Friday, December 24, 2010

Edison's "A Christmas Carol" (1910)

Produced in 1910, the Edison company’s version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the earliest adaptations of the classic holiday story, and demonstrates a high degree of production values, particularly in its use of double exposure to present the visions of Christmases past, present and yet to come. It was directed by J. Searle Dawley, one of the finest filmmakers working for Edison during this period (along with men like Wallace McCutcheon and John Collins). Marc McDermott turns in a very effective performance as Scrooge, predating Sir Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Kelsey Grammer and countless other screen Scrooges. He captures the character transformation remarkably well considering how heavily condensed this version of the story is. Charles Ogle, a staple of the Edison company during this period who would later turn in supporting performances in Paramount’s The Covered Wagon and The Ten Commandments (both 1923), does the most he can with his performance as Bob Cratchit, who only appears briefly in the beginning of the film, and then again in a flashback, before the final Christmas dinner sequence. Viola Dana, then a child actress with the Edison company, is also in the cast.

The events of the story are heavily condensed into the ten minutes’ running time, reflective of the way in which narrative films, even as late as 1910, continued to offer viewers a series of familiar tableaux from stories they would have already been familiar with from other media (either literary or theatrical sources, most often). From a narrative standpoint, there is little in the film that couldn’t have been done in 1903, when Edwin S. Porter was first expanding film narratives through the possibilities of editing. This is most evident in the cutaway shots to the carolers outside of Scrooge’s window.

The film opens as Scrooge is receiving “an appeal from the Charity Relief Committee”. The three men from the committee enter Scrooge’s office and are promptly turned away. Next, his nephew comes to wish him a merry Christmas, and is ordered out. Returning home that night, the face of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, appears superimposed over the front of his door. Marley’s ghost appears, warning Scrooge of “punishment hereafter unless he comes a different man”. The Spirit of Christmas appears, showing Scrooge his own youthful merrymaking; the family dinner of his employee Bob Cratchit, who offers “a toast to all the world – even Scrooge”; and finally, a frightening vision of his own death. He pleads with the spirit to allow him to change his ways. Awakening in his room, Scrooge is shaken, but is overjoyed to realize there’s still time to change his ways. He tosses a few shillings to some carolers outside his window, offers a generous donation to the members of the Charity Relief committee, gives his nephew his blessing for his forthcoming marriage, and finally, surprises the Cratchit family with a goose for Christmas dinner.

The Edison films of the latter half of the 1900s (particularly after Griffith’s directorial debut at Biograph) are too frequently criticized for their “primitive” or “stagy” qualities. Perhaps because Dickens’ story lends itself well to theatrical adaptation, the “proscenium framing” of this film does not cause it to suffer for a lack of cinematic flourish. The trick photography, including the superimposition of Marley’s face over Scrooge’s door, Marley’s Ghost and the Christmas Spirit, and of course the different visions of Christmas, all make effective use of double exposure. These effects are all the more remarkable for having been achieved in-camera, before the advent of optical printing. Dickens’ timeless tale is so moving, so essential to the spirit of Christmas, that even in this heavily abridged version, one cannot help being moved by Scrooge’s transformation, and the eagerness of those close to him to accept him and celebrate in his newfound joy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Red Spectre

THE RED SPECTRE is one of the most impressive trick films, co-produced by Segundo de Chomon and Ferdinand Zecca, in the early years of the 20th century. Released by Pathé and dating from 1908, the film is a visual feast of images that would become iconic in the horror film genre over the following years.

In a fiery pit, a coffin stands itself on end, from which emerges the horrific figure of the Red Spectre, a skeletal figure with horns and cape. The sight of the coffin standing itself on end immediately recalls some of the fantastic stop-motion shots in Muranau’s NOSFERATU. The sides of the cave open up, revealing a small stage area where the Red Spectre uses a wand to conjure up five beautiful women to dance for him. They suddenly transform into small balls of fire that dance through the air. Next, he conjures up two urns in which burn two great flames that are transformed into women. Covering the urns with black tarp, he lays one of the women out across the urns, wrapping her in the tarp. Finally, he causes her to levitate and then disappear. He does this with the second woman, as well.

For his next impressive trick, the Spectre brings out three glass jars on a table, close to the view of the camera, in which three small women appear. This recalls similar imagery in films like HOMUNCULUS and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Next, he brings out a small screen emblazoned with the Pathé cockerel, and as he slowly opens each portion of the screen, parts of the image of a woman holding a flower are revealed.

He then conjures up another screen showing three dancing women, then a closeup of one of the girls, and finally a grotesque comic couple in exaggerated makeup. After making the screen disappear completely, he begins stacking cube-shaped objects which arrange themselves into a stack against which is projected an image of a woman and a dog. Finally, he conjures up a whole chorus of dancing girls, one of whom he tries to lead away under his cape, but who turns the tables on him by pouring a jug of water on him, causing the Red Spectre to disintegrate. Standing over his skeleton, she takes his cape, putting it around herself, and descends into the fiery cave.

By 1908, trick filmmakers like de Chomon had discovered extremely sophisticated means of pulling off the kind of trick effects that impressed audiences so much. While technically a narrative film, compared with the narratives that were being told by films from the Edison Company in the US, for instance, THE RED SPECTRE hearkens back to the Melies tradition of spectacle. Pathé, of course, was known for the high quality of its trick films, and this is perhaps the finest example. Although by 1908 the rise of Nickelodeons in the US provided a place for films to be shown along with other films in a single sitting, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a film like this one being shown in a tent at a carnival or fairground. Certainly in Europe, where the choice of screening venues of films remained a bit more diverse throughout the first decade of the 20th century, it’s not at all difficult to imagine this film as just one more part of an evening’s entertainment; visitors to a fair-ground moving from one show to the other, perhaps a live performer, followed by a ride, followed by this incredible piece of visual trickery – all part of the larger visual arts canvas open to audiences of a century ago.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

David Lean's BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1946)

BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the most erotic movie ever made.

From the opening shot, with a train shooting along the express track of a nocturnal station, smoke billowing from its stack against a stark, black-and-white background, accompanied by the low, rhythmic piano and lush strings of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto no. 2 in C Minor”, David Lean’s artistry with images and Noel Coward’s artistry with words form one of the most incredibly passionate films in the history of the form.

The affair between Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) has ten times the amount of sexual energy than any of Hollywood’s empty “romantic” pictures of the last several decades, and of course is far more moving and powerful than any pornography ever could be. By what it doesn’t show, so perfectly internalized in the brilliant monologues delivered by Celia Johnson, the film manages to evoke all of the emotions, frustrations and endless regrets of unrequited love.

The supporting characters are necessarily somewhat limited to “types” due to the scope of the film, which focuses far more on its two main characters, but these supporting characters are remarkably effective and involving, particularly the working class couple played by Joyce Carey and the brilliant Stanley Holloway (two decades before immortalizing himself in the role of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady).

It is perhaps a tribute to Lean’s skill as an editor that he manages to compress time so effectively and efficiently in this film. Although it depicts events that occur over the span of several weeks, Lean only shows what is absolutely necessary before moving on. At 86 minutes, it’s a briskly- but perfectly-paced film, never feeling rushed. The unique flashback structure is an effective means of arranging time within the film, and the voice-over, always a difficult technique, is used creatively enough to bring us into the minds of the Laura character, without ever feeling convenient or lazy as screenwriting.

Robert Krasker’s cinematography combines the Expressionist noir aesthetic so common of the period, but grants it a kind of soft-edged beauty that distances us from the usual, dark connotations of such high-contrast lighting. What it does retain, however, is the anxiety associated with Expressionist technique. The use of Rachmaninoff’s music is a brilliant artistic decision, creative and influential in its way as any film soundtrack featuring pre-existing, recognizable songs. The film seems to have been a fairly significant influence on Billy Wilder, who used Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto” for comic but instantly recognizable effect in his film of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Intriguingly, Wilder also commented on one of the most ambiguous parts of the film, that in which Alec brings Laura to the apartment of a friend for an illicit tryst, but is interrupted when the friend returns home early. This character so intrigued Wilder that he even wrote down an idea for a script based on this character: “Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers”, which eventually became THE APARTMENT in 1960.

There are few other films that reach the levels of conceptual and artistic perfection as that of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It is quite possibly the most powerful emotional experience ever committed to film.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Mysterious Cafe (1900)

THE MYSTERIOUS CAFE is one of the Edison company’s rare forays into the “trick film”, at least before Porter joined the company. The set-up is quite simple: a comic, elderly couple (referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Spoopendyke in Edison promotional materials) enter a café, taking their seat at a table. The woman goes to take her seat when the chair disappears out from under her, causing her to land on the ground. The re-appears on top of the table, and when the man goes ot help his wife up, she disappears and immediately re-appears seated on the chair atop the table. Leaning against the table, it disappears out from underneath them, causing them to come crashing to the ground. More frantic scrambling ensues as the man, wife, and chairs continue to disappear and re-appear in various positions, with comic chaos ensuing. When they’ve finally had enough, they beat the poor waiter with an umbrella before wrapping him in the tablecloth and beating him further.

