Monday, August 27, 2018

Cecil B. DeMille's Film Style

CECIL B. DeMILLE (1881-1959)
One of the true pioneers of the American film industry and the cinema's ultimate showman, Cecil B. DeMille helped put Hollywood on the map with THE SQUAW MAN (1914), pioneered the use of high-contrast lighting in THE CHEAT (1915), played a pivotal role in the founding of Paramount Pictures (and became the studio's first head of production), his THE KING OF KINGS (1927) had -- at one time -- been seen by more people than any other film, and his most famous film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) is still run on American TV each year.

DeMille's critics have, at different times, held him up as an emblem of commercial Hollywood filmmaking at its most crass and overblown, whose films may be seen as tacky, vulgar, campy, old-fashioned, theatrical, and so on. And on a personal level he has been criticized for his rough treatment of actors, his right-wing politics during the McCarthy era, and his religious hypocrisy.

But whatever criticisms can be made against DeMille's films, it cannot be denied that he knew how to create great and memorable images.

I was recently going through the flood sequence of Michael Curtiz' DeMille-inspired NOAH'S ARK (1928), trying to find an image I could freeze frame and pull to illustrate my write-up of that movie. As I went through each shot, I could not find a single one that could stand on its own as a great image. Added up, sure, the sequence is impressive enough, but when you begin to look at how it's put together, it becomes clear that Curtiz was throwing a lot of coverage shots together hoping they'd stick. Curtiz could imitate but it never feels like the real thing, never adds up to anything other than an imitation.


DeMille, on the other hand, had a clear vision and purpose for every image that he put into his films. When you look at a sequence like the parting of the Red Sea in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, you can find numerous images that work on their own, which also add up to create a cohesive and spectacular whole. Many of the criticisms of his work remain perfectly valid, but running throughout that work is a cohesive artistic vision that was all DeMille's own.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Hollywood Party (1934)


This chaotic mess of a film took over a year to complete, with eight directors (including Richard Boleslawki, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Chuck Reisner, Roy Rowland, Sam Wood, and George Stevens) taking turns at the helm. Jimmy Durante plays as a Tarzan-like jungle movie star who throws a big party in order to convince Baron Munchausen (Jack Pearl) to let him use his real lions in his next picture and add some real thrills to it for a change. Polly Moran, Charles Butterworth, Eddie Quillan and June Clyde are among the cast who appear in the various scattered threads of the plot, which is peppered with cameos by Robert Young, The Three Stooges, and even Mickey Mouse, in an animated sequence provided by Walt Disney. Incredibly, the whole thing was shot by the great James Wong Howe, whose talents were certainly wasted here.

 Laurel and Hardy steal the picture when they show up toward the end to deliver the lions, and quickly become engaged in an egg-breaking battle of tit-for-tat with Lupe Velez. This sequence, the highlight of the film, was directed by their old cameraman George Stevens, whose masterful handling of comedy is evident in giving Velez and The Boys room to perform the routine without any unnecessary intrusions. It says so much about Laurel and Hardy's incredible gifts for comedy that they could do more with a little scene like this than MGM could with all of its mighty resources poured into the film.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

For Heaven's Sake (1926)

One of Harold Lloyd's more lightweight features (running just under an hour), but also one of his funniest. Lloyd plays a wealthy idler who inadvertently helps a minister save his struggling mission, and quickly becomes invested in his newfound philanthropic venture after falling in love with the minister's daughter.

Though there are plenty of good gags throughout, this plot serves largely as a setup to the impressive chase sequence that occupies nearly the final third of the film. Filled with breakneck stunts, expertly-staged car chases, and enough gags for two or three movies, it's easily one of Lloyd's best set pieces.

In addition to the brilliance of the comedy, one also has to appreciate the brilliance of the filmmaking, especially Walter Lundin's shimmering cinematography. Directed by Sam Taylor. Written by John Grey, Ted Wilde, Clyde Bruckman, and Ralph Spence (titles). With Jobyna Ralston, Noah Young, Paul Weigel, James Mason.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Hail Caesar (2016): A Hollywood Fable


I watched HAIL CAESAR, the most recent theatrical film by the Coen Brothers, again last night, this time on my 100" screen in my basement theater. It's a movie that I fell in love with instantly the first time I saw it, even though it took me a second viewing to really get adjusted to just why I loved it so much.

Released to mixed critical reviews and frequently negative audience response, HAIL CAESAR is, to me, one of the very best of all of the Coen brothers' films, a loving tribute to the magic of movies. The episodic plot follows a day in the life of a harried studio executive, brilliantly played by Josh Brolin, as he struggles to bring to completion the studio's big Biblical epic "Hail Caesar", after its star (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and held for ransom by a group calling itself "The Future", all the while dealing with his stable of eccentric stars and their various personal problems in order to maintain equilibrium behind the scenes of his Dream Factory.

