Benjamin Stoloff | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style

Films: To Beat the Band | Two in the Dark | Super-Sleuth | Radio City Revels | The Lady and the Mob | The Mysterious Doctor

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Benjamin Stoloff

Benjamin Stoloff was a Hollywood filmmaker. He directed B movies at RKO in the 1930's. During the 1940's he became a producer. Anthony Mann directed a remake of Stoloff's Two in the Dark for producer Stoloff, at an early stage of Mann's career.

Benjamin Stoloff: Subjects

Common plot elements in Benjamin Stoloff films:

Benjamin Stoloff: Structure and Story Telling

Story Construction:

Benjamin Stoloff: Visual Style

Geometry: Visual Style: Costumes: These are not found in all Stoloff films.

To Beat the Band

To Beat the Band (1935) is a minor but cheery film. Lots of the material in it is cornball or just plain dumb, but it always makes one smile. It is better visually and in its musical numbers than in the comedy elements of the script.

RKO's little B musicals of the mid 1930's are unlike anything else. They have almost nonsensical plots. The stories tend to be comic extravaganzas. They are not primarily romances, and they are not rags to riches backstage stories: the two most common kinds of Hollywood musical plots. The tone of the RKO films is bright, cheery and absurd, with plenty of upbeat comedy. Everyone seems full of energy. The musical numbers themselves are frenetic, and tend to have a comic tone, with silly lyrics and comic dance routines.

Costumes: Walter Plunckett at his best

Some aspects of this film are genuinely good. Walter Plunckett shows his skill with costumes. The tuxedos worn by everybody half way through the picture are terrific; I'd love to have one of these myself. The way they are worn by the whole band gives plenty of zing.

The white tie and tails worn by the band-leader later is also very stylish and upbeat. Today, when people in film wear white tie and tails, they always look unstylish. But in old movies, everyone looks sensational in them. It is unclear why. The band leader's tails are full of carefully designed curves. His white waistcoat curves into two points at its base, the claws of the coat are curved, with two circular buttons right above them, his white tie is unusually large and rounded, and his stiff collar is unusually large and tall, with a mass of interesting curved surfaces in 3D. All of these visually interesting regions add to the geometric complexity of the scenes in which he is in.

The band leader (played by Fred Keating, a real life orchestra leader) is often dressed at one level up from his band. If they are in shirt sleeves, he is in a tuxedo. If they are in tuxedos, he is wearing white tie and tails. The film as a whole gets its characters more and more dressed up it progresses; this is a standard approach in 1930's musicals. In other films, it often correlates with and visually signifies a "rags to riches" plot; but it has no such significance here. It is just a purely emotional pattern followed by the movie.

The night club scenes organize the band into two groups. At the right of the stage is an all woman band. They are dressed all alike in silver gowns, with black trim. On the left, are the male members of the band we have seen throughout the picture. They are in black tuxedos, with white shirts forming an accent. The two groups are like mirror images of each other. They reflect polarities: male-female, left-right, black clothes edged in white, silver clothes edged in black. Both groups sing the same song, "Meet Miss America of 1936".

Stoloff does a beautiful rapid pan from one group to the other. The night club scenes have several pans, sweeping through the complex set and the ornately costumed characters. These pans tend to be fast, and full of visual information.

Dancing - part of the performance of Music

The band members often move rhythmically as they play. Some stomp their feet, others move a violin bow, or pluck a bass. The band leader is always moving his hands in time with the music. Even though the band and its leader are not strictly speaking dancing, these are clearly dance scenes, and seem to be choreographed. They give the film a strong rhythmic propulsion, as everything in a shot moves in accord with the beat of the music. The band leader is often shown in front of his men. They will all be arranged in some complex pattern behind him, while he appears in the foreground of the shot. The whole group seems to operate as a team, visually as well as musically.

