Monday, 28 February 2011

The BBC's ornate 'royal microphone' from the 1930s revealed

The BBC's ornate 'royal microphone' from the 1930s revealed

I'm probably the only vintage blogger who hasn't yet seen the (I can now say "Oscar-winning") film The King's Speech but rest assured I definitely will, be it on the big screen or DVD (or maybe both!).

In the meantime here is a clip from yesterday's Radio 4 programme Broadcasting House during which a member of the Corporation's in-house museum brought along an original example of the so-called "royal microphones" (above) that, as he explains, were first designed in the 1920s to hide the ugly(!) B.B.C. devices from His Majesty's view!  The ones used in the Colin Firth film are exact replicas of this gloriously Art Deco-style piece of radio equipment, which the B.B.C. allowed the film's production crew to look over when recreating them.  Even better, they still work!  Is it me, or does it sound better when the presenter switches from his modern mic to the old '30s one? ;-)

What's more it sounds as though we may all get a chance to see (and hear?) this part of audio history in the future; amazingly these microphones had until recently only been on view to anyone visiting Broadcasting House but now it seems that the B.B.C. will be lending them out to more public displays (perhaps not so surprising considering the success of the film), so watch (or should that be listen to?) this space!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Film Friday: Scarface (1932)

Coming to you a week later than intended (sorry about that!), the third of the Film Friday: Gangsters series - Howard Hughes gritty production Scarface, starring Paul Muni.





Right from the off we are again given the sobering reminder of just how great a problem organised crime was in the 1920s and 1930s and how it affected the average man in the street.  One can readily detect the influence of Howard Hughes in the directness of these opening titles (although he was forced to put them in by the censors).


The film, at least in parts, supposedly mirrors the life of the real (and most famous) gangster Al Capone, whose nickname was "Scarface".  Rumour has it that Capone liked the film so much he had his own private copy, but only after he sent a couple of his men down to the set to get the production crew's assurance that the film wasn't based on him(!).


From the opening shot this has all the hallmarks of a classic gangster film.  An illuminated street sign amid anonymous, looming buildings sets the mood.


Boss of the South Side, Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar), has just thrown a huge party.  Little does he know it will be the last party he ever hosts.

Miles and miles of paper streamers.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, why can't more parties have them these days?
Ahem.  Less of that, though, thank you very much!  Quite risqué for 1932 and further evidence of Howard Hughes' insistence for realism.
With the place empty Costillo goes to make a telephone call but he is promptly shot down by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni).  Camonte, originally one of Costillo's bodyguards, has switched allegiance to rival South Side gang boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), who ordered the hit.
Our first glimpse of Tony Camonte, as he despatches Louis Costillo.  Director Howard Hawks makes clever use of shadows throughout this film, as you will see.
The papers are quick to pick up on the increasing gang wars and the Costillo murder is front page news.

I've only included this newspaper editor for that fact that he is wearing a strikingly busy tie.
The police have a pretty good idea that Tony was behind the killing of Louis Costillo.  Despite bringing him and his buddy Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) in for questioning they are unable to pin anything on them and a crooked lawyer sent by Lovo, now boss of the South Side and backed up by a corrupt politician, gets them swiftly released.

Unlike the effete and seemingly ineffectual Law in Little Caesar, or the practically non-existent police in The Public Enemy, the cops in Scarface are proper hard-nosed tough guys.
They wear pretty standard 1930s men's fashion - dark 3-piece suits and trilbys.  Tough and stylish.

And in case you were still in any doubt as to whose side they're on, they do that thing of hooking their thumbs into their waistcoats so that you can see their badges.  A lot.

Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) may only be a two-bit henchman at this point but, despite the lack of a tie, he still dresses pretty well.  The checked suit is a nice counterpoint to the plain ones of the police.
Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) is certainly the better dressed of the two throughout the film.
Tony and Guino head straight for Lovo's place to pick up their money for the job and get further instructions.

Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins, left) congratulates Tony on a job well done and appoints him his second-in command.
It is here that Tony first meets Johnny's girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).  Needless to say, Tony is immediately attracted to her, but she shows no interest in him whatsoever.

Poppy (Karern Morley).  A dressing table and some silk nightwear for the ladies to pore over.
Back at home Tony's mother (Inez Palange) cooks the dinner.  Discussion turns to Tony's younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who Mrs Camonte worries is staying out too much.

It's not clear who the young woman in the background is, but she wears a lovely polka dot dress. 
Cesca and Tony have a very love-hate relationship.  Tony is extremely over-protective of her and tries to stop her from going out gallivanting and seeing other men.  The incestuous undertones, while not quite so overt as in the 1983 Brian De Palma remake, are very definitely there even in this 1932 original.

