Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Big House (1930)

The Big House (1930)

"They all want to throw people into prison but they don't want to provide for them after they are in. You mark my words Pop. Some day we're going to pay for this shortsightedness." - Warden (Lewis Stone)

MGM's The Big House (1930) came at a time when Hollywood was still transitioning to talking pictures and experimenting with cinematography, set design and storytelling. This was all in addition to tantalizing audiences with sound. It's one of the earliest prison films and set many precedents for future films in that genre. The Big House explored many facets of prison life: the alliances, betrayals, hierarchies and the deep animosity between prisoners and authority figures. It was one of the first films to depict a prison riot. It broke ground, pleased the critics, won awards and almost ninety years later still holds up as an enjoyable drama.

The film opens with Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) being escorted to prison. He's been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. The prison, run by warden James Adams (Lewis Stone), is overflowing with prisoners. Cells made to hold one person now need to accommodate three. Marlowe is placed with career forger Morgan (Chester Morris) and the prison's most notorious inmate, convicted murderer Butch (Wallace Beery). Marlowe is scared, Butch is greedy and Morgan must keep a level head throughout it all. There is a protest, time in solitary confinement, a prison escape, a riot and even a love story, with sole female lead Anne Marlowe (Leila Hyams), thrown in for good measure.

Cedric Gibbons set design - The Big House (1930)
Cedric Gibbons set design - The Big House (1930)

This critically acclaimed and award winning movie brought audiences stunning visuals and crisp sound. I love to call this the "Art Deco Prison Movie" because of the beautiful and minimalist set design by Cedric Gibbons. Recording engineer Douglas Shearer brings the sounds of prison to life and won the Academy Award for Best Sound for his work. Screenwriter Frances Marion researched prison life at San Quentin and wrote the original screenplay for the film. She won the Academy Award for her script. Her husband George W. Hill expertly directed the film and some of the scenes with prisoners en masse are beautifully choreographed. I love how cinematographer Harold Wenstrom plays with light and shadow especially in the earlier part of the movie.

This film came at a time when Robert Montgomery and Chester Morris were launching their careers in Pre-Code era Hollywood. They had just made The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer, a very different film from The Big House. Wallace Beery had been suffering a career slump. Frances Marion spotted Beery at the MGM commissary and thought he would be the perfect actor for the role of Butch. This part revitalized Beery's career just in time for the new wave of talking pictures.

I watched The Big House recently with my husband who usually shies away from films of this era. He loves the prison genre classic The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and I pitched The Big House as a precursor to that film. He enjoyed making connections between the two films and seeing how this early talkie film might have influenced others of its kind.

I wrote about this film back in 2010 around the time when Warner Archive had released it on DVD. They re-released the film several years later as a two-disc set with the French and Spanish versions of the film included. In the early days of talking films, MGM would produce foreign language versions of their big movies. This was the era before subtitles and after silent film title cards which could be swapped out for different text. MGM made El presidio in Spanish, directed by Ward Wing who also worked on the original version. It stars José Crespo as Morgan, Juan de Landa as Butch and Tito Davison as Marlowe. The French version, Révolte dans la prison , was directed by Pal Fejos, one of the most interesting figures from the early film era and director of one of my favorite films Lonesome (1928). Charles Boyer, who wasn't quite yet a household name in the states, has the title role of Morgan.

Chester Morris as Morgan in The Big House
Chester Morris as Morgan in The Big House
Charles Boyer as Morgan in Revolte dans la prison
Charles Boyer as Morgan in Revolte dans la prison

Jose Crespo as Morgan in El presidio
Jose Crespo as Morgan in El presidio

I watched the Spanish and French versions as was quite impressed by both. If you look closely you can see where MGM did recycle some of the scenes from the original and took some shortcuts to save money. The different actors added nuances to their performances that help distinguish those films from the original. I was so relieved that these films were shot with fluent actors and not with the original cast using phonetic Spanish or French. As a Spanish speaker I can tell you that watching a film with phonetic Spanish is a painful experience.

The Big House is not a perfect film. When Marlowe is stripped of his possessions and given a number I thought the movie would explore the loss of identity. It doesn't really happen. The numbers are not referenced much throughout the film. If you're new to early talkies, the lack of a soundtrack and the eerie quiet in the background might be a bit off putting. I'm used to this so it's no problem for me.

Robert Montgomery as Kent in The Big House
Robert Montgomery as Kent in The Big House

André Burgère as Kent in Revolte dans la Prison
André Burgère as Kent in Revolte dans la Prison

Tito Davison as Kent in El presidio
Tito Davison as Kent in El presidio

The Big House is my favorite prison film. I love the era, the performances, the characters and the story. I adore Lewis Stone, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery so having all three in the film didn't hurt. I also love how The Big House set the bar for films to follow. If you're interested in film history, it's a must see.