Even the non-dance numbers in this film seem choreographed. The various members of the band are often arranged in geometric patterns on screen. So are shots with just two or three performers - they all seem to have some geometric construction. Especially beautiful are the scenes with the dance band at the end. Some of the compositions have a beauty worthy of Mizoguchi. Each band member is positioned so that he is visible as an individual, and also so that he blends into the geometry of the ensemble staging.

When the dance soloist does come out, he is dressed just like the musicians in the band, in a matching tuxedo. He first appears as a musician, plucking on a bass. His solo is performed all over a group of musical instruments, that look just like those played by the band. This makes him part of the band team, sending many strong visual signals to indicate his membership in this group. The tap dancer here is Sonny Lamont. He is terrific, but unfortunately only made a handful of films in the later 1930's.

The Geometric Sets: Art Deco

The entire film seems to be designed on geometric lines. Most of the sets are Art Deco. Deco emphasizes pure geometric forms: rectangles, circles and their three dimensional equivalents. This means that every set is a feast of geometric forms. Aside from the people and the plants (there are flowers everywhere), everything in the film is a pure geometric object. Even the comic toy with which Hugh Herbert is obsessed is a combination of a sphere and a cone. The view through the apartment window shows a typical Deco skyscraper of New York City, built according to the famed Deco Rule of Threes. The apartment is full of recessed windows and doorways; these recesses form 3D rectilinear solids that add to the geometric splendor of the sets.

Zig Zag walls - and shooting angles. The night club set at the end has walls that constantly indent, at pure 90 degree angles. These walls are typically featured in the background of the shots. This gives a pure geometric form to the rear of the composition. The indenting is often repeated, and at a series of irregular intervals. This allows for elaborate compositions to be formed. There is also a horizontal band running at head level along the zig zag walls. This too helps create compositions. Stoloff can:

Multi-level sets. Stoloff often stages scenes with different groups of characters at different levels of the set. In the nightclub scene, the patrons at their tables are at one level, the band leader at another, and the various members of the band on three more levels on the band stand. This allows all of the characters to be easily seen, and to be organized into systematic visual zones on screen. It also allows for beautiful compositions, with all the performers on screen to be arrayed into visually pleasing patterns.

Two in the Dark

The Opening: Geometric Sets

Two in the Dark (1936) is a mystery story, dealing with amnesia. It has a beautiful opening, in a foggy park. The fog symbolizes the mental confusion of the hero, who is just coming to and taking stock after his amnesia.

The sets here are geometrical. There is a round fountain, with a circular sidewalk around it. Radiating from it are spoke like paths. These are bounded by park benches, and sometimes fences through which Stoloff shoots. There are also spherical light globes on lamp posts. Such geometric worlds remind one of the complex interiors of Stoloff's musicals, which are also filled with circles, and with rectilinear regions.

Overhead Shots

The most unusual shot in the film is the one in which Abel drops out of the rooming house window. The camera shoots straight down, and we see Abel land on the ground below, then stand up. It is visually quite dramatic. It has a different feel from any other shot in the cinema that I can recall.

Later, Stoloff will include another nearly overhead shot of a policeman.

Story progression

Seton I. Miller's script shows expert construction. Every scene brings us a little more knowledge about the hero's background, and the mystery plot. The story is based on a novel by Gelett Burgess, Two O'Clock Courage (1934). Two O'Clock Courage is also the name of the play within the movie. Two O'Clock Courage was also used by Anthony Mann as the title of the movie remake he made in 1945, a film that had Stoloff as producer.

This film has a serene quality. In Mann's remake, there is a great sense of menace to the hero, and a feeling of suspense. Here, by contrast, the hero never seems in great danger. Instead, one feels he is a major intellect, calmly putting his life back together piece by piece, and solving the mystery. He is a figure representing Reason.

Many of the scenes seem carefully timed. Both in the script and the direction, one feels that just enough time has been allotted for the characters to perform their actions. Partly, this reflects a 1930's film aesthetic, in which a huge plot had to be crammed into 70 minutes, as economically as possible. But it is also a figure of style in this movie. Take the brief scene where Abel goes back to his old friend's room. Events happen thick and fast after he reopens the door. They are timed with razor sharp rapidity.

