Sunday, May 24, 2015

Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorsese's sweeping, epic account of the Five Points section of New York during the 1860s, and the tensions between immigrant groups and the native-born Americans, stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first film for Scorsese) as an Irish priest's son who infiltrates the gang of crime boss Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a tour-de-force performance). Directed with a keen sense of period detail and atmosphere, this vivid re-creation of Civil War-era Manhattan (constructed on the massive stages at Cinecitta) is based on Herbert Asbury's account of the period in his book of the same name.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

A truly inspired piece of surrealist humor, certainly one of the most original and genuinely funny comedies to come out of Hollywood in the past couple decades. The story, such as it is, involves Tom Green's efforts to become a successful animator and move out of his parents' house, but any plot is just a pretense on which to build a series of outrageous, surreal visual gags -- such as Green scooping out and wearing a dead deer carcass, dressing in a backwards suit as "Backwards Man", showering in full SCUBA gear, and playing a piano with dozens of sausages attached to strings on his fingers -- that recall the works of Bunuel and Dali, or Buster Keaton (to whom Green pays homage with a reference to STEAMBOAT BILL JR. late in the film). Green is fearless in his use of extreme, gross-out humor, and remains committed to the material, never breaking character or winking at the audience to re-assure them that it's just a joke. It is on this strength that the film succeeds so well.

Special mention should be made of Rip Torn as Green's long-suffering father, an inspired bit of casting. Julie Hagerty, Harland Williams, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Anthony Michael Hall are all effective in supporting parts. It's fortunate that Green was able to get studio financing for this project while having full creative control by co-writing and directing as well as starring in it. It's hard to imagine it being made today, but he certainly made the most of all the resources at his disposal and created something truly original and funny. It's not for all tastes, to be sure, but it's a welcome change of pace for anyone bored with run-of-the-mill, uninspired Hollywood comedies.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The House of Rothschild (1934)

Stirring historical drama, lavishly produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, tracing the rise of the Rothschild banking family and their struggle against anti-Semitism in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. George Arliss stars in a dual role as Nathan Rothschild and his father, Mayer. Arliss's sensitive portrayal of Nathan, the central figure in the family, is the film's greatest asset, as Nunnally Johnson's script (adapted from the George Hembert Westley play) necessarily covers many events in a short amount of time, resulting in subplots (the romance between Loretta Young and Robert Young) and characters (especially Boris Karloff's Count Ledrantz) that feel underdeveloped, not helped any by Alfred Werker's slick and impersonal direction. Still, it's a powerful and handsomely-mounted production, and contains one of Arliss's finest performances (in a career filled with fine performances).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

A first-rate adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, about a romantic poet-soldier whose exceptional bravery and wit mask a deep insecurity toward women because of his unusually large nose. Unable to express his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxane, Cyrano is instead forced to speak through the handsome young soldier whom she loves, providing him with impossibly eloquent romantic sentiments with which to woo her.

The pitch-perfect balance of humor and tragedy is beautifully achieved by Carl Foreman's script, Michael Gordon's understated but effective direction, and Jose Ferrer's truly magnificent performance in the title role, ably supported by Mala Powers, William Prince, Ralph Clanton, Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Corrigan. Produced independently by Stanley Kramer, the superb qualities of the writing and Ferrer's performance overcome the limitations imposed by the obviously low budget.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: "King of Comedy" by Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett's autobiography (as told to Cameron Shipp and originally published in 1954) is a highly entertaining read, capturing the spirit of its author and subject with humor, energy and vitality. However, its accuracy with regards to facts has to be taken with an extremely large grain of salt. Sennett peppers his life story with tall-tales and exaggerations, which are in keeping with the larger-than-life qualities of the personalities and experiences of the early days of the comedy picture business that he portrays so vividly.

Sennett takes a predictably skeptical view of the perceptive critics who saw his frantic comedies as a new art form and offered analyses of his filmic style, though Sennett is sure to acknowledge that his freewheeling and zany pictures were the result of much hard work and planning, and that comedy was a very serious business indeed to the men and women involved in their creation.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the early chapters dealing with Sennett's entry into show business, through a letter of introduction from Calvin Coolidge, of all people, to stage star Marie Dressler, who in turn recommended Sennett to producer David Belasco in New York. Sennett's account of the New York show business world at the turn of the century is vivid and colorful, especially in discussing the many personalities who were just beginning to flourish at that time. The account of his arrival at Biograph and subsequent tutelage under D.W. Griffith is particularly interesting in describing the relatively casual and carefree way in which these films were made, and the sense of discovery and potential that they saw in the medium. Of all the future collaborators Sennett met in his days at Biograph's studio on east 14th Street, perhaps the most significant for him, both personally and professionally, was Mabel Normand.

