were not married yet) had more luck with La Belle
Russe, a play he had already adapted as a one-reeler for Edison, with McDermott
and Mary Fuller. The film was built totally around Bara, who played the dual
roles of Babette and of La Belle Russe. The film is lost, but the script included
in Brabin's papers at the Herrick Library indicates he must have had a lot of
fun making it, judging by all the racy business with her legs, garters, slippers
and stockings –fetishistic details worthy of Stroheim. While making the film in a
leased New York facility (the Fox Studio wouldn't open on West 55th Street until
1920), Brabin lived on East 127th Street in Harlem, and wrote his memos on
Metro stationary, mostly to two men who will be with him later on his independent
production Driven: cinematographer George Lane, and assistant director Alfred
Raboch. The latter, who would become a much in demand assistant at MGM (he
even directed a feature there), wrote Brabin during the preproduction of La
Belle Russe: "We must be prepared to spend a great deal of money, and it would
have to be done in a semi-tropical climate". Fox also had a studio in Miami, but
there is no indication that the picture was not shot in and out of New York.
4 First in 1911 by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon, as a two-reeler for Edison, then in 1911 as a short for the
Yankee film Company, then two years later, more notably, by Herbert Brenon, as a short for the Independent Moving
Company and Universal. Unbelievably, there would be two more, in 1930 and 1937.
14
Charles Brabin et Theda Bara dans les années vingt.
Brabin married Theda Bara in Greenwich, Connecticut, on July 2, 1921,
and at first they made their home in New York, at 500 West End Avenue. Many
have described him as someone who liked to behave like an Englishman of
some lineage, but it was most certainly tongue-in-cheek: being married to Theda
Bara, who always made fun of her career as an impostor (a Jewess from Chicago,
marketed as a vamp hailing from exotic places, here she was, a taylor's daughter
marrying a butcher's son), he could not have maintained a straight face for very
long. "We are both poseurs," he liked to confide to friends in later years. They
were also both "wickedly irreligious," blind as bats because of klieg lights, and
they liked to imbibe (at least Theda did). At the time of their marriage, Bara
was already at the end of her career, having fallen in disfavor with the American
public. She and her husband attempted to make a version of Evangeline while
vacationing in Nova Scottia (there exists a striking picture of the two of them
in front of a waterfall, Brabin carrying Theda effortlessly under one arm), but
after 1921 Theda Bara made only two pictures, against Brabin and her friends'
advice: The Unchastened Woman, a drawing room comedy she made for Chadwick
Productions in 1925, and, for Hal Roach, a two-reeler comedy directed by
Richard Wallace and Stan Laurel, in which she parodied her vamp image. Oliver
Hardy was in it, and so was James Finlayson. This was just before Laurel and
Hardy made their first picture together.
16
Charles Brabin porte Theda Bara dans le Maine en 1921.
Meanwhile, Brabin was in full flight. At the newly opened Fox Studio in
Hell's Kitchen, a city block near Tenth Avenue that housed all functions of
filmaking, from wardrobe and property department to electric power plant
(with a studio floor where, according to a press release, "a hundred scenes could
be enacted at one time" and the "largest printing plant in the world, with a
capacity of three million feet of film per week"), Brabin made two films in 1920
which share a similar narrative structure. In While New York Sleeps, which he also
wrote, the "anthology" structure is merely cumbersome and doesn't make much
sense, as New York is only present and shown in the third segment, called "The
Slums". The first two deal with "The Suburbs" and "the Great White Way", of
which we see absolutely nothing. The three stories are about deceit. In the first,
Estelle Taylor is a housewife left alone with her child at night when her husband
is called to the City on urgent business. During the night, a man breaks into
the house – her first husband (played by McDermott), who never divorced her
after he was sent to Sing Sing and now reappears, having escaped (we see the
escape in flashback, which adds nothing to the story except more clutter). He
threatens to expose her for bigamy, and she promises him money at a later date.
McDermott leaves, but then a second burglar breaks in, surprised in his work
by both Taylor and McDermott, who 's had second thoughts and has come back
to get some money. The burglar (skinny and droopy Harry Sothern) helpfully
shoots McDermott, but the woman convinces him to just go away. She'll take the
rap for him and plead self defence. Meanwhile, we keep seeing the husband in
a Griffith-like montage trying vainly to phone his wife and then, finally worried,
rushing home in his car. As he arrives, his wife tells him, very dramatically, "I
shot a burglar". When in effect she has neatly disposed of her little problem.
17
In the second story, Taylor sports come-hither-looks and kiss-curls, dances the
Charleston in a night-club, where she cons a monocled lounge-lizard played by Mc
Dermott into coming to her room. Ensues the deadly dull story of how she extorts
money from him when her "husband" walks in on them. But the lounger proves
to be an undercover cop, and the bills are marked. Strangely enough, no amount
of "funny" or atmospheric titles like "Hello, angel food", or "How's about the 200
clams you're holding?" can save this. A shot of the Brooklyn Bridge opens the final
episode ("The Slums"), and from hokum we now turn to full-bore drama. The
visual style couln't be more different as well. In a sweat shop, Estelle Taylor emerges
from behind a bundle of rags she's carrying, revealed after a forward tracking
shot. Ensues a catfight between Taylor and another girl that gets them both fired.
Back to her shack, she is seen living with her weakling husband and his father, a
paralytic old man, deaf and mute for good measure. He is played by McDermott
who here sports a Hitler mustache and again plays like Alec Guinness. His son, the
frail Ned (Harry Sothern), is a night watchman at the docks. We cut to "River rats
playing cards at Hop-Ling's," all wearing rakish caps. They plan on stealing a silk
shipment in a warehouse, which of course is where Ned has his watch. After a few
good location shots of wharves, they are seen approaching in a skiff from below,
then going up through a trap door. The scene is lit from below, and very striking.
They tie up Ned, but he bumps the phone off the table and shouts for help. The
water police is on its way. Ensues a really exciting skiff-against-Harbor Police-race,
probably the only valid reason to see this film. They shoot at the cops, who shoot
back, one hood falling into the river. The leader manages to swim to a sewer and
arrives at the paralytic's house through a trap door in the floor. As the old man
watches helplessly, Nina (Estelle Taylor) offers the hunk of a bandit the attic as a
hide-out. We now have a pretty risqué menage à trois, as Nina is more and more
taken by the thief, feeding him, kissing him etc. Earlier we had seen her being
tender and motherly towards her ineffectual husband, but now she neglects Ned.
Meanwhile Buck Slade (the thief) is going stir-crazy, but Nina keeps him in the
attic. "What man-made law could tear those two apart?" There are lots of closeups
on her. "They love violently", says one title card. Ned finally wises up, seeing them
in silhouettes through the attic window, kissing. Without hesitation, Ned jumps a
whole flight of stairs and attacks Slade, who easily kills him and, rather gruesomely,
drops the corpse into the water through the trap door, with Nina's help. The old
man has to watch all this. (In a treatment of this one "episode of the Eastside" held
at USC, signed by Brabin and Thomas F. Fallon, Nina shoots Ned herself, but fails,
and Slade finally croaks him. Also, the family was identified as Italian, with names
like Pietro and Carlo). The loveplay becomes even more brazen. Then two cops
are showing up, searching houses in the neighborhood. They find Ned's body.
The old man desperately tries to indicate the trap door, then the attic with his eyes,
but they don't get it. They finally go up, even though she tries to warn Buck Slade.
Buck flees to the roof in a flurry of bullets, one of them killing Nina. The police
kills Buck eventually, and the old man is finally left alone, desolate but somewhat
relieved that his son's death has been avenged. The book which opened the movie
closes, "as New York sleeps."
Marc McDermott, acteur fétiche de Charles Brabin.
19
Blind Wives, while similarly episodic, is much more intricate and interesting,
even if the extremes to which Brabin goes can appear ludicrous and remind
one of the best line William Powell delivered to his wife in I Love You Again:
"You'll have this nightgown, even if I have to start with a couple of silk worms."
Here a lady's dress is the thread between the episodes, but not quite like the tail
coat in Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan. In England the picture was released under
the same title as the Edward Knoblauch play it was based on: My Lady's Dress.
The play could have originated from England, as future film director Edmund
Goulding played multiple parts in the Frank Vernon production, but he could
have already been in New York by then. As McDermott does in the Brabin film,
Dennis Eadie played the husband John, as well as the weaver and the villain
peddler. In any case, the play is actually even more extreme in its complicated
structure, as it features two episodes (a Dutch lacemaker and a paper rosemaker
in Whitechapel) dropped by Brabin. The USC collections have a printed 1920
treatment of the play by its author (whose name is now spelled Knoblock 5),
which changed the dressmaker Jacquelin from a foppish "English Jew" to a
dwarfish and prancing Frenchman. Brabin's adaptation sticks more to this
treatment, although the "loafer" character has been substituted to the "Lord
Charles" of the play, to whom Ann is appealing with all her charms to advance
her husband's career (this subplot is dropped). This film starts as a Lubitsch
comedy, but instead of being about wives who are blind to their husbands'
philanderings, as we would expect, it soon becomes a moralistic drama, or, more
precisely, five morality sketches. Anne (Estelle Taylor) is seen trying to find a
dress for the upcoming Horse Show ( "and prays to God she won't find one",
says a title). She goes through acres of fine dresses, and the maid brings her
more, which she rejects. "RAGS!" We cut to Maison Jacquelin, a leading couture
emporium where a fashion show is on, attended by many women, as well as by
"a lounger" named Reginald Lizard. Each number is announced by a name,
like "Just it!", or "Just for Tonight", or "You Need Me". After many good-looking
dresses, Anne settles on "Hope and Wait" (by far the ugliest one). As she waits in
the anteroom to buy it, we cut to John Morley (McDermott), introduced to us
as "only the husband". He is going through bills, as Jacquelin wants his money
for his wife's past purchases. Appalled at the amounts racked up by Anne, John
calls Jacquelin and closes her account. Jacquelin is a revolting looking man
with a goatee. Apprised that her account has been closed, Anne chokes on her
humiliation. Lizard sees his chance and offers to pay for the dress, leaving all the
implications very clear. To seal the deal, he puts his hand on hers.
The night of the Horse Show, the Morleys are at home. McDermott looks
quite old in this one, almost sick looking. The maid announces "Madame's new
dress from Jacquelin", and Anne tells the fib that she'd already purchased it,
before her account was closed. John goes all moralistic on Anne, and there the
film shifts entirely. As Anne, Marie Antoinette style, tells him lightly "Think of
all the poor people it's giving work to", her husband goes into a long raging
discourse, "You're blind, blind!" etc. In this exchange, Taylor's limitations are
almost painful. Especially next to McDermott, who is very good.
5 He gave rise to one of John Gielgud's notorious examples of tactlessness. Phone rings. Long distance call. JG: "Who's
speaking? Who? Edward Knoblock? Not that ghastly American playright? Oh, I'm sorry, I meant the OTHER Edward
Knoblock".
20
As the maid drapes "her Lady's dress" over a chair, Anne takes a sleeping
tablet to get some beauty sleep before the Horse Show. The dress blurs, we iris in,
then out (very rare for Brabin, who normally uses straight cuts). We iris out on a
striking shot of WORMS. They turn out to be silk worms, which ties in with the
couture and dress theme in a very intricate and belabored way. But the sight of
those worms also indicate that the film has shifted, hinting at some theme of decay
and corruption.
– First dream: Ann, here called Nina, is a fishing village girl in Italy, about to
be married to her sweetheart, as his brother has decided to make them a present
of the next silk worm harvest. But those worms must be kept warm, and the fire
going at all time, which makes for very tedious story telling. McDermott, who will
be playing all the villains in the coming dreams as well, here in a flash-back plays
an itinerant peddler. Nina pledges herself to him if he gives her a big elaborate
comb she's seen earlier on a new bride's head. She promises to marry him next
time he returns to town. The village set is impressive, seemingly built around a real
torrent and waterfall.
Three weeks later, the peddler returns to an empty village, as everybody is at
Nina's wedding. Mario the peddler is furious, gets Nina, throws her on the floor,
eyes the worms, and an evil glint in his gaze tells us what's coming. The groom
comes in and Mario goes all smarmy, congratulating him, and upon learning that
the silk worms are all they have for dowry, he offers him to keep an eye on the fire
while the wedding takes place. Of course he throws the crop on the floor, stomps
them, squashes the fire with a water bucket and opens all the windows. And lets
out an evil laugh.
– Brutal cut to second dream: Ivan Ivanovitch is a fur trapper, who has just
caught the most wondrous sable. He and his friend are in the snow. Cut to Anna
in Ivan's loghouse. She's his wife, "whose dull brain is slave to her desires". Ivan's
foreman, an ugly ox, is a constant presence. He is seen kissing her (the scene
reminds you of the last episode in While New York Sleeps). The baby boy tucks at
her hem. "I hate that brat, because it's his", she spits. Estelle Taylor here is better,
looking quite the slut. Ivan returns with the sable. No, he won't take the sable
to market with the rest of the pelts. "No woman's ruble will get that pelt to deck
herself with". It is for his son. As he departs, they kiss like husband and wife, and
after he's gone the foreman accuses Ann, "You kissed him!" This is the last from
the Lubitsch playbook.
About to board his canoe, Ivan realizes he forgot his laisser-passer and has
to go back. This appears to be shot on location. He walks in on them as they're
making love. She defiantly, hatefully, mocks and defies Ivan (big closeups of her).
The gentle Ivan, saddened, says he'll leave her to the foreman, if she can be happy
that way. She flies into a rage: "Aren't you going to kill him, or beat me?" She spits
at him, the spit visible in his mustache. He endures. To hurt him further, she lies to
him and says the baby is not his. When he can't believe it, she swears on the icon.
This is pretty strong tea, compared to the silk worms. Ivan leaves them his house,
but refuses to give them the sable. "Some day this sable will be the trimming of a
woman who'll never know the tragedy behind it."
21
Ann wakes up from her dream. There is now a sable trim at the hem of the dress.
– third dream, we cut to a loom. "Annette" is furiously working at it. She looks
like a slattern. Her husband (Harry Sothern) is too sick to work and she has to
replace him, albeit she works badly. McDermott is very good, in a John Barrymore
way, as the weaver friend of the husband who used to be the best weaver in town,
before he took to drinking. So we get it: first the silk worm, now the silk yarn. The
buyer comes to examine Annette's work, which he believes is her husband's. As her
bolt of silk is sub-par, McDermott substitutes his for hers. Brabin introduces a trick
photo shot of the magnifying glass showing the weave. The yarn is deemed perfect,
and the buyer gives her the money. Disdainfully, the buyer then asks to see his yarn,
and we have same trick shot showing Annette's bad weave. He gives McDermott only
a third of the money he just paid and refuses to take any more work from him. When
Annette asks the weaver why he did this, McDermott says he's not alone, he's got his
friend with him (patting his bottle). Walking with the same bravado as before, he
goes away. As soon as he is outside (location shot) his shoulders droop. He's only
seen from the back, but we know he is weeping. He then furiously throws away his
bottle, breaking it. The trees are moving , and so is the scene, so delicately shot.
– Fourth and final dream finds Annette working as a model at Jacquelin's. We
see her at the foot of her mother's sick bed. The doctor tells her to go to work, they'll
call her if she's needed. The same lounge lizard we've seen at the beginning of the
film spots Annette undressed, asks about her, and Jacquelin assures him that she
is a sensible and "practical" girl. "I will be back at six," says the lounger. Jacquelin
(and Brabin) now have the sable, the bolt of silk, making a dress on Annette's form
-- the whole story in a tidy knot. When Lizard gets fresh, she decks him with one
punch. Estelle has strong hands. Lizard complains to Jacquelin, furiously telling
him he won't put a word in for that commission mentioned earlier; in his turn,
Jacquelin violently berates Annette, and when the phone rings for her he answers
the doctor's call himself -- and we have the same jubilant scene as with the jilted
peddler earlier. Jacquelin says to the doctor she doesn't want to come. He throws
her on the floor, and a tremendous fight follows: first a low angle shot of him, then
an even more striking high angle shot of her on the floor, wildly looking for an
out. Glimpses of Taylor's hairy armpits makes the scene more troubling and savage.
