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The Forgotten: One Way Street

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Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (1929), his first talkie, is perhaps not so much forgotten as simply hard to see, which means it lives on in the minds of film lovers but in abstracted form, since so few Sternberg fans have managed to get hold of a copy or attend a screening. It's prime Sternberg and deserves to be seen.

On one level a near-remake of Underworld, the so-called "first gangster film", Thunderbolt, like its predecessor (and like altogether lost film The Dragnet) it stars George Bancroft as a tougher-than-nails gangster and bank robber who winds up in jail but plots to avenge himself upon his girlfriend's nice-guy lover. Key differences are that Thunderbolt is written by Jules Furthman and his brother Charles—Jules would go on to script several of the Dietrich movies that cemented Sternberg's immortality—rather than by Ben Hecht, so the wisecracking is more philosophical, peculiar and perverse—and this is Sternberg's first soundie, which certainly makes a difference.

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In The Blue Angel, a far more widely viewed film, the approach to sound design is wacky, expressive and low-tech: unable to mix two soundtracks, Sternberg was forced to record everything at once and, when required, splice in additional effects. A silent dressing room. The door opens, and instantly music bursts through from the cabaret. The door closes, and CUT: the music is gone, as if a switch had been flicked or the tape cut. It's something like a cartoon, and seems perfect for the artificial world Sternberg and his actors and designers and cinematographer have painted.

Thunderbolt had the benefit of Hollywood technology, but was made a little earlier, so similarly primitive conditions prevail. Sternberg's approach is slightly different though. He insists on underscoring scenes with source music, so that death row in this movie comes complete with pianist (prisoner number seven), male voice choir (the warden keeps trying to break up the quartet by executing the tenors) and visiting band. And in an early scene, Sternberg gives us one of his great sleazy dives, The Black Cat, a negro nightclub with singers and chorus girls, slouching hat check girl, a weird picket-fence decor motif, and a Greek chorus of patrons. Offscreen dialogue is used consistently in this movie, Sternberg having already grasped that image and sound could be allowed to go their separate ways at times, rather than simply reinforcing one another. Sometimes the level of disconnection gets positively Buñuelian. In The Black Cat, Sternberg appears to have scored the soundtrack like a symphony, with background music, foreground dialogue, and a frightening maniac laugh that breaks through whenever there's a suitable interval. If at times the movie seems primitive (these mobsters sure do enunciate clearly), other moments suggest a sophisticated approach that seems alien to us merely because it represents a path not taken.

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Supporting players: Fay Wray is iconic, and it's great to finally see, in a decent copy, what Sternberg and photographer Henry W. Gerrard brought out with their lighting: the wide eyes, popping as if King Kong had stepped into the room in a pinstripe suit, the lightly cleft chin, the heart-shaped face. It's a vocally strange performance, as are they all: "Ritzy" is supposed to be a gangster's moll but also a good girl at heart, and between that and the requirement to speak in a loud clear voice, naturalism doesn't really get a look-in. Much the same is true of handsome Richard Arlen, lightweight and a little stiff, but there are numerous grotesque pleasures in the bit part players, especially on death row.

The warden, Tully Marshall, a background ham since 1914, is a stalking giraffe dripping turtle dolefulness and snap, a fabulous animal out of some medieval bestiary. Various inmates demonstrate a catalogue of tough guy barks, yammers and side-of-the-mouth sneers. And at the centre of it all is George Bancroft as Thunderbolt, the man whose fists can kill.

Bancroft, dismissed as talentless in Sternberg's idiosyncratic autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, may be an acquired taste I'm finally getting. As a supporting player in Stagecoach he certainly works, but as a leading man he's up against considerable disadvantages, including but not limited to a lack of acting ability and a truly repellant physical appearance. The gigantic greased hair lump, like a mile-wide quiff that's somehow collapsed under its own weight and formed a super-dense bezoar of the brow (post-Bancroft, the wet tuft—plughole refugee?—somehow attached itself to the scalp of Ronald Reagan and through him ruled the western world) surmounts a face like a holocaust of suet. The "decorative" mustache, like raspberry sauce drizzled on a cat turd, fails to prettify. The kidney-bean torso may be passed over in silence.

