Oscar Micheaux | W.S. Van Dyke | Norman Taurog

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Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux' camera style in Body and Soul (1925) is fully frontal, in the classic silent movie style. Virtually every shot faces its subject matter head on. Walls appear directly perpendicular to the center line of the shot, parallel to the frame. Most objects in the shot, whether furniture or fixtures, are also parallel to the plane of the frame. The characters are also often looking straight ahead. Micheaux likes rectangular regions in his compositions, and uses them to frame his characters. This style of filmmaking has its own special beauty. Shot after shot seems classically composed.

Micheaux edits gracefully, cutting from a long to a medium shot, or back, whenever its seems appropriate. Since each shot seems so carefully imagined and composed, the effect is like following thought itself. The camera goes wherever the director thinks events and ideas are most interesting.

When the director cuts back from a close or medium shot to a long shot, the effect is as if the image opened up like a flower. There is little camera movement in Micheaux' film.

Outdoor shots are especially lyrical, with buggies traveling through fields. A perspective shot with a sidewalk stretching out directly into the distance is beautiful, and recalls Buster Keaton.

Micheaux' style as a whole recalls that of the most influential silent director, D.W. Griffith. His characters express emotions with the fervency and clean acting style of Griffith's performers. A deathbed scene has all of Griffith's devotion to family feeling.

W.S. Van Dyke

Hide-Out (1934) has a circular camera movement. It is a nearly 360 degree pan around the living room of a farmhouse. The shot simply shows the set; it has no people in it. It is expository: after a half hour prologue in New York City, the film makes a drastic shift in locale to the country, and the film is showing this farm house. There is a comic aspect to this. The farmhouse is supposed to be a startling change of pace after all the Broadway nightclub scenes that have preceded it. The shot is intended to make the audience smile, at the colossal contrast. The house is very nice, and is not being ridiculed. It is simply a complete change of tone, and hence comic. The comic tone, and the expository nature of the scene, allows or enables the director to do something non-naturalistic with the camera. It is as if the director were winking at the audience, showing them something special. The audience can share in the direct viewpoint of a filmmaker, where he takes his camera and points something out to them. It is almost the visual equivalent of the director "narrating" something with his camera.

Throughout the film, Van Dyke often has long shots, to show the spectacular sets and activities on screen. It is as if he is saying "Wow! Look at all this." The shots are unusually long, wide or high, and it seems fairly obvious to viewers that Van Dyke is doing something a little bit unusual with his technique.

Hide-Out often has a documentary quality. But it is not the serious tone of a real documentary, or the grim thriller of a crime semi-doc. Instead, the scenery shown on screen is entertaining, and often comic. Whether Van Dyke is showing a dance number at a Broadway nightclub, or people picking cherries in the country, the scenes are light-hearted, and meant to amuse.

There is not a great deal of camera movement in W.S. Van Dyke's comedy, Personal Property (1937). One exception is highly atypical in film history: Jean Harlow is descending a staircase, and Van Dyke pans straight down from her to Robert Taylor, who is waiting below, directly underneath the staircase. (It looks like a pan, but it might actually be a descending camera movement on a crane or elevator.) This sort of vertical movement is very unusual. It emphasizes the spatial relationship between the two characters, and adds an effect of comic whimsy to the scene.

Norman Taurog

That Midnight Kiss

Taurog made musicals from the 1930's, with the early Bing Crosby, through the 1940's, with Mickey Rooney, through the 1960's, with Elvis Presley. Despite this, his work seems little known.

Taurog's musicals tend to have a central male character. This character is often an outsider, attempting to break into some institution. This hero is often quite poor, at least temporarily, but he is well educated, and has skills that he hopes will let him enter the institution. The woman in the film is often at the center of the institution, being a daughter or granddaughter of its head. Romance ensues.

That Midnight Kiss (1949) introduced and made a star of Mario Lanza, a young opera singer who unexpectedly became a real life pop super-star after this film. The film follows Taurog's paradigm, with Lanza playing a poor truck driver aspiring to make it in the world of opera. Katherine Grayson plays the grand daughter of the opera's head, Ethel Barrymore.

Like many of Taurog's films, this is best during its musical numbers. This is not saying much for Taurog's skill as a director. However, like many other of his films, the musical numbers are genuinely memorable.

Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone (1950) is a mediocre film version of the story "Once Upon a Train" (1949) by Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer. The short story is a delightful piece, but it has suffered through its expansion to film. There is a catchy theme song sung over the credits, celebrating the two title characters. Reportedly, the film was the first of a planned series, but the others never materialized. Mrs. O'Malley and Mr. Malone is an example of a full scale mystery farce, with corpses appearing, disappearing and being moved around, exasperated policemen, and comedy relief characters who keep recurring in ever more farcical situations.

The film is at its best towards the beginning, when we are first meeting the characters, and at the finale, when the mechanics of the farce are is full motion. The last section of the film resembles a little machine, whose parts are constantly in motion. It is like a little wind-up toy.

Mrs. O'Malley's character is entirely newly created for the film. Like Mario Lanza's singer in That Midnight Kiss, she is a working class person who has recently come to prominence through an audition (here a radio contest she has won), and who is now mingling with a more upper crust bunch. Taurog has great sympathy with such people. They are usually presented as nice and decent, while the upper crusters are a sleazy and even crooked bunch. The working class characters tend to have talent, as well as gumption. One also recalls Bing Crosby's architect turned deck hand in We're Not Dressing (1934).