Archive for charles laughton

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Sparrows (1926)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by leclisse

Mary Pickford (center) as Molly, with brood in tow Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film.  The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness.  For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom.  There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.”  Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.

Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film.  Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s  Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927).  Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world.  The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind.  The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup.  Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.

Mary Pickford as "Mama" MollyMary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp.  The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog).  Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself.  Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible. 

The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies.  The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms.  This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology.  The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture.  He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms.  Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened.  In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap.  Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.

The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date.  Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators.  The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.

A lighter moment: Molly ramming Ambrose GrimesIt can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery.  Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell).  In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene.  The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects.  Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness.  Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926.  It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.

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Night of the Hunter (1955)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on June 12, 2009 by leclisse

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (1955)It would be difficult to think of another film that portrays the dichotomy of good and evil in such a sublime manner as Charles Laughton’s 1955 offering (I would even go so far as to say “masterpiece”), Night of the Hunter.  I had seen the title listed in a handful of definitive film lists, so I checked it out from the library the other day to see what the fuss was all about.

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a would-be revival preacher who is arrested at a burlesque show.  While in jail, he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who stole $10,000 in a fatal robbery and is sentenced to die by hanging.  Peter tells Harry about the money, but refuses to divulge its secret location.  Nevertheless, armed with the information of the money’s mere existence, Harry tracks down Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters) and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).  Harry ingratiates himself into the good graces of the town’s elders, and convinces the gullible Willa to marry him.  Willa blinds herself to the increasingly strange behavior of Harry, as he alternates between syrupy sweetness and wrenching evil in his efforts to learn of the money’s whereabouts.  The children, John, and Pearl, are the only ones who know that the stolen $10,000 is hidden in the doll that Pearl carries around with her (“the last place that anyone would think to look”).

Robert Mitchum descending to the cellar in Night of the Hunter (1955)Harry’s obsession turns deadly when he slashes Willa’s throat in a fit of rage.  He keeps his wits about him, however, when he ties her to the inside of a Model-T and drives it into the river, sinking her to the bottom of the lake.  He shuffles into town the next day, sobbing about the betrayal he’s experienced: Willa, he says, ran off with another man.  It is up to him now to mind her two motherless children.  Willa’s death has thrown John and Pearl into the harrowing hands of Harry, and nothing stands in the way of his killing them to get to the true whereabouts of the money.  In one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever recorded on film, Harry hunts the hiding children throughout the house.  “Chiiillldrennn…” he calls, until finally realizing that they are cowering in the basement.

John and Pearl make their escape after several minutes of nail biting on my part.  John finds a hidden rowboat amongst the trees on the shore of the lake, and takes off with Pearl.  Ragged and hungry, they finally decide to spend the night on land, but have to flee when John spots the shadow of Harry roaming the countryside in his relentless search for them (and singing in his lingering baritone all the while).  The children make it to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a mother earth figure who already cares for several other orphaned children.  Rachel is no fool, and realizes what a devil Harry is when he finally learns of John and Pearl’s whereabouts at her farm.  The ensuing stand-off between Rachel and Harry is somewhat like an apocalyptic struggle, pitting the earth mother against the encroaching forces of evil.

John (Billy Chapin) watching the approaching Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) The most striking aspect of this film is the photography, which is some of the most stunning that I have ever seen.  The way each scene is lit is very reminiscent of German Expressionism, with the exaggeration of shadows and distortions of reality.  Laughton is careful to clearly show the forces of good and evil, locked in their eternal struggle through the characters of the film.  Needless to say, the performances across the board are superb, and it was a relief to actually appreciate Shelley Winters on screen (I am not much of a fan of hers).  The movie comes together as an eerie, dreamlike fantasy that at turns feels both coldly real and intangibly fleeting.  Oddly enough, the film was not received well at all when it was released, which prompted Laughton to retire from directing.  That was really a shame, as one can easily imagine what other masterworks could have come from Laughton as a director. 

For further reading, AMC’s Filmsite offers a fantastic analysis, and there is a wonderful entry from Wonders in the Dark, located here.