The Big House (1930) two-disc DVD-R set is available from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me The Big House (1930) for review!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Panique (1946) with Pierre Simenon at #TCMFF

Pierre Simenon and Bruce Golstein at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival
Pierre Simenon and Bruce Golstein at TCMFF

Based on Georges Simenon's novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, Panique (1946) is a thrilling French Noir directed by the great Julien Duvivier. This rarely seen film was screened at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival . Last year I had attended the screening of the Argentine Noir Los Tallos Amargos (1956) and followed it up this year with an equally dark film. One could say that Panique, like Los Tallos Amargos, puts the Noir in Film Noir.

Panique stars Michel Simon as Monsieur Hire, a lonely voyeur. When murder of a local woman rocks a small town community, Hire has a hunch who did it. He tries to warn Alice (Viviane Romance) about her boyfriend Alfred (Paul Bernard) whom he suspects as the killer. Hire doesn't know that Alfred has already confessed the crime to Alice and fully intends to get away with it. Smitten with her beau, she battles internal conflicts then decides to lure Hire into a trap. The film is relentlessly dark with an ending that is an emotional punch to the gut.

Rialto teamed up with TCM to host a rare screening of Panique, kicking off a tour of the newly restored print. Rialto's Bruce Goldstein was on hand to interview special guest Pierre Simenon, the youngest son of Georges Simenon. Goldstein made it a point that although the novel is in French, Simenon was Belgian. He went on to give the following intro to elder Simenon:

"Simenon is best known for his 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring detective Jules Maigret. But he wrote nearly five times as many books making him a towering figure in French language literature. Simenon was the most translated French language author of the 20th century. And the 17th most translated author of all time according to UNESCO. He died in 1989 at the age of 86."

Both Goldstein and Pierre Simenon shared some interesting facts about Georges Simenon's writing career. He was the most prolific French-language Belgian author of the 20th century. 70 film adaptations and 350 TV adaptations have been made from his novels. Estimates say that Simenon's books have sold 750 million copies, in 55 languages across 44 countries. He wrote his first book at the age of 16 and the last at age 80. It would only take him 7 days to finish one novel.

Georges Simenon
Georges Simenon

Simenon had a love-hate relationship with the movies, with an emphasis on hate. As Pierre Simenon explains, "at the time he was a young writer. [He said,] 'I'm going to write the screenplay, I'm going to give my insight.' He was full of ideas. But of course as we know in Hollywood that's the last thing a producer wants. He wants to do it his own way. So the results were mixed."

The early adaptations included Jean Tarride's The Yellow Dog (1932), Night at the Crossroads (1932) and La tête d'un homme (1933) directed by Julien Duvivier who was also the director for Panique. Pierre Simenon explained, "my father was not happy with the industry. He quickly discovered that there was a lot of meddlers in the project. When you're a writer, you are just alone with the page. When you dabble in movies, there are hundreds of people with something to say and my dad didn't like that."

At one point Simenon refused to sell film rights to his books and this embargo lasted six years. Pierre Simenon joked that his father was as prolific a writer as we was a spender. There were two things Simenon wanted: money and artistic control. During the 1930s, authors made quite a bit of money with newspaper serializations. Sometimes these papers would trim the novels so sections would fit perfectly on the last page. In essence they were editing down the book; something Simenon despised. He knew there was a lot of money to be made in film and he picked the lesser of two evils by abandoning serialization altogether.

Georges Simenon with son Pierre
Georges Simenon with son Pierre, circa 1980. Photo source: Film Forum

Simenon struck up friendships with many key film industry figures including Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Frederico Fellini and others. Pierre Simenon shared a potentially apocryphal story of when the great Alfred Hitchcock called up his father. The secretary told Hitchcock that Simenon was too busy to come to the phone because he had just started a new novel. Hitchcock's reply, "It's okay, I'll wait."

Then there was the time Georges Simenon was the president of the Cannes Film Festival jury. His buddy author Henry Miller was on the jury and according to Pierre Simenon pleaded with Georges, "I'm here to see you, to see friends, to see the ladies and to drink a lot. Just tell me who you want me to vote for." Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vita was up against a lot of other amazing films including L'Avventura which was the favorite to win the Palme D'or. Simenon lobbied for La Dolce Vita and it won. According to Pierre, his father was met with many boos and whistles in opposition. Pierre Simenon reflected, "[my father] was trashed by the critics and he became friends with Fellini. And if you watch the movie now it hasn't aged a bit. It's a masterpiece." Simenon had a life long friendship with Jean Renoir and Pierre remembers sitting on Charlie Chaplin's lap. At this point in the conversation, Bruce Goldstein points out that Norman Lloyd, who worked with both Renoir and Chaplin, was in the audience.  Lloyd stood up for his usual standing ovation. I was so glad to see him again!

