Tag Archives: The Charge of the Light Brigade

‘Shadow Play’ in Curtiz films

In an excellent piece entitled ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’, Gary Giddins writes of director Michael Curtiz, ‘Stylistically, his work is distinguished by aggressive visual compositions (signature shot: two characters shoulder to shoulder, facing forward), forceful acting, quick cuts, fluid camerawork, shadow play, location inserts, romantic and period realism, the kind of speed that results from keeping a story on track and free of distraction, and, above all, a shameless mastery of emotional manipulation (loc 1455)*

It’s that ‘shadow play’ that I want to illustrate here, as Curtiz uses it in a variety of ways, to set mood but also to convey and hide information. It recurs in a variety of genres. It’s always a striking image, sometimes an exciting and evocative one.

Captain Blood (1935)

In Captain Blood, we get this striking image below. Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) is curing a man but the authorities are already on their way to arrest him for doing so and doing a doctor’s duty in an unjust society will condemn him to a future of slavery and piracy with the possibility of death overhanging the rest of the narrative.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936):

Here shadows are used in a whole variety of ways to set mood, create tension, both indicate the trouble of a place, but also people in a place, and the anxiety provoked by certain actions.

 

Kid Galahad (1937)

Curtiz is sparing with the typical projecting of shadows onto a wall to give us an indication of what’s happening off-screen, to show us without showing us, whilst shading it with hint of evil, until the very end, where Bogart shoots at someone without being seen so as to create a distraction so he can go for his real target, Edward G. Robinson:

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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938):

In his brightly lit masterpiece, shadows thrown on a wall contribute to, amongst other things, making the famous sword-fight with Basil Rathbone extra spectacular.

and later on, Claude Rains’ evil Prince John, is associated with the death and defeat of his fallen soldiers whilst the shot pans and we see him counting his money.

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Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

Here James Cagney, going to the chair, and pretending to be scared so that the boys who hero-worship him might not be too tempted to emulate him is, wisely, shown by his shadowed reflection. It’s not easy to believe Cagney being scared of anything. Shadows play is only brought to the last scenes in the film. We see Cagney in jail throwing his cigarette butt to his uniformed jailer (below left) and, before, that, as seen on the right, taking the priest played by Pat O’Brian hostage, in a vain attempt to escape.

 

Four’s a Crowd (1938)

And Curtiz doesn’t just deploy this in gangster films, as above, but even in screwballs such as Four’s a Crowd, where the security guard at the mansion is chasing after Errol Flynn before he escapes into Olivia de Havilland’s bedroom.

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The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Here Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth is first shown to us as a shadow. She’s icon and ruler first, that we hear Bette Davis inimitable clipped voice as part of the image renders the fusion of two icons (Bette and Elizabeth, Bette as Elizabeth) even more powerfully.

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Dodge City (1939):

Here the murder that sets of the last part of the film is shown to us as a shadow so that we see what the journalist doesn’t, and obviously to add to the ominousness and danger of it all.

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The Sea Hawk (1940)

Hung from a mast but shown as a shadow on the ships floor. It renders the violence of the act both more palatable and more powerful, the shadow-play narratively warning, but setting a mood for future developments, and generating an image that’s graphically arresting whilst removing that which is graphic or explicit about it.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Here shadows are cast on death scenes (below, top left), to convey a particular point of view on narrative information (below, top right) and to show the long shadow cast by a beloved entertainer even in the Oval office.

Casablanca (1942)

In Casablanca, like in Yankee Doodle, a shadow of the name of a place, brings the narrative information indoors (see top) and we also have the use of shadows to bring extra-diagetic space into the frame whilst conveying a mood (see bottom). Arthur Edeson’s lighting is very beautiful and shadows are cast over that whole world and those relationships. The close-ups before Bogart’s flashback to Paris are superb.

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Irving Berlin’s This is the Army (1943):

‘Shadow work’ appears even in musicals,  to continue the entertainment through different spaces.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce is one of the great noirs, with dazzling use of shadows throughout; so, rather than illustrate by using image capture, I thought it best to use excerpt a whole scene. This is from the beginning, where Mildred (Joan Crawford) invites Wally (Jack Carson) up to the beach house so he can take the fall for the murder of Monte (Zachary Scott). This is the moment where he begins to tweaks that she’s left and has only invited him in for reasons other than a potential tryst:

Shadows are cast over identity in Romance on the High Seas, 1948

Shadows demarcate the difference between what should be and what is in My Dream Is Yours, 1949.

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Kirk Douglas and his music is a shadow on Lauren Bacall’s happiness in Young Man With A Horn, 1950. If only the light would shine on that sapphic lamp with phallic symbol extending, everyone would be a lot happier.

