Monday, September 15, 2014

Napoleon (1909)

Extremely condensed telling of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, covering everything from his schooldays at Brienne to his death in just 15 minutes! Produced by the Pathe company, it necessarily presents only brief tableaux, all shot in largely static compositions.

Of particular interest is the snowball fight that opens the film. Watching this scene, shot in a single take with the boys chaotically hurling the snowballs at eachother, one can't help but compare it with Abel Gance's handling of the same scene in his later film.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

Middling late-career Lubitsch comedy, with Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas as a couple whose marriage is tested when Oberon begins to question her happiness. The humor in Donald Ogden Stewart and Walter Reisch's script is pretty mild, and Oberon and Douglas lack the chemistry to really make the material work. Burgess Meredith, however, is quite effective as the neurotic, temperamental concert pianist who comes between the couple. Overall it feels less like a film by Lubitsch, and more like a work by a lesser director attempting to make a comedy in the Lubitsch style.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nothing But the Truth (1929)

Roaring '20s farce about an affable and ambitious young stockbroker (Richard Dix) with a penchant for stretching the truth who enters into a bet for $10,000 that he can go 24 hours without telling a single lie, which predictably leads to all sorts of complications.

It's a fine premise for a comedy, with the bet providing a fun plot device reminiscent of BREWSTER'S MILLIONS. However, Victor Schertzinger's direction lacks the energy and quick pacing required of a madcap farce like this, not helped by the primitive qualities of the early sound technology, and Dix seems rather awkward in this rare comic turn. The production is enlivened by some nice art deco set design, pre-code dialogue (by William Collier Sr.), and good supporting cast including Berton Churchill, Helen Kane, Wynne Gibson and Ned Sparks. Produced by Paramount at their Long Island Studio in New York.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Inner Sanctum (1948)

I'm a sucker for old time radio dramas, and one of my favorite of these is "Inner Sanctum". This film borrows only the title from the series; the story is an original, and while the premise -- about a man on the run after accidentally killing his girlfriend and hiding out in a boarding house that just happens to belong to the mother of the boy who witnessed the murder -- would have made an effective half hour episode, it loses tension and the suspense lags even with its short 62 minute running time.

The always-reliable Lew Landers brings his usual craftsmanship to the direction, which is unobtrusive but effective. Charles Russell and Mary Beth Hughes make for bland leads, with the best performances coming from the supporting cast which includes Nana Bryant, Lee Patrick, Billy House and Roscoe Ates (here minus his trademark stutter). An average little suspense thriller; fans should stick to the radio program.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Bohemian Girl (1936)

This comedy version of the Balfe opera starring Laurel and Hardy is not one of the team's best features, but is still quite enjoyable. By this point in their career, they had moved into making features exclusively, and producer Hal Roach was eager to repeat the success of THE DEVIL'S BROTHER from three years earlier by putting them into another lavishly-produced comic operetta.

The result is a funny if uneven film that, despite being based on an established stage property, is ultimately tailored as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy, and thus is mainly of interest to fans of the team. It follows the general story of the opera with the boys as the gypsies who raise a nobleman's kidnapped daughter as their own, but the comic scenes are for the most part isolated sharply from the main "plot" scenes. It's less a parody and more a straight telling of the story with the comedy sandwiched in.

While it is undoubtedly heavy on plot and music, Laurel and Hardy's scenes contain some excellent comic material. Highlights include the boys' attempt at telling fortunes, Oliver's altercations with shrewish wife Mae Busch, and Stan bottling wine and getting increasingly tipsy in the process (a particularly brilliant scene that ranks as one of Laurel's finest moments in any of their films). The funniest moment is also the simplest: Oliver sees Stan eating a banana and tells him to give him part of it, and Stan casually hands him the peel, which Oliver just tosses away with a resigned shrug. A little gag like that is all they need to reduce me to tears of laughter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bohemian Girl (1922)

British silent film adaptation of the Michael W. Balfe opera about the daughter of an Austrian nobleman -- kidnapped in childhood by gypsies -- who, unaware of her royal heritage, falls in love with a young renegade Polish soldier seeking refuge in the gypsies' band from her father's troops. Upon learning her true identity, the girl is torn between her noble background and her love for the young soldier. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Gladys Cooper, Ivor Novello, C. Aubrey Smith, Constance Collier, and celebrated English theater star Ellen Terry in a rare screen appearance.