The telephone rings again, we see the same bells and switchboard operators, then
the doctor desperately calling. Jacquelin goes to the phone. The mother is now
dead. He tarnishes her daughter's name. He is on the telephone, behind a black
curtain. She seizes a pair of tailor's scissors and stabs him through the curtain. A pale
hand appears from behind, then he falls, still invisible. This is a great finish, showing
masterly use of cutting, all contrasting with the flatness of the other episodes.
The original Ann wakes up. She sees scissors on the floor, then they dissolve.
The telephone rings. It's the Lizard asking how she likes her dress, and she calmly
tells him she is returning it to Jacquelin. "I would not be happy if I wore it." She goes
to her husband, whom she finds sitting in the gloom, in a dressing gown. The set is
absurdly immense, heightening his mood and loneliness. It is dark outside as well.
She kneels down beside him and asks for forgiveness. Blind Wives could have been a
terrific picture, with just two dreams. As it is, it remains a weirdly compelling artifact
and shows Brabin's great use of violence and editing 6.
6
- at least one segment is missing. Stills show a story about Costello selling her hair to a wig-maker couturier.Also, the Russian segment
was shot partly on location on some mountains. Business with tunnell (a set) I don't remember seeing. Herrick Library has a crew
picture taken in the mountains with Brabin wearing a black fur coat and hat. Mac not present. In the segment missing, Costello is making
paper flowers for a living, there's a burly fellow who has a wife or a girlfriend (a shot shows them at the movies). Still showing weasel wigmaker offering a wig to snotty customer. Also a risque bit cut out from either the missing segment or the final segment showing a rogue
(shrunken dessicated rake) with a plump model in cumbersome underwear. There are lots of posed still pictures in front of the final,
grand set, before the huge window with cityscape and park.
22
Strangely enough, yet another adaptation of My Lady's Dress was
commisioned, this time for a talky, as Zoe Atkins's 1929 script is all dialogues.
She made it into a more conventional parlor comedy, with no more mention of
silk worms or socialism.
A still from the lost Footfalls (1921)
23
While at Fox, Brabin also made The Lights of New York (forgettable tripe
about the devil, set in a pawnshop, again with McDermott) and Thou Shalt Not,
which he wrote himself from his own story (starring Evelyn Nesbit), but Footfalls
seems much more intriging – unfortunately we can only judge by the script and
the stills, as the film is lost. Still, the director's annotations on the script kept at
the Herrick Library are revealing of his artistic ambitions (and pretensions (s)).
Originating from a story by Wilbur Daniel Steele, Brabin's adaptation is in his
Edgar A. Poe vein: "THIS IS NOT AN EASY STORY - IT IS AS HARD AS THE
OLD MAN'S SOUL AND AS SUNLESS AS HIS EYES". Footfalls tells the story
of an old blind cobbler, Ira Scudder, who lives with his son and a tenant, Alex.
There is a girl involved, and at one point a murder during a scuffle, which the
cobbler only hears. In the course of the fight, the house burns down. The son
is accused of murder, as everything points to him. Ira appears to have gone
mad. The villagers rebuild a house for him. The ending of the piece is striking:
Ira has waited all these years for the murderer to come back to the scene of
the crime. He listens and traps his prey like a spider, with very sophisticated
contraptions bolting the door shut after it has been opened. The two men fight,
and the old man strangles the intruder. Now, STARTING TO DOUBT, because
the man wears facial hair, Ira goes about the grisly business (he is blind, after
all), of SHAVING THE DEAD MAN, so that he can then feel his face with his
hands, recognizing Alex's face, not his son's. This ending is incredibly powerful
and shocking -- something only a Tod Browning would have come up with – and
for this alone you would want to see the film. Along with Driven, this could have
been one of his masterpieces, although a contemporary reviewer's mention of
"Tyrone Power Sr. looking immense and rolling his eyes" casts some doubt about
this. It is also interesting to note the care Brabin took in his work, as opposed
to the reputation he acquired later in his career. Here he describes in advance
how he will shoot each character's footsteps: "reason for having footsteps taken
sideways is for purpose of establishing field -- keep feet always in absolute focus,
planting unmistakably the characters and shape of feet, shoes , etc. Distinction
between boy's (Bob) footsteps and Alex's (tenant) quick steps coming home.
He takes his footsteps quicker than Bob." The existing stills indicated there was
much more comedic stuff in the film than the script shows (mostly with the town
folks). Footfalls was drubbed by the New York Times critic, but Variety noted "its
unusual quality and exceptional value, which rests squarely on Wilbur Daniel
Steele, but the producer deserves credit for allowing Charles J. Brabin to stick to
the original conception and end it all unhappily." At Fox Brabin also directed a
declining Pearl White in The Broadway Peacock (the story a musical star), and took
up with McDermott in Buchanan's Wife (the actor appears both with and without
white hair, a story in which he becomes destitute).
Leaving Fox in July of 1922, Brabin then started work on the independent
production which made his early reputation: Driven . And driven Brabin seemed
to have been throughout this period. The Brabin Corporation was so new it
wasn't incorporated until August, and Brabin writes to Alfred Raboch on Fox
stationary. The latter had adapted a Cosmopolitan story by Jay Gelzer about a
clan feud in a backwood setting, and he worked as assistant director on this.
24
Interiors were to be filmed at the Talmadge Studio, at 318 East 48th Street
in Manhattan, while exteriors were shot entirely in the Blue Ridge Mountains
near Dahlonega, Georgia – north of Gainesville. The company was lodged at the
Mountain Inn in nearby Eaves. Production notes and memos 7 are instructive as
to the filming conditions, as well as to props and equipment brought along:
Army tent for camera and staff
Women must bring their own parasol
Stuffed squirrel
Plenty of glue for toupees, wigs and mustaches
2 stuffed birds
And for cameraman George Lane:
Ray filter
cloud effects in cotton
Edison Kinetogram 8
still camera
4 doz plates for still camera
2 reflectors
focus card
chalk
foft focus lenses
The notation "Include Rolls Royce in cost of production on location" is
more intriguing. This was, after all, a moonshiner and revenuers story. Brabin
may have wanted to treat himself to a new car.
A young Charles Emmett Mack played Tommy Tolliver, the runt of the
Tolliver litter, and George Bancroft was the best-known of the Tolliver clan.
Most of the others were Broadway actors. English-born Emily Fitzroy would
go on playing suffering mothers or society matrons, from The Bat to Edmund
Goulding's Love, all the way to The White Cliffs of Dover. Brabin seems to have
filmed leisurely, especially a cockfight sequence. His shooting ratio was 3 or 4
takes, and he was printing all or half of them. Whatever naturalistic qualities the
film may have possessed, its titles were incredibly creaky and self-explainatory.
Driven was distributed by Universal in 1923, to unusually good reviews. (NY
Times called it "one of the best Southern mountaineer films after Tol'able David,
with a throbbing narrative".
It would appear that Brabin's work, not unlike Clarence Brown's, shined
on location, especially Southern ones. This will carry on to his talking pictures
(Sporting Blood). As the film is lost, it may be useful to quote at length an article
playwright Robert E. Sherwood published about it in The Best Pictures of 19221923 9 Sherwood's pontificating and superior tone is tolerable only so far as it
gives a glimpse of Brabin's reputation at the time – at least among the New York
intellectual snobs --, and how great an splash his independent film made.
7 All
the pre-production material is in Brabin's papers at the Merrick Library.
of Edison films
9 Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1923
8 Catalogue
25
There is a marked similarity between Driven and Nanook of the
North in method of production. Both were sponsored by one man,
both were prepared independently with a minimum amount of
expense, both were peddled unsuccessfully for a long time before
they could gain the recognition that they deserved; and both were
ultimately successful.
Charles Brabin wrote, directed and produced Driven. He did
it simply, expeditiously and effectively. Realizing that a picture's
merit is not necessarily dependent upon its size, he used only two
inexpensive interior sets, eight principal characters (none of whom
could be classed as a high-priced star), perhaps ten extras, one
cameraman and an assistant director. The whole job cost about
$30,000, which is a record for economical film production in this
age of wanton waste.
Before his remarkable adventure with Driven, Mr. Brabin was
known as a director of very mediocre ability. The fact that he was
the husband of Theda Bara had constituted his chief claim to
fame. He made a few undistinguished pictures for William Fox,
none of which conveyed the suggestion of dramatic genius which
was revealed in Driven. Mr. Brabin undoubtedly nurtured a spark
of artistry, but the dampening influence of commercialism never
permitted this to burst into flame.
Mr. Brabin was limited by the restrictions which cramp every
director employed by a big company. He was responsible to a whole
platoon of important officials, who sat behind glass-topped desks
and appraised his efforts with the cold eye of commercialism. They
told him to make box-office pictures, according to blueprints which
had been used successfully in the past and which, presumably,
would continue to be successful as long as suckers maintained the
proverbial birthrate of one a minute.
Brabin obeyed these injunctions and manufactured trash-receiving, for his labors, a handsome salary and a negligible amount
of prestige. Like many others who have found themselves in this
difficult situation, he looked forward to the day when he could
branch out and do something worth while on his own account. This
is an impulse that is common to all those who reduce their artistic
ambitions to terms of dollars and cents. They continually reassure
themselves that, when they have achieved a measure of financial
independence, they will quit the halls of commerce and devote
themselves to serious endeavor. They seldom do it. The line of least
resistance is so easy to follow-- and the alternative so difficult-- that
most of those who take it soon find that they are unable to branch
off. Then they attempt to justify themselves with the feeble excuse
that they are working for the great, generous public- and not for
the sneering few.
26
Charles Brabin is one of the exceptions to this dismal rule. He
used the proceeds of his Fox pictures to pay for Driven, and thereby
atoned for a number of past sins.
He probably derived the idea for Driven from Tol'able
David, Richard Barthelmess's remarkable representation of
Hergesheimer's story. Brabin saw that there was great drama in
the lives of the Southern mountaineer folk, who spend their days
making moonshine whiskey and shooting revenuers. He imagined
the situation of a woman in this wild, barbaric district-- a woman
whose vision stretched beyond the jagged rim of the horizon, whose
hopes, ideals and ambitions rose a little higher than a still.
So he evolved a story of a mountain woman, her husband and
her four sons. The father and three of the brothers were hill typesrough, uncouth, brutal, primitive. The youngest boy, in contrast
with the rest, was sensitive, appreciative, tender and weak. He was,
of course, his mother's favorite.
The rough moonshiners tormented the boy, and scoffed at his
desire for sissy knowledge. One of his brothers, a particularly evil
brute, stole his sweetheart from him and prepared to marry her.
The mother, however, determined to make one heroic stand
for her youngest son. She would give him his girl-- and his chance
to get away from the terrible hills. So she sold her husband and her
three eldest boys- moonshiners, all of them- to the revenue officers;
and gave the blood money to the child of her heart.
With his girl, he went away from the lonely cabin-- leaving the
mother to face the awful wrath of his betrayed brothers.
Whether Brabin conceived this story by himself or borrowed it
from some unknown source, I do not know; but it is a strong story
and it was forcefully, logically developed. Brabin trimmed it with no
frills whatsoever. As I have explained, he used only two interior sets-one of which may be seen in the accompanying illustration. They
were both grim, stark log cabins.
All the rest of the scenes were photographed in the mountains
themselves-- which added materially to the realism of the film.
Brabin used actors to play his hill types, but they were all good
enough to maintain the semblance of illusion.
Emily Fitzroy gave a remarkably vivid performance as the browbeaten mother. Hers, naturally, was the outstanding role of the
piece; and she managed it with great power. She never immersed
herself in the slough of sticky sentiment which seems to engulf all
movie mothers. She never simpered nor crooned nor dabbed at
glycerine tears. She achieved her effects by direct and legitimate
methods.
27
Charles Emmett Mack acted the young son with fine feeling,
and the girl was played forcefully by Elinor Fair. These two, who
had previously impressed me as singularly monotonous performers,
displayed in Driven a vitality which marked them both as real
artists. Burr McIntosh and George Bancroft, the burliest of the
moonshiners, were thoroughly workmanlike in their villainy. _
After Charles Brabin had completed Driven, he ran into the
same difficulties that confronted Robert Flaherty with Nanook of the
North. The various important distributors told him that his picture
was an utter flop. They probably said something about the absence
of dress suits.
Driven was noticed, however, by the National Board of Reviewa worthy organization which is devoted to the encouragement of
obscure but intelligent effort on the screen. The Board showed the
picture to its associate members, who accorded it their enthusiastic
praise.
Brabin then disposed of Driven to the Universal Company, and
it was issued successfully.
The fact that Charles Brabin has made good with Driven
inspires me with the hope that others will follow his example. He
has proved that directorial genius lurks in the most unexpected
quarters and that it can be developed only when directors are given,
or take, a free hand. A worker in any branch of art who is obsessed
with the idea that he must give the public what it wants can never
hope to be an artist. He can only attain that dignity by giving the
public what he wants-what he considers to be the best that is in him
-and making the public like it.
The public liked Driven; it liked Nanook of the North. It
presumably wants more of both. But there are few men with the
courage, or the foresight, to give it to them.
28
Bataille navale: de gauche à droite, June Mathis, Harry Edington, chef de production Major Edward Bowes,
et Charles Brabin, en préparation de Ben-Hur.
By 1923, Brabin and Bara were living in Los Angeles, where they soon moved
into a mansion on West Adams Ave, which Fatty Arbuckle leased a few years
later, trying to put his career on course after his trial (reportedly, Fatty would
say of the Bara bedroom: "leave it just as it is."). Brabin directed Six Days for
Goldwyn, from an Elinor Glyn story. According to an article in Photoplay (August
23, 1923), Brabin, maybe taking his cue from his Driven experience, suggested
he could make the picture for $70.000. Typically, an insulted Sam Goldwyn said
he must make it for $250.000 instead. It may have been an exaggeration, or just
publicity puff. Released in November, it was Corinne Griffith's first movie since
leaving Vitagraph, the story of the daughter of a penniless but ambitious woman,
nearly forced into a marriage of convenience, but falling for a young sculptor
instead (played by Frank Mayo). They fall in love, get noble and decide to give
each other up, but for some reason are trapped in a deserted mine with a priest
(!), forced to stay there six days, until the priest marries them, before dying.
For the happy ending, the young sculptor is revealed to be the son of Griffith's
English suitor, which makes him suddenly rich and acceptable. The reviews were
good: "Exciting to the end", wrote Photoplay, "A splendid picture – far better than
Elinor Glyn's other attempts to write for the screen. Some really unique scenic
effects."
29
In the summer of 1923, after months of suspense and rumors, the Goldwyn
Pictures Corporation announced the winners in the Ben-Hur contest – which was
all but June Mathis's choices, and pleased no one. A former actress, Mathis had
become a powerful writer and was story editor at Metro when the studio made
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. She had fought for Valentino to play the lead,
thus launching him into stardom. By 1923, her word ruled at Metro. She also had
the trust of impressario Abraham Erlanger, who controlled the Ben-Hur property
as much as Goldwyn (they were equal patners in this endeavour). As Mathis was
a good friend of The Four Horsemen director Rex Ingram, everyone expected him
to be handed the plum assignment, which he had been promised by Marcus
Loew himself. But Mathis shocked everyone by choosing Raoul Walsh's brother
George for the coveted title role, and Brabin as director. She also insisted from
the start that the film should be shot in Italy. Rudolph Valentino couldn't play
the part, as he had walked out of his contract at Famous-Players-Lasky and
couldn't work for anyone else. But George Walsh, although physical enough to
play opposite Francis X. Bushman, who was cast as Messala, was a middling-range
actor at best. Brabin seemed an equally long-shot. It was one thing to carry out
a $75.000 production in Georgia, but quite another to helm the biggest picture
ever attempted in terms of cost and scope – a historical spectacle involving
hundreds of extras, a chariot race and naval fights --, all this in Mussolini's Italy.
