Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Guide to Lloyd Bacon

"I see that the public gets action. Some others may use motion pictures as a vehicle for a psychological study. I haven't that patience." -- Lloyd Bacon

One of classical Hollywood's contract director with a solid craftsmanship and great sense of economic in execution, Lloyd Bacon, was a prolific man of action, comedy and other fast-paced Warner dramas for nearly four decades. He virtually made 100 films that regardless of their varied qualities always convey that swinging pace associated with Warner' "tough" pictures and beyond. If one carefully sieve a career of 100 films, she or he will definitely come out with five or more films for keeps. As in the Bacon's enduring filmography I found 42nd Street, Footlight ParadeMarked Woman, Brother Orchid, San QuentinMoby Dick and the Invisible Stripes as examples of his great sense of timing, his eye for composition and flawless entertainment.

Lloyd Bacon's name usually evokes the memory of pre-code Hollywood and early talkies, as his best films were made during that era. However he is also one of the least exploitative figures of the pre-code films that might be mistaken for mediocrity. Aside from being one the best comedy/musical and action specialists on Warner lot, he was known for his good ability to guide actors, as some of the best films of Pat O’Brien, James Cagney and Ann Sheridan were tidily directed by Bacon.

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Lloyd Francis Bacon was born in December 4, 1889 in San Jose, California into a theatrical family. His father was Frank Bacon, a playwright and actor and the co-author and star of Lightnin' (1918), the longest-running play in Broadway history up to that time.

Bacon had a strong interest in law, but after appearing in student plays he opted for the family business. In 1911 he joined David Belasco's Los Angeles Stock Company, toured the country and slowly built a reputation as an actor. The year 1915 saw him acting in his first silent films, mostly playing heavies opposite Broncho Billy Anderson. He also served as the double and stuntman for famous stars and substituted them in dangerous scenes.

During the first world war Bacon joined the navy where he felt at home and picked many details and anecdotes of the Navy life. Years later, when Bacon started directing films, the Navy and Navy life became one of his favorite themes and he always depicted it with humor and fortitude. (see Here Comes the Navy [1934]; Submarine D1 [1937]; Wings for the Navy [1938]; Navy Blues [1941] and Action in the North Atlantic [1943], although, personally, I think the Navy films are the least interesting and the most conventional in Bacon's filmography.)

Bacon (right) playing's Chaplin's double.

Soon after, Bacon joined Chaplin in Mutual Company and played bit parts in classics such as The Tramp, The Bank and The Champion (all from 1915), The Floorwalker, The Vagabond, The Rink, and The Fireman (from 1916) and finally Easy Street in 1917. He also worked as gag writer for Mack Sennett and since February 1921, when one of Sennett's directors fell ill, he filled the directorial chair.

The momentous decision was made in 1925, when Bacon after brief spells with Fox and Universal joined Warner Brothers. His first Warner film was Broken Hearts of Hollywood (1926), the story of an aging Hollywood star who tries to make a comeback, playing a role opposite a new rising star: her own daughter.

Bacon's next silent film, Private Izzy Murphy (1926), about the love between a Jewish boy and a catholic girl, became so popular that studio immediately prepared a sequel to it. Over the next three years, he directed 14 pictures and by 1929 he was called one of the "Ten Best" directors in Hollywood.

Bacon's coming to form happened with the arrival of sound, as if the dynamics of dialogue were crucial to his mise-en-scene. One Bacon's early sound films was a post-Jazz-Singer project for Al Jolson, called The Singing Fool (1928), and if the Jazz Singer was no more than a silent film with synchronized-from-record songs, the latter was a real talking picture with dialogues, sound effect and music. (It worth mentioning that the director of photography in The Singing Fool was the future director, Byron Haskin).

Bacon continued working with Jolson in other projects,  but their collaboration fell through as Say It With Songs (1929) turned out to be a huge commercial flop, primarily due to a half a million dollar salary of Jolson.

In 1930, Warner gave Bacon a big budget and good technical support to make the first talking version of Moby Dick, starring John Barrymore who had already appeared in the earlier silent adaptation known as The Sea Beast (1926). The film begins with a long prologue which explains how Ahab the sailor lost his leg and his love - played by a young Joan Bennett - and transformed into the bitter and vengeful Captain Ahab. Moby Dick, in spite of being totally unfaithful to Melville's novel is one of Bacon's best films a it truly demonstrates his mastery in directing action sequences. Moreover, one of the most powerful facets of the film is its highly atmospheric sets and elaborate camera moves.

Moby Dick

In 1931 Bacon was led to RKO to direct Joel McRea in Kept Husband. Today's viewers, keen on discovering the indiscreet pre-code cinema, find this one rather disappointing and conventional. "[This film] reaffirms the gender roles," observes a contemporary writer Felicia Feaster, "arguing that the man and woman should fulfill their proper duties."

