Saturday, October 01, 2011


1927, US, directed by William Wellman

I've only seen a sliver of William Wellman's sizeable filmography, and nothing in the last couple of years, but what struck me most here was his mastery of tone, adeptly navigating the switch from comedy in the idyllic pre-war phase through to poignant farewells, dramatic combat action and ultimately, even inevitably, catastrophe. Despite the scale of the production, there's a visual economy to his work, efficiently signaling emotional tone through placement of his actors - Clara Bow and Charles Rogers at play in a tight shot under a car, not a care in the world, followed later by the sober shots of Rogers's rival Richard Arlen and his parents as he prepares to head to war, with the film reaching is emotional high-point in the sequence reuniting Rogers and Arlen late on, the two men joined in tragic embrace at the centre of the frame as signs of destruction surround them.

Wellman displays an extraordinary invention in his shot choices, too, his camerawork often startlingly "modern" to my eye. An early shot of two lovers on a swing has the camera mounted on the swing itself, foreshadowing the woozy shot in Mean Streets where Martin Scorsese attaches the camera directly to Harvey Keitel. More showy still, and yet entirely in keeping with the liberating feel of the sequence, is the wonderful travelling shot through the patrons at the Folies Bérgères. Elsewhere, Wellman simply uses camera placement, rather than motion, to achieve his effects - as in the low-angle shot that emphasizes the enormous bulk of a German bomber.

I saw the film at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford, with live organ accompaniment by Peter Krasinski. His work became such an absorbing part of the action that it was easy to forget there was an actual human being up there near the screen, adding drama and, not infrequently, humour to the visuals. The choice of film was no accident: the Chevalier in question was a wartime pilot from Medford.

Picture credit: Still scanned/uploaded by Silent Film Still Archive.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States