But Brabin was respected, admired even by his rival and sometime employee Rex
Ingram, who had been an actor in two of Brabin's old pictures and noticed his
sets.
30
Brabin sailed for Rome in January 1924. The cast joined him gradually, but
he told his actors nothing was ready, no boats, no sets, so he wouldn't need
them until August. Bushman toured Europe with his sister; young Carmel
Myers, who had been cast by Mathis to play Iras, had time enough to make a
picture in Germany; Walsh, although cast in the title role, was treated badly by
the production -- he had to travel second-class on the ocean crossing, and was
ignored once in Rome. Incredibly, even though the whole picture had been cast
by strong-willed June Mathis, once she got to Rome, she found herself shut-out
by Brabin, whom she had championed against all odds. The whole affair was a
catastrophe from the start. In his book The Parade's Gone By, Kevin Brownlow
described in details how the production was endlessly postponed or slowed down
by labor disputes and racketeering attempts, and how Mussolini encouraged
labor protests once he discovered the vast difference between the salaries of the
American crew and cast, and what the local workers made. Art director Horace
Jackson was building the enormous circus maximus and the Joppa Gate sets
outside the Porta San Giovanni outside of Rome, but as he was far from being
finished, Brabin decided to film a sea battle. Once in Anzio, however, he realized
that labor unrest affected the shipyards as well. Brownlow quotes Bushman about
what he saw when he visited Brabin and the crew in Anzio: "Charlie Brabin was
a lovely fellow, the storyteller superb – he could describe the most marvelous
picture in the most beautiful language, but he'd never do it. I was in Anzio for
several days, and all the time he was telling stories and drinking wine. I didn't
realize that on the beach he had hundreds of extras roasting and doing nothing."
Ephémère idylle: George Walsh, June Mathis et Francis X. Bushman à leur arrivée en Italie.
32
Brabin at Anzio
Brabin had hoped for seventy ships, he was permitted to have thirty built –
two seaworthy ships, the others mere profiles in wood, hung on existing hulls, or
on rafts. But he was plagued by delays and by restrictions from port authorities
regarding safety.
Meanwhile, back in Culver City, the Goldwyn company was merging with
Metro and the Louis B.Mayer companies, and, as Kevin Brownlow puts it, "the
Ben-Hur headache was transfered by Frank Godsol, who had sold out to Marcus
Loew, to Louis B.Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Harry Rapf." According to Mayer's
daughter Irene, the three were appalled by the rushes as they started trickling in
from Rome. Irene Mayer told Brownlow that the sets looked cheesy, the make-up
awful, the wigs terrible. "The atmosphere was fraught, people were getting hurt,
and a great deal of money was being wasted." Surprisingly, given the low esteem
he's been held by contemporaries and historians alike, and also because he was
not at MGM, but was president of United Artists at the time, it is Joseph Schenck
who was the first to smell a rat, alerting his old partner in movie distribution
Marcus Loew of the impending catastrophy as early as May 2nd, 1924.
33
had comprehensive conference with mayer and his staff regarding
ben-hur stop we have all come to unanimous conclusion that your
present arrangement with mathis dominating entire production
situation in rome george walsh leading man and even brabin director
(sic) will spell either absolute failure or at best tremendous waste
of money running to at least three quarters of a million stop your
scenario is fifteen hundred scenes which will make picture of at
least twenty five reels and that is most conservative stop i suppose it
will be possible to cut picture down by taking entire sequences out
even under these favorable conditions the waste of money shooting
the thirty reels will be there stop remember all this expense you
can only get back from fifty percent of gross and that erlanger 10
does not object to you spending huge sums whether necessary or
unnecessary as he is not interested that phase and he will naturally
think he will get more because inexperienced picture producer
figure the more you spend the better and bigger the picture is stop
the proper time to save it is now stop rubins idea is to send fred
niblo over to rome with an officer of the company like bob rubin
who would remain there long enough to support niblo in getting
situation quiet and business like as no doubt will be embarrassing
for niblo if he has no one with him to support him and to whom he
can tell facts as he sees them stop then rubin or substitute agreed
upon could leave there and by that time mayer says he can spare
rapf 11 to go there stop you will no doubt encounter difficulties
with erlanger who is sold on june mathis but you must be firm now
before its too late stop the worst erlanger could do would be to
cancel contract for production ben hur which probably would be
very best thing for you notwithstanding the loss you will incur
in production costs already invested stop i know the line of least
resistance to a man who has money like yourself is the most pleasant
and you might be tempted to say let them run along produce picture
and we will take the chances leave it to providence it may come out
all right but when the picture is finished and the proposition is a
failure you will pay the fiddler both in money and pride stop i will
call your attention to greed which scenario mathis approved under
her own signature scenario consisting of thirteen hundred scenes
and it is now twenty four reels and cannot possibly be cut down stop
she also wrote scenario of palace of king which was great story but
her scenario made picture failure stop she also wrote picture day
of faith which is another failure stop last two were biggest flops
goldwyn company had for years stop i am not trying to undermine
mathis but just to point out to you necessity of immediate action
best regards stop
10 Abe
Erlanger, who controled the right to the Edgar Wallace play Ben-Hur
Rapf, future producer and executive at MGM
11 Harry
34
Who said a movie mogul couldn't write like Richelieu? But Schenck is right
to lay the blame at Mathis' door: Kevin Brownlow, who trudged through her
script, deems it awful. He also says the picture would have been way over twenty
five reels (making it longer than Gone With the Wind, which is twenty reels. MGM's
final version of Ben-Hur ran twelve reels).
The new MGM triumvirate took another six months to secretly send their
promising new star Ramon Novarro and Fred Niblo over to Rome, and in October
June Mathis, Charles Brabin and George Walsh were rashly sacked. The latter
only learned of his dismissal by a piece in the Telegraph. Mathis, whose fault it all
was in a larger measure than was said at the time and later, was almost relieved
to be fired. Brabin lost no time to sue Metro-Goldwyn for breach of contract,
demanding $585.000 in damages 12.
Soon after his arrival in Rome, Fred Niblo wrote Mayer to give him an idea
of what he found in Italy. Of course, he was not about to spare the competition,
but some of his findings were damning.
12 On
september 2nd, 1924 a judge threw out 550.000 of the claimed 585.000 $, but Brabin appealed.
35
(..) Imagine a company of Americans coming to Italy with the
announcement that they were going to spend millions of dollars and then
following it up by calling the Italian lazy idiots and fools. (…) The whole
proposition has been conducted in a ridiculously unbusiness like manner
and the following will go a little more in detail.
(…) Brabin and Mathis got at sword points the moment they both
arrived here, with the result there were two factions, the Brabin crowd
and the Mathis crowd, pulling against each other. From what I hear they
both ran wild in extravagance. They were weeks and weeks in North Africa
making a few feet of desert stuff that took up thirty or forty reels of film
but cannot be used. Am sending you a print of what they shot so far, so you
can see for yourself.
(…) They spent over a month on the water with the galley fleet but a
very few feet of the shots can be used. By the time I got there the boats were
about ready to fall apart with wear and tear, so I'm having them fixed up,
taller masts put in them to make them look bigger. We must be careful with
our galley sequence due to the splendid ships in "The Sea Hawk". As it is,
our biggest ship will be but very little bigger than (Frank) Lloyd's smallest
one. I believe we can overcome this to some extent when we get back, with
a miniature fleet, if you think it necessary.
(…) Regarding the studio itself, can only say that it will be fine when
finished. One very big dark stage, that is built of asbestos compo board, is
good but in construction they left so many holes and cracks that it will have
to be darkened in before we can shoot trick shots and night shots. The
floor is so shaky (…) The electricians are untrained and very slow. I am
sending to Vienna for four Austrians with experience. Electricians here are
three dollars a day. Austrians, the same price plus travelling expenses. (…)
I believe the exterior location was poor situation, in as much as there
is no way to get people there except by special arrangement. All water for
building has to be hauled in by trucks. $2000 has been spent digging a well
in the grounds but there is no water in the well.
(…) The new continuity is about ready, have been working on it
steadily. It looks very good but is still long and we are cutting it down as
fast as possible. I believe Wilson (Carey Wilson) and Bess (Meredyth) have
done excellent work.
(…) I am expecting to see you, Mrs. Mayer and the girls over here in
August and by that time you will find everything running like silk and we
will have forgotten the mountains of difficulties we have had to contend
with. And believe me, those who were here ahead of me had a great deal
more than I have, some of them have been through hell. Some of them
should have. (…)
Faithfully yours,
Fred
36
Niblo finally filmed a rousing sea battle, but at great cost, both in money
and public relations with the italians – and, some say, human lives. The new
director was so beset with problems that he ran afoul of Mayer when he visited
the set. In January 1925, after a fire destroyed the property warehouse, the
studio finally sounded retreat, the company was recalled home, and the film
was finished in Los Angeles. As for Brabin, he quickly got hired on another
picture at First National. His lawsuit lingered, but two years later he was put
under long-term contract by MGM, probably as an enticement to desist. Actress
Karen Morley, who worked with Brabin on three pictures there, and liked him
personally, told me in a phone interview that it was her impression he had it in
his contract that he couldn't be fired, for any reason. And even if it is unlikely
that the MGM legal department would allow such wording in a contract, a deal
must have been struck, given Brabin's nonchalance and leisurely pace on his last
films. Nevertheless, it is still a mystery that neither Brabin, nor general manager
Cohn (nor Niblo, for that matter) could get anywhere with the Italians, when
almost the same year Henry King achieved such marvelous results in Florence
and Rome on The White Sister and Romola.
38
The year of his sacking wasn't yet over that Brabin had completed So Big for
First National, with Colleen Moore, Wallace Beery, Ben Lyon and Jean Hersholt.
Publicly Edna Ferber howled about the Hollywood happy ending tagged to her
novel, but Moore writes in her autobiography (Silent Star) that when years later
she met Ferber at a fat farm, she told her that "of all the women who've played
Selina in So Big, you're the only one who gave a true performance." So much for
Jane Wyman. Moore, easily First National's biggest female star, hadn't moved
her bungalow yet from the United Pictures lot (on Melrose and Bronson) to
the 62 acre facility the studio was building in Burbank. She liked Brabin and
wrote in her book: "He was the director who could get the most out of me".
When she and her producer companion John McCormick embarked on their
first independent production a year later, they asked for Brabin, who was under
contract at Universal at the time, and got him on a loan-out.
In 1925, at Universal, Brabin produced, co-wrote and directed a remake
of Stella Maris, from the William J. Locke novel which in 1918 had been a Mary
Pickford triumph in the dual roles of Stella Maris and Unity Blake (crippled rich
girl and poor mistreated waif, respectively). Brabin had neither the money nor
the star power to equal Marshall Neilan's film. Mary Philbin's Unity ("one of
life's saddest blunders", as the title card reads) looks more like a slattern than
Pickford could possibly have. In fact, her Quasimodo gait, gap toothed smile,
and possibly fake nose defeat the purpose of her playing a dual role. She may
also have cotton tucked inside her upper lip as well, Charles Laughton-style.
Stella Maris, on the other hand, is a crippled young woman totally shut out
from the world's realities by her wealth and by the adoring friendship of her
two beaux, John Risca (Elliott Dexter) and Walter (Jason Robards Sr.). John is
married to a terrible wife he left in London. Played by Gladys Brockwell, Louisa
is first seen plucking her eyebrows and silently raging against her mirrored
image. She looks like a vamp out of a Feuillade serial in her satin dress, high
heels, and dark bangs. When a flying ember from the fireplace ignites one of
her shoes, she calls Unity, who is slaving in the washroom and doesn't hear her.
She picks the ember up and walks over to the washroom and silently stares at
the child, handing her the shoe. When Unity says it's not her fault, Brockwell
berates her for tearing up a garment in the wash. She then strikes her down,
and, in a shocking move, tips the washtub over on the child, scalding her ( Kevin
Brownlow: "as sadistic an image as anything I’ve seen on the silent screen").
Fritz Lang and his coffee pot in The Big Heat have nothing on this. Even at
the trial, where she gets three years in prison, she's seen gnawing her teeth.
At one point she explodes, speaking of Unity: "I hate her! I hate you! I hate
everybody!" This would almost make up for the silly victorian scenes between
pampered Stella and her two suitors. It doesn't help that they both wear too
much lipstick. For the rich girl sequences, Brabin must have had access to an
estate somewhere, as no set could include a maze and a formal garden of such
grandeur. A croquet game is interrupted by a squall, which looks very much like
actual weather and reminds us that Brabin is never better than outside (there
is a similar use of a thunder shower in his 1932 MGM picture Sporting Blood).
39
John is increasingly distraught by not being able to marry Stella. In a street
scene, Unity is seen walking contentedly, bringing back provisions. Louisa, out
of prison, sneaks behind her and pushes her. The scene is strangely aborted,
as if cut, but nonetheless effective in its savagery. Unity recovers, but sees that
John's life is ruined. She decides to sacrifice herself for him, out of love. In the
one striking scene of the picture, we see a master shot of Louisa's room. She sits
prone in an armchair, it is night. A door on the right opens, just a sliver of light,
with a shadow, which we know is Unity's. She closes the door. Close-up of Unity
looking down at the prone figure. She steps forward, FADE TO BLACK. Louisa
is now laying in chair, dead. Unity is seen in silhouette. The fact that Brabin
can't show Philbin too close in both parts makes him inventive. Unity then kills
herself, offscreen. She lays on the floor. This is a very strong moment, followed
by a bad one, of John sitting in a chair, visited by Unity's ghost who lays hands on
his head. He understands the sacrifice, and her love. All in all it is an impressive
production, but crippled by the script, and a clunky ending.
Brabin at Universal, with Carl Laemmle Jr. on his right. Note the step he is standing on, which could be a perfect capsule
of what people thought of him and of his (nonetheless very real) achievements at the studio.
40
Warner Oland and Colleen Moore in Twinkletoes (1926)
Twinkletoes was a big deal picture, with much advance ballyhoo in the press. Not
only was it Colleen Moore's "first serious picture she's made in many moons", it was
also, along with a Milton Sills desert picture next door, one of the first productions
shot on the new Burbank lot (publicity photos show the star throwing switches at an
inaugural). But her "going blonde and curly" caused much more commotion. The
film was based on Thomas Burke's Limehouse stories, a very popular book from the
man who wrote the original of Broken Blossoms, and the screenplay was by Winifred
Dunn, who had written Scraps, on which Mary Pickford's Sparrows was based. This
was Moore's and her husband John McCormick's first independent production
(he had been West Coast production chief for First National), and the latter was
constantly fretting about Brabin's leisurely pace and getting overschedule. There
is a funny picture of Moore "researching" in San Francisco's Chinatown, flanked
by the Mayor's assistant and a police captain. In a similar quest for authenticity (or
publicity), Brabin had boarded a British merchant ship and bought the sailing garb
of an old limey. Moore plays an aspiring dancer, devoted to her dear old Dad (Tully
Marshall), tempted by an unhappily married local boxer (Kenneth Harlan), but also
in the crosshairs of a leering seducer. The latter is a music hall producer played by
Warner Oland, goatee and all, and clearly characterized as a Jew, with all the cliches
of the times. Throughout this story, set in Cockney London, Moore's working-class
heroine remains good-hearted, relentlessly perky, yet fundamentally innocent.
