Archive for April, 2010

Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 by mchoffman

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[NOTE: The following is the complete transcript for my discussion on Merrily We Go To Hell, which was shown on the night of April 15, 2010, at the Park Ridge Public Library. We had 71 people in attendance and the audience response was terrific. Thank you to all those who have been supporting our “Forbidden Cinema” pre-Code Hollywood Series.] 

Thank you for coming out on such a beautiful night. I suppose it’s fitting we are playing a movie called Merrily We Go To Hell on Tax Day.

Tonight’s film is the one that inspired me to do this series in the first place. Its title alone I wanted to see in the brochure, and it was an excuse to play another movie with Fredric March—an actor I greatly admire. There is nothing “old time” about his performance in this film. It feels real to us, even after all these years… So this is the film that triggered the pre-Code program. Stronger films were then built around it…

Merrily We Go To HellSafe in HellLaughter in HellThe Mayor of HellLaughing SinnersThe Road to RuinFree LoveThe Devil is DrivingMadam Satan… The studio PR men certainly knew how to hook a theatergoer with movie titles like that! Each one suggesting eight reels of moral anarchy.

I think you will enjoy tonight’s film. Not many people have seen it, and there’s not a lot out there written about it, but it’s films like these that give me the motivation to do programs like this. Since the majority of you in this room haven’t seen the film, I’d rather not go over any plot points in detail. Instead, I’d rather just let the story unfold for you. In short, it’s the story of a newspaperman, Jerry, who, as a rule, prefers the company of men—particularly if they’re bartenders. He is loved by a young society girl, Joan, whose father has millions. It’s important to remember that Joan is a swell girl—I mean, a really swell girl.

Besides the film’s title, which would not have passed the Production Code Administration in 1934, the film’s subject matter dealt with issues that would’ve been forbidden years later… The Production Code stressed the sanctity of marriage, and in this film, characters re-define marriage. There’s no room for the old-fashioned wife. “If being a modern husband gives you privileges, than being a modern wife gives me privileges,” Joan tells her swinging husband. The image of an open marriage was shocking for its time.

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Nineteen-thirty’s The Divorcee was the first film to deal with these kinds of issues in an adult way. Norma Shearer had the star power to push the envelope and make films that were important to women. Shearer excelled in roles that defined the modern woman. Throughout the pre-Code era, there are films that address the woman’s role in society– images that would be far different than those projected post-1934.

What is fascinating is how the characters transform in this film. Joan is a sweet innocent, but by no means a doormat, as her father fears. She grows up fast then tries to re-define herself as though ‘living it up’ were a self-defense mechanism. These changes can’t conceal the sadness and suffering beneath the surface. In an irresponsible, carefree world of drinking orgies, where characters in beautifully-lit art deco settings laugh off the Depression of the real world, there will come an awakening and a sobering up…

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Years before Method Acting came into vogue, there was Fredric March, an actor unique in his intensity and warmth. March plays Jerry, the alcoholic unable to take responsibility for his actions. And for the second week in a row, he’s showing up late and angering the future father-in-law at the announcement party. Merrily We Go To Hell was March’s second film after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could portray anguished souls better than just about anyone in Hollywood as we saw in last week’s film, and he excelled at playing drunks. Think Norman Maine in A Star is Born. Here, he’s drinking through most of the movie. Keep in mind this was in the days of Prohibition when the matter was a delicate subject with local censor boards. This movie serves it to us straight up.

Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel, March was a star of stage, screen, and radio. He was considered by his peers to be the finest actor of his generation. March was an acting craftsman blessed with a wonderful speaking voice and a Barrymore-like profile. Though he was cast in many costume films in the mid to late ’30s, he was equally adept in modern roles. Whether wearing period tights or a snap-brim hat, March could turn in one great performance after another.

Besides his films, he had a distinguished theatrical career that garnered two Tonys. In 1946, he won the very first Tony award for the play “Years Ago.” That same year, he won an Oscar for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. March is the only actor to have won, in a single year, the highest awards of stage and screen.

For those unfamiliar with his work, I’d recommend Les Miserables, A Star is Born, One Foot In Heaven, The Best Years of Our Lives—beating out Laurence Olivier that year for the Oscar— Death of a Salesman, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh. His name is not as well known today because audiences at the time never associated him with an image or onscreen persona. He simply blended into every role he took on. He was an actor first and a star second.