Harley Knoles' direction is generally unremarkable, favoring wide, static compositions and flat lighting throughout, and relies too heavily on title cards to convey the plot. Still, it's undeniably an elaborately-produced film with its lavish period settings and costumes, and there is one camera move -- a high-angle tracking shot across the length of the ballroom set -- that stands out as a singularly impressive bit of technical flourish. It also reflects the international talent -- both in front of and behind the camera -- that English films of this period frequently employed, and stands as an interesting work in the all-too-often neglected history of British silent cinema. Interestingly, the assistant director was Josef von Sternberg, and it's tempting to consider what he could have done with the material if given the opportunity. Originally released at eight reels, surviving copies are missing the first two reels.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Just Imagine (1930)

Sci-fi musical comedy set in New York City of 1980, where citizens are identified only by their serial number and marriages are arranged by the state. Trying to describe the plot of this zany film is a bit complicated: it involves a young man, J-21 (John Garrick), who volunteers for an experimental mission to Mars after the court rejects his application to marry his true love, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan). But this set-up is just a pretense for a parade of bouncy Brown-DeSylva-Henderson tunes, neat retro special effects, pre-code sex jokes, and a chorus of scantily-clad Martian dancing girls.

There's also a visitor from the past (1930, that is) played by comedian El Brendel, who is brought back to life as part of a scientific experiment and then unceremoniously left to fend for himself as soon as the doctor is through with him, and one's enjoyment of the film may depend on one's tolerance for Brendel's vaudeville shtick delivered in his trademark "Swedish" accent, a little of which can go a long way. David Butler's direction keeps the show moving at a good pace, and the music numbers benefit from clever choreography by Seymour Felix. However, the main attraction here is the set design by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, a delirious blend of Art Deco and Futurism that is among the very best of its kind and recalls Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. Good, pre-code fun.

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

First of the "Philo Vance" screen adaptations, starring William Powell as S.S. Van Dine's suave, urbane sleuth as he uncovers the murderer of a blackmailing showgirl known as "The Canary". Originally made as a silent film and directed by Malcolm St. Clair, it was re-tooled as a talkie by Paramount, with some of the silent footage dubbed, and new scenes shot with synchronized sound by director Frank Tuttle. The result is a sometimes awkward and static hybrid that is nonetheless a solid and entertaining whodunit.

Powell's remarkably assured and comfortable performance in this early talkie demonstrates the qualities that would soon make him a major star, and he would go on to play Vance again in three more films. The supporting cast includes James Hall as a young man blackmailed by the scheming showgirl, Jean Arthur as his girlfriend, Ned Sparks as the showgirl's gangster husband, Eugene Pallette as sputtering Sgt. Heath, and silent screen icon Louise Brooks in a brief but memorable role as "The Canary" of the title.

Though Brooks filmed her scenes for the silent version, disagreements with Paramount caused her to refuse to come back to dub her lines, so her dialogue is instead spoken by Margaret Livingston. This was Brooks' final film before leaving for a brief but celebrated career in Germany, where she famously made two films with director G.W. Pabst. Though she would return shortly afterward, her career in Hollywood never recovered and she retired in 1938.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Black Hand (1906)

"Ripped from the headlines" crime drama about a group of extortionists who threaten to harm a local businessman's daughter unless he pays them off; when he refuses, they kidnap her and hold her for ransom until the police rescue her.

Photographed by Billy Bitzer with a documentary-like authenticity, especially in the kidnapping scene, which plays out in an extended long take as pedestrians move about in the background until the girl enters the shot and is whisked away by the gangsters in a waiting carriage. The action unfolds like a procedural, depicting in great detail the methods of the police to track and rescue the girl. The direction and photography maintain a realistic style throughout, though the scenes shot on painted sets lack the immediacy of the street scenes.

This was one of the many narrative films directed by Wallace McCutcheon for the Biograph company before Griffith's arrival, and a good argument could be made that it was he, rather than Porter, who played the more significant role in establishing storytelling approaches in early American cinema.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Jackie Brown (1997)

Probably my favorite Tarantino film. I didn't see this one until after I had seen the rest of his filmography, and had heard mixed reactions toward it even from confirmed Tarantino fans, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Coming between his earlier works and the KILL BILL films, it forgoes stylistic excess in favor of plot and character. Working from Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" as his source material, Tarantino creates an interesting cinematic pastiche borrowing from earlier crime dramas and the Blaxploitation genre, and deftly combines the two with his assured direction. Despite its 2 1/2 hour running time, it never lags and the suspenseful climax is particularly well-handled in being presented from the different perspectives of the characters involved.  Great cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda, among others. Reportedly Leonard's own favorite among the many film adaptations of his work.