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What Bancroft lacks in physical beauty, he attempts to make up for in acting, by acting loud and often. Sometimes he seems to be trying to scare the microphone away, sometimes to hypnotize himself, sometimes to talks so slowly he goes into reverse. It's amazing. I recommend it. Bancroft has achieved a manner of playing beyond both naturalism and comprehension. He doesn't have to be good when he's this, um, striking.

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To make sure we like him, Sternberg and the Furthmans equip Thunderbolt with a faithful, stiff-legged old mutt. It works!

Sternberg recalls in his memoir having Bancroft give milk to a kitten in Underworld, a scene which appalled scenarist Ben Hecht with its crass sentimentality, but the director felt he had found a mode of expression that enabled him not only to enjoy commercial success, to explore visual approaches that interested him, and to indulge his taste for decadence and refined or unrefined cruelty, but to covertly express his contempt for public taste. Since our relationship to great filmmakers is often a somewhat submissive one, it seems we're still willing to accept Sternberg's sneers. He will reward us in the end.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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A “negro” nightclub? Please. If you can’t think of a more appropriate descriptive than that, or don’t see anything wrong with it, you don’t have any business writing articles for The Notebook. And “raspberry sauce drizzled on a cat turd”? What’s that all about? Step your game up, or move to the side and let real writers shine.
The use of the other “N” word was meant to evoke a period flavour, being the polite version of what the place would have been called at the time of the movie’s making. A more contemporary phrase would have seemed jarring, I felt, and wouldn’t have conveyed the film’s somewhat aged reacial attitudes. No slight was intended. You don’t explain what’s wrong with the other phrase so it’s hard to respond. But surely the real writers will shine all the more brightly in contrast?
Clearly Bobby’s never seen a George Bancroft film! An entirely accurate description.
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You don’t need to evoke a period flavor, if that’s your justification for using the word “negro”, or even using the other “N” word. We all know what that period was about. Thanks for the great memories, but no thanks all the same. If you think this is a polite choice just know that it offends some terribly, and that your point of view is clearly a bit narrow. If you were concerned about a “jarring” effect, why not use a frame enlargement from the film and let the visual speak for itself? My only complaint about “raspberry sauce drizzled on a cat turd” is that it sounds like an elementary school kid wrote it. Unless this is part of what you meant by period flavor.
One hesitates to use a repellant simile, but in the face of Bancroft, the repellent is barely sufficient…
The UCLA Film Archive has a pristine print that I saw for the first time last year. DEEPLY strange. Death Row comes off as a kind of vaudeville act.
Indeed! Bobby, I don’t write to offend, but I don’t automatically take responsibility for offense taken. Clearly, “negro” would be an inappropriate choice of word to describe anybody today, but in the context of a 1929 film I don’t think the choice is hugely provocative. I would say “narrow” describes the view of those offended, rather than those not. “Sounds like an elementary school kid write it” still doesn’t pin down the source of your problem: I think you prefer to take an outraged tone rather than explaining yourself clearly. Anyway, I’ve never believed that cloacal references should be the exclusive domain of the young.
Ah, a film i’d really like to see sometime! Thanks for the insight David as always. And thank you for the delight you show in describing how physically repellant Bancroft is!
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You should take responsibility for everything you write. Besides, you’re old enough and smart enough to know using the word “negro” is unacceptable without a qualification/explication of some kind. Maybe you grew up in an era when it wasn’t provocative, but in any case you’re alive today and you understand the contemporary context very well. Since you tried to sneak it in the text without a disclaimer, I had to call you out on it to check your motives. I wouldn’t have a problem if you treated the term with some context in your writing. Regarding the other complaint about your other line, I just felt like taking an additional shot at you for what I consider to be lazy, uncreative and silly (read: weak) writing. I wanted to take that shot because you had made me mad with your “negro” line. Hope that explains it clearly enough. In other words, as a writer for a web publication that I admire, I would expect more out of you than “raspberry sauce drizzled on a cat turd”. But then again, I don’t know your writing, so maybe I expect too much. Clearly I do regarding racial matters.