In the early 1930s Bacon worked on seven films with popular comedian, Joe E. Brown, including a favorite baseball film Fireman, Save My Child (1932). It was also coincided with the time when Warner produced a series of women pictures, depicting successful business and professional women  in the urban jungle. It was in such context that Bacon made Mary Stevens M.D. (1933), with Key Francis as a pediatrician who lose her illegitimate child and then her self-confidence as a female doctor. Mary Stevens implies Bacon's discomfort with melodrama and his crude handling of modernity in American life on film.

Bacon's other expertise, and this time exactly in his forte, was directing brisk James Cagney vehicles (14 films in total), great entertainments such as Picture Snatcher (1933), The Irish in Us (1935), Here Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Frisco Kid (1935) and Boy Meets Girl (1938).

During the depression era Bacon was rewarded as the highest paid director on the studio's payroll. Meanwhile he became famous for directing five groundbreaking musicals which he made in collaboration with choreographer Busby Berkeley, including 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, both from 1933.

42nd Street
42nd Street is Bacon's first undisputed masterpiece, presenting an array of Warner studio's familiar situations and characters which eventually elevates them to a new exhilarating level. It also establishes the Cinderella plot device that became one of the most practiced narrative techniques in musical cinema (the rising starlet is given a chance when an accident prevents the actual star of the show to appear on stage.)

Right after the smashing success of 42nd Street, Bacon added another brilliant entry to the genre by making the Footlight Parade which was less coherent than the previous film, but had more attraction and movement, mostly contributed by its leading star, James Cagney. Furthermore, it exploits the sexuality more than any other musical from that period. In Footlight Parade Chester Kent (played by Cagney) is another musical producer whose troubles starts with the advent of sound to cinema, a new fad that drives him jobless.

Lloyd Bacon

Watch the Shanghai Lil number from Footlight Parade in two separate videos, and see how volcanic is Cagney in musical (and how much he has brought the energy of gangster film to the musical), and also see how daringly Bacon crosses the race boundaries in Hollywood films:

Until now, it's been very common among scholars to attribute the innovations and boldness of these musicals to Berkeley rather than Bacon, whereas some sluggishly choreographed musicals by Berkeley do exist, and on the other hand, some remarkably up-beat musical/comedies can be traced in Bacon's filmography. The Bacon/Berkeley musicals have a certain masculine punch which can only be seen, repeatedly and explicitly, in Bacon's films.

Sol Polito
Another factor involved in the success of  Bacon/Berkeley films was the presence of Sol Polito as the cinematographer whose fruitful collaboration with Bacon goes beyond the musicals and extends to nine films.

A revealing example of Bacon's musical without Berkeley is Cain and Mabel (1936). Starring Clark Gable and Marion Davis, the film was an effort to single-handedly direct a musical number on a large-scale set. Interesting enough, these scenes turned out to be the only redeeming facets of a poorly written and badly acted film. Furthermore, it is one of the few musicals of the golden age that turns its back to the essential code of "the show must go on," and it surprisingly ends in Marion Davis leaving the show business for the sake of private interests.  

Bacon directing Davis in Cain and Mabel.
In 1937 Bacon made his next masterpiece, Marked Woman, about a brutal gangster exploiting a group of prostitutes who eventually rebel against him and his racket. The events were inspired by real incidents in New York City. Also conviction of the gangster Lucky Luciano on charges of prostitution, a conviction that stuck as a result of key testimony from three prostitutes, might have inspired the talented writer, Robert Rossen who also wrote Racket Busters (1938) and A Child Is Born (1939) for Bacon.

Marked Woman is one of Bette Davis' greatest roles in the 1930s. The finale, after the testimony, when the group of women disappear into the fog is particularly moving. "The five shady ladies who take the stand and testify," wrote Frank S. Nugent, "with a ganglord's executioner waiting for them to leave the court room, are ennobled for that moment, but not glorified. When the fog swallows them up, there is no after-glow from their halos. Count that a point for realism on the screen." (New York Times)

A Slight Case of Murder
Bacon's direction of A Slight Case of Murder in 1938, starring Edward G. Robinson, marked the beginning of a new satirical approach to gangster film whose popularity was declining as war seemed inevitable.  A Slight became an immediate success and Bacon followed the idea in two more films with Robinson: Brother Orchid (1940) (in which Bacon sent the Little Caesar character to a monastery, where he could raise flowers) and Larceny Inc. (1942), the last of  Edward G. Robinson gangster parodies that you can watch here:

In the early 1940s, as the United States entered the war, Bacon contributed to the patriotic cause by making propaganda films. His most famous film from the 1940s and his last for Warner, Action in the North Atlantic (1943), belongs to that category and is one the best propaganda films Hollywood produced during the war. This poignant and realist tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine shows a fine balance between the lives of ordinary men involved in war and the thrill of war sequences where Bacon's brilliant taste for action becomes evident.