Panique (1946)

Goldstein called Panique one of the best adaptations of a Simenon novel and asked Pierre if his father ever saw it. Pierre's response, "nobody knows. And if he did nobody knows if he liked it or not." Panique opened on Thanksgiving day 1947 at the Rialto theatre in New York. According to Goldstein, it got rave reviews in the states but got trashed by French critics. Pierre Simenon noted that in post-WWII Europe, many artists were under serious scrutiny. You were either seen as a collaborator with the Nazis or if you fled you were considered a coward. There was some push back against both stars Michel Simon and Viviane Romance. I'm not sure if Pierre meant it was because of their possible connections to the Nazi regime or not.

The original novel, translated into English as Monsieur Hire's Engagement, is very different from the film. Pierre Simenon explained that in the book there is a lack of intense action and that the lead character was very ambiguous. His voyeuristic tendencies were more pathological. Duvivier and screenwriter Charles Spaak added "social commentary about mob justice and prejudice" according to Pierre. The book was published in 1933 but the film adaptation speaks more to the post-WWII era.

Rialto continues it's nation-wide tour of Panique starting next month. Check out the full schedule here. I hope a North American Blu-Ray/DVD release is in store for this title so a wider audience can have the pleasure of seeing the film.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Graduate (1967)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the cultural phenomenon that is The Graduate (1967). Prior to this month I had never watched the film in its entirety. Key scenes are so ingrained in our collective pop culture knowledge that there's no escaping them. And no one could spoil the movie for me because I knew the famous ending well. Why did it take me so long to watch The Graduate? I must have been holding out for just the right moment and that opportunity arose I attended this year's TCM Classic Film Festival.

Author Beverly Gray

On the first day of the festival and a couple days before the screening, I had the opportunity to speak to author Beverly Gray on the red carpet. She's been hard at work writing a new book all about The Graduate. Here's what she had to say:

On day three of the festival, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed screenwriter and actor Buck Henry on stage at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Buck had suffered a stroke and Mankiewicz was the kindest and most patient interviewer helping Buck when we was struggling with answers. Mankiewicz reassured Buck that he was in front of the most patient crowd in the world and it was true. But we didn't have to be too patient because Buck had many clever and witty responses to Mankiewicz's questions and had us all laughing with delight.

Mankiewicz and Buck Henry discussed the making of The Graduate at length. Based on the novel by Charles Webb, Buck Henry along with Calder Willingham the story for the screen. Buck also has a small part as a hotel clerk in the film. According to Mankiewicz, Webb's book only sold a couple thousand copies. Buck had read it previously but it took producer Lawrence Truman to get the concept to director Nichols in order for the project to move forward. Buck joked that he was one of the "brave two thousand" to read the novel.

Director Mike Nichols had his eye on Robert Redford for the lead role. Looking back now it seems impossible that anyone other than Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock. According to Mankiewicz, Redford's persona was closer to the depiction in the book than what was presented on screen. When asked whether Redford would have been wrong for the film role, Buck Henry replied "according to Redford, yes." Nichols desperately tried to woo Redford. They had discussed the part and Redford told Nichols that he just couldn't understand the role. Nichols offered to fix anything Redford didn't like. Nichols said "Bob you must have made dates with girls in your long career as an eligible male and had them stand you up?". Redford replied, "what does that mean?" And that was the end of that.

Dustin Hoffman was under contract to be in stage production of The Producers and was let go to make The Graduate. Mankiewicz joked that Mel Brooks being married to the film's lead actress Anne Bancroft probably helped a little. Hoffman was considered by many to be an odd choice for the lead role. Buck Henry once said about Hoffman, "the reaction in Hollywood was that his nose was too big, he was funny looking, his voice was too strangled, he walks funny and he has odd cadence."

Gene Hackman was originally supposed to be in the film but he was fired three weeks into filming. Buck thought Nichols was "slightly insane" for letting him go. Mankiewicz pointed out that because Hackman was not in The Graduate he was able to make Bonnie and Clyde.  As they say, when one door closes another one opens!

Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) - Photo credit: Rialto Pictures

Did you know that the iconic shot of Anne Bancroft's leg framing Dustin Hoffman was storyboard artist Harold Michelson's idea? After you watch The Graduate for the 50th anniversary make sure you watch Daniel Raim's documentary Harold and Lillian to learn about Harold Michelson and his wife film researcher Lillian Michelson (who happens to be one of my personal heroes). Harold and Lillian opens theatrically later this month in NY and Los Angeles and will be playing in more cities soon.

Rialto's 4k restoration of The Graduate is part of Fathom Events and TCM's Big Screen Classics series. It will be screened across the US in theaters on April 23rd and 26th.

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