Sunday, May 24, 2009

Your Own Frank Tuttle Film Festival


All the major studios had their own style in the early thirties: MGM had society opulence, Warners had urban authenticity... and Paramount had European sophistication.

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I like to think of the studio as an exclusive school: Paramount's early thirties school of European Style. Lubitsch was the headmaster, Mitchell Leisen the art teacher, Rouben Mamoulian the drama teacher (who also did the special effects for the school plays), Dorothy Arzner was the games mistress, DeMille the classics master, and Cukor the head boy.

But what of Frank Tuttle? Well, Frank Tuttle, perhaps, was the caretaker.

Actually, no, he was much more than that; though that, I suspect is as much as his reputation will allow him. David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film warns outright that "there is no reason to build him up as an important director," albeit in the same breath that it calls him"a sign of the quality of Paramount in the 1920s" and concedes to his work "a brisk, sophisticated eye for glamour".

Tuttle is one of those men (Norman Z. McLeod is another) invariably overshadowed by their stars and the efficiency of the formulae with which they worked, but whose individual contributions to the general pot always seem to stand out a little, leaving little recourse other than to say, 'well, maybe this boy really did have something going for him beyond competence...'

Tuttle simply made too many great films to allow to mere chance and the happy assembly of tested ingredients.

Yet he had come to the movies (first as writer, then soon graduating to direction) with altogether loftier ambitions. A Yale man, he co-founded The Film Guild in 1922, an organisation with aims to break the stranglehold of pappy, sappy romances and similar lowbrow entertainments in the movies and offer patrons more elevated work along the lines of New York's Theatre Guild.
It's possible that some of his earliest films have something of this earnestness of ambition, but fortunately he soon succumbed to the tinsel, and by the mid-twenties he was firmly ensconced at Paramount as one of their most reliable handlers of crowd-pleasing froth.
They most valued him, it would seem, as a developer of specific acting personalities, so that he swiftly acquired a reputation as 'the guy that does Clara Bow pictures', or 'that Bebe Daniels feller' or whatever, before being shunted on to the next star.
The choice of artistes is telling: a Dietrich needs a von Sternberg; Bing Crosby gets Frank Tuttle.
He directed Bebe four times in 1924 and 5, their collaborations marking a transitional
phase between her established later persona and the image she had sustained somewhat improbably in DeMille's films as a flighty seductress. He also formed a brief alliance with her occasional DeMille antagonist Gloria Swanson, penning the screenplays for Her Love Story and Manhandled (both 1924) and directing The Untamed Lady in 1926. (His work with Swanson is especially interesting, because this is a woman who existed as a series of directorial allegiances, and posterity's take on her reputation comes to seem almost a punch-up between the versions chosen by each director: will she be remembered as Von Stroheim's drama queen, DeMille's glamourpuss, Sam Wood's thoroughly modern heroine? Ironically it is one-shot Wilder's Swanson that etched itself into history, with a kind of composite DeMille-Von Stroheim phantom, the one that Norma Desmond was rather than is, flitting between the lines. Tuttle chose characteristically to emphasise her comedic gifts, especially as a gum-chewing shop girl in Manhandled.)

The American Venus (1926) began a notable association with Louise Brooks. The film itself is tragically lost, but Brooks and Tuttle got on like a house on fire, and Louise seems to have been one of the few stars to have really rated him as a director.
"Frank Tuttle was a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood," she wrote many years later. "An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of actors - great actors and non-actors. In the first class was Osgood Perkins, who needed no direction. In the second class was I, who, had he directed me to be funny, would have become an immobilized personality... I didn't even know I was playing comedy until I saw it with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that's the way he wanted it."
A fan of hers since her days with the Ziegfeld Follies, he nicknamed her 'babbling Brooks' and personally lobbied for her to get the part.

