Primitive Grandeur

One of the things that has always impressed me about early sound films is the raw-boned quality of their visuals married to their straightforward narrative style. I recently had the opportunity to watch “Little Caesar” and “Frankenstein” in fairly close proximity and it struck me that both had strong theatrical, as opposed to cinematic, elements. I know that it has been explained that this was a result of the primitive state of sound recording, and that may be true, but what charms me the almost mythic quality of the result. If “Little Caesar” rates a claim to being the archetypal rise-and-fall gangster film, it’s because although director Mervyn Leroy, cameraman Tony Gaudio, and most likely screenwriter Francis Edward Faragoh may had planned it that way from the start, the tools that they had to work with took a hand in it as well. Similarly James Whale’s “Frankenstein” scores as a piece of homegrown German Expressionism because it takes advantage of that primitive state of sound reproduction to generate a dream-like silence around its bursts of action–all the more surprising for the fluidity that Karloff brought to the monster’s movements–truly a world away from the robotic stiff-legged monster of the 1940s Frankenstein films.

Even as raucous a genre as the Western benefited from this imposed austerity. Victor Fleming’s “The Virginian,” King Vidor’s “Billy the Kid,” Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail” and Edward L. Cahn’s “Law and Order” all gained a little something from their silence, their visual austerity and deliberate–almost deliberative–delivery of their dialogue.

Far from becoming impatient with these “creaky” black-and-white gems, I relish every minute of them!

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