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Otis Ferguson's Criterion

by Kent Jones

Created 07/21/12

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The great film and jazz critic who began at The New Republic in 1934, left in 1941 to join the Merchant Marines, and was killed in the Bay of Salerno in 1943. The two collections of Ferguson's criticism - THE FILM CRITICISM OF OTIS FERGUSON and IN THE SPIRIT OF JAZZ: THE OTIS FERGUSON READER - are well worth seeking out.

  • “…the story is not the important thing here, one sequence in the first part alone making the picture worth seeing. A funeral in Spain, with the black figures milling slowly in all that unearthly white light. The rough stones in the walls and statues pile up into the sky, and the sky is framed boldly. Everything has a curious buoyancy and is carried along on the music, with its thin oboe figures and choir of voices, having both volume and restraint. Even a bigger aid to the illusion – though I am not sure why this should be so – is the light touch used throughout: Don Juan, moving through the crowd to watch his own funeral, and the women weeping because they had never seen him, and he dead. One shot in particular – women in black hoods are moving diagonally up the steps, and the white stone cuts into a vivid dark sky, and everything swings along upward with the choir voices – this one flash has enough sweep and clear beauty in it to set the tone for a whole film. The film as a whole tapers off somewhat afterward, but those responsible for the best parts of it seem to be Georges Périnal (formerly Clair’s cameraman), Michael Spoliansky (music), Director Korda – and also Mr. Fairbanks, for whatever you think of his calisthenics, the man has a certain rank swagger and grace: with a cape and go-to-hell hat and a clear hip line, he is fine costume material.”

  • “Gorky’s magnificent talent for absorbing life and for dramatic violence will be just so many words in a theater sense until the actual piece is fixed and actual people set moving in it. In the conception and building of sets I can’t think of a picture more successful than this. The gray, tumbledown general outlines of squalor are fairly easy: the real test of genius is in the delicate obtrusions of one out of the thousands of mean and unobtrusive details that swarm in such a culture by the millions, their mass giving it these characteristics of sluggishness and thick odor and refraction of all light. The rug in a room, as seen through an off-center door, properly laid and the hole in it visible only by scuffed-up edges, but in its lack of any life and pattern the suggestion of a musty smell. The axle-and-wheels thing in the court, so natural to that place and inscrutable as to its original purpose so that it might have been moldering there half a lifetime. The junk in the kitchen, a useless profusion yet out of the way of household activities; the ironware mess of the pantry mostly cut off by the angle of the door. And any chance view of the court, the general dormitory, the rooms of the house, does not reveal the artificially shaky and decaying but only an original cheapness of joining and materials that has been worn smooth and chinked with filth until it is a monument to cheapness, native and timeless. The camera never has to focus on lice and waterbugs and roaches, for this woodwork is the official hotel of their obscene national convention.”

  • “REMBRANDT as a picture is massive rather than neat on its feet, being heavy of motion and Old Testament of accent. But with Laughton standing up under it in the make-up of his several ages, dominant in his constant mobility and command of lines, filling in the written part with his own character and conception of character, there is no doubt that the picture is good, at times pretty grand…The interior sets are solid and have a good air, and while some of the outdoors has that fixed, flat, backdrop feeling, there is an appropriate swimming of things in clear space and enough of the tidy quaint atmosphere of another time and place to keep this from being disturbing. (Partly because Georges Périnal was at the camera, no doubt, finding beauty all along the way in a bridge, a kitchen corner, an angled roof, windows.)…The story serves its purpose, but beyond that there is a reliance on and reading of the Hebrew poets that gives a strange air of fitting majesty in places. And here is where Laughton goes beyond carriage, make-up, expression. He has a beautiful sense for reading poetry, rolling out these great deep rhythms of the Old Testament as fine as ever was heard.”

  • “The story is almost unimportant: boy and girl find lady, have to shoot their way out, saving the nation and getting married. But it’s just the thing for Hitchcock, who has more fun with the people on that train than a barrel of monkeys – the fun more liberally interjected than usual into throttled guitar players, false compartments, drugs, guns, and evil. It’s as much comedy as straight plot, in fact, and some of the exploration of the English mind is as neat as you’ll see, done with relish and droll good humor, planted not only in dialogue and perfect delivery but in the concept of type and situation. The acting here, too, is all of a piece with the mood of the thing; but more than any of the English-speaking film men, Hitchcock is a one-man show, getting every detail straight in his head and the way he wants it before the first camera starts rolling. He is almost an academy, too, because no one can study the deceptive effortlessness with which one thing leads to another without learning where the true beauty of this medium is to be mined.”

  • "There are very few things here: a street, a shop, a few angles of the docks, the two rooms of a waterfront deadfall, a bar. But these simplicities, as well as the sustained blacks, grays and fifteen-watt yellows of the setting, are kept from monotony by the shift of interest and the good balance of contrasts. There is even a carnival scene, its brief whirl and tinsel as sad as small carnivals always are, and therefore wholly apt to the meaning. There is aptness in costumes and sets and the camera work which realizes them. In addition, the picture has the best use (though not recording) of dramatic sound – as opposed to the sound of pistol shots and composer’s background – that can be found anywhere outside of Hitchcock. The sad and aimless guitar player behind his empty bar; the pretty chimes on the shop door; and (best) the choir music always flooding from a radio set in the house of murder. From the guitar and the intercutting of the woman’s scream and the steamboat whistle, it is clear that M. Carné has studied Hitchcock more than casually. This is nothing against him, for while Hitchcock is the man who can teach them all on the subject of music as an active theatrical force, most of those who have studied how he did what, have neglected to study why.”