Dating from 1900, the film presents a very rudimentary narrative, of the kind that could have been found in a vaudeville sketch. The film adheres to the “proscenium framing” so common of the period, but differs in that it employs a significant amount of editing to achieve its trick effects. However, unlike the effects being employed by people like Melies and de Chomon in France at the same time, the effects in THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ are quite crude, and shatter the illusion of magic that the French trick films were able to create through careful planning and precise cutting. Also, the film devolves into roughhouse slapstick toward the end, and ends without a neat-wrap up.

While the Edison catalogue description promises that the film is “sure to provoke much merriment”, it lacks the light, whimsical charm of the French trick films that make those films such a wonder and a delight more than a century after they were made. Blackton and Smith reveled in film’s fantastic properties; in addition to making a number of trick films, they also re-created news events of the period using a series of simple yet ingenious tricks that managed to fool audiences of the time into believing what they were seeing was real. This film uses stock characters – American vaudeville archetypes – and combines them with the aesthetic of the French trick film with mixed results. Watching it, one cannot help thinking of Kevin Brownlow’s point that American films tended to appear drab and rather uninspired in comparison with their European counterparts. When Edwin S. Porter began making films for Edison, he was able to integrate the trick effects more successfully, particularly with the delightful DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906), which ranks with the best of Melies and de Chomon’s work in terms of technical effects if not pure whimsy and a sense of the pre-war innocence and fun that those French trick films convey so well. Perhaps the criticism of THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ boils down to the fact that it feels more like a clear imitation rather than a first-rate work of cinematic inventiveness.

The film itself was shot sometime between June 1899 and September 1900. Although it was released through Edison, the filming took place at the roof-top Vitagraph studio in Manhattan that was being employed by filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton and Alfred E. Smith during this period (before the Edison company opened its studio in the Bronx in 1904).

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Recent Trends in DeMille Scholarship

In a recent paper tracing the critical and public response to Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 film, THE CHEAT, I attempted to establish a connection between the promotion and publicity of that film by the Lasky Feature Play Co., and the emergence of DeMille as a cinema showman and "name" director. By examining period reviews, publicity items and promotional art, it became clear that DeMille's "Modern Drama" was a turning point in the director's career, one which would take him to unprecedented levels of recognition for a director.

It's always interesting to trace the reception of DeMille's work and of DeMille's image as a major Hollywood filmmaker, arguably its first "superstar" director. With the amount of film scholarship written on DeMille in recent years, it's worth revisiting some of the recent trends in this writing as to how DeMille and his status in the Hollywood film industry is represented. I will be presenting responses to a number of critical evaluations of DeMille's work, including Bob Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood and Scott Eyman's Empire of Dreams.

I wrote the following piece on April 21, 2008, in response to a book review by Richard Schickel that appeared in the previous day's edition of the LA Times. Schickel was ostensibly reviewing Simon Louvish's Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art, but in the process, revealed far more about his own prejudices toward DeMille's complex, often contradictory body of work:

The problem that any critic faces in attempting an objective evaluation of DeMille's work is that it's nearly impossible to sort out the political and popular baggage that his carries, just as it is almost impossible to attempt objective criticism of Steven Spielberg, or even Hitchcock and Kubrick. Their names alone evoke many pre-conceived ideas that make it difficult to step back and look at the films on an individual basis.

My response is not so much to the Louvish book (which I have not yet read), 
but rather to Schickel's condescending review of the book, in which he trots 
out a parade of tired cliches and criticisms about DeMille that are hard to 
support when one actually takes the time to watch his films. Louvish is not one of my favorite writers, but he does write with enthusiasm about his 
subjects, and I applaud him for tackling the vast career of Cecil B. 
DeMille, one of the most spectacular figures to ever work in the medium. I would disagree that DeMille "lost whatever claim to artistry he might have 
made" when he turned to the spectacle film. Although he didn't become 
associated with spectacle until at least "The Ten Commandments" and "The 
King of Kings", and more fully with his sound-era historical epics, 
DeMille's work was rooted in Victorian theatre where he had his first stage experience. As for the image that DeMille perpetuated on and off the set, it 
was merely a continuation of the showmanship that was an essential part of 
Victorian spectacle (and, specifically, the work of DeMille's mentor, 
producer David Belasco). Far from being a joke in the industry, DeMille was 
one of its supreme masters, dating back to even his very first works. 
Perhaps even before Griffith, DeMille was recognized for his groundbreaking 
skill (granted, some of this may have been due to this theatrical 
background). "The Squaw Man", "The Cheat", "Joan the Woman" and a number of 
his other films from this period stand out among the works being done by 
other directors.

When Schickel talks about DeMille being "laughed at" behind his back, he is, 
of course, projecting his own superior attitudes toward DeMille's 
undoubtedly old-fashioned but immensely successful popular spectacle. This 
kind of thinking is what is precisely tired and worn-out. The DeMille model 
is still alive and well in today's spectacle, only it isn't being done as 
well anymore precisely because today's filmmakers are afraid to go to the 
lengths that DeMille was willing to in order to create the largest scale 
possible. Today's CGI-models and non-entity performers cannot compete with 
the scale sets and larger-than-life performances that DeMille offered, no 
matter how hard they try. It's easy for Schickel to take this dismissive 
tone toward DeMille's work, but ultimately, I think, too easy. DeMille's 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments" stills draws 'em in every year 
when it is shown on TV. I popped in my DVD of "Unconquered" several months ago, just to check 
out the image quality, and instead of just watching a few minutes, I 
immediately put aside my plansfor the evening and watched the entire 2 1/2 
hour film, as I could quite literally not tear myself away from the spectacle and 
adventure of it all. My favorite period of DeMille's work is his American history cycle from 1937-1952, in which he tackles the American West, the 
building of the railroad, World War II, and even the American Circus in "The 
Greatest Show on Earth", possibly the most clear continuation of Victorian 
spectacle that directly paralleled DeMille's work in cinema. Rather than describe DeMille's films as "elephantine works crumbling in the 
desert", Schickel should instead see that DeMille is more relevant than 
ever. He bridged the artistry of filmmaking combined with popular appeal to 
create grand spectacle of the highest order.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947)

Few films seem to draw as sharply divided a reaction from viewers as black comedies, and this offering into the genre from Charlie Chaplin in 1947 is no exception. Watching it again, I was reminded just what a profoundly depressing film it is in many ways. Most black comedies "cop out" at the last minute by suggesting that it's only a movie, or some other device to provide an upbeat ending.

Not so with "Monsieur Verdoux".

Subtitled "a comedy of murders" and based on an idea by Orson Welles, who had suggested to Chaplin the possibility of doing a black comedy about Landru, the bluebeard serial killer, "Verdoux" was an extension of the ideas that Chaplin had explored in "The Great Dictator". The difference is that his 1940 satire on fascism was still recognizably a comedy, for all intents and purposes, despite some serious moments and a heavy-handed speech at the end. To make the subject more palatable, Chaplin wisely kept out the most gruesome aspects of the events he was dealing with (and to be fair, Chaplin later admitted to not being fully aware of the horrors taking place in concentration camps at the time).

With "Monsieur Verdoux", he explores everything from the Depression, to the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, and-as if this wasn't enough-hints at future Cold War conflicts! The film is Chaplin's most biting social indictment, and especially in its second half, is a relentlessly depressing and harrowing look at a man who has lost everything, including perhaps his sanity.

The film was attacked mercilessly by critics when it was released in 1947, but in the coming years came to be seen as something of a masterpiece. I would argue that it remains the one true masterpiece of Chaplin's sound period. (Bosley Crowther famously flip-flopped on his opinion of the film, dismissing it out of hand in 1947 but hailing it as one of the finest films ever made by the time it was re-released in 1964, and it included it in his book of the fifty great films in 1967).

Interestingly, despite its subject matter, the film is quite Chaplinesque. He gets to engage in playing many different identities, the kind of charade he engaged in since the Keystone days in films like "Caught in a Cabaret". The many moments of social critique can be traced to threads running throughout Chaplin's work at least going back to the comedy of class difference in "His Musical Career", and more explicitly in his 1917 Mutual comedy "The Immigrant", with its famous shot of immigrants being roped off like cattle.

