Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Manhattan Odyssey" by Herman G. Weinberg

In researching the life and work of pioneering film exhibitor, subtitler, critic, and avant garde filmmaker Herman G. Weinberg, I came across a copy of his memoir, A Manhattan Odyssey, which was published in 1982. I hoped that it would contain information about his time in Baltimore, when he served as the manager of the Little Theatre, an early arthouse cinema that was the city's sole outlet for foreign and avant garde films at the time.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Weinberg devotes an entire chapter of his book to his time in Baltimore. He recounts being sent there by the operators of the 55th Street Playhouse, an art cinema in Manhattan, to oversee the opening of the Little Theatre. He ended up staying in the city for six years (from 1929 to 1936), living off of Mount Vernon Square and even meeting his first wife, Erna Bergman, who worked at the Little and was the star of his landmark experimental film Autumn Fire.

Beyond that, however, Weinberg's memoir is a fascinating evocation of a time and place that no longer exists. Most of the book focuses on his many years spent living in Manhattan, from his early childhood (a particularly tragic story involves the death of his young sister), to his years as a luminary of New York's arthouse film scene (during which time he authored a long-running column, "Coffee, Brandy, and Cigars", which ran at various times in publications such as Film Culture and Variety). Unlike our current age, in which every film enthusiast is expected to develop a specialized area of expertise in the most niche, unexplored aspect of the medium, Weinberg was a generalist, bringing his talents to bear in several different areas of the cinema.

Weinberg entered the film world through his musical training, after writing a trio of articles on silent film scoring that brought him to the attention of the burgeoning arthouse scene in Manhattan in the late 1920s. He developed the process of subtitling foreign films that has become the standard (superimposing the translated dialogue at the bottom of the screen), wrote pioneering studies of directors including Lubitsch and Sternberg, and in his later years, was a regular presence on the film festival circuit for many years, where he rubbed elbows with many Hollywood greats.

The chief delight in reading Weinberg's memoir, however, is his eloquent style, and wide-ranging references to literature, art and poetry. He re-produces a number of poems throughout the book (including one by his daughter Gretchen) that reflect a real appreciation for that art form. Like the best critics, Weinberg's enthusiasm for the subjects about which he writes is infectious.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Great Gatsby (1949)

The second screen adaptation (after the tantalizingly lost 1926 silent version) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, this 1949 version -- directed by Elliott Nugent -- is an offbeat film, with its '40s post-war sensibility striking an uneasy balance with the '20s Jazz Age setting. Fitzgerald's novel is re-worked here as a rise-and-fall narrative more typical of the '30s gangster film, combined with elements of post-war crime dramas. Gatsby is portrayed as a hardworking young man who develops a thirst for wealth and the power it brings. But his meteoric success is ultimately undone by his misguided devotion to the woman for whom he has carried a torch over the years. It's no wonder that this version is often talked about in terms of '40s film noir, both for its emphasis on Gatsby's tragic rise and fall, and for its often shadowy, high-contrast visual style.

Alan Ladd is an interesting choice for Gatsby. He is able to convey the naive, almost childlike qualities of the character, as well something darker, even somewhat sinister, under the surface. The casting of Ladd, a staple of Paramount's series of dark crime dramas of the decade (This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia), further places the film's interpretation of Gatsby within post-war noir's long line of tragic protagonists. One of the more frustrating results of this approach, however, is a reductive morality imposed on the story, which undermines some its power. Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than in the frankly trite and unnecessary prologue, which has Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker (now married) visiting Gatsby's grave in the present day, and reflecting back on the tragic events that led to his downfall.

Paramount's 1949 version of The Great Gatsby ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, fails to convey the spirit of the Jazz Age zeitgeist that Fitzgerald captured so well in his novel, but it is, also inevitably, revealing as a glimpse of that era as viewed through the very different sensibilities of the time in which it was produced.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Professor Beware (1938)

Of the major silent film comedians, Harold Lloyd's transition to sound was in some ways the most seamless. Whereas Chaplin continued making silents throughout the 1930s, and Keaton was assigned by MGM to a series of increasingly uncharacteristic (albeit financially successful) farce comedies, Lloyd took something of a middle-ground approach, gradually adapting his character and scripts to better suit changing tastes in screen humor, without sacrificing the best qualities of his silent work. This approach resulted in such superb films as The Cat's-Paw and The Milky Way, both of which demonstrated that Lloyd still had what it took to remain a top comedy star in the '30s.

Professor Beware was Lloyd's final independently-produced feature, and marked his retirement from film acting (with the exception of his return in Preston Sturges' nostalgic The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a decade later). Lloyd plays Dean Lambert, a timid Egyptologist who becomes convinced he is the victim of an ancient curse, and sets off on a cross-country chase from Los Angeles to New York in order to join an expedition departing to Egypt, where he hopes to find the missing tablet that will remove the curse.

This picaresque plot provides an excuse for lots of fun if loosely-connected sequences built around the professor's misadventures on his cross-country journey, peppered with a colorful cast of character actors such as Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, Thurston Hall, Cora Witherspoon, Sterling Holloway, and many other familiar faces. There is also a pleasant romantic plot involving Harold and a young heiress (Phyllis Welch) on the run that, as others have pointed out, bears more than a passing resemblance to It Happened One Night.