Tuttle's complicated working relationship with Brooks would stretch over four films. The second, and the first film in our Tuttle festival, was Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927), with Brooks in full flapper mode as Janie, feckless younger sister of respectable shop girl Mame, played by Evelyn Brent. While Mame is struggling to keep their heads above water in a one-bedroom apartment, Janie is out all night, winning male admirers and dolls in Charleston contests.
If the premise sounds familiar, that's because it was remade only two years later as one of the best Clara Bow talkies, The Saturday Night Kid, with Clara as Mame and a young and squeaky Jean Arthur as Janie. Oddly, Tuttle was not called back for the rematch, though he would be assigned Clara duties on her subsequent four films, and had already directed her twice in silents.
The two films make for interesting comparison pieces. Brooks is more kittenish and less bratty than Arthur, and she and Brent really do seem a generation apart, whereas in Kid we end up resenting Arthur much more because we can see that Clara is a young, fun-loving gal too, whose responsibilities won't permit her the freedoms her sister flaunts and takes for granted. Where Arthur's Janie is a sullen manipulator, Brooks - as usual - is the victim of forces beyond her control: "I can't help it, can I, if he likes me the best?" she asks after swiping her sister's boyfriend. (She plays it like Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex.)
As William K. Everson wrote: "What a marvelously exciting film it would have been had Clara and Louise been co-starred in the original version... One just can't blame the hero for straying from Evelyn to Louise - but having to choose between Clara and Louise would really provide food for thought."
"You may not be real bright, Jane, but you're some snappy dresser," the big sap tells her at one point, and Tuttle cuts to long-shot to show us Louise sashaying and turning like a catwalk model as she basks in this highest of praise. At the end we see her at the department store's annual fancy dress ball, wooing the big boss and dancing the Black Bottom. (As one contemporary reviewer put it, more than reasonably: "At the end of the film she goes to the store's masquerade ball sans skirt and does a Charleston: who could ask for anything more?")
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Never again would Tuttle and Louise work together in such joyous circumstances. It was Tuttle who directed the retakes and new scenes of The Canary Murder Case (1929), after it was decided to convert it from silent to talkie. Louise couldn't have hoped for a more sympathetic overseer of her first venture into talking cinema, but she petulantly withdrew from the project, and more or less killed her Hollywood career. (More on this film here.)
Nonetheless, Tuttle retained his admiration and affection for her, and when she was given a demeaning cameo in It Pays To Advertise (1931) in order to work out her Paramount contract, he ensured that she dominates what screen time she gets.
As showgirl Thelma Temple (of the Broadway revue Girlies Don't Tell), she is the star of the opening scene; she's funny, perky and gorgeous. In her one chance to shine in a film she will almost immediately exit we see her surrounded by a crowd of journalists ("just raise the skirt, just a trifle...") awash in adoration. She reduces the audience to the same degree of helpless rapture - and then she's gone.
It Pays to Advertise, however, remains another of the great, great Tuttle films, and I discuss it further
here.

Another star that Paramount was somehow finding far more troublesome than was necessary or warranted was Clara Bow, and for a time, Tuttle became her regular director in talkies. My favourite of their collaborations is probably True To The Navy (1930), one of her lightest and most inconsequential confections, rushed into production to capitalise on the unexpectedly delighted public response to her song number I'm True to the Navy Now, directed by Tuttle for Paramount On Parade (1930).
Here she gets another song (There's Only One That Matters To Me: see her sing it
here) and seems generally at her most relaxed and perky (the Tuttle factor again?) as an employee of Harry Green's drug store (she makes eyes at all the customers, he sells them out-of-date, rock hard marshmallows as presents for her; it's probably Green's funniest performance too.)
As opposed to the sailor with a girl in every port, Clara is the girl with a sailor on every ship, until, after much farce, she settles for Fredric March, also in lighter than usual mood, as the good-natured gob who falls hardest for her.
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Which brings us to Sweetie (1929), another in Paramount's legion of college pictures, crossed with the chorus line musical. (Send for Tuttle!)
As well as the full gamut of college film clichés, with which Horse Feathers had such sport, we have Jack Oakie rewriting the staid school song as a Jolson pastiche, Alma Mammy, and above all we have Helen Kane. And Helen Kane, what's more, at her most infantile and absurd (fellow Kane-worshippers will know that this is no small claim) as a pupil of 'Miss Twill's School For Girls', where the young ladies sit in rows of desks on the lawn saying things like "cream or lemon?" in unison. She sings Prep Step and He's So Unusual (
here) and makes her entrance in the film falling out of a tree.
As well as the matchless majesty of Helen Kane, there's tons more about the big football game, and Nancy Carroll becoming president of the college, and more songs, and a major plot thread about Nancy's on-off romance with one of the freshmen, and a lively subplot about Stuart Erwin trying to pass an exam... and oh, you just wish it would never end.

Tuttle was briefly assigned to the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business in 1931 but lost out to Norman McLeod - the thought of this near-miss between the Tuttle and the Marxes is so much more frustrating than if their names had never been linked at all - but don't despair: the switch-over freed him to take on a run of wonderful pictures climaxing with perhaps my favourite of all Paramount society soufflés: a glorious thing called This Is The Night (1932).
As general familiarity with the Paramount house style recedes further into prehistory, the critical standing of this film sinks ever lower.
No mention of it fails to dismiss it as an imitation of Lubitsch, as if any Paramount film of this time was anything but! Yet even on these terms I find it every bit as good as the master's own work.
It is one of those infectiously delightful films (DeMille's Madam Satan, made in the Paramount style with MGM resources, is the other big example) that belie their low critical standing so obviously and all-encompassingly that to bother constructing a critical defence is pointless. All you have to do is watch the film. Far better simply to celebrate it, and let the naysayers catch up at their own pace.