One of the most brilliant aspects of the film is in the casting, especially Martha Raye as the blissfully ignorant Annabella Bonheur. At this stage of his filmmaking career, Chaplin had a knack for taking popular comics and giving them roles they could really sink their teeth into. In "The Great Dictator", for instance, Chaplin notably shared the screen with Jack Oakie, who had the role of his career as dictator Benzino Napaloni. In "Verdoux", Martha Raye is given the role she was born to play, and does so to perfection. There are those who claim that Chaplin was so concerned with his own image as a performer that he preferred to play opposite less experienced players who wouldn't upstage him. In this case, Raye proves a marvelous comic foil, and remains one of the most memorable aspects of the film.

Coming in 1947, "Monsieur Verdoux" must have seemed an absolutely terrifying film to audiences. After more than 15 years of Depression and war, audiences surely wanted to hope that it was all over, but Chaplin ends the film by almost implying that "you ain't seen nothing yet". It's no wonder the film was poorly received on initial release, especially considering the additional baggage of the Joan Barry scandal that Chaplin had just come out of. Such a bleak and cynical film would hardly be a big box office draw in any case, especially in 1940s Hollywood, but that just makes one appreciate all the more what a bold and masterful film it is.

It is one of Chaplin's most perfectly timed comedies, though, and some of the sequences are still hilarious despite their dark context. The wedding party scene, for instance, is an expertly timed piece of comedy, and all the players work in perfect rhythm with Chaplin's performance. As mentioned above, the scenes with Martha Raye are absolutely brilliant, particularly the one in which Chaplin attempts to murder her while out fishing on a boat. Watching Chaplin play Verdoux and his various aliases so perfectly, one realizes he truly was the most versatile of the "big three" silent clowns.

It is interesting to note that, this time around, Chaplin avoided using any of his old, "familiar" stock company-guys like Chester Conklin, or Hank Mann, or Henry Bergman (whom Chaplin had considered casting, but decided against because of the actor's poor health. Bergman died before the film was completed, but reportedly predicted it would be a failure). Chaplin's half-brother Wheeler Dryden turns up as a salesman, trying to sell Raye on the idea of investing in an apparatus that turns salt water into gasoline. And supposedly, among the wedding guests, is Tom Wilson, whose career with Chaplin went back to 1918, but I've never been able to spot him. (There is also a persistent rumor that Edna Purviance appears in the wedding scene as an extra, having been turned down for the role of Madame Grosnay which ended up going to Isabel Elsom, but there is no concrete evidence as to whether or not she appears in the scene).

If "Monsieur Verdoux" is a masterpiece, it's not always an easy film for viewers to accept. Aside from the difficulty of watching Chaplin play such a dark character, its bitter and depressing tone can be difficult to take. It is, however, a supreme example of black comedy, and one of the few such films that really goes all the way.

Added 1/10/15: This really is Chaplin's most accomplished talkie, even if there is a drastic shift in tone during the final moments. I found myself deeply moved by the scenes between Chaplin and Marilyn Nash, especially when he invites her to his home as a test case for his traceless poison and has a change of heart after hearing about her devotion to her dead husband. There is a quiet tenderness to this scene that ranks among the best moments in any of Chaplin's films.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"So's Your Old Man" (1926)

For many years, "So's Your Old Man" was one of the hardest W.C. Fields films to see (when I inquired about it on an online newsgroup in 2000, I was informed that only a single print of it existed in the Library of Congress). Apparently the film was recently restored by the LOC, and within the last year, it has been making the rounds at a couple venues, including the W.C. Fields exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I was able to catch a screening of it at Film Forum, where it was shown in a pristine 35mm print (looking as good as it must have back in 1926!) and accompanied with a live piano score by Steve Sterner. It was shown as part of the "Hollywood on the Hudson" series, showcasing films made in the New York and New Jersey areas.

What's remarkable is just how closely the film was remade by Fields in 1934, as "You're Telling Me". This silent film suffers in parts, as many late-silents do, by being a film that practically cries out for dialogue. This isn't even necessarily the case with Fields himself, but rather the expository scenes that rely heavily on dialogue to set up key plot points (there are several scenes that seem to go on too long, with the actors even talking to eachother in shot/reverse shot!) This tendency mars a lot of late-silents for me (Milestone's "The Racket" being another key example), and it's interesting to note that the 1934 sound remake might even be a more visual film than this one!

The premise is rather complicated: Sam Bisbee (Fields), a crackpot inventor, has perfected his latest wonder: a shatter-proof windshield. His daughter (Kittens Reichert) is engaged to be married to Robert Murchison (Charles "Buddy" Rogers, a year before his breakthrough performance in "Wings"). Mrs. Murchison (Julia Ralph) comes to call on Mrs. Bisbee (Marcia Harris, in a really funny performance) and is horrified when she meets her bumbling, coarse husband. The engagement is called off, and Bisbee heads off for Washington DC to make good by selling his shatter-proof glass to an auto company.

Once there, he proceeds to create disaster when his car is moved from the no-parking zone without his knowledge, and he proceeds to hurl bricks at the windows of an identical car that has parked nearby. With the police, and two angry auto owners, out to get him, Bisbee takes off and catches the train home. While on the train, he attempts to commit suicide, but fails repeatedly. This is one of the best-played scenes in the picture, with Fields reactions to his fellow traveler shaving with a dangerously sharp razor being some of the funniest moments in the film. On the same train is Princess Lescaboura of Spain, whom Bisbee meets when he believes she, too, is about to commit suicide. After talking her out of it, and explaining his own problems to her, she decides to help him by showing up in his hometown and restoring his standing in the community, saving the day for Fields' business deal as well as securing the happiness of his daughter.

Now comes the film's best scene: the golf tournament. This routine was filmed two other times by Fields, once in 1930 as "The Golf Specialist" (in which Al Wood played the caddy) and again in "You're Telling Me", this time with the great Tammany Young as his stooge. Here, though, Fields plays the scene with William "Shorty" Blanche, who'd appeared with Fields onstage in the sketch from which this scene was taken, and it's a real treat to see the two perform together. The scene works surprisingly well in the silent film format, and in some ways works even better because of the heightened emphasis on the visual nature of the scene, although one does miss Fields' muttering as he struggles with every conceivable obstacle.

The final scene, which was repeated in "You're Telling Me" and was later copied by Rodney Dangerfield in "Easy Money", has Fields bidding farewell to his family, who now look up to him as something of a hero, then sneaking off to the garage for a drink with his buddies. It's a delightfully satisfying conclusion to the film, and neatly wraps up this little comedy of wish-fulfillment very nicely.

This film was directed by the talented comedy director Gregory LaCava, a good personal friend of Fields'. It's tempting to view the film in light of the 1934 remake, because that version is one of Fields' best vehicles from that period, and works very creatively with sound in a number of scenes, including the shaving scene on the train, and the final golf tournament. Interestingly, one of the best scenes from the "You're Telling Me" that is totally absent from "So's Your Old Man" is the opening sequence in which Fields comes home, drunk, and uses one of his inventions to guide his key into the keyhole. This is a purely visual scene that would have worked well in a silent comedy, but it only goes to show the ways in which Fields was continually adapting and maturing his own cinematic style over the years. Even though Fields never took directing credit, he was heavily involved in all aspects of the construction of his films, and it's not an exaggeration to say that Fields' films improved as he had the opportunity to develop and expand on ideas he'd worked with before. A minor difference, too, is that in the remake, Fields' invention becomes puncture-proof tires rather than the shatter-proof windshields of the original. Another difference is in the pet that Fields picks out to bring home to his wife as a peace offering: in this film, it's a pony; in the remake, it's an ostrich. Frankly, the ostrich is much funnier, and the scene where Fields and the ostrich both bury their heads in the ground works much better than the scene in this film in which he and the pony munch on grass. One other delightful bit that is present in the remake, but not the original, is another highly visual scene in which Fields rolls a tire along the sidewalk, followed by a bunch of neighborhood kids. It's a fun, spontaneous kind of scene that adds a real dimension of sympathy to Fields' character.

It's perhaps unfair, though, to criticize any aspect of this film in relation to its sound remake. As a piece of silent comedy, it alternates between good moments of visual and physical humor (and Fields was still quite capable of rough physical comedy at this point in his career) and scenes that go on just a bit too long without the aid of spoken expository dialogue.

In "The Silent Clowns", Walter Kerr discusses Fields under his chapter on "The Demiclowns". He points to a key problem with Fields' work in silent films when he notes that "the comedian could not become whole-or a star of the first magnitude-until the visual and the verbal in him stopped interrupting each other, ceased occupying separate frames" (Kerr, 295). Fields may not have been an inherently silent comedian like Chaplin or Keaton, but his unique style of comedy was visual enough that many of his best sequences work in silence, such as the golf routine here, or the sleeping porch sequence in "It's the Old Army Game" (also 1926).