In that documentary I played for you on the making of Grand Hotel, you saw the great movie stars of MGM’s glory years—a studio that knew how to create and build a star. Studios at that time were mainly selling personalities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Joan Crawford may have been one of the greatest “movie stars” of all-time even if her performances were sometimes too mannered. And Greta Garbo, well, she inhabited some other plane entirely. There is no one today even remotely like a Garbo– a mystic Sphinx seemingly staring into Time. But that’s what Hollywood was all about then. Today, Hollywood doesn’t make movies, they make deals. And there are no more movie stars. Just bad haircuts in cheap suits who populate a vehicle which is nothing more than a two-hour trailer for a pop music video. But I digress… Though there were great movie stars, there were few who could be considered great actors, but March was one of them. Watch a film like A Star is Born and it’s his tragic performance as the washed-up actor that the modern viewer remembers– not the Hollywood hokiness of Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett.

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Merrily We Go to Hell co-stars Sylvia Sidney as Joan, who loves Jerry so much that she is always making excuses for him no matter how many times he lets her down. Her sheltered naivete is not tinged with anything other than genuine sweetness, so the hurt she suffers in the film is heartbreaking. In a recent online article on the film, writer Sarahjane Blum said of her: “My God, did they have faces. Sidney, a full figured beauty by the boyish standards popular in the jazz age, possessed a perfectly-complected, heart-shaped marvel of a face, that when innocent looked exactly like a kewpie doll, and when hardened, took on the appearance of someone who had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. She emoted every injury and cruelty with grace…” Sidney’s career in Hollywood would last into the 1990s when she was appearing in films like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! One of her best films of the 1930s was Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once with Henry Fonda—a precursor to the film noir style. She also appeared in Fritz Lang’s Fury as well as Dead End with Humphrey Bogart. In the same year as Merrily We Go To Hell, Sidney starred in Madame Butterfly opposite an actor you’ll see tonight in a small role: Cary Grant.

Of her leading man in this film, Sidney would say,

“Fredric March had the reputation of being a ladies man. We made two pictures together, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Good Dame (1934). But he never laid a hand on me, never made a pass at me! Freddie was happily married. He’d tease me by saying, ‘Look at those boobs!’ or ‘Look at that toosh!’ But it was all in fun.”

In the role of Joan’s father is George Irving—one of those great character actors from the golden age who appeared in hundreds of movies, often playing fathers, judges, or doctors. Coincidentally, he played Norma Shearer’s father in The Divorcee. Adrianne Allen plays Jerry’s ex-flame who returns to star in his play. Around Hollywood, Allen was known as Mrs. Raymond Massey. And in the role of Jerry’s newspaper friend, Buck, vaudeville entertainer Skeets Gallagher. According to one report in Film Daily, comedian Jack Oakie was to appear in the film. It did not say in which role, but I’ll assume it would’ve been as Buck.

The story is based on a novel called I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan, but Paramount– heading towards bankruptcy– changed the title to something a little more attention-getting for bigger box office. Perhaps the title drew some of you in tonight. At the time, The Los Angeles Times refused to print the title of the film in advertisements. It was the only paper that did so… The film was photographed by David Abel, who would later shoot the wonderful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals at RKO in the mid-thirties.

But the most interesting name in this film’s production credits is its director, Dorothy Arzner—the only woman director working in Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system. She once said, “When I went to work in the studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

But not only did she survive in the boy’s club, for fifteen years she excelled in it. In 1936 she would be the first woman in the Directors Guild of America… She was born in 1897 in San Francisco. When she was young she worked as a waitress in her parents’ café in Los Angeles. She wanted to be a doctor but wound up as an ambulance driver. After the First World War she worked at a newspaper. A tour of a motion picture studio inspired her to pursue a film career behind the camera. It was the editing of a movie that fascinated her most. Her big break came when she met William DeMille, brother of Cecil B. DeMille, who put her to work as a secretary at Paramount.