Character Actor as Lead

Stoloff tended to make films without conventional stars. Here classy supporting actor Walter Abel is his lead. Abel often played District Attorneys and other refined intellectual types. Here he has a chance to star in a picture. The lack of big stars in Stoloff films is partly a matter of their B-movie status - the filmmakers clearly couldn't afford to hire Clark Gable. Yet many other B movie directors would try to find some young unknown guy who could play a Gable-type leading man. Not Stoloff. He would star supporting actors, either such off trail comedians as Jimmy Durante or Hugh Herbert, or character actors like Abel. This gives his films a different feel from much of Hollywood cinema.

Two in the Dark is also full of familiar supporting players, mainly comic types. This reaches its high point in an early scene at the victim's mansion, with Alan Hale as a policeman, Wallace Ford as a reporter, Eric Blore as the butler, and Erik Rhodes as a visiting violinist. All of these beloved character comics play non-suspects in the movie. Later, when we shift to the hotel, and start meeting the suspects in the mystery plot, they are played by much less well known actors. The delicacy of the performances is sustained throughout. Everyone acts in a restrained and low key fashion.

Costumes

The costumes are also subdued. All of the men wear suits throughout the movie: no one is in evening clothes. The heroine wears suits as well. The numerous police in the film are in matching uniforms, that also are suit-like with white dress shirts and ties. There is much less sense of class divisions here than in the remake. The heroine is an actress, moving in the same theatrical world as the hero; both seem equally refined. All of the men in the film are equally well dressed in good but quiet and dignified suits. This also conveys a sense that they are part of the same social class and world.

Super-Sleuth

Super-Sleuth (1937) is a crime comedy, with a backstage look at the film industry. Its first half is fun, but it runs out of ideas midway. The film also suffers from stereotyped "comedy" with its black servant.

Crime Film Atmosphere

The scenes outside the night club, with the villain wandering around in the rain, show Stoloff's fondness for scenes involving mist at night. They are atmospheric. They seem to anticipate all the night-and-rain scenes, that will soon run through film noir in the 1940's.

The villain is shown writing a threatening letter at his desk, at the start. It reminds one of Peter Lorre's mad killer writing to the newspapers in M (Fritz Lang, 1931).

Geometry, Sets and Art Deco

The film studio is in complete Art Deco mode. Notable is the reception area, which has a circular desk under a circular ceiling fixture. The studio exterior also contains circular logos. The nightclub also includes a circular ceiling, and many round tables.

Not part of a set, but still geometric, is the strange umbrella used by the villain. First we see him filmed through a circular opening in the center of the umbrella. This shot has two concentric circles from the umbrella, and is quite striking.

Looking through Obstacles

Next, we see the night club through the umbrella. It serves as a circular mask. This sort of circular masking effect is common in the films of Raoul Walsh.

Later, we see shots of a witness peering through a crack in a screen.

Backstage in the Film Industry

The screenwriters show ingenuity, in finding ways to integrate various aspects of the film industry, into the mystery story.

There is both a scene being shot on a studio set, and one on location. Both display camera movement being created:

The sound stage includes a sound effects team, who make noises live during filming - just as if this were a radio broadcast. We also see an immediate playback (on a phonograph record) of the sound from a just-completed shot.

Character Actor as Lead

Jack Oakie, a comedian often seen in support, here gets the starring role. Super-Sleuth also features such gifted supporting actors as Edgar Kennedy as a cop, and Paul Guilfoyle as the director of the film-within-the-film.

Perhaps to make up for this, there are some leading man types in small roles. Ronald R. Rondell makes a strong impression, in his single scene as the Battling Headwaiter. He speaks in both English and his native Italian. He looks sensational in his white tie and tails, once again from the great costume designer Edward Stevenson.

Alan Bruce also looks good in his supporting role as a stand-in. One wonders why this young actor's screen career was so short lived.