If Fields' comic persona only became whole with the added dynamic of sound, it could be said that Fields' whole cinematic art only achieved its mature style with sound, too. His silent comedies are delightful films in their own right, however, and "So's Your Old Man" works as a real crowd-pleaser, if tonight's screening at Film Forum is any indication. It was a rare treat to see America's greatest screen humorist in a tailor-made vehicle, in a splendid print with an appreciative audience.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chaplin, Carl Davis and the Movies

On a warm summer night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I had the pleasure of watching Carl Davis conduct his scores for three Chaplin Mutual comedies on a giant, outdoor screen at the bandshell, accompanied by the full sounds of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Hearing Carl Davis' music performed live, and conducted by the maestro himself, was quite possibly the greatest thrill of my life. Added to this was the fact that the performance had a huge turnout, with a large, receptive audience - perfect for the three Chaplin comedies.

The evening began at 6:30 as the gates to the bandshell were opened, and we were fortunate enough to get good seats about two rows from the front. The show itself began at 7:30, with an hour-long performance by the Two Man Gentlemen Band, a novelty act featuring banjo and upright bass. This was a fun prelude to the main attraction to follow.

Following a brief intermission, it was the perfect time of the evening to start the film program. At dusk, the giant screen was rolled down, and the hosts from Celebrate Brooklyn!, the organization who puts on this series, introduced Carl Davis.

Davis introduced each film, and there was an absolute sense of magic in watching this brilliant composer, whose scores were the very first that I ever heard accompany silent films, as he led the Brooklyn Philharmonic in accompanying these brilliant comedies. I first became acquainted with Davis' music through his arrangement of the Rimsky-Korsakov "Scheherazade" for Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad". Although I was only 8 years when I first heard this score, its impact on my interest in silent film was indescribable. Even more influential was the mammoth "Hollywood" series, for which Davis provided many, many musical cues, including the hauntingly beautiful theme song. It's not an exaggeration to say that Davis was one of the most profoundly influential individuals on my entire life and work.

This brings me to perhaps the best part of the evening. As the third film began, Chaplin's "Behind the Screen", set at a Hollywood movie studio, Davis' score began with that immediately recognizable "Hollywood" theme. Sitting there, watching him conduct that piece live, brought tears to me eyes and reminded me of all the reasons why I love film, why I'm here in New York, why I've pursued this passion so relentlessly for the last 18 years of my life. Hearing it brought everything into a kind of immediate, crystal clear perspective that I'm really grateful for.

The films themselves went over great with the audience, especially "One AM". This copy even included the "mountain climbing" sequence, in which the intoxicated Charlie dons a Swiss mountain climber's get-up and uses a ski and pick-ax to make his way up the staircase. It's always wonderful to see films like that with an audience.

One moment summed up the entire evening perfectly. A friend, whom I had invited to the screening, and who had not yet seen a silent film all the way through, leaned over to me, during the scene in "One AM" in which Charlie is running in place on a rotating table, and whispered in my ear, "this is amazing!"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"The Circus"

In the vast body of brilliant comic work created by Charlie Chaplin, "The Circus" holds a somewhat uncertain place, coming as it does between two his towering masterworks ("The Gold Rush" and "City Lights"), and being viewed by some as a trifle, lacking the big, epic themes and emotional punch of his best work.

Rather than seeing these as flaws, I would instead place "The Circus" among Chaplin's funniest films, though not necessarily one of his best. Watching the film again, it does have several major flaws that, while hardly detracting from the humor, do keep it from reaching the heights of his best work.

To begin with what works, it should be noted upfront that "The Circus" opens with what is arguably Chaplin's most clever and funny opening scene with the exception of the assembly-line sequence in "Modern Times". We first see the Tramp, "hungry and broke", hanging around the midway. After an altercation with a pickpocket, during which Charlie temporarily ends up with a newfound wallet and pocket-watch, police give chase, and everyone finds themselves in a fun house, with its amazing mirror maze sequence (which clearly inspired the finale of Orson Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai").

This sequence is so much fun that it's almost a disappointment when it ends. Thankfully, the rest of the films maintains the fast pace of the gags.

The film works quite well up until the point where Chaplin introduces a rival for the affection of the girl. Rex, the tightrope walker (Harry Crocker, Chaplin's assistant director) is a bland and lifeless character, which I suppose is part of the point, except that the audience is asked to cheer when he ends up with the girl at the end of the film! What's worse is the way Chaplin milks totally unnecessary sympathy for his character at the end, by turning him, quite pointlessly, into a martyr. It makes for a powerful ending shot (the Tramp wistfully kicks away the tattered remains of the circus hoop and walks off into the dawn sunrise), but it's a rather cheap emotion that feels as forced as any happy ending. For a really thorough discussion of this aspect of the film, see Lloyd Fonvielle's essay on it, "The Circus".

There's also a rather odd plot point-which others have pointed out-that is never satisfactorily resolved in the scene when Rex fails to report for work and Charlie has to take his place on the tightrope-where was his character that evening, and why does it not seem to cause any repercussions for him when he returns the next night? Again, it's a forced incident to move the plot along, but hurts the sense of consistency in the characters and narrative.

I suppose if I seem like I'm dwelling on the film's flaws, it's only because I've been so vocal in my praise for what works in the film in the past. It is a very, very funny comedy, with some wonderful recurring gags (the donkey that chases Charlie hither and yon through the circus grounds, the botched magician's routine, and my personal favorite, the audition scene, in which Charlie is instructed to "go ahead and be funny").

The film can also be seen as Chaplin's exploring some theories of comedy; problem is, they're all so wildly inconsistent that trying to extract some idea as to his actual theories on comedy from the film are impossible. He suggests, on the one hand, that good comedy is "accidental" and can't be worked at, which is total nonsense given his working methods. Then, it's suggested (once he finds himself dejected over the rivalry for the girl's attention), that you can't be funny if you're feeling depressed, which certainly doesn't hold up considering that Chaplin produced this, one of his sheer funniest films, during what was undoubtedly the most stressful and upsetting period of his life. So unfortunately, one can't really take away from the film any of Chaplin's actual thoughts on the art of comedy.

Seeing the film in 35mm (a sparkling new print, thankfully) at Film Forum was a great way to gauge how the film plays with an audience. Unfortunately, the audience I saw the film with didn't quite seem to know how to behave at a silent film, with a quiet chatter running for much of the film's duration, almost as if certain viewers were mistaken in thinking that a silent film needs some kind of running commentary. Chaplin's scores for both films work quite effectively. In fact, I marveled at his ability to write full orchestral scores that manage to stay completely in the "background" and never really call attention to themselves (the vocal title tune of "The Circus" notwithstanding).

This was even more distracting in the short that preceded the film, "The Idle Class". I'm not a big fan of the Chaplin First Nationals, but this film contains some delightful sight gags, especially the moment when Chaplin, as the wealthy idler, walks into the hotel lobby without his pants, and is forced to seek refuge in a phone booth. One of the stronger First Nationals, this one was marred by the stretch-printing that Chaplin employed for the 1971 re-release. Unfortunately, the Film Forum is running the "daddy" versions. For those unfamiliar, those are the versions of the films Chaplin prepared in the 1970s for re-release, and which are viewed by his estate as his "final word" on how these films should be seen. Some of the films suffer worse from others ("The Kid" loses a full reel). "The Circus" is fully intact; the major change being the title song that Chaplin composed and sings himself. It's a pleasant song, but it can be difficult to reconcile some of the decisions that Chaplin made in altering his work to make it more palatable to 1970s audiences.

All in all, "The Circus" demands attention within the body of work created by Chaplin, even if it doesn't necessarily hold up as one of his finest achievements. It's one of his most frustrating works, in some ways, because it is so clever, so funny, that one wishes the narrative elements could have come together stronger to make it one of his masterworks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mr. Flip

Ben Turpin is one of the iconic figures of silent comedy, immediately recognizable by his crossed eyes and brush mustache. He had one of the longest careers of any of the silent clowns, dating back to 1907, and lasting until his death in 1940 (his final appearance was in Laurel and Hardy’s “Saps at Sea”, in which he played the cross-eyed plumber who can’t understand why all of the faucets in Oliver Hardy’s apartment are performing the opposite functions!) Turpin’s star really began to rise after he was paired with Charlie Chaplin in the first two comedies Chaplin made for the Essanay company in 1915. Turpin worked most memorably for Mack Sennett’s studio, where he appeared in a series of parodies of popular dramatic films of the day.

