Great Cinematographers, Part 17: Sol Polito

Cinematographer Sol Polito (1892-1960) lent a special touch to exuberant musicals, swashbuckling adventures, goofy comedies, solemn dramas and everything in between. You may have heard of some of the more famous films he photographed - I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Petrified Forest (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – but the three films I have decided to highlight here deserve attention as well.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, dir. Mervyn LeRoy) – This gem has many of my favorite songs from the classic age of Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musicals, including the tunes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz,” “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song,” “Pettin’ in the Park” and the one that I have chosen for this post, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” This grand finale is not another upbeat display of nubile chorines; instead it focuses on the sobering plight of veterans from the Great War, men who fought for America’s honor and who were then discarded by their country. The struggles of these men, from the trenches to the bread lines, are made all the more powerful by the singing of Joan Blondell and Etta Moten and by Polito’s expert use of the camera.

Wonder Bar (1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon) – Like many pre-Code films, Wonder Bar is best remembered for its risqué (and in some cases, racist) attitudes, but “Don’t Say Goodnight” is both a lovely song and a classic example of Busby Berkeley’s choreography at its best. The scene utilizes Berkeley’s trademark birds’-eye-view shots of the dancers and also has some novel cinematographic tricks done with mirrors.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, dir. Anatole Litvak) – Polito adds a shadow-layered noir feeling to this unsettling thriller. You can see both the creepy emptiness of the apartment and the possibility of things lurking in the night as Barbara Stanwyck tries desperately to get closer to the incessant ring of the doorbell.

Great Cinematographers, Part 16: Charles Lang

The distinguished career of Charles Lang (1902-1998) holds the record for the greatest number of nominations for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (tied with Leon Shamroy), a total of 18 nominations. (Lang won for his work on the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms.) In a career that endured from 1926 to 1973, Lang worked with everyone from Dorothy Arzner (Sarah and Son) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) to Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) and Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). Lang’s lengthy filmography is a testament to his virtuosity.

Desire (1936, dir. Frank Borzage; uncredited direction by Ernst Lubitsch) – Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, two of the greatest stars of the 1930s, are made even more luminous here by the way Lang lit them, aided by the uncredited work of fellow cameraman Victor Milner (whom I honored with a “Great Cinematographers” post last summer).

A Foreign Affair (1948, dir. Billy Wilder) – Twelve years after Desire, Marlene Dietrich was still as entrancing as ever. In the darkness of the Berlin nightclub her elegant dress shimmers, reflecting the glow of the spotlight.

Sabrina (1954, dir. Billy Wilder) – The shadows cast beautiful patterns over Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart as they dance on the moonlit tennis court.

Stanley Donen: Let Him Entertain You

Today is the 90th birthday of Stanley Donen, perhaps the last great living director from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies. Let’s celebrate his career with clips from five of his most entertaining films.

On the Town (1949, co-directed with Gene Kelly) – My favorite part of this classic musical, which has many wonderful numbers that I could have highlighted, is this section of the dream sequence “A Day in the New York,” a ballet that Gene Kelly’s character imagines while wishing he could see Vera-Ellen again. Without any words, using only their bodies (and the shadows of them on the wall), they create a couple of minutes of movie magic.

Royal Wedding (1951) – Fred Astaire’s famous dance on the walls and ceiling, which Lionel Richie later paid homage to in his 1986 music video “Dancing on the Ceiling” (also directed by Donen), originates here. Astaire sings “You’re All the World to Me,” a lovely little tune by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952, co-directed with Gene Kelly) – One of the most memorable segments of this outstanding treasure of a film is the “Gotta Dance” collection of musical vignettes. Here, Cyd Charisse is the ultimate temptress, a femme fatale in green with a Louise Brooks haircut, casting her spell in vibrant Technicolor.

Charade (1963) – This is such a fun movie, combining all the best elements of thriller, comedy and romance in a way that Hitchcock probably wished he could have done. (Hitch, after all, never worked with Audrey Hepburn.) Hepburn and Cary Grant make a splendid couple, here observing an unusual yet entertaining style of showering.

Bedazzled (1967) – This very 60s satire of pop culture is based on a story by its stars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, adapted into a screenplay by Cook. Cook stars as the devil and Moore plays the hapless young man whose wishes are always Cook’s twisted command. In this clip Cook shows Moore what it’s like to be a modern pop star performing on TV for many adoring female fans, singing the song “Bedazzled” (an original creation by Moore, who was a talented composer and lyricist) in a delightfully flat, unsmiling way. Cook’s delivery underscores the absurd humor of the whole thing, but the way Donen put the scene together is what makes it particularly effective.

