Monday, October 31, 2005

Retrospective: Harold Lloyd's "Speedy"

From my review of the 2004 Maryland Film Festival:

Review: SPEEDY (1928) by Matt Barry 5/9/04
For me, the highlight of the 2004 Maryland Film Festival was the presentation of a pristine new 35mm print of SPEEDY (courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust) with a rousing score performed live by the Alloy Orchestra.

The film: SPEEDY is considered by many to be Harold Lloyd's all-round best film. It contains too many hilarious and well-executed gag sequences to count, wonderful characters, excellent location scenes, and a certain element of just sheer, plain fun that is impossible to re-capture in films today. You really *believe* that Harold and Ann and Babe Ruth and everyone else were genuinely having a ball making this film. Hard to imagine the amount of painstaking preparation and work put into creating that sense of fun, but that's what these guys did best, and why the silent comedies still continue to delight audiences while even some of the best comedies of the sound era can seem just a bit stale to modern audiences.

I was heavily impressed with the technical skill of the filmmaking. SPEEDY was obviously a big-budget production, and it showed that Lloyd really took cares in making it a polished, technically well-made picture. Even the visual effects sequences during the final chase were well-done and used very sparingly; the majority of the chase sequence was filmed entirely on the spot.
I really don't have any negative comments on the film itself. I felt that every gag sequence worked perfectly (as evidenced by the near non-stop laughter of the audience). The performances were excellent, the technical aspects were state-of-the-art for their time. I would rank SPEEDY **** out of ****. Truly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

The Presentation:
The film was presented in a newly restored, pristine 35mm print courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust and was hosted by Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. Unfortunately, several segments of the film (most likely the stock footage sequences) were noticably scratchy. The other segments were crystal-clear however, and the print overall was stunning.
The musical score was composed and performed by the Alloy Orchestra. It was an incredibly accomplishment; the score was brilliant in and of itself yet never called attention to itself or detracted from the focus of the film. I understand the Alloy has its admirers and its detractors; to be fair, I have only hear several of their film scores (including a live presentation of THE BLACK PIRATE), but I can say without doubt that their score for SPEEDY was perfectly suited to the mood and tone of the film. For those attending a silent film with accompaniment by the not be put off by the unusual instrumentation of the group. The music they created was perfectly suited to the film.

My only real complaint of the presentation was that a small portion of the left side of the screen was masked off. I could not be certain whether this was the fault of the projectionist, or perhaps the black curtain that masks the rest of the screen needed to be adjusted. This proved quite frustrating during the opening credits because the titles got cut off slightly on the left side of the screen, and the titles during the first minute or so were also affected similarly but after this it seemed not to affect the titles anymore, although the formatting remained uncorrected for the duration of the film.

Overall the presentation was a complete success, and I applaud the Alloy Orchestra for their amazing and effective score, and the Harold Lloyd Trust for lending the beautiful 35mm print of the film. Hopefully the positive response of this event will lead to more live-music presentations with silent films.

Matt Barry

The Man Who Knew Too Much comparison

Having recently watched both the 1934 and 1956 versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, I have to admit I prefer the 1934 well over the remake.

It has nothing to do with the fact that its the "original" version. I feel that Hitchcock told the story in a more effective manner, especially using the visuals to tell the story over what felt like unnecessarily extended dialogue in certain scenes in the remake.

I felt that that length of the remake was too long, plain and simple. Hitchcock told the story in 1934 in 78 very tight, very effective minutes. The remake runs two hours. The exposition in the remake went on entirely too long for me. There was even a feeling that Hitchcock felt compelled to make the most of the foreign filming location, to provide all the detail he possibly could out of the setting, which did not add anything to the story for me, at least, and which felt entirely too long.

There is a tightness to the storytelling of the early British Hitchcocks, and I feel that its beneficial in this case. Also, I recently re-watched THE 39 STEPS, which is both immensely entertaining and incredibly brilliant without the techniques calling too much attention to themselves.