Tony gives Cesca (Ann Dvorak) some of his money from Lovo to take her mind off the latest man he's just chased out of the house.
It is then that Cesca and Guino meet for the first time.  Although there is an attraction between them Guino believes Cesca to be too young (18 years old) for him and that any relationship would drive a wedge between him and Tony.


Later on Lovo, Tony, Guino and fellow henchman Angelo (Vince Barnett) head over to Louis Costillo's old headquarters to take possession and begin running the lucrative South Side bootlegging business.

Tony is wearing a great striped shirt and solid-colour wide, short tie (as they often were in the 20s and 30s).  As we can see from the promotional poster at the top of this post, in this scene (bottom) Lovo sports a rather natty blue pinstripe suit with contrasting red tie.
Now Tony is a bona fide mobster and he begins to dress rather ostentatiously.  After helping Lovo lay down the new law on the South Side he bumps into Poppy again.


Tony makes no secret of his attraction to Poppy, but she still couldn't care less.  She's starting to tolerate him a bit more, though, even in that brightly dotted jacket and horseshoe tie-pin.  I'll admit that Poppy's the better-dressed of the two here(!).
However, Tony's overeagerness to move up to number one and run the whole town has already made itself apparent.  During his recent tour of the South Side's bars and nightclubs where he enforces the use of Lovo's bootlegged beer Tony ventured into the North Side, run by rival boss O'Hara, and put a couple of bars out of business.  O'Hara's warning is swift and to the point:

Hughes was adamant that the film should be "as grisly, as realistic as possible".  Hence several instances of murdered mobsters being thrown from moving cars.
In spite of this Tony doesn't heed the warning and sends Guino to kill O'Hara in his front of a florist's shop (this is a reference to the real murder of crime boss Dean O'Banion in 1924).  Meanwhile Tony and Angelo stay at home running the business.

Angelo is by no stretch of the imagination the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is loyal, tough (as we shall see later) and dresses well with a nice homburg, wing collar and checked tie ensemble.
Poppy shows up.  As Tony begins to assert himself more and more over the gang, so she becomes slowly more interested in him.

Tony's predilection for gaudy clothing hasn't abated, sadly.  Poppy's hat, blouse(?) and belted jacket is a much better, more understated look.
Meanwhile, following the murder of O'Hara, the North Side gang prepare to mobilise under their new leader Gaffney.  They have a secret weapon that they think will give them the edge over Lovo, Tony and the rest of the Souh Side gang - the Thompson Submachine Gun, the infamous "Tommy gun" so inexorably linked to gangsters ever since.

Gaffney checks his "pineapple".  Yes, you're not wrong - it's Boris Karloff, fresh from his appearance in Frankenstein, and still to appear in The Mummy later in 1932.
(It's great to see Karloff in a really dramatic role such as this.  That's not to take anything away from the horror films that justly made him famous, but here he gets a chance to essay a whole range of emotions and show just what a good all-round actor he actually was.)

Gaffney's henchman wears the contrasting dark suit/ light cap well, but the boss's 3-piece and trilby are the equal of them.




Gaffney and his gang head over to the South Side to exact their revenge.  Tony and Poppy are having lunch in a restaurant with most of their gang, when suddenly three cars roar past and a hail of bullets erupts from each of them - it's a drive-by shooting!

Poppy's still wearing the same blouse and jacket, but she's changed her hat.  The black's a nice contrast compared to the previous white, and the feather's a pleasant little touch.
This is the first time we see a woman in the middle of a gunfight, and it's something of a shock even today.
Guino is able to get one of the gunmen and retrieve his Tommy gun.  Gaffney beats a hasty retreat, his mission to wipe out Tony and the gang a failure.

Tony, Poppy and Guino immediately head over to Lovo's offices, where they find that Gaffney has struck there too.  He's been equally unsuccessful, though - Lovo is wounded in the arm, but alive.  As far as Tony is concerned it is all-out war and he practically usurps Johnny's authority, insisting he find Gaffney and give him a taste of his own medicine.  Now Tony has a Tommy gun, and is delighted:

Tony's double-breasted pinstripe is, for once, slightly more restrained.  It's the first thing I've seen him in since that checked suit at the beginning that I actually like.  Poppy is remarkably unfazed by it all - look, she's actually helping by loading a revolver!

"Say hello to my little friend!".   Whoops, wrong version! ;-)  "Look out Johnny, I'm gonna spit!".
So begins an all-out gang war, giving Hughes/Hawks ample opportunity to stage some really quite impressive (particularly for 1932) crashes and shootings.

