Thursday 24 September 2020

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Directed by Frank Tuttle
Written by William Anthony McGuire, George Oppenheimer, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
based on the original story by George Kaufman & Robert E. Sherwood
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Gregg Toland, Ray June
Edited by Stuart Heisler
Eddie Cantor (Eddie/Oedipus), Gloria Stuart (Princess Sylvia), Edward Arnold (Emperor Valerius), David Manners (Josephus), Ruth Etting (Olga), Verree Teasdale (Empress Agrippa), Alan Mowbray (Majordomo), John Rutherford (Manius).
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Distributed by United Artists 
December 25, 1933
93 minutes

West Rome, Colorado. Eddie, a good-natured but clumsy delivery boy with a passion for Roman history, is tired of the deceit of the local authorities. Humiliated and banned from town, he daydreams and is transported to his idealised ancient Rome, where he becomes entangled in even more treacherous plots. As with the opening scene of the film, in which the Roman statues of the local museum are dressed in Eddie’s clothes, for Tuttle the story serves as a means of reconciling the old world and the new through popular entertainment.


Sunday 13 September 2020

Notes (and Images) on Frank Tuttle

"Tuttle’s importance as a communist comes from the fact, first, that he is recognized as a very capable motion picture director and, moreover, he is considered to be an excellent teacher of motion picture methods." The first serious appraisal of Frank Tuttle (1892-1963) in writing was not penned by a critic but an admiring FBI agent, who had the ‘red’ director under surveillance, adding these notes to his secret dossier.

With Bebe Daniels on location

Friday 11 September 2020

Film Composer David Raksin Testifies Against Frank Tuttle

David Raksin

It happened more than once: the HUAC interrogators pushing the interviewee to a corner, encouraging him to name director Frank Tuttle. Why so much sensitivity towards Tuttle? His name popped up on FBI's list very early on. He was successful and his name known and respected since the 1920s; he was highly educated (a Yale graduate) and sophisticated (amateur painter and sportsman); furthermore, his luxurious Beverly Hills mansion was in fact a meeting place of the members of the Communist Party. To HUAC, Tuttle was the epitome of the corrupting Red element in movie industry.

So unlike the common notion that Tuttle was a "stool pigeon", there were others who named him first. I've read at least three different movie people mentioning his name at the HUAC hearings between 1947 and 1951, including the Esquire magazine film critic Jack Moffitt.

Here's one example from September 1951 when film composer David Raksin testifies again Tuttle.

Monday 7 September 2020

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2020 - Opening Speech

Partly improvised, partly written, delivered on August 25 at Teatro Comunale di Bologna, also known as Bologna Opera House. — EK

As I'm speaking here, there is a film playing at the Jolly cinema. It's called The Star, and was directed by Stuart Heisler. It's about a washed-up movie queen who is looking for love in the ghost city of cinema. She drives along the famous streets where movie stars are supposed to live – but the streets are deserted. The actress, Margaret Elliott, played magnificently by Bette Davis, wants to get back on the big screen at any cost. The process is full of agony, humiliation and false hopes.

Like Davis’s character, most of us – for hours, days or even months – dreaded that it might never happen again. That we would never see a beam of light passing through that tiny hole in the wall. “An invention without a future,” was how one of the father figures of cinema described it. In March 2020 we began to fear that this might finally be the case. An affirmation was needed before things were lost.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Conversations with Mervyn LeRoy (1970-71)

Mervyn LeRoy

Everybody has a favourite Mervyn LeRoy film even if one hasn't heard of Mervyn LeRoy. To be more precise, if you like American cinema, you have to have a favourite Mervyn LeRoy film.

Long before Billy Wilder, LeRoy was one of the most successful director-producers in Hollywood, but since his production activities were more "unit production" undertaken for studios such as Warner and Metro, he never enjoyed the recognition that the independent producers of the 1950s did. Yet, his name, both as director and producer, is linked to some of the best remembered films in the history of American cinema, films of enormous popularity, technical brilliance and politically progressive conceptions. His domain of responsibilities in the production of most of his films is so vast (picking the material, casting, producing, framing the shots, doing promotion) that those still adhering to politiques des auteurs should be alerted, taking LeRoy very seriously. I'm not one of them, nevertheless I do take LeRoy seriously.