She leaps into a street melee, climbs ladders, rescues a child from a beating, and
slugs a disbeliever in her stardom. Much was made in the press about the "button
suits" worn by the street dancers in an opening sequence ("Five thousand buttons
on a single suit!'), but not as much as the star's blonde wig and tam'o'shanter.
41
There were a few flashy bits from Brabin: dancers'feet on a glass floor, shot from
below (Hitchcock was doing the same thing in The Lodger the same year), a funny
scene with Chinamen clowning around with theater glasses, pictures of Colleen in
Kenneth Harlan's eyes the size of Tinkerbells, lots of closeups, and a very nervy
editing. The London Quayside Theater was recreated on the set and became a
permanent fixture, both of the First National lot, and later of WB. The boxer is
married to a shrew played by Gladys Brockwell - quite the professional harridan
in those days. Future Warner Bros character actor Ned Sparks has his hatchet
face and cigar chomping in there somewhere. According to publicity, Moore had
practised toe dancing for fourteen weeks prior to the shooting, and Ernest Belcher,
choreographer of the Hollywood Bowl Dancers, directed her musical numbers.
She was neither embarrassingly bad, nor particularly outstanding. After her father's
arrest, Twinkletoes finds herself in the country, hoeing a field. Her Pickford curls are
gone, and she's wearing her trademark bangs again.
In a letter dated September 23, 1981, Colleen Moore responded to Clyde
Jeavons of the National Film Archive in London, who invited her for a screening
of Twinkletoes. Even though she has to decline the offer, her reminiscences are
lively enough to deserve quoting extensively:
(…) I cannot remember how the film starts but I do remember that we
made two endings and gave the exhibitor his choice. One was where Twinkletoes
drowns and the other was where Chuck Lightfoot pulls her out of the Thames
and saves her life. We then see them working on a farm where she, Chuck and
her father live.
We gave the exhibitors the choice of endings as most of them liked happy
endings for my type of picture. I insisted on giving them the choice as I was sure
they would pick the Thomas Burke ending. However, I am sad to say that no one
had the courage to use it.
My director was Charles Brabin who was English, and on the close-ups he
had me speak with a Cockney accent. I became so used to dropping my h's that
I had trouble recovering them. I always wanted to be a blonde so I insisted on
wearing a wig in this picture, and as I looked at it the other day I think the Lord
was right in making me a brunette.
You may not know that the old lady pushing a push cart in the the street
scene was Lydia Titus Yeamans. Charles Brabin pointed her out to me saying,
'When I was a boy, she was a famous actress and a favourite of King Edward the
Seventh. She was paid $1000 a week and today we pay her $7.50 as an extra sitting
on the curb. There you see an old lady with a very straight back. Her name is
Frankie Bailey and she was a famous actres in London, again when I was a boy.
Students would take the horses of her carriage and drag it through the streets
shouting her name. Gentlemen drank champagne out of her slipper. She, too,
was paid $1000 a week and today we pay her $7.50 as an extra.
I must say this frightened me and I immediately took back to the store the
mink coat I had just bought and put the money in the bank. Charles Brabin
never knew, or perhaps he did know, what favor he had done for me that day for
I was very careful the rest of my career to save my money so that one day I, too,
would not be an extra sitting on a curb in the picture of some new star.
Best always
Colleen Moore Hargrave
42
To San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chic Johnson, Moore bragged in Oct.
24, 1926: "We are going to show these German directors something. I believe
there will be little devils thumping my head, symbols of the noises in the other
room making it throb and ache." She had just told him that the "unhappy ending"
would be used in european releases.
Yet the picture was generally trounced by the critics in America, and Moore
got the brunt of it. Most were grousing against the length of the film –"altogether
too long" (9 reels, 1h 20 minutes!). Photoplay, which had boosted the film before
production, now wondered: "Why Miss Moore, who is pretty much her own boss,
couldn't make a more entertaining photoplay, is this month's celluloid mystery." The
Brooklyn Motion Picture Magazine wrote: ". . . but those who admire Thomas Burke's
poignant stories of Limehouse will be a trifle appalled." Many deplored the star's
"same old repertoire of pouts, grins, grimaces, and tender moments." New York Life
just said what was also true of most of Brabin's work so far: his direction was "extremely
irregular, when it's good, however, it is great." In New York especially, the East Coast
snobs used the picture to wonder in print at Moore's incomprehensible appeal to
the masses, or her "shop girl appeal", as they wrote. Twinkletoes was archly dismissed
by Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times, and the NY Mirror was murderous, albeit
in rather cryptic terms: "Mr. Brabin megaphoned Colleen in So Big, the cabbage
epic. Like the criminal who returns to the scene of a murder, Brabin returns to his
cabbages for the final shots of Twinkletoes. Cabbages and pratfalls do mix, hence the
flat ending (…) Throughout the picture the star bounds about like an intoxicated
grasshopper, and mugs exasperatingly. Director Charles Brabin attempts to make the
picture 'arty' by flashing dissolves and trick photography made familiar by UFA films.
He does achieve an interesting effect when the toe-dancing Colleen is close-upped
flitting in Mr. Harlan's eyes. Twinkletoes, however, lacks twinkle. It is sordid without
being interesting. It looks expensive but manages only to be cheap."
43
And yet, possibly aided by the studio's publicity stunts (there were "Cinderella
contests" in several cities, the winning going to the tiniest feet), Twinkletoes
originally did well at the box-office when it was released on December 22, 1926,
outgrossing Frank Tuttle's Love'em and Leave'em, with Evelyn Brent and Louise
Brooks, Beau Geste and What Price, Glory? But Twinkletoes, in the parlance of the
trades, didn't have feet (or else there weren't enough shop girls around), and
Variety gloated that the film "drew like a mustard plaster" and was "not suited to
this star." Yet, there is no question that the studio had entertained hopes at the
box office: according to Chicago's Motion Picture Distributor, one sequence, the
"ballet in a teacup" scene, was projected on a 30 by 40 foot screen, from 17 by
21 in the beginning, as an added attraction. Once completed, the masks were
brought up and down again (the elephant stampede in Chang was shown in the
same manner, but it seems more warranted 13.
13 This process was called Magnascope. It involved a second projector equiped with a wide-angle lens that, on cue, could
throw the sequence to be magnified on this new, gigantic screen.
44
The shooting of Twinkletoes was covered by Ruth Waterbury, of the Buffalo
Courier-Express, who reported from the set, posing as an extra. It is an extraordinary
document, which was later reprised by the Brooklyn Eagle on March 31, 1927,
and reads like the original for Horace McCoy's novel I Should Have Stayed Home.
As an extra, Waterbury earned $6.25 a day with overtime (she once worked 24
hours out of 30). Nights were paid $5.00. She mentions that Brabin usually took
three takes of a shot, worked out of a Spanish style bungalow on the lot, and
"spoke French and German fluently" (something no one else ever mentioned,
and could be an exaggeration). Mervyn LeRoy worked as a gagman on the set
(a year later, at 26, he would be directing Mary Astor in No Place to Go). The girl
reporter played a cannibal in the opening scene. Brabin had conceived it as a
gag: "iris out", and the island was revealed to be a night-club stage. Waterbury
was there to stay, later freelancing on Man Crazy, a Dorothy Mackaill picture, and
as a mountain woman on Brabin's Valley of the Giants, all shot in Burbank (her
part of the picture anyway). She writes about the boredom and the insecurity of
her job – speaks of an average 197 calls a day offering jobs, for 9000 girl extras
available. She writes about having to "smile on morons for free entertainment, to
flatter bores for free meals". She loses her earnings playing roulette in "Tommy
Burton's bungalow", wondering in print: "Where was the escape from the
monotony I had feared in the East? Wasn't this the deadliest kind of monotony?"
Finally, she wires home: "I'm licked, please send me the carfare." The piece ends
disappointingly, her man coming to fetch her.
At about the same time, Brabin gave an interview to the Orlando Sentinel 14 :
Directors used to actually direct, but that was in the early days.
At that time few of those in motion pictures had the extensive experience
before the camera and most were recent recruits from the stage. Producers
took beautiful girls and men, labeled them stars. Players had to be told
when to step forward, when to pause, turn, look, etc. But those days
are passed. By the time a boy or girl reaches the place where he or she is
considered for a leading part, direction is unnecessary (…) The director
now represents the audience of millions who will view the picture.
He looks at it with their eyes. Can you imagine anyone having to tell
Colleen Moore or Tully Marshall what to do? The good director nowadays
has the knack of being a good storyteller and a good audience.
14 February
9, 1927
First National days. Top: Milton Sill in Hardboiled Haggerty (1927).
Bottom: with Doris Kenyon in Valley of the Giants (1927)
46
Still at First National, Brabin then made three Milton Sills pictures back to
back, within one year. Framed, an action story set in the diamond fields of South
America, was typical Milton Sills fare. "You've seen it before, but it's interesting,"
wrote the Motion Picture News. Variety was more critical: "A particularly wooden
drama, story is jumpy, although production and photography (by Charles Van
Enger) is excellent. Sills' leading woman, Natalie Kingston, is as artificial as
the story." There were grisly details about how to smuggle diamonds on one's
person, and visitors to the mines were announced by a warning to the men:
"Ladies coming, pants on!" The next picture, Hardboiled Haggerty, was a robust
comedy in which Sills played an ace in the war time Aviation Corp. At one point,
Sills tries to hide from the MPs and finds himself in a spot: under the bed of a
French girl (Molly O'Day) while she's about to undress to have a spit bath (the
tin tub is showing in the movie still). Arthur Stone, Mitchell Lewis and George
Fawcett are in this one. Valley of the Giants (1927) was much more ambitious,
however. In a way, it is a western with the usual range war story, but set in logging
country. The film opens with vistas of what appears to be Big Sur, with pioneer
John Cardigan being shipped on the beach (as settlers were in the old days in
that part of the California coast). There is a great montage of logging footage
and how he builds his empire. Then we cut to the train arrival of his son, Bryce,
fresh from college. Milton Sills is dressed like a dude, like Buster Keaton at the
beginning of Steamboat Billy Jr., and is way too old for the part. Bryce soon meets
Shirley (Doris Kenyon, the star's real life wife), who is the niece of Cardigan's
fiercest rival, the crabby Pennington. They drive with a picnic basket to several
locations, one being a tree tunnel through which they drive (probably Shrine
Tree in Myers Flats, California). They stop at Bryce's mother's grave, dug in the
middle of a clearing of standing old growth giant sequoias. Bryce reminisces in
private, under the girl's clearly fond gaze. Flashback to the mother's funeral,
complete with a 90 degree shot, then a completely vertical shot of tree tops.
Then Bryce notices a tree that was freshly cut for its burl. The trees around the
grave had always been left untouched, as a tacit tribute to his family. Bryce is
mad, suspects Pennington's burly foreman, Rondeau. After a holiday celebrating
his return (rope contest, boxing etc), Bryce goes-a-courting at Pennington's
and spots a new table made of fresh burl. He immediately goes out to confront
Rondeau over it, and they fight. He is licked fair and square by the foreman,
and the fight is well filmed, with hand-held cameras and quick editing. Ensues
the greatest sequence of the picture, a classic runaway train scene, every bit as
exciting as can be expected, in which Bryce saves Pennington and his niece.
Pennington grudgingly acknowledges the debt, but not for long.
Back at his father's mansion, Bryce learns that his father is going blind,
and that Pennington has been secretely buying all his notes. He also has
refused to renew their railroad contract. They need a million dollars to build
a railroad of their own. Bryce calls on a college friend of his named Ogylvy,
clearly a Jew ("I don't trust you furriners" says one title). Ogylvy will finance
the railroad line. There is a complicated story about a franchise into town, and,
like any range war movie, a large scale battle is inevitable. Pennington instructs
Rondeau to mount a machine gun on his office window to mow the mob down.
47
Warned by Shirley, Bryce goes to the office and fights the foreman. The struggle
is savage, with hair-pulling, eye-gouging and heads pushed into fireplaces. Their
fight is paralleled with the crowd fight outside, while old Cardigan is being driven
by Shirley to his mill (he is played by D.W.Griffith regular George Fawcett, and
the editing is pure Griffith as well). The old blind man exhorts his men to all
go to the Junction, then leads in his car a bunch of loggers with picks, lanterns
and clubs. There is a wild street fight, surely a familiar sight in America in this
period of labor unrest. Rondeau is finally squashed, with Half-pint, one of the
loggers, telling him, "You ain't tough, sonny, you just need a shave." The ending
is rather abrupt. Throughout the picture, Sills is energetic and fetching, if a trifle
theatrical somertimes, but Valley of the Giants is a very creditable work for Brabin.
Milton Sill and Jane Winton in Burning Daylight (1928)
He then tackled Jack London's best liked story of his days, Burning Daylight,
that of an all-or-nothing prospector and empire builder named Burning
Daylight. The credit cards are unusually long, but the key name here is Jack
Okey, the set designer, who later would build and outfit the Denham studio in
London. In the early part of the picture, all the Alaska scenes are shot on sets,
and they are very poor. The print I have seen (a VHS copy from Grapevine
Video, which erroneously lists producer Richard A. Rowland as director) leaves
but a dim idea as to the quality of Sol Polito's camera work, but shows moments
of brilliance from Brabin nonetheless. Milton Sills plays the title role with gusto,
and Doris Kenyon is lovely (she plays the part of two characters in the novel
which have been made into one). There is a musical score and, for the first
twenty minutes, sound effects (wind and human laughter), maybe not original.
48
Doris Kenyon in Burning Daylight (1928)
The film opens with feet dragging in the snow, an effect Brabin will resort to later
in The Great Meadow. We cut to atmospheric scenes of saloon, the whole town
is in there, and from two old codgers we learn the reason for the commotion
(Daylight has bet he would bring back the mail in two months, 2000 miles
each way -- an impossible feat). Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, a Borzage regular,
plays Louis, one of the prospectors. In one remarkable sequence, Louis is seen
approaching the fixed camera, coming up close, perusing straight into the lens,
then turning and going away. We cut to a shot of a sleigh approaching, then a
quick cut to Louis returning to the door – the exact same set up as before. Big
close-up. He shouts, rushes back inside the saloon, the camera stays where it is.
The swift, fluid narrative style jars constantly with the wretched sets. Daylight
appears, beard all frozen. Commotion inside, a series of very realistic faces and
bits of business, à la Stroheim. Two dancers are glimpsed exchanging chaw, or
possibly elk jerky. Kenyon appears as "Verge", a saloon entertainer sporting a
1890's hairdo and black velvet ribbon around her neck. She's "one of the boys",
but clearly fancies Daylight. There is an extremely well directed poker sequence,
with effective use of lighting, extreme close-ups and camera pans. Daylight is
cleaned out in the game, which will prompt him to go for his claim and strike it
rich in the Klondike. Before this, he rescues Verge from a "stranger" who nearly
rapes her in her room. They fight, he disarms the man and brandishes him
above his head all the way down the stairs, across the saloon, to finally dump him
in a snow pack. Again, Brabin is impressive in these bursts of violence, as in his
trackshot backwards inside the saloon, following a triumphant Daylight being
congratulated by the regulars.
49
By contrast, the center part of the picture is very flat and cursory, Daylight
having the foresight of claiming not the goldfields but the future boom town of
Dawson. Verge has followed him, working as a "public typewriter" for claims.
Bringing registered claims to the "syndicate" of outside interlopers, she overhears
them as they are about to jump Daylight's claims. She warns him, and he confronts
them head-on, just as he'll do later in San Francisco with the Wall Street crooks.