Radio City Revels

Radio City Revels (1938) is an uneven musical, parts of it being good and parts awful. Its big problem: endless scenes of unfunny comedy relief. The film manages to reduce such expert comedians as Jack Oakie, Helen Broderick and a young Milton Berle to dullness. Helen Broderick repeats a similar role and characterization as in Stoloff's To Beat the Band. We also see then popular radio comedian Bob Burns doing his Arkansas hillbilly routines, which seem very uninteresting and stereotyped. Milton Berle does do a good job with the scene in which he declares his loyalty to Jack Oakie. This is unexpectedly touching.

Musical Numbers - and a strange, abstract montage

Radio City Revels has some merits. Its musical numbers were actually directed by someone other than Stoloff: in this case, Joseph Santley, and were choreographed by Fred Astaire's long time collaborator, Hermes Pan.

The film starts off well, with popular tenor Kenny Baker singing "I'm Taking a Shine to You", followed by Ann Miller doing a delightful tap dance to this same tune. Unfortunately, this is the last time Ann Miller gets to dance till the finale of the picture, in "Speak to Your Heart". Kenny Baker later does a pleasant serenade of Miller at the party with "Good Night, Angel", but on the whole, he and Miller are woefully underemployed here. The filmmakers would have been much smarter to make a Miller-Baker musical in the style of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. Instead, these two talented performers are relegated to the sidelines throughout the picture. However, even the musical numbers throughout much of this film are pretty ho-hum.

Aside from the opening and closing numbers, with their pleasant singing and Ann Miller's dancing, the best part of the picture is a long middle sequence mainly set at Jack Oakie's apartment. First, we see the composition of "Take a Tip from the Tulip". This includes a creative montage, showing the song's popularity with the public. This montage emphasizes dissolves and superimpositions. Many of the superimposed images seem to be abstract white patterns representing music. The whole effect is oddly different from the typical Hollywood montage. It represents abstract prettiness rather than gritty imagery.

Next comes a musical performance of "Take a Tip from the Tulip". The chorus singing is all in white tie and tails, the first use of this costume in the picture. They enter from the left and right side of the screen, formally marking the entrance of a new element into the film.

A Spectacular Geometric Set

Immediately afterwards comes a long party sequence at Oakie's apartment, which is the dramatic highlight of the non-musical sequences in the movie. All the men are in white tie and tails here, just as in the musical number. This sequence is a triumph, largely due to the highly creative apartment set.

Alfred Hermann's sets are in full Art Deco mode. Jack Oakie's huge Art Deco apartment is especially delightful. Had this set been part of a more consistently entertaining movie, it might now be fondly remembered as some sort of classic. Unfortunately, it is embedded in one of Hollywood's more routine musicals. The chances of many people seeing it or studying it are slim. The cylindrical spiral staircase is especially beautiful. It looks like a piece of geometric sculpture, arising from the middle of the floor. The circular sunken lounge is also geometric. The entire apartment is like a giant sculptural environment in which the characters can wander. The geometric effect is enhanced by the rugs. Some are circular, others rectangular. These white rugs are arranged at intervals on a dark floor, and form geometric regions that integrate with the furniture and windows to produce compositional effects. The alternation of white rugs and black floor echoes the white tie and black tail coats worn by the men. The apartment also has a huge terrace, with a complex balustrade. Beyond it we see the New York City skyline, with skyscrapers and many lights that constantly blink on and off.

Camera movement

There is a pleasing camera movement, which follows Oakie as he walks around, greeting the spiffy guests at his party. The camera movement has a gentle start and stop quality, as Oakie moves from group to group of guests.

Stoloff employs other camera movements in the film, as the characters explore the large set.