Am intrigued by the borderline-dismissiveness regarding Bancroft because a recent viewing of the infamous BLOOD MONEY convinced this guy was the real thing— a charismatic thug with an authentic good/bad aura. Among contemporary actors, Delroy Lindo can pull that off but I can’t think of many others. Could be an instance of a retro acting-style coming ’round again.
John – didn’t mean to sound dismissive, rather to revel in GB’s oddness. Bancroft is a one-off, and his appearance and manner make perfect sense in character roles. In quasi-romantic parts like this he’s a somewhat bizarre figure: which I rather enjoy. Bobby – to clarify what was already somewhat explicit, while I accept responsibility for every word I write, I can’t accept full responsibility for how it’s taken, since that is partly the work of the reader. I didn’t “sneak” anything into the piece, and the context for the phrase “negro nightclub” is provided by the film’s age. The word wasn’t considered offensive in 1929, and what makes it inappropriate today is simply that it is no longer the word approved for modern usage. I don’t believe in calling people names they don’t like, so I would never use it to describe people today. I might perhaps have usefully put the phrase into inverted commas, making it clearer that the phrase is suggested by the film’s approach, rather than being my own common usage, but I still thought that was clear. No way would my editor have passed the word if he thought it was being used without a degree of distance. As far as silly meaning the same as weak, there we shall have to disagree. I like silly things, and find some of them quite strong.
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Ok. That’s all I was saying. Quotations or some other signifier/explicator would have helped, because it wasn’t clear that this instance was not your common usage. It was actually painfully unclear. By the way, what makes the word inappropriate today is not simply that it is no longer the word approved for modern usage. It is inappropriate because it conjures up horrifically bad dreams for those of us who experienced (and sometimes still do) America’s nightmare. You clearly didn’t, and probably grew up with the American Dream. Think with a little empathy next time you come across this choice in your writing. Because honestly, you really don’t know who that term did or didn’t offend in 1929, unless you presume to speak for others. Sorry I had to get up on my hind legs there.
I experienced Scotland’s dream/nightmare, in fact, which was pretty far removed from African-American experience. I’m no expert. Yet I don’t suppose either of us can claim an advantage in terms of personal knowledge of what was offensive to whom in 1929. Unless you’re older than I assume, we both have to be guided by the historical record there.
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I can claim an advantage as to what is offensive to African-Americans today, and I have a place of privileged knowledge (living links) with regards to what was offensive among the same people in 1929. That, and the fact that I’m an American born and raised. So I have to pull rank here. I don’t need a secondhand historical record, I have historical experience, multiplied. As you admitted, you’re pretty far removed from that experience. Take my opinion for what it’s worth. Maybe it doesn’t mean that much to you. In any event, I’ll respectfully disagree with your choice and method in writing the offending section.
I’m intrigued — you stop just short of saying that the word “negro” was NEVER acceptable usage. Is this so? What was the preferred term?
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I did stop short, because maybe for some it was acceptable, on both sides of the fence. For others it certainly was not. Perhaps good old-fashioned “black”, for starters.
Of course, in terms of derivation, “negro” means “black”. I looked at the Wikipedia page, which seems to support the idea that the outdated word can still be used to refer to pre-Civil-rights subjects, but it’s not too clear. But as I’d believed, “black” was once the more offensive term. Negro is apparently still listed as an option on the US census form because some older African-Americans still prefer it. The existence of the NAACP shows how much the terminology can change.
Maybe Bobby should quit the PC bs and talk about the actual movie…
Oh I’m all for PC (except the expression itself isn’t too helpful): you should call people what they want to be called, unless you actually WANT to offend them. But it’s a shame to let this terrific film get passed over in favour of a dispute over a single unfortunate word.

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