Tag Archives: Charles Laughton

Pre-Code Hollywood #11 – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The_sign_of_crossThe Sign of the Cross (1932)
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman (based on The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett)
Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton

Famous producer Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of forging some of Hollywood’s grandest epics, including The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cleopatra, and Union Pacific. DeMille’s religious epic The Sign of the Cross is another in a series of films at least partially responsible for the creation of the Hays Code, and it’s easy to see why when looking at it in a historical context. DeMille’s 1932 epic is filled with sexuality and violence, and tells a story that is chock full of intense bigotry and hatred. The Sign of the Cross is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the sheer potential held by filmmakers in pre-code Hollywood – it’s full of ambitious filmmaking, passion, and depravity.

The Sign of the Cross takes place in the year 64 A.D., where the Roman Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) has just burned down the city. The action has been blamed on those of the Christian faith, creating an extremely anti-Christian sentiment without Rome. A young and lustful Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), prefect of Rome, is taken by Mercia (Elissa Landi) who he sees defending her fellow Christians. Marcus tries everything he can to seduce Mercia, but her devotion to her faith will not allow her to fall for Marcus’ games. When she hears of Marcus’ new infatuation, a jealous Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) demands that Mercia be killed. This puts Marcus into a complicated and dangerous situation, torn between his beliefs and the beliefs of his nation – no matter what decisions are made by Marcus and Mercia, it surely won’t be pretty.
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Religious epics have always been one of my favorite genres, with both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments being lifelong favorites of mine. Unfortunately, The Sign of the Cross doesn’t hold a candle to either of those terrific pictures. While I can admire the grandiose nature of DeMille’s pre-code classic, very little of it actually stuck with me in any meaningful way. It stands as more of a fun, deranged curiosity than most of the true greats of the genre. That isn’t to say it’s all bad – the production design alone makes The Sign of the Cross more than worthy of a watch, especially in the context of pre-code Hollywood. Costumes and sets feel lavish and genuine, transporting viewers to the Roman Empire – the entire film feels as large in scale as many epics from the time period. It’s immediately clear that DeMille had an eye for detail, and a knack for capturing detailed period pieces on film. The film’s dark cinematography helps set the mood, featuring some terrific use of light and shadows during its many nighttime scenes. Cinematographer Karl Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, making it the only nomination that The Sign of the Cross would receive.

The memorable performances by great actors like Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, and Fredric March all help to further The Sign of the Cross’ terrific mood and atmosphere. Laughton steals the show (as he always did) as Emperor Nero, whose sinister nature and indescribable prejudices make him very easy to hate. Nero is portrayed as a lazy, spiteful, worm of a man, and Laughton plays it up perfectly. Colbert’s sexually-charged performance as Empress Poppaea is every bit as memorable as Laughton’s, only for completely different reasons. Poppaea uses her beauty and sex appeal to her advantage in every scene, creating some of the film’s most titillating moments – the most iconic of which being an early scene that sees Colbert bathing in asses milk. Unfortunately for The Sign of the Cross, many of the supporting performances can’t exactly live up to those of the legendary main cast.

The Sign of the Cross’ weakest aspect is its story, which feels inconsequential in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the film. While there are many iconic and memorable moments throughout, there is little to nothing substantial connecting these moments to one another. The movie is ultimately a love story at its core, and not a terribly compelling one either. This is a shame, because the brutality and visceral nature of DeMille’s film could have made it truly unique had it featured stronger writing and pacing. Clocking in at over two hours long, I found myself begging for more of the aforementioned iconic moments. Luckily, the pre-code content of the film is consistent throughout, with scenes of brutal violence and outright sexuality being enough to hold viewers’ attention. This is certainly a film that would not have been possible following the enforcement of the Hays Code – in fact, DeMille’s film was heavily edited and censored until its restoration in the 1990’s.
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While Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a far cry from some of the incredible films we’ve taken a look at throughout our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, there are hints of greatness throughout. The lavish set decoration and costuming rival some of the greatest epics of its time, the lead performances are wonderfully exaggerated and theatrical, and the film’s pre-code nature still does enough to shock and titillate today. It’s unfortunate that the film couldn’t overcome a weak central story, bloated run-time, and some underwhelming supporting performances – there’s a masterpiece in here somewhere. With all that said, The Sign of the Cross is sadly not recommended – it’d be best to see this one as a curiosity, much in the same way people view Caligula today.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It gets my highest recommendation.

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Top 100 Films #9 – The Night of the Hunter (1955)

 

hunter1#9. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Written by: James Agee (based on The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce

