Clarence Brown | Possessed | Intruder in the Dust | Angels in the Outfield | When in Rome

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Clarence Brown

Clarence Brown is a Hollywood film director.

Possessed

Possessed (1931) is a gripping film. It succeeds both as a romance, and as a film about the problems of women.

Fallen Woman films

Possessed falls into the cycle of Fallen Woman films that were so popular in pre-code American cinema in the early 1930's. Apparently dozens of such films were made. It is one of the best in the series, along with Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932) and Gregory La Cava's satirical Bed of Roses (1933).

Possessed itself spoofs other members of the cycle, through dialogue mouthed by New York sophisticate Wally ("Skeets" Gallagher). In many films of the series, the woman treads the Street of Sin to help some pathetic relative. Here, Joan Crawford's heroine plainly declares, in answers to Wally's humorous questions, that she is doing it to help herself.

Long Takes

Possessed is full of long take sequences, frequently accompanied by camera movement. For example, the opening of the film consists of three long takes. The first shot opens with a shot of a factory water tower, then pans down to see workers leaving the factory. It then tracks along with the workers, who are gradually joined by factory worker Crawford and her home town beau Wallace Ford. A second tracking shot shows them walking homeward, along a run down working class street. The third tracking shot continues the same walk, but moves the camera in much closer, to a medium two shot that shows the faces and torsos of Crawford and Ford, and very little of the background. There is no back and forth editing here: the entire sequence is made of these long takes.

In today's film, the temptation would be for a director to make these three takes be one long sustained take. We are used to the long or even ten minute takes of Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph H. Lewis and Samuel Fuller, and to the elaborate sequences made possible by today's Steadicam technology. Brown, however, is plainly not thinking in such extreme terms. He seems content to stage the sequence in three medium length takes rather than one very long take. One can suggest some motives. First of all, his factory location and his street location were probably not contiguous. The fact that the factory shot and his street shot were at two different geographic locations probably made it impossible for him to join them into one long shot. However, had it been important to Brown, he probably could have found one suitable factory and street combination somewhere which would have enabled this. The choice of locations here is just a surface manifestation of a deeper underlying attitude.

One suspects that Brown saw little value in joining up his takes, and making them huge or sustained. He liked and wanted the staging of long takes, but felt it was perfectly OK if they were sometimes broken by cuts. For one thing, this must have made them much more practical for execution by his cast and crew. For another, cuts allow him to make a substantial change in location or camera angle, and this was also useful.

Depth Staging

Several shots in Possessed are accompanied by memorable depth staging. A sequence in Clark Gable's apartment shows him and Gallagher in the foreground discussing Crawford, while we see her in the background through glass doors arranging a party. Later in the film, Crawford will be listening in the foreground, while Gable and his political advisors will be having a discussion in the background, through the same glass doors. These depth scenes do not go to the later extremes of Orson Welles, with huge close-ups in the foreground, and minute figures in the extreme distance. But they offer memorable versions of depth staging all the same.

Brown prefers, both here, and throughout Possessed, to show the full figures of his characters wherever possible. He stages many of the scenes so that the characters are standing up. He prefers to show people from head to toe. The depth staging here is no exception. In the first shot, we see full figure, standing versions of Gable and Gallagher. Although they are in the foreground, they are standing far away enough from the camera that we can see their complete figures. In the background, Joan Crawford is close enough that we can see all of her too, and large enough to be a meaningful presence.

The bodies of Brown's characters are one of the main subjects of his film. This is a romantic melodrama. He is above all interested in showing us what his characters look like.

One of the main romantic scenes of the film show us Gable and Crawford all dressed up for a party, standing at her dressing table. Both stand throughout the entire scene. Both in fact stand ramrod straight. This is the most famous scene in the film, at least during its own time; a production still of it was widely reprinted. It shows his characters at their most alluring. I think that this was the film that made Clark Gable a star. He was a young contract player who had done supporting roles before this. But here, he played Crawford's successful, handsome, passionate, kind hearted and idealistic boyfriend, and audiences went wild for him.

There are other depth scenes in the film. The second shot of the movie, showing Crawford and Ford walking down a working class street, shows a woman coping with a drunken man in the background. This is quite an elaborate bit of pantomime. It establishes the squalor of the area, and makes a strong feminist point about what women have to put up with in men.

