Saturday, May 28, 2016

An Edward L. Cahn double feature!

Not even a Subject for Further Research in Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, Edward L. Cahn has long had the profile of a hack what with being relegated to shorts throughout the 1940s and B/Z-movie fare in the 1950s. But a 2011 profile by Dave Kehr in Film Comment has helped reverse his historical fortunes and now Kehr has programmed two of Cahn's 1930s titles in MOMA's Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937 series. One of them, Laughter in Hell (1933), is a revelation. 

A superlative entry in the chain gang cycle, Laughter in Hell follows Pat O'Brien to prison after he reacts indelicately (to borrow R. Emmet Sweeney's great spoiler-preventing line) to his wife's infidelity in a disorienting scene shot with zooms (although I still don't *quite* believe that's true...could these shots have been optically printed to appear as zooms?). He enters a prison camp where the incarcerated are kept in cages on wheels and the black prisoners sing spirituals non-stop. For me, this latter was the most remarkable aspect of the film. These songs blanket the soundtrack for long periods of time and become oppressive as a form of resistance. Indeed, I was ready to tear my hair out along with new young prisoner Tom Brown towards the end of the film. Everywhere present but nowhere seen, the close harmonizing recalls Sternberg's use of the same in the prison scenes from his masterpiece Thunderbolt (1929). And in what must be the most brutal lynching scene in an American film of the time, Cahn links the prisoners together in protest by cutting mid-sentence so that they finish one another's sentences (similar to the incredible "America" sequence in Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! released a month later in 1933). Amazing flick with fantastic supporting performances, especially from Gloria Stuart in a dour turn. 

 Pre-Code fans have already overrated Afraid to Talk (1932) for its unflinching glimpse into police and city official corruption. It's a damn fine film with a knockout cynical ending. But it pales before the formal fireworks of Laughter in Hell, especially in its overreliance on tickers and newsies to convey story information. Noteworthy for a seemingly random priss queen who saunters into an elevator in one brief scene (sorry for the hideous quality but it's the only copy I have). 
In short, the rehabilitation of Edward L. Cahn  must continue in earnest! I am particularly intrigued by Prejudice (1949) given this IMDb description: "The film, a social, religious drama, presented by The Protestant Film Commission and The Antidefamation League, had a non-theatrical release, opening in 100 churches in the USA and Canada on 18. Oct. 1949." It stars Barbara Billingsley! Some Leave It to Beaver dork must have a copy on VHS.

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