Things get tedious with the arrival of Martha Fairbee (Jane Winton), a brunette
socialite Daylight falls for. Verge sees what is happening but doesn't let this impair
her loyalty, although she tries to warn him. But Daylight wants to sell his "stake"
and parlay it to "sit on a bigger game" (the stock market). He takes Verge to San
Francisco with him as his secretary (whereas in the novel she killed herself with a
gun, and the secretary is a new character named Dede Mason), but the sequence
showing Daylight's social climbing are similar in tone as the heavy-handed gags in
The Valley of the Giants. "Ten faux-pas later", as a card says, Daylight is in cahoots with
Edwin Dossett (oily Edmund Breese), a Wall Street financier he's impressed with.
He and his cronies plan on taking Daylight for a ride . In the last good sequence of
the film, we see Daylight in his office, looking prosperous but dressed like a bookie.
His cronie Louis gets into a fight with the elevator man over a typist girl, but more
out of boredom than lust. He challenges the man to a strong arm contest, then,
as he loses, asks Daylight to take him on, as he was unbeatable in the Klondike.
Daylight loses. The whole scene is marvelous and graceful, just a bunch of brawlers
out of their element. Daylight refuses to heed Vergie's warnings, but is perturbed
when she quits on him, giving him back his key. He gets taken for three million
dollars, his whole "stake". Sills then gets into histrionics and is very bad in a scene
where he breaks all the furniture of his office. Then he becomes excellent again
as he goes to the financiers' home and gets his money back at gunpoint. The way
he covers the men with a gun hidden under a folded newspaper, and his intense
expression, are worthy of William S. Hart. The ending is especially trite, as Daylight
goes back to Verge and they plan to go back to Alaska with the recovered stake. In
the novel, Daylight decides to quit "the racket" while he's ahead and retire with his
girl on a ranch he bought in secret. London's biting critique of big business is nearly
absent here. Kevin Brownlow remembers receiving a letter from William K. Everson
writing that Burning Daylight was the absolute worst film he ever saw. He may have
been talking about an earlier version (the story was made twice before), possibly
Edward Sloman's 1923 version with Mitchell Lewis as Daylight – because Brabin's
film, although uneven, does not warrant this kind of loathing.
Brabin made one more picture at First National, this time with the studio's other
star, Dorothy Mackaill. The Whip, a racehorse, gave its name to a story based on an
old Drury Lane melodrama which had been filmed before by Maurice Tourneur in
1917. It is a rather complicated plot involving an amnesiac lord, a London bookie
and a couple of crooks posing as high society flotsam, played by Lowell Sherman
and Anna Q. Nillson. The production was handsome, the budget higher than usual,
but the film had the same qualities and flaws as many of Brabin's other works: slow,
deadly slow trudging through story points, peppered by rousing set pieces, here
numbering no less than three: a fox hunt, a runaway train (again!), and a horse race.
All three are remarkable, as are the production values: a castle, a huge ballroom,
and even an acceptable rendition of Ascot. Brabin managed to find a part for his old
friend McDermott, who plays old Lord Beverly, Mackaill's father.
50
Dorothy Mackaill and Ralph Forbes in The Whip (1928)
The Whip is a race horse belonging to Lord Beverly; he can outrace any
horse, but is undisciplined, can't handle the starting gate, and regularly throws
his jockeys. Greville Sartoris (Sherman) is a "frequent visitor", accepted in society,
but is hired by Kelly the London bookmaker to spy on the Whip's progresses,
which enables Brabin to resort to one of his old old visual tricks, having a scene
reflected in Sartoris' binoculars. In a letter, Sartoris reports to London, urging
Kelly to take on all the bets he can against the whip, as he can't possibly win, or
even run a whole race. With Brabin, not only are we shown the letter, but the
envelope as well, and then the mailbox. We then cut to the Embassy club in
London, "smart, expensive, exclusive", only to be introduced to Iris d'Aquilla,
"also smart... and expensive" says the card. She's with her latest conquest, Gerald,
Lord Brancaster's son (played by Ralph Forbes) . We soon learn that Sartoris
and Iris used to be partners in crime. Gerald is then involved in a car crash and
brought by Mackaill to the Beverly castle, where he spends weeks recovering
and falling in love with her. But he has become a hopeless amnesiac. During
a fox hunt, Mackaill falls, Gerald rescues her and declares his love. As a Variety
review points out, she looks much better dishevelled than in her riding clothes.
A wedding is afoot, but Sartoris, noting Gerald's amnesia, decides to get Iris into
the picture: during the grand Beverly Ball, as the old lord is about to announce
his daughter's betrothal, Iris shows up with a forged marriage licence, declaring
herself Lady Brancaster. Gerald lamely concedes he can't remember. All along,
the Whip has been taking a backseat to the love story, and will be brought back
only when convenient -- a structural flaw which makes the picture tedious,
while containing an incredible amount of plot and action in its 65 minutes.
51
The Whip has been performing splendidly under a new jockey, and Lord Beverly
has entered him in the Ascot race. Kelly threatens Sartoris that the horse "better
not even get to Ascot". So, as everybody boards the train for London, we see
Sartoris looming in a great coat, taking a compartment alone. Soon he attempts
to unhook the Whip's car and leave it stranded on the tracks, only to be swarthed
by Gerald. At one point the latter is seen hanging upside down outside a window,
from the roof, screaming to Mackaill to put on the brakes, as the wagon is rolling
backwards. Meanwhile, the London Express is seen barreling down the tracks.
The whole sequence is marvelously directed, Brabin having presumably learned
from his other train experiences. They have time to get the horse out before the
wagon is knocked off and the Express derailed. In an unvoluntarily comic shot
we see them walk away from the wreckage, congratulating each other. The Whip
is safe, so who cares about the London Express about to derail? The Ascot race
is similarly rousing (there is a great high angle shot of the starting "gate", a mere
string in front of the horses). The Whip starts late, but of course catches up and
wins. In a rage, the bookmaker squeals to Lord Beverly, telling him that Iris is
"no more Lady Brancaster than I am", and Sartoris' forger accomplice shows up
between two detectives. The whole gang of crooks is hauled off by the police and
it is all lovey-dovey for the lovers, hats and umbrellas at Ascot.
When The Whip was released in mid-September, 1928, Variety ran a totally
incomprehensible review, but one gathers the author wasn't overwhelmed:
"Mackaill is not so hot in riding costume, but looks nice in women's wear. Anna
Q. Nilsson did the dirty among the women, as well as usual." Ironically, the great
early silent star had just recovered from a very bad fall when she was thrown from
a horse in 1925. She had spent over a year in Europe recovering, and of course
is not seen participating in the fox hunt.
Relaxing at MGM with a jockey friend (1931).
53
In 1929, Brabin and Theda Bara moved into a new home, which would remain
theirs until Bara's death in 1955. It was in the newly developed flats of Beverly Hills,
at 632 North Alpine Drive. The English-styled cottage had three fireplaces and a bar
in the style of an English pub, but wasn't palatial, or even grand. It had very little
grounds around it, and no pool. It is still standing today. The Brabins remained
socially prominent, years after his retirement from moving pictures in 1934. Theda
Bara was well-liked and almost unanimously seen as "a lot of fun", for her irreverence
and her drinking – getting along fine with Chaplin, Pickford and Clara Bow well
after her early retirement, while shunning Joan Crawford and W. C. Fields, whom
she hated. Contemporaries' opinions on Brabin differ greatly. Family lore on his
side has him as a bit of a bounder, expelled from college for "womanizing" and sent
to America so he wouldn't tarnish the family name. There is an anecdote relayed
by his great-niece, Elizabeth, to filmmaker Hugh Neely, about Brabin stopping
over in England on his way to Italy and his Ben-Hur chores. Apparently he gave a
big shindig for all the family in Liverpool, only to "leave in a hurry" for London,
leaving a huge unpaid tab behind. Which may account for the fact that when he and
Bara visited England in the Forties, they did not look up the family. But generally
he was seen as a very nice man, quite funny, if sometimes a bit of a bore. Karen
Morley and Joseph Newman, who worked with him on several pictures, have only
fond memories of him, merely amused by his "not-too-exacting work ethics". Only
the formidable Frederica Sagor Maas gave us a very negative picture of Brabin in
her viper-tongued 1999 autobiography 15. Her portrayal of him can't be trusted on
several grounds, one being her feelings for her friend "Elsie", then infatuated with
Brabin. She also mentions his age as being "past sixty", when he was just forty-seven.
But then, screenwriter Sagor was ninety-nine when she published her poison-pen
300 page memoir. Still, the portrait is sharp and fantastic enough to possibly have
elements of truth.
Brabin was an erstwhile Universal director now glad to serve as assistant
to any director who would have him (!). But to Elsie he was the greatest, and
they were carrying on a torrid affair.
I met him. He was a tall, spare man, very dapper, wearing a velour hat
(jauntily askew) and carrying a gold-knobbed cane. A colorful kerchief was
draped around his neck – I'm sure, to hide the wrinkles. He was doused with
feminine perfume. He dyed his thinning hair red. I suspect, too, that he wore
a corset. He was a man past sixty trying to look forty. Artificial all the way – a
flatterer, a woman chaser, and not to be taken seriously.
I didn't have the heart to disillusion Elsie. I knew she would find out
sooner or later that her lover was a has-been whose chief claim to fame was
being the husband of Theda Bara.
The next day he came a-calling, wearing natty gray tweed plus-fours with a
cashmere jacket, a Tyrolean hat with a wisp of a feather, white shoes, the goldknobbed cane, and another scarf.
According to Sagor, he made a pass at her, too, and she slapped him. The flashy
dresser part is more believable: according to June Stanley, Theda Bara's goddaughter, as
quoted by Bara's biographer Eve Golden, Brabin was constantly buying things way beyond
his means, most of which Bara managed to return to the stores. Which makes Colleen
Moore's image of Brabin as a thrifty dispenser of financial wisdom all the more ironic.
15 The
Shocking Miss Pilgrim: a Writer in Early Hollywood.
54
On June 8, 1929, what reads like a plant in the Los Angeles Record announced
that "As a result of his sensational success with The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Charles
Brabin has been signed to a long term contract by MGM. Brabin will shortly
commence by directing Ordeal, Dale Collins' dramatic novel of the sea, adapted
to the screen for an all-talking picture. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Brabin took
Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer prize winning novel, and reversed every rule of screen
and stage technique to convey the book to the screen with absolute fidelity, the
picture proving one of the outstanding hits of the past year."
Why this Wilder story has remained an object of fascination with artists over
the years is a mystery to this writer, but Bridge has been filmed twice since, once
in 1944 by Rowland V.Lee for producer Benedict Bogeaus (with Akim Tamirof,
Francis Lederer, Louis Calhern and Nazimova), and recently in 2004, a straightto-video bomb with Robert DeNiro. Possibly because of the remakes, people at
Turner-Time-Warner claim that no print of the film is in their possession (at least
according to the usually reliable people at Atlanta), and the only one known to
exist, at Eastman House, is a silent version. San Luis, however, was released as
a part-talkie. The dialogues were written by John Howard Lawson. For Brabin,
it was like a class reunion, with old acquaintances (Henry B. Walthall, Tully
Marshall) and actors he will use again (Ernest Torrence). The literary quality of
the book was an akward fit for a drama, and Brabin's adaptation was reported by
"serious" critics to be straightforward, but with only the spectacular fall when the
bridge collapses standing out.
Class war on board: The Ship From Shanghai (1929)
55
With The Ship from Shanghai, Brabin began his run of talking pictures under
the exclusive contract mentioned earlier, which possibly happened as a settlement
of his Ben-Hur lawsuit against the studio. At MGM he alternated adaptations of
forgettable and inferior plays with a few remarkable pieces, which alone would
be good enough to warrant bringing him back from obscurity, even if he hadn't
had such a disinguished career in silent pictures. The Ship from Shanghai certainly
isn't of of them, however. As someone pointed out, the "ordeal' of the original
title, which refered to the passengers of a yacht being taken over by its mutinous
crew, often carries over to the audience. But it is also too much fun to pass on,
a rare example of what happens when a card-carrying Communist (and John
Howard Lawson was already nicknamed "The Komissar" around town) is left to
his own devices to undermine the American public's faith in the capitalist system.
Lawson also wrote the first book on screenwriting, and this harrowing journey
from Shanghai is a case study on exactly what one shouldn't do in scriptwriting.
And how he was able to slip such class war rhetorics by Thalberg and Louis B.
Mayer remains a mystery. Besides, if we believe Joe Newman, whose first job it
was as a first assistant (he was 21 of age and had already clocked four years at
MGM), this ship of fools was left mostly rudderless during the entire shooting.
It is particularly interesting to see what this strange crew made of a Dale
Collins novel, as compared to what Hitchcock did on his Rich and Strange cruise
a year later (and he did cruise, even bringing Collins with him on the boat along
with his family). Collins's books were always set on pleasure boats, and in a way,
Brabin's was one of them. Crew and cast were billeted at the very pleasant and
luxurious St-Catherine Hotel on Catalina Island (owned by the Wrigley chewinggum family), or sometimes on the yacht offshore. According to Newman, Brabin
was more interested in living it up at the St-Catherine than in reining in his star
Louis Wolheim's appalling hammy excesses, or Lawson's laughable dialogue.
56
The latter's pompous letter of intent, written on June 20, 1929, should have been a
warning:
The method is to present the theme of class-war, rich against poor, by
continually alternating small scenes of small talk (the aristocrats) with scenes
of dark despair and colourful action (the crew and the bitter fight of Ted -the
stewart- for mastery).
He also recommends going back to the book, especially for dialogues, something
he didn't follow through. The beginning of the film is the best and the most entertaining,
shot silent-style, with cards like "Even by those far away waters of the Yellow Whang-Pu".
The piece opens with stock shots of China life and Shanghai night life. Then, in a
cabaret, an all-Chinese rag-time band, complete with coolie hats and a Chinese singer,
plays the then-recent Arthur Freed radio hit "Singing in the Rain". A feisty Chinese
couple does the shimmy, the girl sporting a Louise Brooks hairdo. It's all downhill after
this, as soon as we're introduced to the five-person party which has the rich idea to cross
back to America on a friend's yacht. The Anglo-American group is a dull lot, air-headed
(like the unbearable Conrad Nagel), superior and snooty like Carmel Myers, or just
plain jittery like Kay Johnson. They refer to the crew as "cattle" or "apes", and soon
those will answer in kind -- at least the ever-sneering steward Ted, played by Wolheim,
and the German cook (who has only "fat between his eyes", but is spellbound by Ted's
class-war party rhetoric). A war of nerves develop during a long dead calm, then comes
a storm which destroys most of the food and water reserves. Collins' book had the cook
and Ted killing each other over Dorothy (Kay Johnson), but Lawson cooked up, in
his own words, "an entirely new finish". Ted would have the rich passengers board a
leaky dinghy, but one of them (Nagel) would manage to hang on to the yacht as the
dinghy pushes off. This finish wasn't used, but the film's ending isn't much better. Still,
during Ted's many outrages performed on the master race, when he denies them water,
Lawson manages to sneak in lines like, "I've cornered that water, same as you make a
corner in stock", which would take on some savor and topicality when the picture was
released, right after Black Thursday and the 1929 stock market crash. After Nagel has
been put out of commission by the cook, the passengers are entirely at Ted's mercy. But
he wants Kay Johnson's love and approval, not just rape her, and he has her accept to
come to dinner with him, in exchange for good treatment of the others. Early on he
had drooled over her slippers, and lusted after "those English girls, all fair and pink."