Among other things, it was Cary Grant's first feature film, and he gives a very funny, totally untypical performance as an Olympic javelin-thrower who catches his wife - Thelma Todd! - in the act of planning a dirty weekend with her lover - Roland Young!!! - forcing Young to invent a fictitious wife whom he must then hire an actress to impersonate. Charlie Ruggles is around too, effortlessly hilarious as ever, Lily Damita is the hired wife, and the whole thing plays out as a series of beautiful farcical episodes in Venice and Paris.
As with Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight and several other Paramount films around this time there are some absolutely wonderful sequences in which characters drift in and out of song, songs are passed around from character to character and extra to extra, and ambient noise becomes subsumed within the music. Grant's first appearance as he catches Ruggles attempting to deliver the tickets for Thelma's tryst is played hilariously in part-spoken, part-sung dialogue and there is a glorious opening sequence where Todd's dress is caught in a taxi door, stripping her to her underwear, as the watching crowd launch into a jaunty number called Madame Has Lost Her Dress ("Whoops! In stepping from the car her dress caught / I only wish that I were Madame's escort!")
Obviously Lubitsch is the reference-point, obviously Trouble In Paradise and Love Me Tonight are being evoked... but obviously - this film is fantastic.
Variety, at least, got the hang of it, calling it a "smartly produced and directed Frenchy bedroom chase" even though in its "satirical application of music to comic situations and the tongue-in-cheek treatment from start to finish, Frank Tuttle's meg work cannot escape comparison with Lubitsch brand." The paper went on to note, in its own evocative vernacular, that "dialog on the whole is spicy for the screen, with a strip that's somewhat Minsky by Miss Damita, and some leg stuff for comedy and other purposes boosting the s. a. total... Thelma Todd is tall, blonde, stunning and perfect. It's hard to tell about Cary Grant in this talker due to limitations of his role, but he looks like a potential femme rave."

Through the thirties, Tuttle was Paramount's resident Mr Light and Frothy, always on call for a college film or a Big Broadcast, a Crosby picture or Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939), a film that manages by no common alchemy to be even more enjoyable than it sounds. He corralled Eddie Cantor, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting in Roman Scandals (1933), and Martha Raye, Burns & Allen and a screenful of Paramount starlets in College Holiday (1936). The latter, some seventy-odd years after it was first seen, remains the funniest film ever made about eugenics.
As the shadows lengthened in the forties, he rounded out his career in thrillers, to which he was ill-suited, but which he always brought in professionally in the absence of more suitable assignments. (It wasn't so much that he was no longer being considered for the kind of films he did best, more that they just weren't making them any more.)
Still, one of this final batch, at least, is a bona fide classic, so we round out the festival with This Gun For Hire (1942), the first and best teaming of Lake and Ladd. It's fully as sharp and riveting as anything Warners were doing with Bogart at the same time, even though Ladd looks too delicate and baby-faced to be a tough guy, and at five-foot-five was even shorter than Bogart. Here, however, he cuts an impressively unsympathetic figure as Raven, a hired killer whose aims correspond with those of the American government when he goes after a double-crossing client attempting to frame him for robbery, who also just happens to work for a gang of fifth columnists. En route, his path crosses with Lake’s nightclub novelty chanteuse, acting undercover for the government and after the same man, whose policeman boyfriend is after Raven.
The whole film has a bleakness that makes it a most unusual product of the war years: the villains may be enemy agents, but good guys are in conspicuously short supply. Ladd’s Raven, though he does redeem himself to some extent, is a cold-blooded professional killer, pursuing the film’s main villain for reasons of purely personal revenge. We first see him at work in a chilling sequence in which he turns up at the apartment of his next hit to find the victim’s innocent girlfriend unexpectedly present, and mechanically murders both.
The real hero is Lake’s spunky Ellen; by no means merely decorative, she is intelligent, brave and resourceful (note how she creates a trail for the police to follow when Raven abducts her) and acting from selfless and honourable motives. And there are no prizes for guessing that she's Tuttle's favourite half of the partnership: the only time the film stops frowning is during her fabulously eccentric nightclub numbers (dubbed by singer Martha Mears): Now You See It, Now You Don’t, sung while she pulls cards, silk scarves and canaries from nowhere and appears and disappears impossibly with trick photography, and I’ve Got You, performed with a fishing rod, hat and heart-stopping black PVC outfit.
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To recap: my recommendations for a Frank Tuttle film festival are:
1. Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927)

2. Sweetie (1929)

3. True to the Navy (1930)

4. It Pays to Advertise (1931)

5. This Is The Night (1932)

6. This Gun For Hire (1942)

And if you only have time to see one: This Is The Night.

So here's to the great Frank Tuttle - have a big cream cake with Clara on me.

(Incidentally, I'm rather taken with this 'make your own film festival' idea, and may well do a few more, starting with a return trip to the Paramount school staff-room to bag Leisen and Arzner. If anyone else out there fancies having a go with their own choices - six or so films that best represent the various points of interest in a neglected or under-appreciated career behind or in front of the camera - I'd love to read them.)