Gods Like Us | Ty Burr’s Terrific Tongue

By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out

I gobble up books on film, and especially love those where the writer clearly has a knack for the big picture. Straight biographies and historical studies of film can be useful, but I like critics with a flair for the written word too. Boston Globe film critic, Ty Burr’s latest book, “Gods Like Us”, begins with the silent era and moves through the internet age and its effect on what we see. It’s largely about how stars were created, and why they exist in the first place. This isn’t a review of the book. But I do heartily endorse it, and suggest going out to purchase it. But this is to give you a few snippets, to show you why it is such a good read. I don’t want to get into the cultural nature of the book (Burr makes wonderful connections between the past and present — like the flapper being a great-great grandmother to Ellen Page’s “Juno” character, and highlights moviegoers’ nature to want to simultaneously love and devour stars), but rather I’d like to point out some of the wonderful writing, especially about early cinema, which is one of my areas of expertise and interest. You can read his daily work at the Boston Globe at this link and buy the book here.

Here is Burr writing about a 1927 silent flapper-era comedy, “Orchids and Ermine”, starring Colleen Moore:
“Ermintrude is what the flapper was before Colleen Moore got hold of her: She exudes sex like it’s BO. She’s blond and blowsy, her posture is terrible, and she checks out all the men in the movie with long glances that seem to weigh their wallets and everything else down there.”

On the sad and tragic demise of silent actor John Gilbert (and Burr is spot-on about “Queen Christina”):
…Gilbert suffered for being the last of the silent lovers, a breed that looked and sounded ridiculous when you could actually hear one of them speak. He was through by the 1930s, alcoholic, sad, and unemployable. There was a reunion with (Greta) Garbo in “Queen Christina” in 1933 — she seems ageless, he seems old — and a final film called “The Captain Hates the Sea” that Gilbert shot almost 100 percent drunk. On January 9, 1936, he had trouble sleeping, was given an injection by a private nurse, and sometime during the night choked to death on his tongue, the very muscle that had laid him low.”

On the pairing of screen sophisticates William Powell and Myrna Loy, and why they were successful:
“Their voices, and the droll worldview those voices conveyed, dovetailed perfectly; theirs was an onscreen marriage of diphthongs and knowingness … They are the gin and tonic of early Hollywood cinema.”

On the American significance of Clark Gable’s early brutish potency:
“It’s nearly impossible to convey how psychologically crucial Gable was at a time when America’s sense of itself was prostrate. Millions of men were out of work in 1931: as family providers in a capitalist economy, they had become functionally impotent. Yet here was this man, a commoner, so different from the capering boys of the silents, who walked in like he owned the room. Gable was proof, when proof was needed, that male vitality still existed, and he gave women dreams about which they couldn’t begin to tell their husbands or boyfriends. It was the size and the ease of the man — the sense that he could reach out and swallow a woman whole … They called him the king because they needed one.”

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