Turpin’s career began at the Essanay studio in Chicago. He worked as a janitor at the studio as well as performing in comedies. One of his earliest efforts is “Mr. Flip”, from 1909, in which he plays an obnoxious man who pesters every woman he comes in contact with. It’s a crude comedy, to be sure, but also possesses a certain charm in its simplicity and good-natured gagging.

The film opens with Turpin, appearing quite dapper with a boutonniere and straw hat, as he enters a shop. He immediately begins flirting with the female clerk, and she resists his effort until a moving man comes by with a dolly cart which he uses to carry Turpin out of the scene. Next, he enters a manicurist’s shop, and after flirting with one of the manicurists, the other puts a pair of scissors up through the bottom of his chair, which he sits down on, causing him to jump up in pain and flee the scene. There is an interesting moment of a close-up insert shot when we see the second manicurist inserting the sharp end of the scissors up through the bottom of the chair. Turpin goes on to flirt with a telephone operator, hair dresser, waitress, and finally a bakery clerk, who throws a pie into Turpin’s face!

“Mr. Flip” is an interesting, early screen comedy, predating the Keystone comedies as well as those of Chaplin. The closing “pie-in-the-face” gag is the earliest one I have yet identified in watching many of the early comedies. What is perhaps most interesting about the film, at least from a formal standpoint, is that it is shot in wide proscenium-style shots that capture the entire scene, which was certainly the prevailing style at the time. It’s worth comparing this with the editing of the Keystone comedies, which increased the pace of the shots greatly. Turpin’s style of comedy, crude and largely physical, would be quite influential in the comedy styles that would emerge in the coming decade.

Although Turpin never quite achieved the status of such leading clowns as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, he remains an important figure in screen comedy, particularly for his work in the early years of the medium.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce (1900)

One of the many pre-“Great Train Robbery” narrative films in American cinema, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” (Edison, 1900) is interesting because of how it handles its entire narrative within a single shot; in this case, it’s a proscenium-style wide shot that encompasses all of the characters and action within the frame.

The film takes place in a kitchen, where a maid and a young boy are preparing dinner. The maid is kneading flour into dough, when the husband of the house enters. The boy, hiding behind the wall in the adjoining room, observes the husband and the maid flirting, as the maid embraces him. The husband’s back is turned to the camera just enough so that the viewer sees the maid’s flour-covered hand prints on his back. She goes back to kneading the dough as the boy exits through the front door, calling his mother in, presumably to inform her of what he has observed. The wife scolds the maid, then confronts her husband, who protests her accusations until she points out the hand prints on his back. The husband gets down on his knee to beg forgiveness, but the wife picks up the bowl of flour from the table and proceeds to dump it on her husband’s head! The husband flees, and the wife grabs the maid, ejecting her through the front door and knocking over the kitchen table in the process. The wife exits the scene through the front door as the film comes to an end.

This final action is interesting, because it conforms to the convention of many of these early narrative films that the characters must exit the frame at the end. Having characters forcibly ejected by being thrown, kicked or pushed out of the scene was a common technique. In this case, even though there is no narrative logic for the wife to exit the scene, she does so anyway in order to provide closure to this short sketch. The film itself is a kind of farce comedy, as evidenced by the description in the Edison rental catalog, which describes it as “a very funny picture” ( It is a domestic comedy, the type of which would later be made especially popular by the Vitagraph company, and the type of which would also serve as a basis for the plots of a number of American slapstick comedies, especially those produced by the Keystone company. In this sense, the film can be seen as influential in its own way, establishing a kind of screen comedy that would go on to have a very long life in the cinema.

Although far from the complex narratives that would appear even just a few years later, especially in the films of Edwin S. Porter, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” is still a good example of early storytelling in the cinema. This film was part of a larger series of films revolving around the “Jones” character. James White served as producer, which at that time was really an all-round description of the film’s maker. This series, which dates back to 1899, is evidence of the popularity for telling stories even in this earliest period.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Edwin S. Porter made a number of films that bridged both the “actualitie” and “narrative” approaches. Working for the Edison company, he is often recognized as the pioneer of narrative storytelling in American cinema, with films like “The Great Train Robbery” and “Life of an American Fireman” (both 1903) serving as the models from which longer, more complex narrative films emerged in the coming decade. The narrative approaches in these films, however, can be traced back to the work being done by the British filmmakers, particularly of the “Brighton school”, in films such as “Daring Daylight Burglary” and “Fire!”

One of Porter’s most interesting works, from a purely formal standpoint, is a film that borrows from another tradition-the trick films of Melies, de Chomon and Zecca. “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”, from 1906, is a film that, in many ways, typifies the kind of borrowing that was taking place during this time in the development of new cinematic techniques and styles. Porter may have been borrowing, but he was certainly borrowing from the best. This film provides an interesting glimpse at a “road not taken” in the cinema, for within just a couple years, D.W. Griffith and other filmmakers would be shaping the medium to an even more narrative-centered approach that left films like “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” appearing to embrace a nearly surrealistic sensibility. It borrowed from the comic strip panels of Winsor McCay, and blended this with the narrative influence of the British, and the formal innovations of the trick film pioneered in France and Britain.

The film opens with an elegant, top-hatted gentleman (dressed all in white), sitting at a table in a restaurant and stuffing his mouth with large portions of Welsh rarebit. He drinks glass after glass of wine from the bottle sitting at the right of the table, and eventually takes a drink of water, which he promptly spits out. Taking another drink of wine, he helps himself to more rarebit, slopping it onto his plate then eventually lapping it up right off the serving ladle. He shovels the last of it into his mouth and takes one last drink of wine. The framing of the medium shot gives the viewer all the information they need, and avoids cutting in for close-ups or anything that would disrupt the flow of the action. Porter holds this medium shot for the duration of the scene, and it works effectively by focusing on the grotesque, exaggerated comic performance aspects.

The next shot finds the man leaving the restaurant at dark, and stumbling down the staircase, obviously a little the worse for wear. This shot gives way to a second shot, in which a lamppost is seen swinging back and forth like a pendulum. On top of this is superimposed a shot of the city streets spinning around. The gentleman stumbles into the frame, making his way to this swinging lamppost and trying to clutch on for dear life as he falls and stumbles about. He waves his handkerchief around frantically, calling for help. A passing policeman hauls him offscreen. This scene is remarkable for the amount of motion that Porter manages to suggest by having the superimposed elements working together. Although presented as a long shot of the lamppost (which allows the viewer to enjoy the physical humor and trick effects without interruption), the scene itself is made up of two separate composite elements which add greatly to the illusion of the hallucinations being experienced by the gentleman.

The next scene is again framed as a long shot of the room, although this time, the camera placement is at a diagonal that allows the corner of the room to serve as a focal point in the middle of the screen. The gentleman, arriving home, stumbles tipsily around his bedroom. The character leaves the shot twice during the course of this scene, with suggested action taking place off-screen. The first instance is when he exits, dressed in his top hat and tails, and returns, dressed in his pajamas. The second instance occurs right after he has gotten into bed and, unable to settle down, exits, and returns with a handkerchief tied around his face.

Porter continues holding this long shot as the next part of the scene begins. First, the man’s shoes are seen to move off-screen. He sits up, looking at this occurrence, perplexed. This is followed by even more unusual happenings-the furniture in the room moves about the frame and finally disappears, courtesy of trick photography. Puzzled, the man looks about the room, then lies back down to go to sleep.

Now, Porter cuts in for a closeup. The man is seen lying in bed, asleep, his head resting on the pillow. Above his head are superimposed different visions that are haunting him: a pot of Welsh rarebit, out of which pop three little demons carrying a pick-ax, a hammer, and a pitchfork, which they use to pound away at the head of the sleeping man, who reacts in pain. Awaking in panic, the vision disappears, but the man pulls the sheet over his head to try to escape the hallucinations. Porter very economically uses the framing of the close-up as a way to capture both the man’s pained physical reactions, and to allow for the use of double-exposure to create the illusion of the demons who are haunting his sleep.

The next shot reverts to the exact same set-up as before: the diagonal, long shot of the bed in the corner of the room. Now, the man lies under the bed covers, but almost immediately, it begins rocking and shaking about, as if he were possessed by some kind of demon (indeed, the shot is reminiscent of the scenes of the bed shaking and lurching about in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” from nearly 70 years later!) Finally, the bed lifts itself about a foot in the air and begins spinning around and around, before finally taking flight out the window.