A beer lorry smashes through a wooden platform.

A mobster is gunned down in the street.  This is the first of several instance where Howard Hawks includes an 'X' motif to signify a murder by Camonte or his men.

A car is shot up and ploughs through a fire hydrant and a lamp-post.

In a nod to the real St. Valentine's Day Massacre a group of North Side hoods are lined up against a wall and gunned down.  Good use of shadows again and, of course, there is the 'X' motif again.


A shot-up car crashes into a railway wagon.
Gaffney lays low, in fear for his life.  A little later he gets up enough courage to go bowling, surrounded by his mob.  But Tony finds him  anyway and mows them all down in the bowling alley.

Gaffney proves that all you need to play a good game of ten-pin bowling is a waistcoat & tie and a pair of proper shoes.  A shame he isn't given the chance to finish the game.
With the whole town buttoned up Tony and the gang go out to party.

I'm loving the whole look of this nightclub!
Poppy is already there with Lovo, but Tony barges straight in.

This great scene brilliantly illustrates Lovo's complete loss of any control he had left over the South Side, Poppy included.  Offered a light by both Tony and Johnny, she chooses Tony's match over Johnny's lighter.  Her simple, strappy evening gown is set off nicely by her earrings.
Also at the nightclub is Cesca.  She runs into Guino again and tries to seduce him, but Guino still isn't sure.  Cesca eventually ends up dancing with another man, until Tony spots them.  Then the fireworks really start.  Tony chases the guy off and takes Cesca home, where he treats her quite roughly in his attempts to reign her in.

Cesca wears a very simply, elegant black floor-length gown accessorised with large necklace...

...which Tony later tries to rip off.

Cesca is saved by their mother who sends Tony away, more convinced than ever that her son is a lost cause.  Meanwhile, Lovo, in a final act of desperation, hires some men to take care of Tony in order to try and get his empire back.  As Tony leaves the family home they strike, and a vicious (and again, impressive) car chase ensues.


The chase ends with both cars careering down a bank.  Lovo's men are killed but Tony escapes with only a few injuries.
Tony guesses that Lovo was behind the assassination attempt and once he has located Guino they both go to his office to confront him and extract revenge.  We all know what happens to double-crossers, don't we?

Guino's obviously still spreading himself around at this point, as Tony has to make a couple of 'phone calls before he locates him, including one to this girl who seems to make her furs out of her dead parrots(!) ;-p


Once he and Guino have dealt with Lovo, Tony heads over to Poppy's place to claim the last bit of the empire.  By this time Poppy is more than happy to see him.


The sign that Tony takes to be a good omen.

Some time later Cesca, having seemingly forgiven Tony for the umpteenth time, calls at Tony's office and meets Guino once more.  Admiring her persistence in constantly pursuing him, Guino starts to soften.
Cesca sports a brilliant white dress-suit with great cuffs and collar details, plus a simple hat.  It's easily the best outfit she's worn in the entire film, in my book.
Tony leaves town for a few weeks on a business trip and when he returns he finds that a few things have changed, not least the fact that Cesca has secretly married Guino.


Not aware of who the husband is, he gets Cesca's new address from their mother and storms over there.  He gets the surprise of his life when the door opens and he sees Guino standing before him.  In a moment of madness, Tony pulls out his gun and...

'X'!
Cesca is distraught and flees from Tony.  The shock of the whole thing has left him in a complete daze and his men take him back to his fortress home.  The police, meanwhile, get the news of Guino's death over the wire and the finger of guilt points squarely at Tony.  They head off to take him in, dead or alive.  The police arrive at Tony's house just after he and Angelo make it inside and barricade themselves in.
I mentioned that Angelo was tough.  He's just been shot in the stomach twice, yet he still manages to lock the door, climb a flight of stairs, lock another door AND answer the telephone before he finally expires.  Now that's tough!
It's Poppy on the telephone, but Tony is still insensible and this is the last we see or hear of her.
Suddenly Cesca appears in the doorway brandishing a gun, intent on avenging Guino's death.  But even then she can't bring herself to kill her own brother and instead joins him as they try to fight off the police.  Do they succeed?  Will the world be theirs, or will they lose everything?  Watch and see!


(I don't think this is the original trailer to be honest, more likely a later one -  perhaps from a 1940s/50s re-release.

This is the last of the Pre-Code crime films in my collection; the next Film Friday (whenever that will be!) will see us return to James Cagney in the 1938 classic Angels With Dirty Faces.

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