The dinner scene has actually some tension, when she lets him kiss her. But then, in
an entirely unconvincing turn, Ted flips out when she tells him he's mad, "stark raving
mad". This realization pushes him, disappointingly, to jump overboard, and provide
dinner for the sharks. The old English biddy ("Lady Old Bat") then pontificates, "Poor
Ted, he saw himself at last." This last line indicates that someone shifted the direction
of the story, and altered the tone, but it is difficult to accept that it was the director's
doing. Even for a fist fight between two crew members, a task he could always rise up
to in the past, the flat-footed direction indicates that Brabin wasn't interested, or wasn't
even aboard. "He needed a lot of help from his assistants," said Joe Newman 16. "He was
older than most directors at the studio, almost sixty." (This was a decidedly common
perception of the then forty-nine years old Englishman.) As the rich group are left
adrift, licking their wounds and being noble with each other, a liner finally appears,
and the "sound of civilization at last" (as the card reads) is that of a jazz band. Still, it is
interesting that the air-headed idle rich will also be made fun of in similar manner in
Hitchcock's episodic, spotty Rich and Strange. Which didn't fare so well either.
16 interview
with the author, August 2002
Proletarian Revenge: Louis Wolheim and Ivan Linow in The Ship From Shanghai.
58
In 1929, MGM had had a surprising (and wonderful) hit with W. S. Van Dyke's
The Pagan, which revealed Ramon Novarro's pleasant singing voice, in addition
to his already well known and overused naked torso. After too other attempts at
casting him in operettas (The Devil May Care, and the aptly titled In Gay Madrid), the
front office decided to pair him again with his usual leading ladies Dorothy Jordan
and Renee Adoree, but this time in a drama, written by Dorothy Farnum, who had
done The Pagan. This one had a falsely prurient title, Call of the Flesh ,but was a wellmounted production, reminiscent in grace (if not scope) of Ingram's Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse, at least in the beginning. A Brabin trademark camera movement
over a convent wall unveiled the main theme, a conflict between the secular and
the religious, the village and the convent. Novarro was a tango dancer and singer
in love with an innocent girl educated in the convent. The songs and the story were
a bit silly, but there were great moments between Novarro and Adoree (whose last
film this was, before she died of tuberculosis, at 35), and tender ones with his music
teacher and friend. Ernest Torrence hammed it up with gusto in this part, but it didn't
hurt the film in the least. By contrast, Novarro and Jordan's acting is very natural
and modern. There are inventive ways of introducing the songs, such as a singing
lesson interrupted by the La Rumbarita, a rotund diva turned landlady, played by
Mathilde Comont, who like Adoree had been in Vidor's La Boheme. The film starts
like a Viennese operetta, but instead of sexual jokes and duels, we are soon treated
to a lot of guff about giving the convent girl back to God. With this in mind, Novarro
contrives to make his bride hate him, and then, presto, relieved of his burden, he
sings like a god in front of royalty because he at last knows what suffering means.
He has soul! (only James M.Cain could come up with something more contrived, as
in the plot of Serenade). Novarro sings opera in French on his deathbed, in a priest
costume. Lola (Adoree) sacrifices herself also, going to Seville to fetch the girl, so
we can have a sublime finale. But Brabin does well with this sort of tripe, showing a
keen sense for architecture; and the photography by Merritt B.Gerstad is great, as
are Gibbons' sets. Novarro is delicious, both in the funny flirting scenes and in the
"sublime" ones. He never departs from his impish demeanor, never believes any of
this story, and neither do we. Compared with the Mamoulian and Lubitsch filmed
operettas of the same period, it is of course sub-par. But then, compared with a film
of the same period like Love in the Rough, a golfing musical by Charles Reisner with
Dorothy Jordan and Robert Montgomery as a golf champ, one can see how advanced
the Brabin picture is. Novarro directed the Spanish version of Call of the flesh, called
La Sevillana, as well as the French (Le chanteur de Séville). John Douglas Eames in
The MGM Story mentions a Technicolor love scene between Novarro and Dorothy
Jordan, but it is missing in the print occasionally shown by TCM. On the first day of
release (August 28, 1930), Louella Parsons in her column reported more about the
long lines at the Loew's State Theater on Broadway, downtown Los Angeles, than
on the film proper. Management had been forced to open its doors before 10 am.
"I have no doubt that those who plan Ramon Novarro's pictures chose 'The Call of the
Flesh' with a knowledge of what his public wants," sneered Parsons. "Some of us, who
would prefer less drama, must bow to the crowd that gathered in front of the theater at an
early hour. Through this heavy mass of drama, Ramon Novarro remains gay, happy, an
insouciant youth with a terrific conceit until finally he is stricken and takes to his bed, a
victim of unhappy love. Ernest Torrence, who plays and sings with astonishing ease, is
particularly good as Juan's teacher and friend."
59
Shades of Maurice Tourneur: The Great Meadow (1930).
The next year, Brabin found himself once again entrusted with a big and
costly prestige project for the studio that once fired him, a historical drama shot
on locations in wide screen process. Raoul Walsh had just made The Big Trail
using the Grandeur 70mm format a year before. MGM borrowed Grandeur
cameras (shooting 70mm film) from the Fox Film Corporation but called it
Realife on promotional and advertizing material. King Vidor's Billy the Kid was
also released in this format in selected and equipped venues, but also printed
35 mm of the films as well. According to Joe Newman, who was once again
assisting Brabin on this one, it was an extremely arduous shoot, first on locations
all over the Sonora gold country around a place called Dardanelles, which were
standing in for Kentucky. Then the company moved to another tent camp on
Sherwood Lake, in the Santa Monica Mountains, and there they built a real scale
stockade. Joe Newman: "Brabin used a lot of moving shots, including, for an Indian
attack when the whites are surrounded in a last ditch circle, a 360° circular shot, done with
an old fashioned preambulator dolly, all this with the heavy cameras, it was quite a feat.
Brabin's editor on this was Tod Browning's editor, Erroll Taggart – and he helped him a
great deal." A set photo shows this dolly track in the wilderness being constructed.
The cinematographer was William Daniels, Garbo's favorite, who according to
Newman loved exterior shooting and roughing it on moving vehicles.
Grandeur cameras and cameramen on the shoot of The Great Meadow. Brabin can be seen second from top, wearing a raincoat.
61
Preparing for the 380 degree dolly shot on The Great Meadow.
The print I saw (35 mm) showed a truncated circular camera movement
on this particular scene. The Great Meadow, originally a novel by Elizabeth
Madox Roberts, told the inspiring story of Virginians going over the Blue Ridge
Mountains to Kentucky, at the call of Daniel Boone (played by an uncredited
John Miljan). The first half is fairly static and boring. Johnny Mack Brown as the
lead proves to be a liability, and every character in the story is much too goodhearted to elicit any heat. But then Brabin changes gears: there is a very long
track-shot on a muddy path, with just the legs of people and animals showing;
later, the same shot, but the legs are skinnier and scabbier and maimed. Brabin
shoots a landslide in the same economical manner. But the mountain people's
creaky language and the horrible sound just does not fly. It gets authentic enough
once they reach "Kentucky" and the fort. There is a stunning sequence in the
mountains, worthy of Tourneur and Clarence Brown's The Last of the Mohicans, but
otherwise we only have to guess at the grandeur of some of the mountain scenes
from the location stills in the studio collection at the Herrick Library, which
are particularly beautiful. On the other hand, the Indians are so bad they were
criticized in the contemporary notices, and the pioneer women are seen wearing
lipstick and eyeshadow. Eleanor Boarman loves Brown, but he's reported killed,
so she goes with another fellow, then when Brown comes back alive, she sticks to
the other fellow out of fairness, and Brown steps aside. It's all too noble -- Victorian
sentiments in coonskin – and all in all pretty creaky, but there is a naturalness
of movement and a grace which will be further displayed in Sporting Blood .
62
Apart from the usually crabby Variety reviewer's, the film got good notices. Much
was made of the original novel, obviously a crowd pleaser and a best seller,
which had warranted such expenses; adapters Brabin and Edith Ellis (a regular
collaborator of Brabin's) were commended by the New York Times for keeping
the tone, dialogues, and for "painstakingly reconstituting the colonial setting down to
tallow candles and the roasting irons." This last laudatory remark could just as well
be used as a damning characterization of his art and style: a care for details, with
uneven attention given to pace and dramatic impact. Years later, Manny Farber
will make the same remarks about producer Val Lewton's costume pictures. The
Times reviewer went on to say that Brabin "has thrown overboard the stock attractions
of pioneering films", giving us a "stern trek lightened with grim humor." The Sun had it
right, given Johnny Mack Brown's wooden delivery, remarking: "It has a genuine
feel for the South, but would have been better as a silent film." The Variety reviewer,
however, was deaf to "the lovely lilting prose of Miss Elizabeth Maddox Roberts" which
had been so faithfully preserved, and called the picture "a rather sorry mess". "How
this got through its rushes and escaped the Metro shelves probably will never be explained."
The American, on the other hand, praised Brabin for the film's "pastoral beauty
and authentic atmosphere of pre-revolutionary America." And the critic, for one, likes
the Indians: "When they take a scalp, it looks like the real thing."
Sporting Blood, Brabin's next film, is known by film-buffs only for being Clark
Gable's first picture, even if he appears well after the middle of the story, as an
out-and-out villain whose face looks like it hasn't decided which way it is going to
grow. But it is possibly the director's finest film, maybe the talking equivalent of
his celebrated but unseen Driven. It is a very affecting and lovely story adapted by
Brabin, Willard Mack, and the usually excellent Wanda Tuchock. Madge Evans
is very engaging in this, as well as her Kentucky colonel father played by Ernest
Torrence -- but the horses and the horse lads are the real stars here. A clownish
bit featuring Marie Prevost as a silly rich dame in horse circles is the only flaw, but
it is mercifully short. The film was based on Horseflesh, a recent Saturday Evening
Post story by Frederick Hazzlitt Brennan, but it has been considerably transformed.
Harold Rosson's photography is superb, especially the long sequence with rain, sun,
thunder and spooked horses, and he's making the most of the locations. Real horse
farms were used in the bluegrass country around Lexington, Kentucky (Elmendorf,
Greentree, Dixiana and Elmstead.) Much was made in the publicity material and
by reviewers about the final race being shot at the real Kentucky Derby. Actually,
only a few paddocks were filmed there, but Brabin also used newsreel footage of
Vice-President Charles Curtis attending the race. Other locations included Walnut
Creek, in northern California. The "Derby" race, fake as it is, is nevertheless exciting
and climactic, complete with the usual suspense of half-cut reins and the Colonel's
horse winning in spite of his bribed jockey's efforts to rein him in. One would be
tempted to write that Brabin was filming his Ben-Hur chariot race with this. Indeed,
in an early draft of what was still titled Horseflesh, Brabin dictated a prologue on
horseracing (typical of his thorough, all-inclusive, stodgy thinking process), which
he saw as a montage that would start with the American five-toed midget horse (!),
go on to the Romans – actually including footage of the Ben-Hur race ! -- and end
with the original first modern horse race at Haymarket. This was a bit cheeky maybe,
or just boring, and the prologue was wisely junked.
63
But the production files in the Herrick Library MGM collection leaves no
doubt as to Brabin's crucial part in the adaptation and preparation of Sporting
Blood , and in its artistic success. Early on, to supervisor Hunt Stromberg, he objects
to the original's hackneyed story point involving a ruined Kentucky colonel, and
demurs to other scenes out of pure common sense and economy ("There is no
way of making a horse register these emotions, and there is no particular reason
for the horse looking depressed," he writes at one point). It is clear from the early
memos that Brabin is wide awake on this one, even excited. "This scene isn't worth
any footage, besides, whips are not used at races." "This stockmarket scene has
been done recently on this lot, therefore showing a stockmarket scene would be
a duplication". He also, wisely, toned down the gangster element of the original
story, as well as its violence. Similarly, he got rid of the melodrama, striving instead
for a graceful, even lyrical script. Right from the start he recommended shooting
on Kentucky breeding farms, and his early drafts have indications that leave no
doubt as to what he was striving for, and got on the screen: "This is a stunning shot,
the sleek mares running about with their foals frisking and kicking at their heels.
64
The sun is brilliant – the grass luxuriant and green." For once, Brabin didn't
leave his story or his visuals in the locker room: the film is a stunning pastoral,
the black help on the farm are not treated like the usual clowns or pickaninnies
– a few of them are even smart and dignified, like Uncle Ben (John Larkin).
There are no darky jokes, no bug-eyes, à la John Ford. Sam, the lad who feels
responsible for the mare's death, is black, and we feel for him, just like we would
for any character in any drama. This is an elegiac film John Ford could have
made, especially the beginning, when one of his regulars, J. Farrell MacDonald,
comes to the Reliance Farm and visits Ernest Torrence. The latter of course is no
Kentucky colonel, just a horse breeder and trader, like MacDonald. Torrence is
strangely subdued, for once. The pace is leisurely at the beginning, to the point
of drowsiness sometimes, but the sequence in which the horses are caught under
a storm – which looks like a real storm – with Queen the fowling mare falling
in water and mud, is extraordinary. "I don't know why I have these coloreds",
muses Torrence, "but they keep coming year after year." The picture becomes
somewhat schizophrenic in the second half, a more banal racing story, with
crooked gamblers and venal trainers. Ruby (Madge Evans) falls under the spell
of croupier Clark Gable, and he uses her to his ends. But she eventually goes
straight, like the colt Tommy Boy, selling her jewels to pay for his training and
recovery. To everyone else, Tommy is damaged goods, like Ruby. Lew Cody is
also in the film, and Gable appears very late in the story. He had top billing on
the credits, but this only because there was no one prominent in the rest of the
cast, and the studio had already started building him up. Joseph Newman, who
didn't assist Brabin on this one, shed some light on Gable's rise to fame: "George
Hill is the man who helped me the most and groomed me to become a director –
something that didn't happen often at MGM with assistants. On the first picture
I worked with him, The Secret Six, I recommended Clark Gable to him. I had
already plugged him with Harry Beaumont for the part of a fresh piano player
on Dance, Fools, Dance. George Hill showed that bit of film to Thalberg, who
agreed. That year, Clark Gable made eight pictures at MGM."
For once, even Variety was convinced, judging Sporting Blood: " Well above
the average in most of its varied departments – a moving story. Once in a while, a minor
member of the cast steals the picture, and here it's a horse. The whole business seems to be a
feather in the directorial cap of Charles Brabin." The New York News agreed that "Gable
certainly doesn't steal this swell picture. Brabin certainly deserves applauses for setting
the story to the screen as gently as it is powerful. The romantic theme isn't much, and isn't
missed whenever Tommy Boy (the colt) gets the spotlight, and that's most often." The World
Telegraph found it "very entertaining and gorgeous", and Brabin's direction "crisp and
sure. Hokum or not, Brother Brabin has made an exciting picture - most interesting stable
stuff we've seen in a long time".
65
Relaxing at MGM, take two. Story editor Sam Marx on the left, Brabin on the right, with cigar.
Hot on the heels of his best reviewed picture in years, Brabin made
MGM's best gangster picture of the Thirties, The Beast of the City, helped in part
by novelist-turned-writer-for-hire W. R. Burnett, who had a deep knowledge
of Midwestern city politics and could show corruption at all levels of public
life like no one else. The Beast of the City credit sequence is as startling as it is
misleading, showing a clearly semitic Beast in the background right out of nazi
propaganda (although the villain Belmonte is played by the usually benevolent –
and Danish -- Jean Hersholt, supposed to be an Italian mobster in the Al Capone
mold). Like its predecessor, The Secret Six, this film was produced under the
Cosmopolitan banner at MGM, and the anti-semitic caricature of the title is even
more interesting in view of W. R. Hearst's famous trip to Nazi Germany in 1934.