At this time, women in film mostly worked as scenario writers. There were only a couple women directors in the silent era, and in time she would become the only female to become a success in sound film, and the first woman to direct a talkie. Before she got to that plateau, though, she had to work from the bottom up. She toiled as a script girl before moving on to cutting films in the editing room. One of her most famous credits is the 1922 Valentino bullfight epic, Blood and Sand, for which she received the very first screen credit ever for editing. Director James Cruze was impressed with her work, but she was determined to get behind the camera, which she did a short time later when Paramount finally offered her a job. She directed the studio’s first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail, as well as Clara Bow’s first excursion into sound in 1929, The Wild Party—a film that would also feature… Fredric March… As an aside, the “It Girl,” Clara Bow, was terrified of the microphone in her first talkie, and this was in the early days of static filmmaking when the mike was fixed in one spot—usually on a desk or hidden someplace– and the actors acted around it. To help remedy her star’s fears, the director created a mobile, overhead mike affixed to a fishing pole. Arzner is often credited with creating the first ‘boom mike’ in Hollywood. However, I’m pretty sure the first boom mike was actually created by William Wellman for the 1928 Louise Brooks’ film Beggars of Life in which the director rigged a microphone onto a broom. Either way, Dorothy Arzner demonstrated a keen understanding of film, and her filmography reflects this attention to detail.

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She would direct several films with Fredric March, helping to establish him as a star. In the years ahead she would freelance and make films such as RKO’s Christopher Strong with Katherine Hepburn, Craig’s Wife with Rosalind Russell and Dance, Girl, Dance with Lucille Ball. When the Second World War came she made training films for the Women’s Army Corps. In her later years she made documentaries before finally teaching film at UCLA. One of her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She would pass away in 1979… Arzner was an open lesbian who dressed in suits and ties on the set. In later years she would be revived by feminists, but Arzner claimed to be neither a gay director or a woman director. She was simply a Hollywood director who made the women’s melodramas she was assigned by the studios.

Arzner did stamp her films with the trademark of well-defined female characterization, which brings us back to Miss Sylvia Sidney. It’s tough for the viewer to see her hurt in this film, but she really hits home the film’s theme—that loving the wrong person can cheapen you. In a very literal sense, it is Jerry’s alcohol addiction which she marries. ( Note the ‘wedding ring’ in the church scene.) But it’s a film whose themes reach across time as though Arzner is gently tapping the shoulder of the modern girl. How many contemporary marriages and relationships are destroyed because one person has that undying faith in someone who does not deserve it.

Finally, in that same online article I quoted before, writer Sarahjane Blum writes about what this film has to say: “But in this brief moment in Hollywood history, marriage was up for revision. Design For Living became one of the most clever and adult films of the pre-code age by espousing the three-person couple, but today it’s almost impossible to talk about such arrangements without moralizing. Other films championed everything from orgies to the abandonment of marriage altogether. Though Merrily We Go To Hell comes down hard against open marriage, it rejects it because even in twos, people destroy each other way too easily. In Arzner’s eyes, inventing ever more creative sexual partnerships only creates ever more novel cruelties.”

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2010 by mchoffman

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[NOTE: The following is the complete transcript of my introduction and lecture on April 8, 2010 at the Park Ridge Public Library.]

Good evening and welcome to week 3 of our “Forbidden Cinema” program. Tonight our series takes a nightmarish turn as we peer into the unknown and explore the darker nature of man. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows us what horror means.

[lights dim]

It’s a film I discovered for the first time as a kid, paging through a copy of William K. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film— and a film I would play years later at my theatre. Though I was fortunate enough to be working with actual film prints back then, my distributor sent me a butchered, 82 minute print. Tonight, you will see the most complete version available on dvd.

Before I elaborate on the making of this production, I thought I’d play for you a short video I made on the star of the film. For those unfamiliar with the name Fredric March, here are some photos from a few of his films…

“You know, we have to realize that art is a magic wand that touches stone and turns it into gold, metaphorically speaking,” director Rouben Mamoulian said in his later years, in words as relevant today as they were then. “It turns everything into gold. Today, we touch everything and it turns to lead. It’s ugly. We portray man wallowing in a gutter, full of foibles and sickness, falling short. They say life is like that, but it isn’t true… We still have great people, spiritual people. We have great aspirations and ideals. You take Shakespeare. He always had balls, he knew there was such a thing as conscience, such a thing as good. You’ve got to have both sides. I don’t care how debased or how sordid your subject is, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you must portray the whole truth of life, not partial truth, because partial truth is worse than a lie.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the definitive pre-Code film to show the whole truth. Before the public outcry that created the Code, filmmakers could depict a greater reality– what life really is– not the Code-approved truths of later Hollywood films. But Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is more than a morality play about good versus evil. The true conflict is between the spiritual– and it is a remarkably spiritual film– and the bestial in man. In its telling, the film embraces life: the call of the higher self where the soul can be stirred by the strains of Bach… to the dark impulses unleashed in an uninhibited ape form– free at last– and baptized under rain.