  • “The boats on the Nile, the camps breaking up and camels getting under way, the riding and fighting in the desert, are fine stuff – the best of their kind, I believe. There are some amazing large actions, but the atmosphere is best served by the way the camera delights in all kinds of details – in fact, some of the studies of native life are so thorough as to suggest that maybe the working crew was only too glad to stay away from the story as long as possible. Sound is used very shrewdly too – especially the incidental sound that builds up reality in a scene; and for once the ‘natives’ don’t seem to be all grease paint and the better class of spoken English. There are sudden shots that point up an effect – the vultures for example, or that wonderful explosion of birds near the water; and there is a good use of the ‘narrative’ camera in the scene of rescue in the desert. All being done in color, this was more difficult than is usually the case; and more the pity that anything so handsome should be thrown away on such naïve hokum.”

  • “…when [John Ford] takes his time he never throws it away. The long sequence of fair-day in town is a fine example of the way he can make use of period color and scene and incident to give life to the story; he is a spendthrift with actual air and trees and water throughout. The trial scene is the big dramatic part, and comes over well as such; the best Ford manner shows in the dark and breathless struggle in the clearing at night; but the best things as a whole are the solid rightness of each thing used, and the shrewd way the main theme was given its head. Henry Fonda shares top credit. He has played so many young-romantic parts as to be known everywhere in his own character; the part here is that death-trap to actors of the man whose later days become a national legend and stone statue; and the story demanded a genuinely rustic clumsiness covered with the constant implicit dignity that an ‘impersonation’ like Mr. Donat’s Mr. Chips would simply ruin. Well, he did it. His delivery was good, his carriage was good, his dance steps at the ball were wonderful.”

  • “Chaplin is as acute and perfect verbally as he is in pantomime: he has the splenetic and krauty fustian of the German orator as exactly as Hitler himself. When he says ‘Democracy shtoonk. Liberty shtoonk,’ he crowds out over his collar to the precise degree, and he never misses an opportunity to go from the normal English of the story into his hortatory gibberish, booting his lieutenants around and scaring the devil out of everybody, including himself. And the old reliable panto at the same time too, so that his version of the Nazi salute is a blend of pomp and monkeyshine that leaves them in the aisles, and his dance with the globe is one of the triumphs of all satiric dancing, for point, grace, and perfection…That other burning question of whether the satire is actually effective, and to what extent, will get small play here. You could remember that the size of policemen’s feet was never seriously affected by all the skylarking of the Keystone lot; but you could also remember that a man’s heart being in the right place is a good thing to witness, and that laughter is one of the great and joyous healers of the spirit, whatever the recent crop of solemn buffoons have to say about its social waste. And again as always where there is a Chaplin picture, there is laughter here, warmth and grace too. I think it will do you good, just for what is there, let alone that this is still Chaplin the Great, and growing at his age.”

  • “NIGHT TRAIN is another disciple-of-Hitchcock film, when you get a chance to catch it and a breath of air too. It was directed by Carol Reed, whose THREE ON A WEEK-END [BANK HOLIDAY] was also good but quite different – except for the swell atmosphere of both in an English Coney Island. Even granting that a similarity of subject material could suggest a similarity of treatment, and that the two priceless vague sporting toffs from THE LADY VANISHES (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) practically suggest their own parts, still you see devices lifted bodily from the magic fat man’s workshop. The opening shot, a long swooping truck; the use of music to cover underground activity; the high mechanical stuff used in the escape; Hitchcock’s favorite train with guards and counterguards and messages; the sinister play of light allowed by the oculist – even lines, as when the Englishman abroad drops a newspaper in disgust and almost disbelief, ‘Why, it’s all in German!’ The film assimilates these things to its own method, and there would be no use mentioning them if they did not point a future lesson.”

  • “They are still asking how he does it, for THE LADY EVE is his third picture in seven months, and one after the other they have been a delight both to exhibitors and to sit through. Part of the answer is that Preston Sturges is a hard-working man with a sense of humor. Another part is that he seems to possess a hex on actors, so that he can use even Dick Powell and Barbara Stanwyck as principals and walk out of the cage unscratched. But most of it is that he has found movies, the rolling camera as a sensitive medium of expression, the vast an frightening range of technical properties as instruments to be used with a craftsman’s economy and purpose…its pleasures come from the characters as found – you could not expect anything different to happen if Henry Fonda were a rich young naturalist and Charles Coburn a gambler with short-wave fingers, and if – as such – they ever should happen to meet. And by whatever means, thus Preston Sturges has wrapped you up another package that is neither very big nor very flashy, but the best fun in months.”

4 comments

  • By maxwalsen
    August 06, 2012
    03:56 PM

    Great guide for that period of time. I allready have The Lower Dephts, The Four Feathers and The Great Dictator. Hooray!!
    Reply
  • By Shaun
    August 10, 2012
    05:39 PM

    "...even Barbara Stanwyck"?! Surely, she was always a wonder?
    Reply
  • By Gary Meyer
    April 18, 2013
    12:35 PM

    Good new article on Otis in WSJ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324685104578388371977952966.html Sure wish someone would reprint IN THE SPIRIT OF JAZZ and the OF READER.
    Reply
  • By Nikhil
    November 21, 2013
    01:06 PM

    Ferguson also wrote a review for Chaplin's "Modern Times' as well, which I know only from the extract provided in the essay complementing the Criterion DVD of the film. Since Ferguson has raised "The Great Dictator" (A film that is flawed despite several touches of brilliance) to the skies, I'd love to know what he thought of its predecessor.
    Reply

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