Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Developing a brand

For most film buffs, the principal interest of The Cheat (1931) is its pre-Code salaciousness. A remake of a 1915 C.B. DeMille film starring Sessue Hayakawa--who was a star at the time--it is about a society woman who, hard up for money, accepts a loan from the neighborhood sleazeball in exchange for you-know-what at an unspecified future date. When he has trouble collecting, he does what he does with all his possessions, he burns his own personal brand into said lady. In 1915, the fiendish Oriental was an actual fiendish Oriental; in 1931, he is merely creepy Irving Pichel, voted by his school "most likely to be on a sex offender registry if such a thing existed in our time." Pichel was mysteriously prolific in film; he was a triple threat in that as an actor, he (a) wasn't good looking and (b) couldn't act and as a director he was (c) adequate. Although, to give the devil his due, his first directing assignment, The Most Dangerous Game is pretty good, and still the best version of the endlessly-filmed and often parodied story of the man who hunts people on his own private island.

But for theater buffs like me, the interest in the film lies in the presence of the two principal contributors.. First is legendary director George Abbott, whose hits include the play Broadway (1926), right through A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum (1962) and his own revival of On Your Toes (1983), which he directed when he was in his 90s. Abbott, like many theater people, made his first sojourn to Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, earning credits such as Dialogue Director for All Quiet On The Western Front. This credit, which suggests working as an acting coach, might strike someone who worked with Abbott later in life as curious; his attitude toward acting seemed to be, stand still where you can be seen and say the lines so they can be heard. But silent film directors had been used to directing actors during the shots and had never learned how to rehearse scenes in advance, so I suspect he was useful in that way.

Later on, Abbott returned to Hollywood from time to time to shepherd one of his many hits onto the screen, such as Too Many Girls in 1940, The Pajama Game in 1957 and Damn Yankees in 1958. In the latter two films, it is fairly well documented that Abbott functioned as producer and let his brilliant co-director Stanley Donen do what he wanted. Problem was that Donen, the innovative co-director of On The Town and Singing In The Rain and sole director of Funny Face, began his career as a lower-tier assistant on Abbott productions and therefore had such deference to Abbott that his films of Abbott shows look exactly like films of stage shows.

The most surprising thing about Abbott's work in The Cheat is the fine-looking outdoor work, scene in the clip above, although not to best advantage in the poor print used. Although a stage director, he did not seem to be afraid of taking synch sound cameras outdoors where veteran George Folsey gave him some fine compositions. But once he gets indoors, everybody starts to line up against a single wall, and he exhibits a stage-bound sense of space. That is, theater space is primarily lateral only. Some movement in depth is possible, but generally only for limited and very dramatic effects, to be used sparingly. But film movement ranges easily in every direction, and a film set has four walls, where a stage set has two or three. Moreover, ideas and conflict in theater is expressed in words and dramatic performance among the actors unfolding over a sustained length of time, and so it is with The Cheat. Whereas in film, there is wider range of expressive tools available to the director--the use of objects, of space, of relative height or size of objects, inserts, whether of things or of personal reactions. To be fair to Abbott, a lot of early talkies leaned heavily on stage technique, but not all, as the work of Rouben Mamoulian, Tay Garnett, Lewis Milestone and others has shown.

The other point of interest of The Cheat is star Tallulah Bankhead, seen in the clip above to be still young and beautiful before alcohol and other aspects of hard living had taken her looks and made her resemble a theatrical caricature of herself. This was part of a sustained effort in 1931-32 to establish Bankhead as a film star, with leading roles in seven films, none of which excited audience interest. It's hard to fathom, as she is more charismatic and dynamic than a lot of young people who did succeed at the time; but for whatever reason, she just did not catch on. Perhaps it is the slight sense that she is holding something in reserve, that she is using acting technique and that she is not as exposed and vulnerable as a popular heroine of the early 30s, even a tough broad like Stanwyck, needed to be. Abbott does not give her enough close-ups in The Cheat for her to establish intimacy with the audience, and it would be interesting to examine her other vehicles at this time to see if they have similar problems. Certainly, she is not yet the legendary hambone she became 10 years later, so that was not the problem.

For whatever reason, Bankhead didn't become a movie star. Instead, she went back to the theater, where she was a reigning grande dame, and only swooped by Hollywood to favor the masses with her brilliance in occasional forays such as Lifeboat and The Royal Scandal, and made jokes on the radio about Bette Davis in All About Eve, reputedly based on Bankhead, although Davis was plenty hammy enough to be ridiculous on her own, without dragging poor Tallulah into it.

Today we have fewer such barriers. Directors such as Sam Mendes move freely between the media (as did Kazan before him), not to mention actors like Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey and Liev Schreiber, not to mention sometime visitors such as Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johannson and Al Pacino, who do just fine on the stage.

Not to mention that all shows in live theater are presented in life-like 3D!

No comments:

Post a Comment