66
The Secret Six, a film devised to reprise the recent success of The Big House, with the
same participants George Hill, Frances Marion and Wallace Beery, was based on
a real life organization of Chicago businessmen, the Chicago Crime Commission,
and already had hints of vigilante feelings developped later in The Beast of the City
and Gabriel Over the Whitehouse. It is known that this last film had been produced by
Walter Wanger at the behest of Hearst as a sort of Valentine to F. D. Roosevelt for his
inauguration. Four years earlier Hearst had supported Louis B. Mayer's good friend
Herbert Hoover, but as a result of the latter's snub of Marion Davis when the press
magnate invited him to San Simeon, Hearst had switched alliances and in the 1932
presidential campaign supported FDR against both Al Smith and Hoover. Hearst
had been closely involved in the making of Gabriel, directed by Gregory LaCava,
one of the strangest and most ambiguous picture to come out of Hollywood. He
even had written certain speeches for Walter Huston (who played the President) to
address Congress with. But the Hays Office and Louis B. Mayer had considerably
meddled with the picture (as did FDR), which left Hearst deeply dissatisfied with his
partner at MGM. Yet he only protested in private and had his newspapers endorse
the film. The same happened with Brabin's The Beast of the City, a film the Chief
neither liked or even understood.
L'histoire de The Beast of the City résumée en une image: :
La Bête (Jean Hersholt), la Belle (Jean Harlow), et la Loi (Walter Huston).
In it, Walter Huston plays "Fighting Fitzpatrick", a hot-headed but honest police
captain. Wallace Ford, his easy-going brother, goes for Harlow in a big way, playing
into the hands of the mob. The Irish element is very strong here, which may explain
the presence of Ford regulars like Jack Pennick. And, having attended a Catholic
school (St Francis Xavier) in Liverpool, Brabin must have had Irish roots as well.
67
A very intelligent script was written from Burnett's story and continuity
by John Lee Mahin (who had written Scarface for Howard Hugues and Hawks,
before Ben Hecht came on board). Burnett, in both his interview with me and
the one included in Patrick McGilligan's Backstory, vol 1, joked that everything
was wrong in the casting of this picture: "making an American hoodlum picture and
giving it to an Englishman. We'd have a story conference, and he'd go right to sleep in your
face. But strangely enough, it turned out well, and he did a good job of directing. Hersholt
was a greasy, offensive Capone." And Brabin sure knew about Irishmen. Good
scenes abound in The Beast of the City, like the short one between the mayor and
the lame duck police chief (something the Coen Brothers will remember when
writing Miller's Crossing), or the one of Harlow and Wallace Ford getting sloshed
together. For the longest time, the authors let us think she's a good girl with bad
habits, so it is very effective when she turns out to be thoroughly rotten. The
film was so good in its knowledge of the underworld, and so unflinching about
municipal corruption, that the studio felt it had to tag a ridiculous, long-winded
warning at the beginning, from none other than President Herbert Hoover. This
was just before the gangster movie business in Hollywood would turn into the
G-man business. But one wonders how W. R. Hearst let that pass, as he despised
Hoover. But then the old man was not always on the ball, as witnesses this letter
to Louis B. Mayer 17 after the relase of Brabin's picture. It is fascinatingly close
to another Hollywood maverick and outsider's misreadings, Howard Hugues, as
exemplified by the rare written communications he left behind.
Dear Louis:
I don't like the lesson of The Beast of the City, and I don't believe
you or Irving do if you analyze it. The police chief swears to do his duty
and does it. What is the consequence? He is criticized by the press,
repudiated by the public, humiliated by the jury, and finally killed by
the gangsters, leaving a lovely family without protection. Under such
circumstances, the average policeman or the average person will say,
what's the use of trying to be honest? The picture has proved that honesty
is the worst policy. It is all right for the boy to be killed. There is no other
way out for him. But why murder all the police after making clear that
they all have families dependent on them? We establish clearly not that
the wages of sin is death, but that the wages of virtue is death, and I guess
most policemen will decide when they see the picture that the easiest
way is to take the money. I suppose I am all wrong, as usual (!), but I
think that the wholesale slaughter at the end is ludicrous and the dying
handclasp a cheap study in strained sentiment. The director even had to
shoot poor Jean Harlow in the little belly she had used so effectively in
her dancing number earlier in the picture. The only person who wasn't
shot was the supervisor, and he should have been, why wait till sunrise?
17 in E.D. Coblentz papers, Bancroft Library, U.C.Berkeley, quoted in Louis Pizzitola's Hearst Over Hollywood, Columbia
University Press, 2002
68
Besides showing that the Chief understood nothing of the story or of the
film makers' intensions, this letter is indicative of how shocking Brabin's film
was, making Hearst quiver, and not just about Harlow's "little belly". Still, this
does not fully explains Hearst's quasi subservience to Mayer when it came to
Cosmopilitan business. But it does explain his moving his organisation to the
Warner Burbank lot in 1935. Examination of consecutive scripts show that
Burnett actually wrote most of the story. The only element missing in his versions
is the wonderful life-of-a-police station element in the first half of the picture
-- which is as episodic, fluid and funny as any Hill Street Blues episode would
be decades later. At times dialogues overlap like a crude version of an Altman
ensemble piece, and the picture is lively as no other in Brabin's career. John
Lee Mahin's dialogue is cracking-hot and funny, especially the prescinct station
throwaway scenes , and the pre-Code, extremely hot lines between Wallace Ford
and Jean Harlow. It also helps, with all these words, that the actors, with the
exception of Hersholt, give very natural performances. Besides the featured
actors, the film is a regular mug book of crusty character actors, most of them
old silent performers, others just at the beginning of their long movie criminal
careers. In the opening sequences we see, operating the phones, John Ford
regular Jack Pennick and scowling Edward Brophy. Nat Pendleton plays an out
of town hood.The picture is also a silver screen Mick convention, with Emmett
Corrigan playing the police chief who has to step down temporarily to assuage
a Reform Committee. Elmer Ballard plays the shaky mayor. Sandy Roth and
Warner Richmond are Walter Huston's die-hard faithfuls, Mac and Tom. Mac,
honorary Irish among them whose real name is John McKowsky, is always after
the reporters to get his name spelled right in the headlines – which leads to a
very touching scene when he dies.
"You drink beer to make you cool, and it just makes you hot":
Jean Harlow and Wallace Ford getting sloshed in The Beast of the City.
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As of September 3, 1931, Burnett's underworld story still bore the revealingly
civic-minded title What Are You Going to Do About It? It already had mobster
Belmonte in it, but Fitzpatrick was named Jim Patrick, and he had no brother.
Much is made of a payoff blackbook the cops are after, and, although Blackbook
was suggested as a title at one point, the whole business was eventually dropped.
There was a good scene in the end with Belmonte and Patrick handcuffed
together, the policeman dying. Then, by the end of October, the story is called
The City Sentinel. In this seventy-five page treatment by Burnett, the thugs are
all clearly "eye-talians", and the embattled policeman is named Jim Fitzpatrick.
The first "plot scene" is already in place, with four men beaten to death and
left hanging. There is a funny exchange between a reporter and Fitz, as they
eye someone being carted away on a stretcher outside a crime scene. "Police
reporter. New One. He fainted," explains the newsman, grinning. "He better
take up the saxophone", the captain replies. In the film, these lines are buried in
crowd noises, but no less effective. There are several digs at Hollywood gangster
movies, a pet peeve of Burnett's. And a hunchback informer named Humpy will
be dropped from the final scenario, which also has less family business than in
Burnett's treatment. But Ed Fitzpatrick, the brother, is there already, set up by
Daisy (Harlow) to play into Belmonte's hands. The finale is there as well, and
the vigilante sentiment pervading the whole picture: "When the law fails," Mahin
wrote in Fitzpatricks's speech to his men before the final shootout, leaving them
an out ("You're all family men," etc). And he wrote all those quiet and truculent
moments, which are the best in the picture, especially a very long and leisurely
get-acquainted scene between brother Ed (Wallace Ford) and "stenographer"
Harlow. "Stenographer, eh? You must get paid pretty well when you work", he
says, eyeing the oriental decor of her swank appartment. Then when she lies
down langourously in front of him and he tells her off, she tells him "You know
I wouldn't pull a gag like this." "You might. You got the build for it," he retorts.
Both Harlow and Ford are up for this kind of repartee as well.
– And you don't like to be hurt, do you? He says.
– Oh, I don't know, it's kind of fun sometimes, when it's done in the right
spirit.
That does it for him. He crosses over: "Get the beer." Later, as they both get
sloshed, she says, "You know, it's a funny thing. You drink beer to make you cool,
and it just makes you hot." She goes to open the window, and calls him to watch
a party across the street, where they see a woman bellydancing on a table. "That
girl doesn't know how to dance." And she shows him the proper way with the
"little belly" that so moved showgirl fancier W. R. Hearst. Wallace Ford grabs her
and kisses her. She seems to be taken, and maybe she is. "I never knew I'd ever
fall for a copper. Are you gonna try to reform me?
– What for?"
71
In the lineup: Harlow in The Beast of the City.
Jim Fitzpatrick, after an punitive exile in suburbia and an arm wound
incured after stopping bank robbers, gets appointed Police Chief by the Reform
Party, but it doesn't profit his brother Ed, who keeps getting deeper into Harlow
and her crowd. He gets into the rackets in a mild way with Belmonte, then fails
his brother as the latter gives him a chance to prove himself. In the ensuing car
chase, a child is killed, as well as Mac, Jim's friend. Jim has Ed arrested for murder
along with the two hoods, but Belmonte rigs the jury, and a disgusted judge has no
choice but to release them. Ed then comes to his brother's house, as the latter is
seen brooding in the dark, weeping. Ed wants to redeem himself, and Jim allows
him to play a crucial part in the final, desperate showdown he's set on trying.
72
"When justice fails", a dozen family men, handpicked from the force, will do justice
at gun point. A party for Ed and the released men is going on at Celli's. Harlow is
seen under her true colors, coarse and drunk. Ed comes in, shoulder hunched and
hands in jacket pockets. He slaps the "Big Fellow" and tells him he's going to "spill"
on all of them. Then Fitz appears, with his death squad. "This is going to be private."
The guests and revellers all run outside. Cholo, Belmonte's right-hand man, sticks a
gun in Ed's back and threatens to "cut him in half", but Ed gives his brother leave to
go ahead, and gets out of the way as Cholo shoots him down. The hoods outnumber
the cops, but they go at it standing all in a row, like in an eighteenth century battle.
They keep moving forward, shooting. Everybody dies.
Walter Huston is of course fabulous, in a role made for him, but Wallace Ford is
equally good, if not even more effective in his quiet way, as the weaker, more human
man. Mickey Rooney is spotted among the Fitzpatrick brood, already mugging, but
still under the name Mickey McGuire he had legally adopted, after the comedy series
he starred in. As for Harlow, as a critic remarked rather jocularly: "Hey, the blonde
babe can act!" While Louella Parsons praised the film in the Los Angeles Examiner (it
was, after all, a Cosmopolitan production – one of her boss' company), she misread
the ending even more completely than Hearst, writing in her column of April 4,
1932: "I am glad that in the end where so many of the characters are shot down in the line of
duty, Walter Huston is saved. It would have spoiled the story to have him lose his life after his
brave fight." The policeman does appear in double exposure over Fitzpatrick's corpe
(a Brabin holdover from his silent days), reminding the audience that he had sworn
to give up his life in the line of duty, but apparently this all went above Parsons' head.
As it is, Huston dies first grimacing in pain, then smiling, a truly moving scene as
he clutches the hand of his dead brother Ed, who redeemed himself. But not for
Parsons, who is too dim to understand and calls the character "cowardly", when
he just got himself sawn in two by Pietro Cholo (a wonderfully sneering J. Carroll
Naish). The Shakespearian finale in the speakeasy is outstanding, glorious in its
cordite smoke absurdity, prefiguring the ending of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.
Only the sound deficiencies mar the sequence somewhat, as the MGM stage floors
were still too sonorous at the time, giving a theatrical effect to what was a grisly,
realistic finish. Even today the picture has a wealth of details and funny business,
like when Belmonte tries to tempt Ed and get him into the rackets, in a minor way.
"I got a corner on the grapefruit market," he says. It is a legitimate line, as Ed then
offers him to get his produce to town through his precinct. But 1932 moviegoers
would certainly get the joke: The Public Enemy, with its famous grapefruit sequence,
had been a hit only eight months before. Stylistically, Brabin also outdoes himself
here. Many scenes in the police station are shot on the move, in semi close-ups,
showing legs or feet -- or just bodies cut at the shoulder. And, in a very effective way,
a clock is ticking all through the scene where Fitz sits in the dark, licking his wounds
and making his final, momentous decision. Similarly, all the details before he goes
for the showdown are great: taking his life insurance policy and his bankbook out of
his bedroom dresser, kissing his wife and son, looking at the twin daughters in their
room for a minute, then putting papers and keys on a corner table before walking
out the door. All this is first rate, inventive visual narrative, and certainly not the work
of a lazy has-been, as some who knew him in those days have characterized Brabin.
"Jean Hersholt in The Beast of the City made a good, greasy Capone type" (W. R. Burnett)
74
But, like all studio directors then, he could only be as good as the material
he was given to work with. His next assignment, New Morals for Old, was a very
talky affair about parents and children not understanding (but tolerating) each
other, and was daring only in appearance. The picture only comes to life for
twenty minutes when the son (Robert Young) takes off to Paris to get a life,
and study art. He gets a studio, and as he bangs a nail into the wall to hang a
picture, his neighbor bangs on the door and she is. . . . Myrna Loy, looking very
Bohemian with her long hair loose on her shoulders. He also presumably bangs
her as well, as we see them in the morning happily drinking café au lait in their
pyjamas. But besides these mild pre-Code pecadillos, Louis B. Mayer had every
reason to love this pictures, as he publicly claimed he did, since the final message
clearly was that there is nothing like home and family. And so what if you're
gifted only as a wall paper designer? The only sign that Brabin was not asleep on
the set (as Joe Newman claimed he often was) are two reverse traveling shots,
one signifying the loneliness of the horrible saccharine mother. Lewis Stone is
pretty bad, Young overacts, the sister (Margaret Perry) is awful and fat. Broadway
playwright Van Strutten was brought to Culver City to consult on his play After
All, and for publicity purposes. Then veterans Zelda Sears and Wanda Tuchock
took over, provided a pretty zesty dialogue to a play which didn't deserve it, but
just couldn't save the story from the stink of its morals. It was released to tepid
praises by movie critics, who commended Brabin for his "tender understanding"
of John van Druten play (Jerry Hoffman - in Film)
When asked about the first of two pictures she made with Brabin, actress
Karen Morley said she remembered nothing about it, unlike Mask of Fu Manchu
later on. The Washington Masquerade was based on a 1920's play by Henri
Bernstein, but was more in tune with the spate of populist political pictures that
were made just before and at the beginning of Roosevelt's presidency. There
was a certain vigilante feel in the air, stemming from a sense of powerlessness
against general corruption, which Brabin had explored on the city scale with
his earlier film. Here it was more W. R. Hearst than W. R. Burnett, however.
In 1932 and 1933 alone, a number of very strange films were released, from
Capra's American Madness (the first Hollywood picture about bank runs) to Carl
Laemmle Jr.'s Okay, America (A Tay Garnett picture in which reporter Lew Ayres
ends up killing the gangster strangling his city, when he finds the law will never
do the job), to Walter Wanger and LaCava's more famous Gabriel Over the White
House. Here Barrymore is elected Senator in a midwestern state on a platform
of public ownership of utilities and national resources, with Morley playing a
one-dimensional unscrupulous adventuress. His marriage to a wily divorcee
Washington hostess (Morley) compromises him and he fails, only to redeem
himself in front of the Senate by frankly exposing his actions, and his reasons.