Another depth shot in the film is even more startling. This is the train sequence towards the beginning, when Joan Crawford peers into the train moving by, and sees all the inhabitants of the cars. The photography in this shot is so virtuosic, that it was included in Visions of Light (1992), a fascinating compilation film about American Cinematography. Seeing this clip in fact caused me to hunt up a videotape of Possessed, a film I had in fact never heard of. Like most early 1930's films, it is nearly completely forgotten today.

Editing

While Clarence Brown uses long takes as much as possible throughout Possessed, occasionally he uses angle / reverse angle back and forth editing between two characters. This is used typically during moments of confrontation between two characters. For example, an early scene in Gallagher's apartment between Crawford and Gallagher cuts back and forth when he is laying down somewhat controversial rules about the conduct that Crawford should take. When they reach a meeting of the minds, and start working on the same wavelength, Brown resumes a two shot, showing them in the same frame.

Brown also uses back and forth cutting to convey isolation, as well as confrontation. For example, when poor girl Joan Crawford is confronted by a French menu, she has to face this challenge all by herself. She is isolated by a close-up, followed by a matching close-up of Gable. The cutting here suggests that the two are functioning all of a sudden as individuals, not as a team.

Clarence Brown undermines many film conventions that typically call for back and forth cutting. 1) A dialogue between two people will show just one of the character's faces. Person A will say something in close-up. Person B's voice will say something, off screen, while the camera continues its unbroken gaze on A. Then A will say the next line of dialogue. Throughout, we see a continuous focus on person A. 2) A song performed by Joan Crawford at a party is staged by Brown in one long take. It is not intercut with reaction shots, showing the listeners' expressions. This is very rare - there seems to be a California law that says reaction shots of the audience must be included in any film performance. 3) Even when Brown uses angle / reverse angle cutting, he can treat the shots in an unconventional manner. A brief angle / reverse angle sequence in Crawford's kitchen at the beginning ends with a shot of Wallace Ford. So far, so conventional. However, Clarence Brown turns this close-up into a tracking shot, moves both Ford and his camera around, and gets Crawford into the frame too, and turns this into a long take group shot of them in the kitchen.

The prevalence of long takes and depth staging in Possessed, and the paucity of angle / reverse angle shots, contradict what are clichés about Hollywood style film making in the 1930's. One might compare it with such 1950's films as Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955), and Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), films which are full of long takes. One might point out that all of these films are eminently commercial films, not avant-garde works or dramatic specials. They all fall into well established Hollywood genres, too: fallen women films, crime dramas and comedies, respectively.


Intruder in the Dust

Social Commentary

Intruder in the Dust (1949) is based on William Faulkner's 1948 pro-Civil Rights, anti-lynching novel. It is completely shot on location in Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi. The film constitutes a ferocious attack on the racism of its era.

When I first saw Intruder in the Dust in 1971, its world seemed a familiar one to me. The racist Old South it depicted had been shown on network television news virtually every night during the 1960's, as part of the news' coverage of the Civil Rights movement. And I had encountered plenty of bigots in my native Michigan who shared the world view of most of the whites in this film. As a strongly pro-Civil Rights person, both then and now, the world shown in the film seemed deplorable, but not surprising. Seen today, however, Intruder in the Dust seems like a shocking time capsule of another time and place. The attitudes shown in the film look like part of a world of nightmarish horror. This world has now mercifully disintegrated, but its harmful after effects still remain.

Social Defiance

The good characters have to defy society, to do their detective work.

At first they accept the idea of the accused being guilty. Everyone in town believes that this is true. It is considered an obvious truth. It is a major conceptual breakthrough, when one of the heroes suggests the opposite. The film shows that thinking originally and unconventionally is itself an act of social defiance. It is a place where social change starts.

Intruder in the Dust is a detective story. Detective stories in general are rich in metaphors about thinking. Detective tales often show the difficulties but also the value of ideas that defy conventional thinking.

Next, the film shows how the characters have to move to open social defiance. The elderly woman is startlingly brave. She has to stand up to ferocious personal criticism and attack.

The scenes where the woman defies the crowds, anticipate the scene in Angels in the Outfield where the aging ballplayer has to defy jeering fans to do his job. Both characters display remarkable grit, in standing up to social pressure.