The Night of the Hunter stands as legendary actor Charles Laughton’s only credit as a director – a role I very much wish he had revisited after his 1955 debut. The Night of the Hunter sees two siblings named John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) on the run after a manipulative preacher forces his way into their family in order to gain access to money their father took during a bank robbery gone bad. The bad man is Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a serial killer who preys on what he finds to be “sinful” women. After the death of their mother, John and Pearl must flee to the safety of the countryside, or else meet the same fate as their beloved mother and father. The Night of the Hunter is a dark, almost film noir-esque fairy tale of a film – setting a dreamlike tone early on and never letting up. The atmosphere found in Laughton’s directorial debut is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, featuring beautiful black and white cinematography, dreamlike music, a charismatic and crazed main villain whose screen presence is undeniable, and some incredible scenery in the film’s last act. The photography from cinematographer Stanley Cortez is some of the best I’ve ever seen, combining washed out images and dark, shadowy noir-influenced visuals into one beautiful picture. Laughton’s prowess as a director is evident in the film’s pacing, which is frantic and never seems to miss a beat. Even when establishing main characters and the situations they’re unfortunately involved in, we’re only given the most important and crucial details. Together with writer James Agee, Laughton has managed to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and menacing villains in Reverend Harry Powell – whose LOVE-HATE knuckle tattoos and constant eerie singing of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has solidified his place in movie history. Robert Mitchum’s turn as the Reverend is creepy in his subtle moments, and downright terrifying when his motivations are finally revealed to young John and Pearl. The Reverend is not a sneaky villain – he always makes his presence known through his singing and whistling of hymns, which somehow makes his sinister approach all the more effective. The child performances of John and Pearl are admittedly the weakest part of The Night of the Hunter, but ultimately work as they are not asked to carry much dramatic weight – plus Sally Jane Bruce’s Pearl is undeniably adorable with her cute little accent. The most surprising performance is that of former silent movie star Lillian Gish, whose protective maternal figure appears very late in the film but somehow makes the entire situation of John and Pearl seem manageable and safe. Overall, The Night of the Hunter is one of the most complete suspense-thrillers ever made in Hollywood, featuring the amazing work of a man who absolutely should have directed again after this. The lead performance of Robert Mitchum is legendary, the dreamlike cinematography and tone is unforgettable, and the character of Reverend Harry Powell is legendary. The Night of the Hunter is one you absolutely cannot miss.

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Noirvember Feature #6 – The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClockThe Big Clock (1948)
Directed by: John Farrow
Written by: Jonathan Latimer (based on The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing)
Starring: Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rita Johnson

This month’s selections just keeps getting better and better…

Director John Farrow (father of the highly-acclaimed actress Mia Farrow) was incredibly prolific as both a writer and director for nearly three decades.  It wasn’t until 1948’s The Big Clock that he truly struck a long-lasting chord with critics and audiences, and even after its release he would fail to live up to the film.  Farrow was nominated for Best Director for 1942’s Wake Island and even won an Oscar for writing 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but those films haven’t endured the test of time like his famous film noir has.  The Big Clock stars Ray Milland, who just three years prior had given what I would consider to be one of the all-time great performances in The Lost Weekend, and the legendary Charles Laughton, whose acclaimed roles are far too plenty to list here.  Maureen O’Sullivan, the wife of director John Farrow and mother of Mia Farrow, also stars.  O’Sullivan was widely known at the time for playing Jane in the Tarzan series of films.  Her role in the film came after a prolonged absence from the screen, and was met with critical praise, but she soon after opted to retire from the screen permanently.  The Big Clock is based on a famous novel of the same name, written by Kenneth Fearing, and has been adapted for the screen a number of time since its publication.

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Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) and George Stroud (Ray Milland) in the beginning of 1948’s The Big Clock.

The story of The Big Clock sees our main character, magazine editor George Stroud (played by Oscar-winning Ray Milland), being fired at the outset.  Stroud is eager to take a vacation with his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), but plans his slowly become unravelled after gaining the attention of the beautiful Pauline York (Rita Johnson).  Pauline is the mistress of George’s former boss Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), which is partly why she shows so much interest in the down-on-his-luck George.  The two hit it off and devise a plan to blackmail the media mogul Janoth. Soon after George leaves her apartment to reunite with his wife, Pauline is quickly murdered after a passionate spat with her lover.  Little do the two men know that they quite literally bumped into each other in the hallway of Pauline’s apartment building, both men’s faces shrouded in darkness.  Janoth now looks for the man in the hallway so that he can pin his crime of passion on the mystery man, and unwittingly hires George back in order to track down the mystery man.  Now George must both lead the investigation and manhunt for the “murderer”, and cover up the fact that he’s the man the media is so desperately searching for.  Will Pauline York’s true killer be caught and brought to justice, or will the wrong man pay for a crime he didn’t commit?  You’ll have to watch John Farrow’s excellent The Big Clock to find out for yourself!

The Big Clock is as twisty-turny as film noir gets, and in this case it definitely works to its benefit.  The film keeps the audience on its feet and keeps you guessing whether Stroud or Janoth are going to get caught, and how they’re going to be able to get themselves out of the situation.  The scenes in the first act of the film involving George Stroud and his wife Georgette are quite funny and relatable, and set a very good pace for what was to follow.  Ray Milland and Maureen O’Sullivan had terrific chemistry together as the Stroud’s, and when Georgette decided to tag along with her husband I was overjoyed.  The may not be the most effective team due to some awkward gender roles of the time, but I still had a lot of fun watching the couple on-screen.  Charles Laughton’s performance as Earl Janoth is diabolical and hammy in the best way possible, and it’s obvious why Laughton is so highly regarded as an actor.  He seems to play a villainous character with ease, being both incredibly intimidating and slimy all at the same time.  His scenes with Milland’s George Stroud are tense, and the way he commands the screen just begs the attention of the viewer.  Director John Farrow also deserves a great deal of praise, commanding evocative performances from the entire (albeit talented) leading cast, and also for a variety of taught directing techniques.  A long single take shot towards the beginning of the film sets the tone for things to come, and is expertly handled by the veteran director. Reveals of the many twists and turns in the film’s script are handled with subtlety, making the audience piece together some of the clues and do some thinking instead of spoon-feeding them answers.  

Annex - Laughton, Charles (Big Clock, The)_02

In short, The Big Clock is a tight, tense, atmospheric film noir that will keep you on your toes.  The performances from an all-star cast are terrific, the writing respects its source material and doesn’t insult its audience, and John Farrow’s direction is somehow both subtle and stylish.  All of these elements combined lead to The Big Clock being regarded as one of my favorite films of this month’s marathon, and I now feel compelled to seek out similar stories, as well as more work from director John Farrow.  The Big Clock is highly recommended!

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