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Poverty and unemployment hover over the family in I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) as Doris phones for help.

 

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Pain, poverty and his father’s emasculation overhang and literally shadow Elvis’ rise to success in King Creole (1958):

 

I was going to do this for all of Curtiz’ films in which I saw it appear. But in doing so, it became clear that this type of ‘shadow work’ appears in all his films. I think one can quite here and quite convincingly argue that this is indeed a characteristic of his visual style.

 

José Arroyo

*Gary Giddins, ‘Michael Curtiz’s Doris Day Period’ Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, Kindle version.

 

 

The Charge of the Light Brigade (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1936)

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British Imperial jingoism from Hollywood directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian. If you can ignore the Orientalism, Imperialism, and the rather offensive notion that Britons ruling the world is the natural order of things, it’s a rousing, visually exciting film, with fantastic action sequences.

Constantine Verevis writes that, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade is best known for its final sequence, the charge often cited as one of the most spectacular action sequences of the Hollywood studio period’ (p. 270). The compositions are dynamic and demonstrate how well Curtiz can handle crowds in action; the cutting moves from the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem offering exposition, to the charge, to Flynn’s friends falling one by one, to Flynn rousing everyone to keep charging ahead. Flynn even picks up a British flag at one point and waves it proudly, and he finds the evil and traitorous Surat Kahn (C. Henry Gordon, in blackface) and manages to kill him at the end, getting personal revenge as well as facilitating British forces being redirected to fight and win The Battle of Sebastopol.

The Charge of the Light Brigade is notable for Olivia de Havilland turning down the Errol Flynn character, but perhaps only because, as the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem which the film is based on and actively cites in the extraordinary battle scene that brings us to the end of the film,  he is fated to die at the end.

In fact the film revolves around a triangle where Geoffrey Vickers (Flynn) is engaged to Elsa Campbell (de Havilland) who has, since the engagement with one brother,  fallen in love with the other, Perry Vickers (Patrick Knowles). This romantic triangle is alternated with scenes of the rigidity and nobility of the British army, which here go hand in hand and are in many ways personified by Elsa’s father (Donald Crisp) who asks her to remember her promise to Geoffrey and complicates rather than resolves the affairs of her daughter and those of the army. In the end, Geoffrey’s sacrifice is the permission Elsa and Perry need to marry.

David Niven has a lovely bit in an early role that helped push him on his way to stardom (see below). Curtiz stages it beautifully with rhyming scenes of the moon and the sun coming up, of Errol Flynn looking outside windows for the enemy, of dramatic lighting that helps arrange space within the composition and helps set a mood. The conversation between Flynn and Niven is a good example of the easy male camaraderie that is so characteristic of Flynn’s films; touching, emotional but jokey with it, yet the humour enhancing rather than undermining the feeling behind it all. According to Alex K. Rode , ‘David Niven appropriated a Curtiz utterance from the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade — ‘Bring on the empty horses’ — as the title of his best selling memoirs (pp.xv-xvi).

The film finally made me understand why Curtiz can’t be counted amongst the greatest. It’s not hard to make an audience cry. Show a child; show the child in danger; cut to a mother perhaps looking on; and then show something awful happening to the child: The audience is inevitably drawn to tears. Here, Curtiz not only does that in the Battle of Chukoti scenes (he would so again in Dodge City) but he does it over and over again within the film. He’s completely shameless when it comes to rousing emotion: mothers are killed in front of their children, children are massacred left and right. Even the bible and the flag is brought into play. As you can see in the flashback where all the horror of Chukoti is used as a rationale for Flynn to change the order of his superiors so that he may avenge it (whilst also permitting British forces to be better deployed). Curtiz is not above hitting you over the head to bring on some tears. It’s successful but crude.

 

Alex K. Rode writes that the ‘picture was designed as a follow-on vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and to emulate the success of Captain Blood and Paramount’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)’ p. 187. According Verevis, ‘Despite some controversy over its treatment of animals, The Charge of the Light Brigade became the studio’s most successful film of 1936, earning in excess of $1.5 million, confirming Flynn and de Havilland as stars, and further consolidating Curtiz’s position at Warner Bros’ (p.271).

Some of the compositions in the film are minimalist, modernist, striking to the eye, and particularly evocative in motion. I show some stills, which do not quite do them justice, below:

José Arroyo

Sources:’

Alex K. Rode, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, University of Kentucky Press, 2017.

Constantine Verevis, ‘Devil May Care: Curtiz and Flynn in Hollywood’ in R. Barton Palmer and Murray Pomerance eds. The Many Cinemas of Michael Curtiz, University of Texas Press, 2018, pp.265-277.