Great Cinematographers, Part 15: Harry Stradling, Sr.

Harry Stradling, Sr. (1901-1970) was nominated for a total of 14 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography between 1944 and 1970, winning twice for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964). In a career lasting half a century, he showed his mastery for his craft in many films, including in the three examples below.

Suspicion (1941, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – When Cary Grant opens the door to bring milk upstairs to wife Joan Fontaine, the interplay of light and shadow is an example of Stradling’s consummate abilities. (I apologize for the weird, though brief, moment with a Russian voiceover. It doesn’t really interfere with the scene anyway.)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan) – One of the most powerful scenes in American film history is that of Marlon Brando screaming “Stella!” in this 1950s classic. With the way that the light hits Brando and Kim Hunter, you really feel like you’re in the midst of that hot New Orleans summer night.

Funny Girl (1968, dir. William Wyler) – Barbra Streisand became a Hollywood star with her Oscar-winning turn in this musical. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is, in my eyes, the undisputed highlight of the film, even greater than the “My Man” finale. The camerawork is quite extraordinary, given the uses of transportation (train, boat). Only a really talented director of photography could have accomplished what Stradling did.

Pop Culture Never Dies

Twenty years ago today, MTV made its live report that Kurt Cobain had died. An entire generation – or more than one? I don’t know how often generations start up – has come of age since then. Cobain’s own daughter, whom the media still thinks about and follows around, will be 22 years old in a few months, the same age as me and many other fans of her father’s music, people who were not alive during Nirvana’s existence. It’s a little jarring to think that it has been a whole two decades since 1994, but you wouldn’t really know it to judge by the number of Nirvana shirts you still see worn by young people (myself included). There are many reasons why Life released an entire magazine devoted to the twentieth anniversary of Cobain’s death, but the main one is regret – we wish he were here so that the articles didn’t have to be written. Maybe he’s gone where the cold wind blows, to quote the Lead Belly song, but pop culture hasn’t forgotten Kurt Cobain and probably won’t for a very long time.

Mickey Rooney: The Passing of a Legend

In my family, there are some actors who make an impact. Guys or gals who we see onscreen and make us smile. For us, Mickey Rooney was one of those actors. Whether playing the kid version of Clark Gable (!) in Manhattan Melodrama, sipping sodas with Judy Garland/Lana Turner/Ann Rutherford (take your pick) in Love Finds Andy Hardy, pounding the drums in The Strip, trying to fly a plane with Buddy Hackett in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, preening in his underwear in front of a full-length mirror in Pulp or singing “Life’s a Happy Song” with the other residents of Smalltown in The Muppets, Rooney could do it all. We’ll miss Mickey’s unique charisma. He was one-of-a-kind.

Actors You Should Know: Grady Sutton

Actor Grady Sutton (1906-1995) was never a household name, but he appeared in so many movies and TV shows between 1925 and 1979 that you’ve probably seen him in something without knowing who he was. He was often, if not usually, uncredited, his roles merely bit parts that gave him only seconds of screen time. He was easily recognizable anywhere; for example, as “Man afraid of mice” (uncredited) in Movie Crazy (1932). Sutton also had credited roles in well-known movies like Alice Adams (1935), Pigskin Parade (1936), Stage Door (1937), The Bank Dick (1940) and Anchors Aweigh (1945).

Student who goes to dean (uncredited) in The Freshman (1925) – Sutton began his long career playing – if I’m not mistaken – a tattletale, ratting on Harold Lloyd for some supposed collegiate infraction.

Claude Neselrode in Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) – Sutton worked with W.C. Fields on a few occasions, perhaps most famously as prospective son-in-law Og Oggilby (“sounds like a bubble in the bathtub”) in The Bank Dick (1940). Trapeze has Sutton playing Fields’ stepson, another tattletale type who, as you might expect, doesn’t hesitate to steal Fields’ tickets to the upcoming wrestling match.

Diner counterman (uncredited) in The More the Merrier (1943) – While serving Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea some food, he gets quite upset while listening to Arthur’s sad story. It’s a moment of great comic timing and editing.

Sutton’s career came to a close with roles big and small in such varied films as My Fair Lady (1964), Tickle Me (1965). Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979). From silent slapstick to Elvis to the Ramones, Grady Sutton was there for it all.