Critics found Lionel Barrymore much less hammy than usual, and very believable
as a weak man. Other reviews praised the director, like The Washington Sun
("Excellently directed by Brabin, excellent atmosphere, unusually literate, facile dialogue").
Bernstein's play was dusted up by veteran dialoguist John Meehan, who would
also write the screenplay of Stage Mother for Brabin the following year.
75
For the much ballyhooed Three Barrymores extravaganza Rasputin and the
Empress, Ethel asked specifically for Brabin, possibly on the advice of Lionel, who
had just worked with him. The picture was doomed from the start, there were
script problems not yet solved when the three stars became available, and there
was no question of postponing, as Ethel Barrymore hated Los Angeles and always
wanted to go back to New York as soon as possible. According to her biographer
John Kobler, she quickly became exasperated with Brabin's usual leisurely pace.
"One day," writes Kobler, " she grabbed a wall phone on the set and bawled to
Louis B. Mayer: 'See here, Mayer, let's get rid of this Brahbin, or Brabin, or whatsis
name...' Brabin immediately left the set, never to recover from the embarrassment
of being pulled from that film." This last statement seems questionable, as Brabin
was tapped almost immediately by Thalberg to take over another picture on which
the studio had much at stake, The Mask of Fu Manchu. In any event, problems
on Rasputin did not stop with Brabin's departure. The picture, which Richard
Boleslawski took over, earned MGM its biggest lawsuit yet – this time not from
Brabin, but from Prince Youssoupov, who sued for libel in London over the
film's depiction of his wife being raped by Rasputin. The studio lost big, and the
production didn't warrant taking such a risk: Lionel Barrymore was allowed to mug
all over the place, Ethel was stiff, and John was the only one showing any sensitivity.
His performance as the fictional Prince Paul Chegodieff was noted upon by the
critics as being "restrained", "noble", and "sensitive". It is as a result of this suit that
almost every feature thereafter has carried the message: "The characters of this
photoplay are fictitious", or similarly worded.
The Mask of Fu Manchu was Thalberg's bid to compete with Carl Laemmle Jr.'s
sensational success with horror pictures at Universal. He had failed in February
with Freaks, which was way too original and extreme for contemporary American
audiences, and this time the studio intended to put every chance on its side, going
as far as borrowing Boris Karloff from the competition. The Englishman had given
Universal its biggest hit the year before with his Frankenstein's monster, but this was
to be his first speaking part, and promoted as such by the MGM publicity machine.
76
Meanwhile, Fox had joined the thrill stampede, wooing Karloff's Transylvanian
rival Bela Lugosi away from Studio City to play the evil Roxor opposite Edmund
Lowe's Chandu the Magician, a very popular radio show at the time. Fox had
entrusted the venture to William Cameron Menzies (with Marcel Varnel), and
Brabin's picture suffers by comparison, so arresting are Chandu's sets (by Max
Parker), so nimble is James Wong Howe's camera work through the Egyptian
tombs and mazes.
Still, The Mask of Fu Manchu was an amusing tongue-in-cheek romp, plainly
aimed at giving the audience every nasty thrill in the book: violence, sex, and
that box office surefire, the Yellow Peril. In Sax Rohmer's novel, Genghis Khan's
tomb has been discovered, and a team of British well-heeled explorers are sent
to Mongolia to retrieve Khan's golden mask and mighty sword, lest the evil
Fu Manchu uses them and the legend attached to them to engineer a second
takeover of Europe by the Mongols. So extreme and unadulterated was the
racism in the film that MGM recut the negative in 1974 before the title could
be exploited as "camp horror" in the following decades. Scenes and lines have
since been restored, such as the famous spider juice injection, or expletives like
"You cursed son of a white dog!" Torture scenes were censored in part, or even
entirely in many American cities and foreign countries. Japan cut so much of the
film that one wonders what was left of it.
77
Today it is difficult to gauge the impact of the film on contemporary
audiences, but Karloff and Myrna Loy clearly deliver the lines for laughs, as if
they were in on the joke. It is hard to judge whether it was intended as such by
the filmmakers. The production is impressive, Cedric Gibbons' sets imposing
and wonderfully fanciful – more "orientalist" than Chinese or Mongol – but
compared to Max Parker's sets for Chandu, especially the Egyptian rock castle,
Gibbons here is a mere interior decorator. Tony Gaudio's photography is often
striking, as with his first shot of Fu Manchu, seen in dramatic light next to a
distorting mirror. Brabin's direction has few flourishes, but they are effective, as
with the high angle shot of the Mongols up in arms, which seems to have been
taken through an opening in the sound stage roof (there is one just like this in
Chandu). Costumes are especially fine and extravagant: silk pyjamas for Fah Lo
See (Loy), Carmen Miranda headdresses for Karloff, etc. Each of the Englishmen
seen at the beginning gets his brand of torture: cowboy star Charles Starrett is
whipped, then gets a dose of tarantula juice; Lewis Stone gets the crocodiles,
Hersholt the impaling press. Karen Morley, who is hysterical throughout, is saved
for the end as sacrificial fodder. "Then conquer and BREEEED!" Fu exhorts his
Mongols, "KILL the white man and IMPREGNATE his women!' Lines like this
were excised from the negative in 1974, only to be restored in 2004, but MGM
didn't need to worry: audiences, then as now, just laughed and accepted them
as camp.
78
The shoot was chaotic and lasted two months and a half because there was no
script -- just a bunch of notes Stromberg had jotted down. As dialogue was being
churned out almost day-to-day, the filming was often delayed, which may account
for the fact that Chandu the Magician beat Fu Manchu into the theaters by over two
months. When the potato hidden in Starrett's collar kept exploding when injected
with the tarantula juice, throwing cast and crew into hysterics of laughter, coolheaded Brabin just said, "We'll shoot it in the morning." But the production values
are there, Gibbons' Gobi Desert Modern interiors displayed in all their bizarre
splendor, as are electrical wizard's Kenneth Strickfadden's lightning and zapping
effects. Strickfadden had created the effects on Frankenstein, and here he surpasses
himself, zapping hundreds of uppity Mongols into oblivion like mosquitoes on an
electrical net. Yet it is a pity that Brabin should be remembered almost solely for this
picture, to which he conributed so little. Karloff, for one, called it "a shamble", when
asked about it in 1959. The press, in 1932, was content to note the improvement of
Karloff's new Fu Manchu over Warner Oland's. But then, Oland was never propped
up by such luxurious settings, costumes, and special effects.
Brabin cared even less about his next assignment, Stage Mother, a backstage
drama co-written and adapted from a book by Bradford Ropes, the man whose
other novel had provided the basis for Warner's 42nd Street that same year. According
to Joe Newman, who again was his first assistant, Brabin "needed a lot of help from me
and others on this one. I helped him with his camera angles and his cutting. The material
wasn't too good, and the picture didn't turn out too well either." Alice Brady played "Miss
Kitty Lorraine" with the same brashness and silliness she brought to later parts in The
Gay Divorcee or My Man Godfrey. Here she's the stage mother of the title, who pushes
Maureen O'Sullivan into a career in vaudeville. She even kills a budding romance
between her daughter and Franchot Tone, fearing it could put an end to her mealticket (in 1951, Ida Lupino would use a similar plotline in Hard, Fast and Beautiful,
only transposed into the world of professional tennis). But she sees the light in the
end, and reforms. Bradford Ropes did know the seamier side of show-business, and
the film has a few moments and details to prove it. O'Sullivan was no dancer, or
singer, and was too obviously dubbed and doubled when it mattered. According to
Joe Newman, choregraphy was done by the indomitable Albertina Rasch. "She was
Dimitri Tiomkins's wife, and spoke no better English than he did. But I knew her from way
back, as she'd done the ballroom sequences on Lubitsch's The Merry Widow – with a second
unit on which I also worked."
Brabin hadn't collaborated with cinematographer Merritt Gerstad since his
last silent picture, Song of the Flesh, and the latter's work on The Secret of Madame
Blanche is the only outstanding element in this Madame X type of melodrama
which had been done by Frank Borzage in 1925 for Joe Schenck, starring Norma
Talmage. The silent version retained the title of Martin Brown's play, The Lady, but
the MGM remake was titled after the French madam who rescues a very pregnant
Sally, giving her room and board against "services" that include singing and dancing
in her brothel (as opposed to other, cruder services, in the Borzage version). This
was Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's first script for the studio, and it is a
dud. Irene Dunne is fine as usual in the first part of the story, where she can sing
and suffer with spunk, but she is dreadful when playing "aged", à la Cimarron. By
comparison, Norma Talmage in the opening scene of The Lady is vastly superior.
79
Dunne here plays a classy stage performer who marries Phillips Holmes,
the spoiled son of dreadful rich man Lionel Atwill. The film improves somewhat
when Holmes (awful as usual) commits suicide after his father cuts off his
stipend, and Dunne loses her baby to Atwill, having to eke a living singing in
French bistros. She inherits the madam's establishment, and assumes her name,
then most improbably reunites with her son during WW1 when he accidentally
kills a drunken doughboy. While the unconscious boy lies in her arms, Dunne
recognizes the name on his plate, and accuses herself of the killing in front of the
police. There is one sequence in the trenches, previous to this, which proves that
Brabin wasn't wholly disinterested in the whole affair, although such complex
camera movement was wasted on material like this: using the same movement he
had in the opening of the saloon door in Burning Daylight, he starts with a reverse
tracking-shot on a soldier emerging behind a low wall, stepping over it awkwardly
while reading his letter. Another soldier enters the shot and we follow him, as
he closes the door. We cut to the closed door, but from the inside, and track in
reverse as the boy opens the door to brag about his letter to a bunch of soldiers,
which the camera reveals while still tracking backwards. Such flourishes do not
save the picture, and peg Brabin for a silent film director getting his chops back,
in spurts, freed from the staginess imposed by early sound recording techniques.
But during the emotional scenes with Dunne, Brabin merely records. Borzage,
by contrast, made time become elastic, and melodrama become sublime.
Day of Reckoning had an interesting script by the usually good Zelda Sayres.
Richard Dix plays a loving husband and bank cashier who embezzles money to
please his silly but loving wife (Madge Evans, lovely as usual). Sayres detailed
the tribulations of Evans having to live alone while her husband did his time,
and as the film was pre-Code, we don't just have her being greatly helped by a
resourceful maid (the ultra-popular Una Merkel, clocking in her thirteenth film
for 1933), but also being tempted by her husband's "friend", played by Conway
Tearle. The drama has its share of comedy, mostly provided by Merkel and the
baby of the house (Spanky McFarland), but the story makes demands of Richard
Dix as a weak man that he sometimes can't deliver. Still, some of his scenes
register, like those in prison with a friendly trusty played by Raymond Hatton.
And, as often in a Brabin film, the picture suddenly comes to life with a wellpaced rooftop escape sequence which makes good use of locations.
80
Brabin directs Betty Furness and Jean Parker in his last MGM picture, Wicked Woman (1934)
Zelda Sears again contributed to the sceenplay of Brabin's next and final
MGM film, Â Wicked Woman. She even plays a small part in it. The story was tailormade for Viennese actress Mady Christians, whom the studio was trying out, and
she is excellent in the so-so story of a woman who kills her drunken husband about
to beat her children, not for the first time. She waits ten years to turn herself in, but
does so when she is satisfied that her children are safely launched into life. Jean
Parker and Betty Furness played the grown-up daughters, and a very young Robert
Taylor Furness' suitor. This was to be Zelda Sears' last script, as she died in 1935.
Brabin left the studio of his own accord. He and Bara were to live out their twenty
year retirement in Beverly Hills. The self-described "impostors" were still royalty,
Southern California Blue Book and all. Marion Davies, W. R. Hearst and Louise
Brooks would come to their parties. For years they kept a New York apartment at
14 E.60th Street, but Brabin couldn't take the weather any longer. They both were,
according to Bara's dentist (quoted by her biographer), "irreligious as hell". No
church or synagogue for them, just the Beverly Hills Women's Club for Theda. Her
goddaughter June Stanley recalls that both her mother and Theda "would drink
anything", and sometimes would drive to Tijuana "just to get zonked". Everybody
says that Bara was very funny, always ready to ridicule her old vamp image. As for
Brabin, his old producer Hunt Stromberg gave him a walk-on part in Jeannette
MacDonald and Nelson Eddy's final pairing, the god-awful I Married an Angel
(Brabin plays the music teacher, giving an appalling performance, a cross between
C. Aubrey Smith and a seagull). After the forties were over, their circumstances
forced them to give just one party a year at 632 North Alpine, but it was always topdrawer, with butlers, champagne and limousine service.
81
On February 1955, just when Columbia bought the rights to her life story
for a film Jerry Wald wanted to produce but never made, Theda Bara entered
Lutheran Hospital. Six weeks later she fell into a coma, and she died on April 7,
1955. Pierce Brothers officiated, body cremated and placed in the colombarium
of memory at Forest Lawn ("Theda Bara Brabin 1955"). She left everything to her
sister Lori and to the Motion Picture Fund. Brabin got $800 and her wedding ring.
In August 1957, Brabin auctioned off some of Theda's jewelry collection
in Chicago. He soon moved to Santa Monica, and died in a hospital there on
November 1957. He was 75.
In 1961, Warner Bros used Bara's 1927 Rolls Royce for its period gangester film
Portrait of a Mobster. The movie of her life, The Great Vampire, was never made.
John Grierson, the father of British documentary, once called Brabin in the
American magazine Motion Picture News "one of the five directors in Hollywood who
have a consistent visual sense and a feeling for composition. Their pictures are beautiful
but soft. They indicate no great capacity to vary their sense of visuals from soft to hard,
from gentle to brutal." The first proposition is very close to the truth, the last one
couldn't accunt for delights like Sporting Blood or The Beast of the City, or even Call
of the Flesh.
Sources:
Vamp, by Eve Golden
Theda Bara, by Ronald Genini (who lifts stuff word for word from Dewitt Bodeen's
From Hollywood).
Also, interviews of Joseph Newman on September 2000 and August 2001; and
Karen Morley spring 2000.
Charles Silver was incredibly hospitable to me and showed me what was then
available of MOMA's quite extensive Brabin's Edison film holdings, as well as two
of his Fox silent features.
Hugh Monroe Neely, who made the documentary on Theda Bara "The Woman
With the Hungry Eyes", generously sent me his scans of pictures of Brabin in
Italy on the set of Ben-Hur.
The indispensible Ned Comstock, at the USC Film Library, found the crucial
(and until now undicovered) Joseph Schenck telegram urging to put an end to
"Ben-Hur" and June Mathis.
Thanks to T. Gene Hatcher, of Las Vegas, who has been working on a book on
all the film and theatrical versions Ben-Hur versions, past and present, for some
years now.
Kevin Brownlow most generously opened his Ben-Hur files for me, sent me
his Brabin index cards and shared the quoted Fred Niblo and Colleen Moore
letters. He also encouraged me endlessly ever since our first meeting in Sacile,
never tiring of my slow progress, procrastinating, and general ignorance of silent
films. This small survey of Charles Brabin's work simply would never have been
written, much less published, without him.
The author would ike to thank Maelle Arnaud, at Institut Lumière, for finding
the prints of the four Brabin pictures featured at the 2012 Grand Lyon Film
Festival, and Thierry Frémaux for saying yes, when everyone else said no or
maybe. I didn't even have to put a dead horse's head in his bed either.
Institut Lumière also thank Ned Price, Warner Bros vice-President of restorations.
Photo credits: author's private collection, Kevin Brownlow photo collections,
and special collections at Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture
Arts, Los Angeles.
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