In a brilliant double-exposure shot, Porter shows the bed flying above the city. The use of the moving scenery creates the illusion of a traveling shot. The bed, set against the dark night sky, is shown to be moving over a cityscape, with the man holding on to the bed after the sheets blow off. Sitting up in the bed, the man grabs at an invisible steering wheel, positioning himself as if he were driving a car, and proceeds to navigate this phantom bed through the air before lying back down. Eventually, he is lifted up off the bed by the wind, and holds onto the headboard as he is held adrift in a horizontal position. Losing his grip, he floats backward to the footboard, which he grabs on to at the last moment. He kicks his legs about in the air in panic, just as the bed is seen passing over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next, Porter returns to a static, long shot of a building top, over which the bed is seen flying. The bed rises up out of the frame, but the man is seen falling toward the top of the building. Porter next cuts in for a closer medium shot of the building top, with the man, in his pajamas, caught on the weather vane, which turns around and around until he finally drops off. Returning to the long shot, Porter shows the man falling into the city streets. He returns to the diagonal, establishing shot of the bedroom as the man comes crashing through the ceiling and landing in his bed. The signs of destruction disappear as the man awakes, shooting out of bed. The man sits on the edge of his bed, panicked and trembling, as the film ends.

Formally, Porter uses a very economic shot sequence, only going in for close-ups, or changing angles, when necessary to introduce a better vantage point for the viewer, or to allow for the depiction of necessary visual information. As a trick film, the “dream structure” of its narrative places it in contrast to the films of Melies, Zecca and others who embraced the ability of film to depict the impossible. In this sense, Porter seems to be contextualizing (and justifying) his trick effects within the context of a dream world in which anything is possible. Even the scenes in which the man stumbles about the street are explained away as a hallucination. From a narrative standpoint, it’s much more simple than some of Porter’s earlier efforts, but at the same time, reflects the story’s origins in the cartoon panel strips of Winsor McCay. Indeed, the film can be seen as a kind of photographic comic strip in the way that it is structured both formally and in terms of narrative. As Lloyd Fonvielle has noted, "Because movies were a new form, novelties, they fell into story frames that audiences were already familiar with -- newspaper cartoons and comic strips, which could be read in less than a minute, and vaudeville skits, which lasted about ten minutes" (Fonvielle, "Visual MicroFiction"). It makes for an interesting comparison with the current vogue for films based on comic books, which also involve a narrative, but with an emphasis on the moments of spectacle that are integral to the visual nature of the comic strip. This borrowing from a the highly visual medium of the comic strip, which viewers of the day would have been familiar with, places this film (and others like it) as a kind of ancestor of the comic book films that currently draw on an existing audience, familiar with the techniques and narrative structure of that format. When viewed in this context, it makes clear that Porter was working with an eye toward capturing the formal qualities of that medium and integrating it into the narrative structures he had helped to develop earlier in the decade, while borrowing uniquely cinematic techniques from the European pioneers working at the same time. In this sense, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” stands as an example of the wide range of influences at work in early cinema.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Parody or Homage?: Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie"

Hot off the success of his two critical and box-office smashes, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel Brooks next turned his satirical sights on the golden age of comedy, creating a silent movie for the present day, titled-appropriately enough-SILENT MOVIE. Filming in color and widescreen, but with only a musical soundtrack and a few selected sound effects, Brooks sought out to make the first silent comedy in 40 years, loaded with cameos and filled with the kind of sight gags and physical humor that had worked for Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Problem is, that type of humor doesn’t really work for Brooks and company.

As audacious as the idea sounds, it’s important to keep in mind that Brooks was the reigning box office comic of the time, and especially after going against conventional wisdom and shooting his previous smash hit, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, in black and white, he pretty much had free reign. SILENT MOVIE, however, is a textbook example of what can go wrong when a comic artist, working with material ill-suited to them, is let loose with no one to tell them “no”. That’s not to say the film is a complete failure; in fact, there are a couple of memorable moments, but not nearly enough to sustain itself for feature-length. Whereas Brooks’ previous two films had been parodies, SILENT MOVIE, however, is set up as both a parody as well as a kind of homage to the great silent clowns. This creates a kind of tension, where Brooks seems to want to send-up the style by over-playing everything in the form of parody, but at other times, seems to want to move toward doing contemporary gags in a “straight” silent format.

The basic problem, so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, comes down to a clash of comedy styles: Brooks, trained in the Borscht Belt humor of the Catskill resorts where he got his start, and the verbal humor of the Sid Caesar programs for which he wrote sketches during the 1950s, is all wrong for this kind of material. It’s rather remarkable that such a brilliant comedian didn’t recognize this as a basic problem; or rather, if he did, that he didn’t abandon the project outright. The silent clowns, and their modern day counterparts like Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, were schooled in a very different form of humor, in which physical comedy routines were crafted and timed with the same skill and precision that comics like Caesar devoted to the verbal joke. Brooks seems to think that visual and physical comedy instead involves a total lack of subtlety, mixed with forced and obvious sight gags, and-worst of all-inserting way too many verbal jokes into the film in the form of intertitles! His contemporary, Woody Allen, seems to share the same misconception about the art of silent comedy, once calling it the “checkers” in comparison to the “chess” of talking comedy.

Brooks took the leading role this time around, a move that others have noted marked a step down in his work. Perhaps because he was unable to stay behind the camera (and Brooks is certainly one of the sharpest and most stylish comedy directors of the past forty years), the film has a fairly flat look to it and seems awkwardly staged much of the time, with the co-starring performances of Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise too often hurt by takes running too long, and action stretched out to unnecessary lengths (the scene in which the three of them, dressed in suits of armor, attempt to meet with Liza Minnelli in a studio commissary, is almost painful to watch). The problems with the editing are a real surprise, given that Brooks has unquestionably the finest editorial eye of any comic filmmaker working since the post-war era.

If the film works as a satire at all, it’s not as a satire of silent comedy (which, in itself, seems a very puzzling concept to attempt at all). Rather, the film does work to some extent as a satire of contemporary (1976) Hollywood. The opening title reads: “Hollywood: The Movie Capital of Greater Los Angeles”, which is even more bitingly funny today than it was in 1976. The problem is Brooks doesn’t take it far enough. Perhaps afraid of being accused of biting the hand that fed him, Brooks’ satire of the corporate conglomerate Gulf and Western (here called “Engulf and Devour”) is muted by the fact that the characters are played in such an over-the-top fashion (one bit has Harold Gould, in a state of fury, literally frothing at the mouth and barking like a dog!) Whereas Jerry Lewis had the nerve to really rip Hollywood to shreds in films like THE PATSY and THE ERRAND BOY, here, Brooks seems too enamored of Tinseltown in order to really do it any serious damage. He pays loving homage to the town when he really should be taking a sledgehammer to it. What’s perhaps most ironic about SILENT MOVIE is the fact that it feels dated, not because it’s silent, but because its so clearly a product of its time. It almost seems to have more in common with such period films as BUGSY MALONE or even WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD. The lineup of cameos adds to this feeling.

The plot has Brooks, aided by Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, setting out to sign every major star in Hollywood to appear in their silent movie, making it a hit and thus saving the studio, Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good one, it’s a miracle…”) from being taken over by the corporate entity of Engulf and Devour. The “guest stars” do a good job kidding their own star images; particularly memorable is Burt Reynolds as the very picture of the vain, macho leading man, even stopping to admire himself in the mirror on his way downstairs in the morning. Reynolds, a delightful light comic, has some of the film’s best scenes, despite the intense over-playing of Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise. James Caan has a fun scene with the guys in which they attempt to sign him while in his rickety trailer, which threatens to tip over at the slightest provocation. Anne Bancroft shares a hilarious and energetic tango with Brooks. Only Minnelli seems wasted, as she has little to do other than watch as Brooks and the gang stumble about in suits of armor. One of the most fun is Paul Newman, resting up in a hospital after a racecar accident, and attempting to elude Brooks and company on a motorized wheelchair chase to and fro across the hospital grounds. These moments, far from seeming gratuitous, actually prove to be some of the film’s most fun moments, because it’s always a delight to see stars poking fun at themselves, and they all seem to be having a genuinely good time in the process. Special mention needs to be made of the film’s most surprising cameo-the brilliant and poignant Marcel Marceau, who does a pantomime of struggling to walk across a windy room in order to answer the phone. (I won’t spoil the topper to this sequence, because it’s so totally unexpected and unprecedented in the art of mime, that it really deserves to be seen in order to fully appreciate the surprise).