The Tramp and the Dictator (2002)

From Usenet, 23 December 2004

In watching THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR again since the first time it aired on TCM a couple years ago, I'm struck by what a loose concept this was to build a whole documentary around.
Initially, it sounded interesting enough. My main reason for seeing this documentary was to get a look at the color home movie footage shot on the set by Syd Chaplin.
When the first Warner/Mk2 DVD was released, I picked it up, not even realizing that THE GREAT DICTATOR disc included the documentary, plus the complete 25 minutes of home movie footage, as special features. Now that the home movies are available as a stand alone feature, I wanted to watch the documentary again, a little more objectively.
Having seen it, I cannot understand why Brownlow really thought that this was a good idea. I mean, yes, there are the coincidental similarities between Chaplin and Hitler, but to build an entire 55 minute film around it seems disjointed. I understand that in the last 10 years or so, Brownlow has become as interested in documenting European history as he is about film history. This first became apparent with CINEMA EUROPE (1995), and later with UNIVERSAL HORROR (1998) and even LON CHANEY: 1000 FACES (2000). However, it became overwhelming in this film. My biggest problem was it really offers nothing new about either men, mainly because it can't very well spend much time on either of them individually.
I much preferred Brownlow's next film, CECIL B. DEMILLE: AMERICAN EPIC (2004), which focused only on one person and one topic. Compared to the DeMille documentary, TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR felt rushed, disjointed and lacking real focus, in my opinion. Perhaps Brownlow should have focused strictly on the making of THE GREAT DICTATOR; then again, that might not have provided enough material for a 55 minute film.
At any rate, Brownlow just released another documentary, BUSTER KEATON: SO FUNNY IT HURT. While below his usual standards of complexity and depth, it stills offers a brief but interesting look at a comic genius.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Lost Weekend (1945)

One of the most graphic depictions of what it means to be addicted, The Lost Weekend has lost none of its power 60 years after its release.

Billy Wilder's 1945 film is one of the first mature films to come out of Hollywood after the end of the second World War. It falls somewhere between the categories of "social drama", the type of film that was typified by William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives-films that reflected social realities in film for the first time, inspired by the harsh realities of war, and the newly imported Neo-Realist films from Italy, such as Open City, Paisan, and of course Bicycle Thieves. Wilder, as astute an observer of American society as anyone, wrote this film with Charles Brackett, from a novel by Charles Jackson. The script takes us through the weekend of a terrible alcoholic, a failed writer, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Ray Milland. Over the course of this solitary weekend, we learn the causes and symptoms of his drinking, and see the devastating depths he falls to.

The film carries a strong visual motif throughout, however, as well as a thematic one, both of which link it to the film noir genre of the period. Lost Weekend does not necessarily carry the usual genre elements of noir, but stylistically, it could be classified as such. There is a definite dark mood to the entire film, complete with high contrast lighting and deep cinematography. But to watch Lost Weekend for the film noir aspects is to miss out on the incredible drama and great performances, not to mention the story, which really grips the attention of the audience, bringing each new scene in with a certain level of anticipation and even curiosity.

Director Wilder, who won an Academy Award here, would later become most famous for his series of cynical comedies, most notably Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and One, Two, Three. But in his early American period (roughly 1942-1950), he directed several darker films that show his unique range. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I consider Wilder to be an outstanding artist on the grounds that he mastered so many different genres, and could adapt so well while always maintaining his own style. This film in particular exemplifies that. There is a memorable running gag in the film with Milland always sticking his cigarette into his mouth backward, and having to reverse it before lighting it. A subtle touch, but it adds so much to the characters.

As mentioned before, there is a definite noir atmosphere about the whole film. This is perhaps most evident in the chilling sequence where Milland wakes up in Bellevue (this was the first film allowed to film scenes inside Bellevue). Milland is forced to listen to the raving and screaming of his fellow patients experiencing DTs. This sequence still tingles the spine to watch and leaves a decided feeling of dread long after it is over.

Wilder avoids preaching to the audience. This film does not attempt to do for alcohol what Reefer Madness did for marijuana-that is, make it seem dangerously fun. Using the alcoholism as an all-controlling force, Wilder creates an interesting antagonistic force that exists within the alcohol himself. By avoiding the outright social statements that would have been easy to fall back on, Wilder presents the film as an entertainment, but one that is not likely to be forgotten or taken lightly by anyone who watches it.