Costumes: Edward Stevenson and White Tie and Tails

Edward Stevenson's costumes have merit. Even Bob Burns looks classy and sophisticated in the white tie and tails Stevenson has provided for him. The party at Oakie's apartment, in which all the men are in tails and with the Deco set beautifully lit shows the glamour and escapism that RKO's expert technicians could provide. Each man's dress suit is slightly different, showing plenty of visual variety. Everyone looks as if they thoroughly enjoy wearing these polished looking outfits. Perhaps this quality of enjoyment is one reason people looked so good in the 1930's films. These were also clothes the audience would love to wear. The film makes Oakie and Berle's luring Bob Burns into wearing the dress suit part of the actual plot.

The Lady and the Mob

The Lady and the Mob (1939) is a mystery-comedy. It spoofs gangster films, with a city's sweet dowager going after the Mob. The comedy is much better in The Lady and the Mob than in some other Stoloff films.

The comedy about the heroine and her team's amateur detective work recalls Super-Sleuth, where Jack Oakie also did comic amateur detection.

Character Actor as Lead

Fay Bainter, a fine actress usually seen in support, plays the elderly heroine. She is quite funny as the maniacal dowager. A note: normally, one might be concerned about her breaking the law and using vigilante tactics going after gangsters. I'm not embracing these illegal, immoral approaches here - but it is funny to see a sweet society lady doing all these outrageous things.

Warren Hymer, also a supporting actor, gets a sizable role. And Ida Lupino, not yet a big star, does her usual good job with what is more a character comedy part than a leading lady.

Geometric Sets

When the car demonstrates its special features, it swirls round and around the drive in front of mansion. The drive is curved: maybe an ellipse.

Looking through Obstacles

The night club scene is staged oddly. We mainly see the heroine looking through a window from outside, peering into the club.

Costumes

Stoloff sometimes show characters getting dressed up in new clothes. Warren Hymer is given by the dowager a chauffeur's outfit that is spectacular, with boots and prominent gloves. He even gets a scene where he admires himself in the mirror.

Ida Lupino also gets a funny scene, where she gets a slinky black dress to do undercover work in a night club. We see her modeling it for the dowager, as the two crack wise.


The Mysterious Doctor

The Mysterious Doctor (1943) is one of many Hollywood mystery films set in the British Isles. Its story recalls a bit the much-filmed play The Gost Train (1923) by Arnold Ridley. Both have settings in remote parts of Britain, where fake supernatural elements are terrorizing the locals, and hiding sinter schemes. Both have much eerie atmosphere.

Stoloff and the Mystery Plot

This little mystery film is in a distinct mode: one Stoloff reserved for his mystery films. Its opening recalls that of Two in the Dark (1936). Both have characters wandering around in the misty darkness. Both protagonists emerge out of nothing, and gradually get involved with mysterious situations.

Once again, we have amateur detectives.

And like Two in the Dark, we have a character with amnesia. Unlike Two in the Dark, where the amnesia is a major, initial plot premise, in The Mysterious Doctor Bart's amnesia emerges only gradually during the story.

We have another eerie scene of a character writing at a desk. Here it is the doctor, making notes on a secret journal he conceals in his pipe.

Geometric Sets and Props

The gas masks have circular openings. And they are carried in cylindrical containers, worn by a strap.

The sets have some curved elements. But they lack the full circular architecture sometimes found in Stoloff:

Multi-Level Sets

Inside the pub, there is a stairway landing at the entrance. The landing is at a higher level than the main floor of the pub. This allows Stoloff to stage action on two levels: crowds of people on the main pub floor below, other people addressing them from the landing slightly above.

Stoloff creates beautiful compositions out of such groups of people. They recall the similarly gorgeous compositions of people on the multi-level band stands at the finale of To Beat the Band.

Stoloff also creates some striking compositions, looking down from the landing to the people standing on the floor below. These are also beautifully composed.

Outside, the pub has a front porch, that is also at a level slightly above the street. Stoloff can also use this for staging on two levels.

Social Commentary

There are pointed remarks, about how bad it is for people to make fun of mentally ill Bart. This is an example of the growing concern in this era over the prejudice shown against minority groups.

The film also shows skepticism about the supernatural: the stupid superstitions about ghosts that inhibit constructive action.