Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Silent Technicolor Extravaganza - With Sound - And Music

Fig. 1 Romanza: Loretta in the delightful fruit tree sequence; imagine it in Technicolor

Fig. 2 A perfected color process worthy of the painterly compositions to come

Henry King (1886-1982) was a pioneer director whose capability in delivering solid and well-crafted motion pictures is often overshadowed by his contemporaries. John Ford comes to mind because both directors took on many of the same subjects. Ford is immediately more of a stylist, but King's competence and sensitivity indicate that he was concerned with substance over style. Both made westerns and pictures that dealt with bygone Americana, but no further comparison is necessary.

As a mainstream studio director (predominantly at 20th Century-Fox), King's diversity was remarkable because, pretty much anything he took on he did extremely well. C.B. DeMille may have mastered the Hollywood epic, but King's production of 'David and Bathsheba' (1951) signaled an alternative style of epic depiction, meant for more adult and intelligent audiences. His handling of musicals (e.g. 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1938) and 'Carousel' (1956)) was mature, intelligent and classy. His forays into Hemingwayland ('The Snows of Kilimanjaro' (1953) and 'The Sun Also Rises' (1957) are less successful, but one of his greatest achievements, 'The Song of Bernadette' remains as one of the most compelling and powerful examples of sheer storytelling in the studio era.

Randomly picking a title out of King's oeuvre, one can always find something of interest. I had never seen 'Ramona' (1936) before, but I did last night. It was glorious, and not only because it was filmed in glorious 3-strip Technicolor. It is the tale of a half-caste girl (Loretta Young) who falls in love with an Indian youth (Don Ameche) whose sincerity and fidelity make him respected by all. Rejected by the aunt who raised her, Ramona and her lover run off, are wed, and seek out a pastoral life in the arcadia that surrounds them. The ending is tragic but uplifting.

King, like Ford, was a Catholic, and in this picture, Catholicism is a saving grace. King may go for the sentimental in his films, but never the sappy. The plot may sound operatic, but it is really quite humble in its aspirations. It is, after all, a Romance, not a romantic comedy or an operetta, or a kitschy dalliance. Romance as a genre was much more defined and developed in that era, and the original book, by Helen Hunt Jackson, was a perennial favorite, having been filmed previously by Griffith and others.

The storyline is not new, of course, but some of its attitudes are refreshingly contemporary, if not revisionist. The white folks in the drama are basically depicted as prejudiced, greedy, opportunistic and suspicious, while the persons of color are shown to be honest, hard-working and virtuous, and with considerable dimension. There is nothing pat about any of the characters because their motivation is quickly and economically made clear. The Indians are driven off their prosperous land by whites who have taken advantage of legal loopholes. The matter is not skirted, but it is dealt with straight-on because the drama demands it. Looking back to the film's era, that's not bad for a mere romantic entertainment. Amongst the love-drama are to be found humanitarian notions.

The musical score of 'Ramona' is a milestone. One of the happiest factors in the studio system's workings is that, due to contractual arrangements made by the moguls, creative personnel of exceptional talent could, by sheer assignment from the head office, regularly collaborate, and with brilliant results. Such a case is the stellar roster of Henry King films scored by Alfred Newman, Hollywood's consummate film composer.

Darryl Zanuck, recent emigre from Warner Bros., felt, like Jack L. Warner, that his most lavish productions should have equally lavish scores - nearly wall to wall music, that increased the given picture's prestige. (Conversely, MGM had a much weaker music department at this time.) And because of the corollaries that exist in the film business, greatness in film music could flourish. In this case: Newman was a youthful conductor on Broadway. Irving Berlin heard him and used him for one of his shows. Berlin went to Hollywood and thought Newman would be perfect for scoring talkies (1930). Newman took up Berlin's invitation to Hollywood. Sam Goldwyn heard him and put him under contract. Along with Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Newman consequently forged the theory of film scoring as we know it today. Zanuck then tapped Newman for the 'Ramona' score, based on his soulful scores for Goldwyn. And Newman delivered. The score for 'Ramona' is ultra-romantic, touching, and full of longing - and fulfillment. Poignant, ecstatic, and moving, it is perfect for its purpose.

But in the cinema, the score is always subservient to the more attention-getting aspects of imagery. In this, 20th's first Technicolor outing, all stops were pulled out in fully showcasing the crowd-pleasing (and very expensive) attributes of the process. William Skall, who would later contribute to such vast color mural-storytelling as 'Quo Vadis' and 'The Silver Chalice', was behind the camera, and he well qualifies himself as one of the great 'painters of light' in the cinema. The cameras were huge and bulky, the lighting required was fierce and hot, and the demands from the Technicolor Corp on the creative side often severe, but Skall captures the moods and subtleties of Old California in an almost Mission Style manifestation of pictorialness.

It has long been fashionable (if not the general default) of successive generations to mock such productions as 'Ramona', but my appreciation of this picture is not at all 'revisionist'. No need. I think that many such films might be compared to the effects brought forth by, say, Puccini's 'La Boheme' or Charpentier's 'Louise'. That is, audiences do not laugh them off the stage because they are too syrupy or too kitschy. No, audiences luxuriate in the romantic/dramatic aura and emerge moved, touched, and yes, entertained. If romantic opera gets such respect and appreciation, its' poor cousin, Romance picture shows, might still be eligible as well. So I guess I approach pictures like 'Ramona' with the same expectations I would apply to 'Madame Butterfly' and the like. It is indeed liberating to take a given film for what it is and not for what one thinks it should be in the eyes of others. It is indeed right that audiences should be opinionated about films, or anything that is placed before the public for their absorption, but the conformity of reaction to certain genres gets to be tiresome, to say the least. There's something out there for everybody, and for everybody's moods. Why worry about being embarrassed about actually liking something that is not likable in the conventional sense?

That said, I don't regard 'Ramona' as a guilty pleasure. It is simply an excellent example of its genre, a genre that audiences once loved intensely, otherwise it would not have been made.

Henry King's 'Ramona' is a unique work: the aesthetics of the silent era are given their last presentation, as it were, by a director schooled in the silent style, yet yielding to the obvious benefits of spoken dialogue, original music and postcard color. It represents the closing of one era, and the inevitability of another.