This is a horror film for adults told with literary openness and visual sophistication. Mamoulian’s forceful statement on the dichotomy of human nature becomes one of the most visually-arresting films of the sound era. It is a florid, theatrical presentation where characters don’t just love each other, they love each other for all eternity. The film is crafted with intelligence unique in comparison to other genre films whose horrors were often tempered with comedy relief. It is even further removed from today’s standards of horror. It’s a reminder of how literate films once were when characters could quote Keats or play the classics on the organ long before later generations were educated by TV and pop culture.

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By today’s standards, Mamoulian’s stylistics may seem too self-conscious, but in 1931, there were  few visual stylists of his rank. He knew how essential the camera was to filmmaking– that stories shouldn’t be told as though you were merely recording a stage play. The Russian-born Mamoulian knew how to make interesting use of image and sound, as was evident in his debut sound feature, 1929’s Applause. And, as you will see tonight, his technical expertise elevates his films from the static, stage-bound movies of his peers. His frames are filled with visual motifs, and you’ll observe how objects carry a symbolic weight in this film. Some have criticized this, calling it self-conscious or heavy-handed, but as film historian William K. Everson has written, “If some of the symbolisms seem a little too obvious– that is, the through-the-fireplace shot of a bubbling cauldron and flames that he returns to occasionally as a kind of Hell motif– it should be remembered that such symbolism is entirely consistent with a story that deals with the absolute separation of good and evil.” But the technical merits are only part of what makes this a landmark film. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers two of the finest acting performances in all of 1930s cinema.

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To classic horror enthusiasts, no Best Actor Oscar shines brighter than the one Fredric March won as Dr. Jekyll– correctly pronounded “Gee-kul” in this film. But he was not the first choice. John Barrymore was originally offered $25,000 to reprise his role from the 1920 silent movie, but when he went to MGM instead, a door was opened for a new star to emerge– and it wasn’t contract player Irving Pichel either, whose name was also mentioned as a possibility. Mamoulian campaigned for Fredric March even though the Paramount front office thought he was just a light comedian. Prior to this, March had appeared in several bad films in a row. But Mamoulian got his way, and March gave a performance that deserved two Oscars, one for each of the characters he played. His Hyde almost scarred him for life. Wally Westmore’s make-up during the final transformation nearly disfigured March. Studio artists knew how to get the make-up on, but getting if off was another matter. March would spend several weeks in the hospital after the completion of the film.

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March was born Frederick Bickel in 1897. One of this country’s finest actors grew up practically in Chicago’s own backyard. His hometown was Racine, Wisconsin, about 60 miles north of here. I visited the old Victorian home on College Avenue, the street still lined with red brick, and for those who are interested in seeing memories past, I posted pictures of his neighborhood on my facebook movie group: “The Fredric March Film Society.” March was blessed with a Barrymore-like profile and an acting style– in the words of author Greg Mank– “worthy of the great stage spellbinders.” In fact, March’s first breakthrough role was portraying a variation of John Barrymore in the 1930 film The Royal Family of Broadway— a role he originally had played on stage.

In a 1932 Screen Book interview, March reflected on his human-monster role. “I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll’s inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity– one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower and annihilate Dr. Jekyll. And I tried to show the devastating results in Dr. Jekyll as well. To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental strain on Jekyll– they crushed him physically as well… Hyde was killing Jekyll physically as well as mentally.”

In the film, Mamoulian helps us identify with March’s Jekyll using the subjective camera which opens the film. In the excellent audio commentary for the dvd provided by Greg Mank, he relates the story of the pre-production meetings where Mamoulian kept talking about the subjective camera. This was all new to March. Out of earshot of his director he asked Paramount big wig Jesse Lasky, “What is subjective photography?” Lasky threw up his hands and said, “My God, if you don’t know what subjective photography is what are you doing in this business?” March again asked Lasky, “Well, what is it?” And Lasky said, “How the hell do I know?”

