Monday, July 27, 2009

Buck Parvin and the Movies

Okay, this is kind of a complicated one.

The book I just finished reading is Buck Parvin and the Movies, published in 1916. It's a collection of short stories by Charles E. Van Loan about the world of movie-making. Naturally, that's silent movie-making, and early ones at that. Most of the stories are about making one-reelers, which they turned out at a pace of one per week. The director would get instructions from the home office to stop making jungle pictures but still keep using the lion and elephant, and hey presto! It's time to make a circus picture!

Buck Parvin is a stunt man cowboy who has a secondary role in the early stories but eventually works his way to center stage. He's full of old-timey wisdom, and the stories are a lot of fun. You can read a couple of them here, complete with annotations to tell you what real people and movies the characters and situations are based on.

And then it gets complicated, because these stories were promptly used as the basis for a series of Buck Parvin movies. They're listed on IMDB, but it's pretty hard to find obscure silent movies that were never on DVD and may not even have gotten a token VHS release. So I haven't seen them. And did I mention that Buck Parvin was played by Art Acord, who was one of the actors he was based on?

I realize this doesn't technically count as a "novelization", since it's simultaneously a behind-the-scenes fictionalization and the source material for movies. Also because it's not a novel anyway but a set of short stories. But it was pretty fun anyway. I recommend reading The Extra and the Milk-Fed Lion to get a feel for what it was like making movies back then. Always shoot your stunts first, because if those don't work out, the part of the movie that builds up to them will fail too.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ceiling Zero

Howard Hawks! James Cagney! Pat O'Brien! Not available on DVD!

Ceiling Zero was originally a play, but then it was made into a movie in 1936 and consequently into this keen novelization I've got here, which is a hardback. It's got some stills from the movie, which it refers to as "Illustrations from the Photoplay". Neat!

The book is pretty straightforward, combining verbatim dialogue with simple declarative sentences like "Outside the window he heard the motors of a passenger ship roaring at full power." There isn't much attempt to provide an inner dialogue for characters, which fits fine with the movie itself. I happen to live near an excellent video store, so I was able to rent the VHS, and I can report that people talk way too fast in it. I'm a huge fan of Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, which I used to think had the fastest dialogue in movie history. But Ceiling Zero knocks it aside easily. Cagney already tended to bark all his dialogue, and when Hawks got his hands on him, it's like listening to a Tommy gun. And Pat O'Brien is even faster. So fast, in fact, that he frequently lapses into incomprehensibility. It's like watching a movie about angry auctioneers that have drunk too much coffee. So there's not a lot of opportunities for the author of the novelization (possibly Frank Wead, author of the play and screenplay, but more likely an uncredited starving writer) to shove in thoughts and feelings.

There's a big crash in the movie (not a spoiler; it's right there on the front cover), and here's how it's described in the book:

Through the dense mist the blurred outline of the mail plane could be dimly seen. It glided through the fog straight for the hangar. There was a terrific tearing crash as the metal plane ripped into the side of the building. The wings folded crazily back against the fuselage and fell free. Then the boom-boom of exploding gas tanks and a burst of flames.


Now, this movie isn't for everyone. Cagney's character is kind of a cocky jerk, which I admit isn't all that unusual for him, but he's a more aggressive ladies' man than usual. I think it's the fact that his character is 34 and spends a lot of time hitting on girl aviator Tommy Thomas, who is 19, that kind of soured me on him. Also, how come the female characters in this movie are named "Tommy" and "Lou"?

Like I say, this movie is only on VHS, and even then you have to get lucky. It'll eventually show up on Warner Archives (although that still won't mean that Blockbuster or Netflix will have it), so I present yet another adaptation: the Lux Radio Theater version! It was surprisingly common for movies to have a shortened radio version broadcast with much of the original cast. So if you want to know what a radio version of a movie version of a play about aviation would sound like, it's on this page along with various others. Enjoy!