Some newly digitised tapes, courtesy of Pacific Film Archive, shed new light on a prolific and thrilling career. During an informal conversation worth nearly three hours of Q&As, Albert Johnson poses questions and LeRoy responds, reminiscing his career in chronological order. Conducted between April 16, 1970 and December 2, 1971, it was done with the prospect of a book publication. As far as I know, no book was ever written by Johnson about the cinema of LeRoy. The location for the interviews seems to be LeRoy's house where his wife is occasionally heard offering tea. Sometimes people drop in and evidently a dog is hanging around. The phone goes off quite often.

The first tape starts abruptly but my guess is that the discussion is about Harold Teen (1928). This is first in a series of sudden interruptions, pauses and silences but all and all the tapes have a very decent audio quality and the conversation is engaging for the most part, even if LeRoy acts as another laconic Hollywood veteran using the most economic of languages with answers as brief as "sure" and "you bet!"

The films, people, and subjects discussed include (in the order of the tapes):

Showgirl in Hollywood (1930): all-talking musical with Technicolor sequences

The World Changes (1933): drama starring Paul Muni, Aline MacMahon and Mary Astor

Big City Blues (1932): drama based on the play New York Town by Ward Morehouse with stars Joan Blondell and uncredited appearances by Humphrey Bogart.

Hard to Handle (1933): comedy with James Cagney as a con artist who organizes a Depression-era dance marathon. "Cagney wasn't hard to handle. He was easy to handle," says LeRoy

Gold Diggers of 1933: working with Busby Berkeley & Sol Polito

Marie Dressler; Differences between working for Warner and MGM; Sidney Franklin;

Tugboat Annie (1933): "Beery was a mean man."

Paul Muni; Art directors and sets, "Who's John Wray?", Ralph Ince

Two Seconds (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): "We told the truth."

Heat Lightning (1934): based on the play of the same name by Leon Abrams and George Abbott. "I never saw it!" -- "Bette Davis didn't like me."

Happiness Ahead (1934): comedy starring Dick Powell with Josephine Hutchinson

Oil for the Lamps of China (1935): "My favourite picture!" Shot on location near Arizona

Kay Francis ("sad woman")

Three Men on a Horse (1936): based on a funny and successful Broadway play of the same name starring Frank McHugh and Joan Blondell

Anthony Adverse (1936) and working with Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Lana Turner's discovery demystified and LeRoy's subsequent move to Metro; lack of interest in Marx Brothers

They Won't Forget (1937)

On the set of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Tonight or Never (1931)

Joe E. Brown comedies

Five Star Final (1931) and working with Edward G. Robinson ("Do you think Two Seconds could be made today?" asks LeRoy.)

The World Changes (1933): Child actor and future director Richard Quine is in the film.

Three on a Match (1932) & directing Ann Dvorak

On Bogart: "He thought he was a tough guy but he was sweet. He couldn't lick a fly! In those days they all seem to be geniuses."

Gold Diggers of 1933: talking about the colours of the female costumes in the Shadow Waltz number and the film's junket (city-to-city train journey); in-jokes in the films

[There's jump here. The sound quality and the period they are discussing change so it must be recorded some time later]

Waterloo Bridge (1940)

"Every week I have three or four pictures on television."; Bronisław Kaper; Visiting London's National Film Theatre located right under the Waterloo Bridge; San Francisco Film Festival where in 1965 LeRoy was awarded.

Escape (1940): An American in pre-WWII Nazi Germany tries to free her mother from a concentration camp. (This is the second time I'm hearing Hungarian actor Paul Lokas wasn't a good actor.); Arch Oboler not liking to wash his face!; "I had hand-held camera in my movies... It doesn't mean a damn thing."

Blossoms in the Dust (1941): working with Greer Garson. "My first film in color?"; "The only problem I had was with that son-of-a-bitch Walter Pidgeon!" LeRoy used dancing dolly for the first time since Pidgeon couldn't dance.