Coincidentally or not, both characters are older. Perhaps there is a lesson here about older people being required to use grit to achieve positive social goals.

A Semi-Documentary Crime Film

Intruder in the Dust is a detective story. Its location filming is part of the semi-documentary tradition of the era, to shoot crime films on authentic, real world locations. Like other semi-docs, this goes into apparently authentic jails and police stations to tell its story. Ballistic evidence plays a major role in the crime plot; such scientific evidence is part of the semi-doc tradition. The film also has some complex flashbacks; these too were favored by the film noir of the era. Unlike other semi-docs, there is no large scale police organization in the film; the police are not the central characters; and the finale does not take place in an industrial area.

Intruder in the Dust was made the same year as another semi-doc, Anthony Mann's Border Incident (1949). Both films share a fierce look at the injustices done a minority group: Mann's film deals with criminals who exploit Mexican immigrant laborers. Both films are shot on location in authentic rural and small town areas, in contrast to the urban sites of most semi-docs, and film noir as a whole. Both films seem deeply tragic, and explore major issues affecting American society.


Angels in the Outfield

Angels in the Outfield (1951) is a comedy-drama about baseball.

Metaphors for Filmmaking

Angels in the Outfield can be seen as a metaphor for filmmaking in general, and Clarence Brown's own work in particular.

The coach (Paul Douglas) is analogous to the director of a motion picture: Clarence Brown's job. When the film opens, the coach operates by yelling at and demeaning his players. Heaven intervenes, and urges the coach to start treating his players with respect. When he does, the players start functioning as a team, and start winning games. This is like Brown's own well-known respectful treatment of actors, where he listens to them and encourages their input.

The advice to treat workers well and with respect, also seems like advice designed for the world of work in general, not only Hollywood films.

The finale shows an aging ballplayer (Bruce Bennett) screamed at by the fans, who think he is no good, and want him removed from the game. The virulence of the scene is frightening. It anticipates an MGM film made a few years later, Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1952), with the terrifying scene of Van Gogh being jeered at by the townspeople. Both films show a vulnerable but sincere and hard-working person being denounced by the public. One wonders if the scene in Angels in the Outfield also has autobiographical elements: Clarence Brown was an aging veteran director, and perhaps he felt that older directors and workers weren't prized in Hollywood.

Once again, autobiographical elements are not the only interpretation. The episode is a powerful denunciation of agism and age-related discrimination in general.

Non-Naturalistic Filmmaking

The coach's swearing early in the film, is presented as garbled sound. One can hear his loud-mouthed tone of voice, but not his swear words.

The garbled sound is completely non-naturalistic. It is an intervention in and transformation of reality. Unlike most post-1930 Hollywood films, it does not claim to show the audience what is happening in a literal fashion. Instead, it shows reality transformed. This is quite unusual.

The non-literal sound is "justified" a bit, because Angels in the Outfield is a comedy. Hollywood comedy films sometimes have bits of fantasy or whimsy, which violate strict realism. However, the sound in Angels in the Outfield is not just non-realistic. It violates basic filmmaking conventions, about depicting events in a literal manner on screen.

In When in Rome, Brown will present a character's mental imagery on screen. This is not realistic. But it is not such a radical violation of filmmaking norms and conventions, as the sound in Angels in the Outfield.

Influence

Angels in the Outfield was perhaps an influence on a later baseball drama, Bang the Drum Slowly. Bang the Drum Slowly started life as a 1956 novel by Mark Harris. It was adapted as a 1956 TV drama, then was remade as a 1973 feature film.

Common features include:


When in Rome

When in Rome continues Clarence Brown's interest in location filming, here of Rome. The realistic Italian locations evoke Italian neorealism.

Links to Chained

When in Rome (1952) has an oddly similar structure to Brown's Chained (1934). They are set up as journeys by two characters. Visually detailed travelogues appear in the background, while the characters get to know each other and interacted in the foreground. Chained is a romantic melodrama, while When in Rome is a comedy about two men. Still, their formal similarity is striking.

Mental Imagery

When in Rome has a delightful sequence, in which the con man suddenly has a mental vision of the monastery as having a different kind of architecture. Hitchcock employed a similar mental vision at the end of Young and Innocent, when the killer has a vision of a witness in different clothes. This sort of mental imagery perhaps goes back to Murnau. Both directors show reality being transformed.