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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sternberg Says It With Sound

Thunderbolt (1929) Strikes On TCM

Broadway Opening for Thunderbolt
Josef von Sternberg was an ace director, but it was George Bancroft’s manly guffaw that drew crowds to Thunderbolt in 1929. The star was blessed with a voice ideal to his image, that of hard case, if not outright bad man. Sternberg had used Bancroft, made a name of him in fact, with Underworld and The Docks Of New York. Sound obliged the director to put visual flourish second to capture of voices. He opens with panache, tracking with a cat that crosses feet of lovers in a park, finishing at clandestine Fay Wray and Richard Arlen, theirs a taboo love because she’s moll to gang lord Bancroft. Anyone versed in Chaney saw his formula applied to Bancroft. Big and bluff, that is, with heart of eventual mush. Mob men would toughen up, play closer to street reality, after Robinson and Cagney took the field as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Bancroft’s sort of outlaw belonged to the silent era, as did “Good Badmen” brethren more common to western garb.

Bancroft gave persuasive voice to his musketeers of the pavement. Street slang of crook derivation lent him authority, as it would to same-year gang-denizens of Broadway and even role-model Lon Chaney in his Unholy Three talk debut. Bancroft had lucked into a boisterous laugh that punctuated much of dialogue he did. The gag followed him even from Paramount to Fox for Blood Money, a good one, in fact maybe his best, but “Bancroft Laughs” was by 1933 a stale joke, modern viewers responding to it more in terms of what’s got into this guy? Thunderbolt was challenge to see until TCM lately surprised viewership by leasing it from Universal for a Fay Wray night. I didn’t see it noted online, but for Sternberg completests, this was noteworthy event. Thunderbolt is a letdown where too much expectation meets limit of talkies in gestation and even great directors bent to service of new-installed microphones. We read of how best of them overcame odds --- William Wellman, also at Paramount, moving recorder booms a first time for Chinatown Nights (but was he pioneering? Some say no).

Thunderbolt is recognizably Sternberg, his signature dim only where talk eats entirety of reels. We balk at sterility of that, and a second Thunderbolt half confined with Bancroft on death row, but here’s where ’29 reviewers clapped loudest with praise for “realism” of men facing last miles (“… great and looks authentic,” said Variety). Novelty of the condemned facing grim green door was enough to full-engage a public already taken by tabloid-hyped executions (notably femme food for frying, Ruth Snyder). Tabs even raced each other to a first foto of Ruth, or anyone, at moment of death as juice was applied. Thunderbolt enjoyed boxoffice benefit of going inside where final curtains fell. We say so what to that now, but for ’29 and talk still fresh, this was drama at high pitch. Thirties engagement with hot seats would electrify final act for several a show: Manhattan Melodrama, Angels With Dirty Faces --- The Walking Dead made execution the appetizer where Boris Karloff gets shock treatment for Act One, with resurrection for an encore.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I ran all the Paramount Sternbergs in 16mm at Rochdale College. My big draw was W. C. Fields. I weekly ran a Fields picture plus a second title. People came for Fields. I showed the second title first sometimes to protests of "I don't want to see that." The protesters always said thank you after.

It was great to see these films with audiences that did not give a damn about them. I have always preferred this type of audience over a fan audience. Don't get me wrong. I was grateful to the W. C. Fields' fans for responding in such numbers that they allowed me to finance my program.

Rochdale was a unique experiment in self-education. There were no teachers. Each Rochdalian was called to be their own teacher. There were what was called "Resource People." These were people who because they had achieved success in their field were given accommodation and food on condition they speak with anyone who wanted to speak with them. One of those resource people was Judith Merril, the mother of modern SF. Judy brought me on board in 1968 when Rochdale opened. The other radical thing (and it was really radical) was that the government decided to allow within Rochdale the use of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote. Rochdale was 18 floors. The higher up we went, the higher we got. This aspect prepared my audiences in advance to undertake a journey into great cinema. It was a helluva lot of fun. It was with such an audience I first saw this film. It went over big.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Jeeeeze, Reg! If there isn't a book in your Rochdale days, I never saw one. Having whetted our appetites, will you at least consider it?

9:22 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Bob McLain at Theme Park Press has the American Rights to my work. His initial enthusiasm however has waned. . You can order my THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED ROCHDALE, GILGAMESH and animation publications (Bob Clampett, Grim Natwick, Friz Freleng directly from me:

10:23 AM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Cagney's precode PICTURE SNATCHER used the real-life incident of a reporter smuggling a camera into an execution. Cagney is the unscrupulous shutterbug, but he redeems himself by tracking down an ex-buddy gangster and getting pics of his demise.

5:43 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

In Budd Schulberg's book MOVING PICTURES: MEMORIES OF A HOLLYWOOD PRINCE he relates a life growing up with the big stars of the 20s, including Clara Bow, who comes across as somewhat childlike and naive but an absolute sweetie, and George Bancroft, who comes across as somewhat childish and naive and as dumb as a brick. By the way, loved the nod to the underrated B movie classic GIANT BEHEMOTH and was a little disappointed to find no posting to go with it!

7:56 PM  

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