Action in the North Atlantic
After Action Bacon moved to 20th Century Fox (1944-49), where he made The [Fighting] Sullivans (1944), based on the true story of a family who had lost their five sons in the war. Warners must have felt a great loss when Sullivans became one of the biggest grossing pictures of the year for Fox. Also it was at Fox that the trusted Bacon did an uncredited re-editing of My Darling Clementine (1946) for Zanuck who was unhappy with an earlier preview of the film.

Bacon continued making films about the impact of war on the country and the families. However, unlike those filmmakers who adroitly and bitterly investigated similar themes with film noir, Bacon's post-war films remained timid and unable to give any accurate portrayal of America and the loss of innocence the country had experienced  It is quite clear now that when Bacon left Warners, his failures and shortcomings became more apparent, though still not as much as to force an early retirement.

Dan Dailey, Betty Lynn, Lloyd Bacon: (possibly) on the set of Give my Regards to Broadway

In the 1950s cinema had seen many shifts within few years since the war, whether in terms of style or content, but Bacon was too old to cope with the new trends and slowly began to fade. For instance, it seems that he was totally unable to pinpoint massive shifts in musical genre after the war and understand the new aesthetics brought to it by directors like Vincente Minnelli. For Bacon, musical remained a glossy sing and dance number incorporated in the middle of a romantic comedy. That might explain why Bacon’s post-war show business films looked awfully out of date. James Agee in reaction to one of them, Give my Regards to Broadway (1948), wrote: "Vaudville is dead. I wish to God someone would bury it."

However, William R Meyer praises Give my Regards and the two other musicals Bacon made during this period (Golden Girl, The I Don't Care Girl) for having a "quiet, tuneful, human touch, with light drama and comedy blended well, and about as far removed from Bacon's Berkeley-choreographed musicals as was Bacon's drama from Berkeley's production numbers."

It Happens Every Spring
One other problem Bacon faced after moving from Warner was his relation to new rising stars. In Fox studios Bacon couldn't resume the chemistry he had with Warner stars and the new faces, like Ray Milland and Fred McMurray, were too sophisticated for his conventional, action-oriented direction.

Fuller Brush Girl

After wondering between Columbia and Fox, Bacon finally settled at Fox with a series of Lucille Ball comedies, among which Fuller Brush Girl (1950) is notable for its Frank Tashlin script.

Bacon's career, after making two films at Universal and two at RKO, eventually came to an end. His last efforts, no matter how disappointing in general, contain some attraction because a man of silent era and Mac Sennett attempted to stay update and in one case he made a 3D film. It becomes more interesting when one considers that Bacon made The French Line (1953), only to expose Mrs Jane Russell's bosoms in a new third dimension.

a 3D poster for the film

Bacon's last film was She Couldn't Say No (1954) starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. He worked virtually until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 15 November 1955, Burbank, California at the age of 65.

"Bacon looked as flashy as fellow director William Keighley looked sophisticated," William R Meyer reported, "Bacon could often be spotted cloaked in huge houndstooth coats, topped with ostentatious hats. He had a reputation at the studio for ruining at least one felt topper per film by throwing it around while guiding actors and camera." (Warner Brothers directors: The hard-boiled, the comic, and the weepers)

Most of Bacon’s films deal with self-assurance and self-sufficiency of male characters during troubled times. Like Raoul Walsh and John Ford, Bacon had a particular interest in Irish culture in America (The Irish In Us [1935]; Three Cheers for the Irish [1940]), primarily demonstrated in films he made with James Cagney/Pat O’Brien duo. Bacon approached Catholicism somewhat sympathetically, but unlike Ford, he never went that far to seek redemption and salvation in religion.

Marion Davies and neatly dressed Bacon: on the set of Cain and Mabel.

The impact of Bacon's stint with Sennett was evident in his precise timing of action, particularly in the comedies. Always feeling comfortable in comic scenes, Bacon could handle the characters and scenes with charm and a meticulously chosen beat that even in his non-musicals gives a feeling of musical rhythms.

Merle Oberon and Bacon on the set of Affectionately Yours

Physical action, militarism and the battle of sexes are the main themes of Bacon's best films, even his musicals  benefit from these rough qualities (for instance, Footlight Parade ends with a series of military drills performing, the chorus holding aloft football-stadium cards to form the NRA eagle, the flag, and a likeness of President Roosevelt!)

Meyer gives a good summation of Bacon's oeuvre when he says: "The filmography of Lloyd Bacon isn't littered with classics. There are no stories of failed productions or unmanageable ego. Bacon's career stands as an example of a filmmaker who was always competent, occasionally brilliant, and rarely incapable of telling a story, whether it was good or not."

Rehearsing Honeymoon for Three: William T. Orr, Jane Wyman, Hugh Cummings, Ann Sheridan, Bacon

"In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living,” says Wittgenstein and in the process helps us to find an appropriate way of  to explaining a career as diverse and unpretentious as Lloyd Bacon's. Bacon's art lies in clear, bright description of life in its most spectacular ways, and then establishing them as the cinematic norms so steadily that they come to life on celluloid.

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