He devotes a great deal of the book to Normand, whom he clearly had a great deal of affection and fondness for years after her passing, and even given the tensions that arose between them following their broken engagement in 1915 (though Sennett is rather coy and inconsistent about the details in his account here). What is clear is that he thought the world of Normand and, as he states at the end of the book, one of his goals in writing it was for readers to be able to get to know her. Sennett has kind words, too, about other fellow clowns and collaborators, especially Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, and Hank Mann, delights in telling how he discovered Charlie Chaplin, and laments having lost Harold Lloyd before realizing his full potential.

The chapters on the William Desmond Taylor murder are interesting for Sennett's perspective on Normand's involvement in the case, though they perhaps attempt to move through the details in too small an amount of space, leaving the reader wanting more information about the mysterious scandal that rocked the Hollywood film industry. After brief discussions of his discovery of both Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields for the movies, Sennett tells of the terrible loss of his personal fortune in 1935 following the financial collapse of Paramount (through whom he was distributing his films at that point), but concludes the book on a happy note, mentioning the honorary Oscar he was presented with by his old gagman Frank Capra, and his surprise appearance on Ralph Edwards' "This is Your Life", where he was reunited with a number of familiar faces from his past.

Like many show business autobiographies, "King of Comedy" is more successful at evoking a time and place than it is with a meticulous record of the facts. Taken in that way, the book is an enjoyable personal account of Sennett's life in pictures that captures the spirit of the man and his own legend, and provides a window into the creation of an exciting art form.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Man's Genesis (1912)

A "psychological comedy founded on Darwin's theory of the Genesis of Man," as the film's subtitle puts it, about a scrawny but intelligent caveman called Weak Hands (Robert Harron), whose romance with the beautiful Lily White (Mae Marsh) is threatened by the big, burly Brute Force (Wilfred Lucas). Setting out to win back his lost love, Weak Hands conceives of the first weapon to defeat his opponent, attaching a sharp rock to a stick which he uses as a club to bludgeon Brute Force to death. Brains win out over brawn. The whole "caveman" gimmick is framed as a flashback device, bookended by modern day segments in which a grandfather preaches the importance of non-violence to his grandson after he catches the boy antagonizing his sister with a stick (his message of non-violence would seem to be contradicted by the outcome of his story, but no matter).

As the description indicates, it's very heavy-handed and blunt in its storytelling and characterizations, and contains none of the technical innovations that mark Griffith's most interesting work from this period. It seems that by 1912, he was clearly reaching the limitations of narrative filmmaking within the one- and two-reel format. Griffith was quoted as comparing the production methods at Biograph to "grinding out sausages", a furious rate of production which of course allowed him to learn much and make great strides in a short period of time, but which has its inevitable drawbacks that become clear in an uninspired effort like this. His "pet project" during his last days at Biograph was the four-reel JUDITH OF BETHULIA, which pointed the way to the large-scale epics on which he'd soon embark. MAN'S GENESIS feels like Griffith going through the motions.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mickey (1918)

Produced by Mack Sennett as a feature-length starring vehicle for Mabel Normand, this is less a typical Sennett slapstick comedy, and more a genteel drama with elements of humor. The plot is fairly complicated: a struggling old California miner (George Nichols) is raising the orphaned daughter (Normand) of his old mining partner, and sends her to live with her aunt (Laura Lavarnie) on Long Island in order to make a lady out of her. Her romance with a handsome young miner (Wheeler Oakman) is threatened by the advances of a slimy playboy (Lew Cody) who is only interested in her newfound fortune earned from the mine.

Normand shines in this otherwise stock melodrama plot, bringing just the right mix of humor and charm to the title role, and proving herself equally adept at scenes of broad physical comedy and intimate, tender romance.  Her performance here -- under the expert direction of comedy veteran F. Richard Jones -- is a fine demonstration of her exceptional gifts as a comedienne and the qualities that made her one of the most popular stars of the period. In his autobiography, "King of Comedy", Sennett is quite proud of the film, which he conceived as a showcase for Normand (with whom he had been romantically involved, and was clearly still quite fond of), and was made just at the time that their association -- both personal and professional -- was coming to an end.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Children in the Surf, Coney Island (1904)

One of the numerous actualitie subjects taken by G.W. "Billy" Bitzer for the Biograph company during the early years of the 20th century, demonstrating Bitzer's eye for spatiality and depth in his compositions, with the children splashing about in the foreground and the rolling waves crashing toward them.

There is a remarkable moment that occurs toward the end of this subject, after the other children have exited the frame. One small boy appears with a toy boat that gets tossed about in the surf, while in the background a tall ship passes by. It's really quite a striking composition, with the contrast between the small toy ship and the actual, full-sized one in the distance. The sudden appearance of this marvelous shot at the end of the film suggests that it was a spontaneous addition to an otherwise routine subject depicting children at play.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.