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Mamoulian’s idea of Hyde was that he represents something primitive in us, something Neanderthal, and thus, the simian makeup which goes through several transformations. The most famous metamorphosis is the first one we see. For years this trick had been a mystery to fans. The camera effect was in fact achieved by manipulating red and green filters over the camera lens which gave the illusion of the make-up changing color– the white face becoming darker. The great cameraman Karl Struss had actually used this effect during the curing of the lepers scene in the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur. The effect was light years ahead of the old theatre tricks in which turn-of-the-century actors like Richard Mansfield required an offstage green light to shine on their face to convey the transformation. The effects in tonight’s film would also set a precedent for the monster transformations that would follow in films like 1941’s The Wolf Man. It’s interesting to note that Karl Struss did not agree with Mamoulian’s vision of Hyde, believing the change should’ve been more psychological. Struss didn’t want to make a monkey out of Hyde.

Miriam Hopkins is seductive and erotic as the saloon girl/prostitute Ivy Pierson, as when she strips for Dr. Jekyll in a scene startling for its time. She doesn’t just push the envelope of sexuality, she throws her garter belt at it. Champagne Ivy is heartbreaking as the tragic victim of Hyde’s mental and physical abuse. Her suffering is palpable. It’s interesting to note that, being a pre-Code, the film does not judge Ivy nor does it imply that she gets what is coming to her. She isn’t bad because she desires what men want. Sadly, so many of her scenes were cut in later years to such a degree that she was hardly in it in some prints. It wasn’t until the film was restored that audiences saw the full scope of her performance, and she is a revelation.

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Hopkins would star in some of the best pre-Codes such as Trouble in Paradise and The Story of Temple Drake. She would work again with Rouben Mamoulian in 1935 for the first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, for which she was nominated as Best Actress. As mentioned a couple weeks ago, the Georgia-born Hopkins had campaigned for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and actually had the support of the Women’s Club of Atlanta. And as she had done in Trouble in Paradise, Hopkins was guilty here of trying to upstage a co-star, in this case, Fredric March. But director Mamoulian outsmarted her. In a scene at the music hall, Miriam believed March had his back to the camera during a shot when in fact she was playing to the wrong camera. Hopkins never lost her diva status or her reputation of being difficult on set. The 1940 Harvard Lampoon voted her the least desirable companion on a desert island.

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Others in the cast include Broadway actress Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, who would go on to star in some Universal horrors such as The Tower of London and The Mad Ghoul. She would live to the age of 94 before passing in 2000. Character actor Edgar Norton is the butler Poole, a role he had first played on stage in 1898. He would make a career out of playing butlers. Some of us will remember him as Benson in Son of Frankenstein.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film that deals openly with sexual repression under Victorian restraints and social conventions. The script was written by Percy Heath– not to be confused with the jazz musician of the same name– and Samuel Hoffenstein. The latter would also write Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. “Sam” Hoffenstein would receive acclaim years later for his poetry. Both writers would be nominated for an Oscar by the Motion Picture Academy. Though it was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, the movie was, like the 1931 Dracula, heavily influenced by an earlier stage production. In fact, Jekyll’s fiancee in this film, played by Rose Hobart, was actually created by playwright T.R. Sullivan in 1887. Heath and Hoffenstein were able to tap into the Freudian theories of the time, and whether this was consciously done on their part or not, Jekyll’s ego and unleashed id are there on the screen, providing a deeper subtext.

The film’s original script had Hyde performing cruel acts while in search of Ivy. He was to rescue a kitten trapped on a bridge– only to drop it into the river. Later, he was to help a blind man cross the street– well, only halfway before taking the man’s cane and leaving him stranded there. Mamoulian filmed neither of these acts of evil. There is, however, a movie still of Hyde trampling a child, but this also was not filmed.

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There are many things that will remain in the memory after seeing this film… the extent of violence within a man who, to our eyes, is the perfect English gentleman and humanitarian… and the heartbreak of the abused prostitute, too gripped by terror to go to the police. The performances of March and Hopkins are two of the best found in any horror film. It’s a shame Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was buried in the vault when MGM purchased the rights to the film from Paramount. At the time, the only version MGM wanted circulating for the public was their 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy– a film that was more lavish drama than horror. And yet, it is the 1931 version that is best remembered today. It remains a masterpiece of art and imagination. Tonight’s film is a supreme achievement from the golden age of horror.