Lana Turner

Thursday 30 July 2020

The Negro Soldier (Stuart Heisler, 1944)

An African American artist in The Negro Soldier

This film is considered a “watershed in the use of film to promote racial tolerance”, and Heisler had previously handled the subject with surprisingly fine results in his 1940 The Biscuit Eater. Hollywood showed little interest in the subject of race, apart from work by those communist writers such as Lester Cole (None Shall Escape) and John Howard Lawson (Sahara) who gave African Americans a voice as agents of democracy in the fight against fascism. However, The Negro Soldier was perhaps the only film in that vein written by an African American, Carlton Moss. Films about the black experience were either ‘churchy’ or ‘bluesy’ (a rare exception, King Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah! was both). The Negro Soldier is churchy (even if it does include a fleeting shot of the father of the blues, W.C. Handy), adopting the form of a sermon, in which the history of African Americans’ involvement in the making of America is recounted to an entirely black audience. But when the familiar image of the church minister at the pulpit arrives, it delivers a twofold punch: it is Moss himself – and the book in his hands is Mein Kampf, from which he reads Hitler’s perspective on the black race. The church form finds new urgency, as the film’s writer merges roles with that of the minister. Heisler makes his point visually, to avoid preaching: at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the German and Japanese athletes fail and an African American wins; a black conductor leads a mixed orchestra through Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. 

Tuesday 28 July 2020

André Breton on Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl

Sadegh Hedayat

Nasturtiums Purple

Of Sadegh Hedayat, who committed suicide in Paris on April 9th, 1951, reached us, in the beautiful translation of Roger Lescot, The Blind Owl, a hopeless sign in the night. Never more such a dramatic apprehension of the human condition has aroused such an examination  of our shell, nor such a knowledge of  timeless struggle in a maze of mirrors, with the attributes that are our common lot ... The acuity of the sensations and the violence of the impulses which like  Wölfli, make a confounding use of certain stereotyped images, gasping from one end to the other, those that Hedayat excludes from the world of the "scoundrel". A Masterpiece if any! A book that must find its place near the Aurelia of Nerval, the Gradiva of Jensen, the Mysteries of Hamsun, which takes part in the phosphorescence of Berkeley Square and the prisons of Nosferatu. (Jose Corti Library). A. B. [André Breton]

Albert Maltz on This Gun for Hire

This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942) [Photo: LIFE Magazine]

Interviewed by Joel Gardner between 1975 and 1979 for an oral history series by the University of California. As a part of Guns for Hire: Frank Tuttle vs. Stuart Heisler retrospective, This Gun for Hire will be playing at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, August 26, 9:15 AM, Cine Jolly.


The financial squeeze that I [was in] became too great in the spring of 1941. My friends Michael Blankfort and George Sklar had gotten work in Hollywood, and we made the decision that I would try also. And as soon as teaching was over, I went out to Las Vegas, New Mexico, because my mother-in-law was ill and my wife had taken our son out there earlier. And then after a few days I went overnight by bus to Los Angeles. And I, for about ten days, slept on a couch in the tiny cottage that the Sklars had. Although he was working, they had not yet accumulated enough money to move into anything better than the very simple little quarters that they had. 

By luck I got a job very quickly. The film director Frank Tuttle had a piece of material--had a novel, actually, by Graham Greene called This Gun for Hire which had been owned by Paramount, and he had worked out a way in which the story might be done which was acceptable. He wanted a  writer just at the time that I came into town and heard about me and knew my work, and I got the job at $300 a week.

Saturday 27 June 2020

Imogen Sara Smith on Among the Living (Stuart Heisler, 1941)

Click to enlarge
Playing at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2020, August 28, 11.45 Cinema Jolly | 35mm

Within a running time of just over an hour, Among the Living samples an array of genres: Southern gothic horror, evil-twin thriller, Freudian melodrama, comedy, and politically charged satire. In the opening scene, unemployed mill-workers crowd around the gates of a dilapidated mansion, heckling the funeral of the hated mill-owner – surely voicing the views of Lester Cole, who co-wrote the story and screenplay. The son of a union organiser for the garment industry, Cole was one of the most unapologetic communists among the Hollywood Ten. Six years before the congressional hearings that would send him to jail and onto the blacklist, he seems to forecast the mood of the McCarthy era in a climactic scene where a small town’s citizens turn into a frenzied mob, rabidly pursuing a cash reward for the capture of a killer and trying an innocent man before a kangaroo court.