A major flaw in the comedy itself is that Brooks and his writers seemed to mistake silent comedy for cartoon comedy. Whereas the best silent comedy involved a subtle working with characters and situations, Brooks seems intent on creating a kind of live-action Looney Tune, with absurd cartoon humor running throughout (especially the bizarre and ludicrous steamroller gag outside of Burt Reynolds’ house). The image of the trio stacked on each others’ shoulders to create a “tall man” effect is nowhere near as funny as it could be. Apparently, Brooks shot a scene with Buster Keaton’s wife, Eleanor, in which they re-created the telephone booth bit that she and Buster had performed years earlier, but this scene was left on the cutting room floor, supposedly because a shadow cast by the camera equipment rendered it unusable. One gag that comes close to being brilliant occurs in the scene where Brooks and company visit studio chief Sid Caesar in the hospital following a heart attack, and Feldman and DeLuise turn the heart monitor into a game of Pong, which has a visible and quite dramatic effects on Caesar. It’s a good moment, crossing into the surreal, and taking advantage of a new medium (the video game) within the silent film medium

Then there are the unfunny gay jokes that Brooks is so relentlessly fond of. While it’s certainly misguided to look for sensitivity in comedy of any kind, there’s a big difference between the delightfully and sharply-written characterizations of Roger DeBris and Carmen Giya in THE PRODUCERS, and the running gag in SILENT MOVIE, in which the three male leads repeatedly find themselves piled on top of each other as two passing women shout at them, “Fags!” This type of humor is better suited to less clever comics, and it’s disappointing that Brooks falls back on this kind of thing again and again in his work when he can’t think of anything more original. The scene in James Caan’s trailer feels inspired by the brilliant cabin scene in Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH, in which the cabin, teetering on a precipice, appears ready to plunge itself and its occupants to their doom at the slightest motion. The difference, of course, is that Brooks’ scene lacks the suspense and “thrill” comedy of Chaplin’s (to say nothing of Chaplin’s brilliant comic panic). In Brooks’ scene, there is no real impending danger, other than the trailer falling two feet on one side. It does finally tip over, but Brooks is unable to find a suitable topper to end the sequence on, so instead, as all the guys tumble on top of on another, the two passers-by once again shout homophobic slurs at them. As much as some silent comedy strikes us as insensitive today, it was never mean-spirited like this. (Another cheap joke, albeit an amusing one, occurs when Harold Gould unveils a picture of Bernadette Peters-who is being sent to seduce Brooks-to his all-male board of directors, and asking their collective opinion, they respond without uttering a word, as the table rises off the ground several inches!) Other gags, including such adolescent humor of reading through intertitles of DeLuise’s need to use the bathroom, to Marty Feldman getting whacked in the crotch by a blind man’s cane, Harold Gould speaking before the board of directors with his fly unzipped, and DeLuise getting a can of Coke shot into his groin by an out-of-control vending machine, are so juvenile as to barely require further comment.

The film ends with the kind of all-out chase-and-action sequence that Harold Lloyd would have handled brilliantly. The device of using the malfunctioning Coke machine, while hardly too clever nor terribly funny, makes for some good moments as the bad guys are bombarded with exploding soda cans! The film ends with the triumphant premiere of the silent film (wishful thinking on Brooks’ part, perhaps!) The cast lines up, marching in time, to Morris’ “Silent Movie March” (which sounds remarkably similar to the theme Morris composed for the TV series, “Coach”, with Craig T. Nelson).

This is a good time to mention that, for a silent film, SILENT MOVIE is surprisingly reliant on music. John Morris composed 87 minutes of wall-to-wall notes, interspersed with sections of silence and moments carried more by sound effects (such as in the hospital sequence). Even though Brooks essentially drives home the point that SILENT MOVIE is the first silent film since Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, it misses the point that silent comedy did, in fact, live on into the sound era. Its most notable practitioners were, of course, Laurel and Hardy, who’d actually started in the medium itself and continued to work in that tradition throughout the rest of their careers. Jacques Tati found perhaps the most ideal blend between balancing the use of sound with a visual style of comedy, creating a body of comic work that is unequaled in world cinema. More recently, Rowan Atkinson had a great deal of success with his TV program, “Mr. Bean”, which is perhaps the closest comedy of recent years to the mischievous fun of the world of silent comedy. But in SILENT MOVIE, the score-which really is integral to the overall film-feels uninspired and flat at times. Visually, it’s one of Brooks’ dullest films, too, despite the occasionally bright color patterns. He worked here with cinematographer Paul Lohmann, who’d shot NASHVILLE the year before for Robert Altman and would work with Brooks again the following year on HIGH ANXIETY. In his work with Brooks, Lohmann’s compositions feel somewhat unbalanced, but this may be due to a general feeling of scenes seeming under-rehearsed and even poorly timed (a detriment in this kind of comedy). One has to wonder how much ad-libbing was involved. The screenplay is credited to Brooks, Rudy DeLuca, Ron Clark and Barry Levinson (from a story by Clark)-none of them comedy writers terribly noted for their sense of visual comedy.

Taken as a whole, SILENT MOVIE is an interesting experiment, but it fails to live up to its potential, which in itself is a problematic statement, as this style of comedy is clearly ill-suited to Brooks’ strengths as a comic artist that it’s difficult to say just what “potential” the project ever had. This is no slight against Brooks, as the same point would apply if Chaplin were to have tried his hand at doing a film consisting of purely verbal comedy. As a cinematic experiment, it’s a kind of metaphor for the idea that “you can’t go home again”. Major work had been done in the field of visual comedy in the work of Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati, and Jerry Lewis in the forty-five years since the transition to sound. Here, Brooks creates a copy of a form, then, rather than bringing anything new to it (other than perhaps certain jokes which would have never gotten past the censors in the silent era!)

Still, the film has the best fly-in-the-soup gag ever committed to film.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Dilemma of Harold Lloyd

When is a comedian not a comedian?

Of the “big three” silent clowns working in the golden age of comedy, Harold Lloyd is frequently distinguished apart from Chaplin and Keaton as being more of a “comic actor” rather than a comedian. This is a puzzling distinction to anyone watching the films, because on-screen, Lloyd is just as funny as Chaplin and Keaton, and his films demonstrate perhaps the highest degree of sheer inventive and brilliant gags.

It is in this last point, though, that the key to understanding this distinction can begin to be seen. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd relied more strongly on gags and situational humor in his comedy style. Chaplin and Keaton had both developed their characters early in their screen careers (Chaplin had developed the basic costume and mannerisms in his second film, and Keaton’s dead-pan, rough-house style was apparent almost from the very beginning of his work with Roscoe Arbuckle). Lloyd, however, had entered acting with aspirations to be a dramatic actor. He acted in touring dramatic companies prior to entering film. Anyone familiar with Chaplin or Keaton’s backgrounds on the stage might wonder why this distinction is worth mentioning. Of course, the key difference is that the stage work done by Chaplin and Keaton contributed extensively to the development of their comic characters, as well as situations to which they would return throughout their film careers. Lloyd, on the other hand, entered films as an extra, playing a Yacqui Indian in an Edison subject from 1913, then going on to do a number of other bit parts in dramatic pictures. His good fortune came in meeting up early with Hal Roach, who began producing a series of films in 1915, and recruited Lloyd as his star comic.

The “Willie Work” character that Lloyd developed lacked the distinguishing features required by the leading comics of the day, and was thus unremarkable (apparently, the first couple of shorts they made with the character didn’t even get picked up for distribution). Unhappy with the situation at Roach, Lloyd moved over to the Keystone lot, where he found himself a “little fish in a big pond” among Sennett’s star roster of clowns. He often found himself in supporting roles, including some alongside Roscoe Arbuckle who-along with Chaplin-was perhaps the most significant comedian of the World War I era. After his stint at Keystone, Lloyd returned to work with Roach, developing the “Lonesome Luke” character, a kind of inversion of Chaplin’s Tramp, and set to work turning out a large number of one- and two-reel comedies with the character.

It’s worth noting that by 1916, Lloyd had already appeared in far more films than either Chaplin or Keaton would, at least during the silent period. A recurring theme in his career, especially in this period, seemed to be a drive to continually explore and test new approaches to his work, even if they weren’t always entirely successful. For instance, he could have easily just stayed on with Roach as star comic from the get-go, but he made a fairly bold decision to try his luck at Keystone-bold, because the Keystone lot at that time was a very competitive place to put it mildly. Returning to Roach could have been seen as a mild defeat, but instead, Lloyd took advantage of the situation to work at a prolific rate and to try to develop the kind of comic character that had eluded him.

Because Chaplin and Keaton had both started on the stage, much of their humor came from their stage backgrounds-in the English music hall and vaudeville circuits, respectively. A key difference for Lloyd is that he never had that comic training, so he learned “on the fly”, while making movies. And just as the stage was a major shaping influence for so many clowns, vaudevillians, acrobats and so on who made the transition to film, film itself would be a major influence on Lloyd. His comic character, for instance, was a pastiche of other, more successful comedy film characters (most notably Chaplin). And when he made the transition to his fully-developed, “mature” character in 1917, his inspiration would again come from film.