Often cited as a highlight of the film is the extended chase scene in which Lloyd and his traveling hobo companions (Raymond Walburn and Lionel Stander) have to keep running along the top of a moving train headed toward a low tunnel. Perhaps in 1938, when there was such a dearth of good visual comedy on the screen, this sequence would have seemed like a welcome throwback to the best of silent comedy, but seen today, it feels rather clumsy and is marred by the overuse of unconvincing back-projection.

Much more satisfying is the action-packed climax, in which a newly-invigorated Harold finds the courage to rescue the heiress from her father's yacht. The scene is like a throwback to the ending of his silent comedies such as For Heaven's Sake and Speedy. Harold rounds up a gang of various tough guys by taunting them and egging them on to give chase, which they do -- following him right on to the yacht and unwittingly acting as Harold's personal army as they engage in an all-out brawl with the yacht's crew. It's a well-timed and expertly-constructed sequence that demonstrates Lloyd's still-considerable skills for physical comedy even at this late point in his career.

Other highlights include a sequence with Harold hiding a stolen chicken under his coat and being forced to engage in some amateur ventriloquism to assuage the sheriff's suspicions, and a memorable sight gag of a frost-bitten Harold emerging from a refrigerated train car in which he has just spent the past several hours traveling across the state.

Overall, however, Professor Beware is far from Lloyd's best work. Too often the pacing lags between set-pieces, some scenes (particularly the clothes-changing sequence with William Frawley) go on too long, and Lloyd himself is just a bit long-in-the-tooth to be playing the overeager young professor getting worked up over superstitions around an ancient curse. But it's hard to dislike the pleasant, silly humor of it all, and there are still enough flashes of brilliance, particularly in the exciting climax, to make it a worthwhile and enjoyable effort from a master comedian.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Red Line 7000 (1965)

One of Hawks' final films, Red Line 7000 is an odd and often frustrating film. It never goes quite where you expect it to. Hawks largely dispenses with any concern about story here, instead focusing on the characters -- a group of racecar drivers and the women they love -- and follows them through their triumphs and tragedies on the racing circuit. To watch Red Line 7000 is to see a director totally in command of his style, relaxed, assured and not caring one whit about pleasing anyone other than himself with the results. That alone makes it worth checking out.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bigger Than Life (1956)

An interesting counterpart to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the same period, Bigger Than Life is Nicholas Ray's powerful critique of post-war suburbia and the nuclear family. It's a hard-hitting, "ripped from the headlines" story about a mild-mannered suburban schoolteacher who is transformed into an abusive tyrant after becoming addicted to the experimental drug cortisone, which he has been prescribed to treat a potentially life-threatening condition. Well-acted by James Mason (who also produced), bringing a fiery intensity to his role, and ably supported by Barbara Rush as his sympathetic wife and Walter Matthau as his friend and fellow teacher who stand by him through his battle with addiction.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Always (1989)

A remake of Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe (1943), Always is one of Spielberg's most interesting films while also being somewhat atypical for the director. The 1943 film starred Spencer Tracy as a WWII pilot who is killed in the line of duty, and after finding himself in heaven, is sent back to earth as a guardian angel to mentor a young pilot (Van Johnson) who just happens to be falling in love Dorrinda (Irene Dunne), the love of Tracy's life who has been left behind. Spielberg updates the story -- the fighter pilot is now an aerial firefighter (beautifully played by Richard Dreyfuss in a sensitive performance) -- but otherwise it remains decidedly and gloriously old-fashioned in every other respect.

Holly Hunter is wonderful as the spirited flight dispatcher in love with Dreyfuss, and John Goodman turns in a fine performance as Dreyfuss' best friend and flight instructor. Brad Johnson, as the young pilot whom Dreyfuss must guide in both work and love, brings the requisite good-natured qualities to the part, but he never establishes the chemistry with Hunter that Dreyfuss does, and as a result, their scenes together feel flat in comparison. Special mention should be made of Audrey Hepburn, in her final screen appearance, as the ethereal angel who sets Dreyfuss on his mission.

Always is unique in Spielberg's filmography. It seems to be an effort at creating a more self-consciously "adult"-oriented film without abandoning the sense of wonder and emotional power that marked his earlier hits such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and only resorting to tour-de-force special effects when called for in key dramatic scenes). At the same time, it lacks the grand themes of his historical epics (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, etc.), which allows Spielberg to focus more on the characters than in the larger events surrounding them. As such, it represents a kind of middle ground in Spielberg's work, one not always entirely successful, but one that marks an admirable effort on the part of its director.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

I was introduced to the Belgian cartoonist Hergé's "Tintin" through the Canadian animated TV series from Nelvana, which aired on the Nickelodeon channel during the 1990s. With the engaging stories, characters and animation, it remained a favorite of mine, and I was delighted to see how well it held up when I re-visited it a few years ago, right around the time I learned that Steven Spielberg was making a big-screen adaptation of the character.

Happily, Spielberg's film (which I only just caught up with for the first time on streaming video, surely not the best way to experience this large-scale cinematic endeavor) remains true to the spirit of the comics and is a fun, exciting thrill-ride of a film as only he could make it. When you consider how easy it would be for this kind of thing to get out of control, to become drowned under a sea of special effects, it is tribute to Spielberg's incredible gifts as a filmmaker that he never loses sight of the story and characters that make the "Tintin" comics so engaging in the first place.

The Adventures of Tintin is certainly not one of Spielberg's more serious-minded pictures of the kind that win major Oscars, but it is a solid example of why he remains the greatest cinematic entertainer of our time.