More than most films dealing with the movie industry, HAIL CAESAR explores the religious aspect that movies can play in our lives, and the power that they have to shape our dreams and our vision of ourselves. The film is set in the early 1950s at that moment just when the seams were really beginning to show at the edges of the Movie Capital of the World, and directors like Billy Wilder were beginning to explore the seamy side of Tinseltown in films like SUNSET BLVD. This image of a Hollywood gone to seed has been mined before in films like LA CONFIDENTIAL, HOLLYWOODLAND and even Tim Burton's ED WOOD, but the Coens approach it with a deft combination of lightness and grandeur that beautifully contrasts the tangled web of behind-the-scenes goings-on at the studio, and the projected illusion of fantasy that we continue to believe in.

The brilliance here lies in the fact that the Coens convey this magic through the use of movie archetypes in the characters in situations, and by structuring the film around the production of a biblical epic about an arrogant Roman officer who is blinded by faith after encountering the face of Jesus. By extending the religious metaphor to the power of film itself, the Coens create one of the medium's most insightful commentaries on itself.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Borderline (1950)


A pair of narcotics agents, unaware of each other's identities, go undercover in Mexico to bring down a big-time drug smuggler. A light little crime drama from Universal-International, with lively performances by MacMurray and Trevor as the agents, and a suitably menacing turn by Burr as the smuggler they're after.

Starring Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor, Raymond Burr. Directed by William A. Seiter. Seen on PizzaFlix 6/1/18.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Phantom Lady (1944)

PHANTOM LADY is an atmospheric little thriller from Universal in 1944, directed with great visual flourish by Robert Siodmak. The premise is intriguing: a man's wife has been murdered, and the only person who can provide a concrete alibi for his whereabouts at the time -- an unknown female companion wearing a distinctive hat -- has completely vanished into thin air; even the witnesses who remember the man's presence in the bar, in the cab, etc. the night before swear that he was alone. When he is sentenced for his wife's murder, time starts running out to identify the woman and clear the husband's name.

This is the kind of sleek, economical picture the studios could do so well in the '40s, with the pistons firing on all cylinders -- unpretentious yet stylish, with a good cast and a smart script. Franchot Tone delivers a good performance with tongue just enough in cheek to suggest he doesn't take the proceedings too seriously, while Ella Raines and Alan Curtis make an appealing and earnest leading pair. There's a fun nightclub number, too, performed by Aurora Miranda (Carmen's sister). And Elisha Cook Jr. is in top form as a sleazy jive band drummer -- in one scene, he pounds away feverishly at his drumkit, obscenely stroking away so furiously that he appears on the verge of either a heart attack or an orgasm.

Friday, April 20, 2018

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema by Ira Gallen

Ira Gallen's study of the early career of D.W. Griffith is one of the finest books on the subject of film published in recent years, and certainly one of the most thorough published about the complex, often contradictory, still controversial man who did more than any other figure to advance the art of film in the medium's formative years.

Gallen, a film & TV historian, collector, and archivist, has done tremendous work in recent years in championing Griffith's legacy, between authoring this book, and editing Seymour Stern's writing on Griffith's still-extremely controversial masterwork, The Birth of a Nation, which must certainly rank as one of the most important contributions to silent film scholarship. (He also has posted a number of videos of Griffith's Biograph shorts on his YouTube channel, contributing a valuable online archive of Griffith's early films.)

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is focused on Griffith's early life and his career in film up through his final year at Biograph. By concentrating his study on this, the most fertile period of Griffith's career, Gallen provides a comprehensive overview of the innovations that the director was making in leaps and bounds during those years. This study, which contains analyses and production histories of key Biograph short subjects, clearly establishes Griffith's contributions to the development of film grammar, without either the hyperbolic and exaggerated claims that have been made in Griffith's favor in the past, or the tendency in recent years to downplay Griffith's contributions in favor of shining a (deserved) light on the achievements of other directors of the period.

The final sections of the book contain details about Griffith's producing arrangement with the Aitken brothers, which resulted in The Birth of a Nation, and a scrapbook of photos from the Biograph company. Gallen also includes commentary on Griffith's legacy from leading film historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Arthur Lennig, and addresses the cowardly and shameful removal of Griffith's name from the DGA's career achievement award in 1999, solely on the basis of the racism of The Birth of a Nation. Sadly, such an act seems somehow appropriate given the film industry's shabby treatment of Griffith during much of his own lifetime as well.

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is a first-rate piece of film scholarship that does justice to the complexity and importance of its subject, and Gallen is to be commended for his in-depth study of this master filmmaker's formative years, which are really the formative years of the art of cinema.

Buy the book at Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dw-griffith-ira-h-gallen/1123134988

Ira Gallen's Website: https://www.tvdays.com/