Lloyd had seen a film about a meek parson, and was inspired by the fact that the character wore glasses. He decided that, by adopting something of this persona, he could create a character who was more sympathetic, less grotesque, and overall more like an “average guy” rather than the gallery of highly-stylized clowns who were working at Sennett and other companies during the time. Thus the “glass character” (as Lloyd called him) was born.

It also helped that he was working for Hal Roach, a comedy genius sympathetic to Lloyd’s approach. In the 20s, Roach would become noted for his situational comedies, relying more on plots and situations rather than breakneck chases or roughhouse slapstick. In many ways, Lloyd helped lay the foundation for this kind of humor in silent comedy, even if as a comic tradition it pre-dates cinema and has a long history on the stage. (It would also be unfair to forget such comics as John Bunny and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who worked in this style during the early 1910s, especially before the Keystone format really became the standard). In addition to the “parson” film that he’d cited as an influence, another clear inspiration on Lloyd was actor Charles Ray, who specialized in a kind of rural, small-town boy persona in many of his films, and this was certainly a characterization that Lloyd would return to in the 20s.

So far, we can see how Lloyd’s lack of a comic stage training, as well as his influences within the cinematic medium, set him apart from other clowns working during the period. His frankly unremarkable comic character that he’d been working with, in an effort to ape the success of other grotesque comics, worked well enough, but remained undistinguished from so many others. The really big players in silent comedy during the WWI and post-war years were moving away from more generic slapstick toward fully developed characters, and unique comic styles suited to their personas.

Chaplin is the most obvious of these. Audiences had watched the development of his Tramp character from its prototype at Keystone, to its development at Essanay, and the full maturation of the character at Mutual. With the signing of his First National contract, Chaplin would be able to take the character to new heights and place him in longer, more complex films that dealt with often more serious themes than one was accustomed to seeing in comedy shorts of the period. On the other hand, there was Roscoe Arbuckle who, in the years before his career was rocked by scandal, made some of the most inventive and delightfully surreal comedies the screen had yet seen. Working with his nephew, the rubber-limbed Al St. John, and a young New York stage comic-Buster Keaton, Arbuckle’s films produced for the Comique company stand next to Chaplin’s films in terms of sheer creativity and masterful execution of gags.

In this environment, the time was definitely right for Lloyd to create a new character. This creates another distinguishing feature about Lloyd’s approach: it’s inconceivable that Chaplin should have abandoned the Tramp in 1918 and switched characters and comic styles completely. Similarly, Arbuckle had developed from the comic “fat boy” of the early Keystones into a mature character capable of both wild knockabout and moments of pathos. As for other clowns, their work may have been far more routine, but they were certainly consistent and quite good at what they did, and even the most cardboard characters could be very funny with the right gag men and directors.

Lloyd’s comedy style could be distinguished from the other major clowns in another way: his films are extremely plot-heavy. Chaplin never cared much for plot as such; even his early, self-directed Keystone efforts tend to favor letting the shot linger on him performing various bits of business. And of course Chaplin could make even the simplest actions funny, such as running a feather-duster over a fan in THE NEW JANITOR, his business with the mop and bucket in THE BANK, or even his reaction shots to Ben Turpin’s mugging in HIS NEW JOB. Arbuckle could perform the most complicated bits of business with incredible grace and ease, making them look so easy. Keaton, who began making his own series of films in 1920, was also known for making the incredibly difficult appear incredibly natural and simple.

Lloyd’s short films often begin with a cast list, identifying all the major characters in the piece, as well as explanatory titles setting up the exposition of the plot. The films often take full advantage of the two- and three-reel running times. It is no coincidence that Lloyd was the first of the clowns to make the move to features on a full-time basis, because his approach seemed to warrant the longer running time more than any other. The question of the “move to features” is a difficult one, because technically, we’d have to point to Chaplin in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE as the first, but this was obviously a one-shot deal that wouldn’t be repeated for some time. Mabel Normand made MICKEY for Mack Sennett in 1918, and Arbuckle would appear in some features for Paramount in the early 20s. The distinction has been made, at least in the case of the Arbuckle features, that they were more in the “genteel” tradition of screen comedy, based on plot and situations. In this sense, they aren’t that different from the kinds of approaches Lloyd was moving toward. And of course, Chaplin had made THE KID in 1921, but returned to making shorts for another two years afterward.

In any case, regardless of who was first, it is true that when Lloyd made the move to features full-time in 1922, there was no looking back. His first effort had been the four-reel A SAILOR-MADE MAN in 1921. GRANDMA’S BOY had been expanded into feature-length with the addition of newly-created gags added after preview screenings. The film told the story of a meek young country boy who is inspired to stand up to a bully after hearing stories of his grandfather’s bravery in the Civil War. Harold gains the courage to stand up to the bully as well as drive a menacing tramp out of town. With DOCTOR JACK (also 1922), Lloyd created his first feature that was designed as such from the outset.

Because Lloyd relied more heavily on plots and situations, he has been called less “inherently funny” than the other clowns. Lloyd himself said, in response to the accusation that he relied strictly on plot and material for laughs, “Well, that’s not true. If true at all, it’s true of all comedians. Every comedian must have material. And he must create situations and conditions.”

The differences are minor, but can be seen if one looks closely enough. To compare Lloyd’s Civil War comedy, GRANDMA’S BOY, with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, it can be seen that Lloyd’s film relies on its construction of plot to carry the film. To be fair, the films are still quite different, as the Civil War is referenced only in a flashback in Lloyd’s film, whereas it provides the historical context and setting for Keaton’s film; I use the “Civil War comedy” label as more a convenient shorthand for talking about a theme that appears in both. In Lloyd’s film, the gags arise out of the plot and situations. He must keep the story moving in order to allow for new situations out of which he can create gags. In Keaton’s film, on the other hand, the “plot”, as such, is practically put on hold while the audience watches him struggle to maneuver the train, search for timber, load a cannon, etc. Here, it is really the reactions of Keaton’s character that provide the interest for the viewer, and his interactions with his environment.

Chaplin’s films took another route entirely; frequently, he’d surround his “plot” scenes with extended comic sequences which could almost be appreciated outside of the film. Granted, the narrative thrust that provides the motivation for the prize fight sequence in CITY LIGHTS gives it an added dramatic component, but the viewer would find it just as funny whether or not he or she knows specifically why Charlie is fighting in the match. Similarly, even the “shoe-eating” bit in THE GOLD RUSH is a singularly funny, standalone sequence, and does not really need to be seen in the context of the entire film to be effective. (Chaplin himself seemed to recognize this, and culminated his work in the silent medium with the picaresque MODERN TIMES, whose plot serves as a clothesline on which to hang a number of comic sequences). The films of Laurel and Hardy are another example of this idea at work-they were always at their best when working at a relaxed, leisurely pace which allowed them to develop their gags naturally, rather than to force them into the confines of a strict linear narrative progression (the best example, in their feature-film work at least, may be BLOCKHEADS). It’s no coincidence that Lloyd’s most famous sequence, the building-climb from SAFETY LAST, is also the sequence from all his films that stands well on its own, even out of the context of the narrative.

To take this idea to the extremes, one could also argue that we don’t really care just why Abbott and Costello are discussing putting together a baseball team when they perform “Who’s on First?”, nor do we really care just why W.C. Fields has to sleep on the back porch in IT’S A GIFT. The film’s plots serve merely as an excuse to get them into these set-ups. It’s not so much the situation that’s funny, but what the comedian does with it. It’s hard to imagine watching Lloyd eat a hard-boiled egg and making it side-splittingly funny the way Stan Laurel could.

Many of Lloyd’s best comic sequences, on the other hand, really need to be seen as part of the overall plot in order to really work. This may be one of the reasons that his films never worked as well in the forms of excerpts in compilations, such as HAROLD LLOYD'S WORLD OF COMEDY or HAROLD LLOYD’S FUNNY SIDE OF LIFE. Because his comic sequences did not originate as standalone vaudeville bits, honed over a period of years on the stage, but rather emerged as fully-formed parts of a narrative whole, Lloyd’s films truly must be seen in their entirety in order to be fully appreciated. Lloyd is a truly narrative filmmaker, then, in addition to being a very funny comic artist. His approach can be seen as a different one, though by no means it in inferior, in any way.

Character development remained the central plot device of almost all of Lloyd’s films. The one exception to this may be HOT WATER (1924), in which he plays a married man who has problems with the in-laws. It’s one of his funniest films, to be sure, but lacks the kind of character arc seen in so many of his other works. THE KID BROTHER may just be his most satisfying film from a character development standpoint, because the goals he wants to achieve are almost universal, whereas his character’s goals in SAFETY LAST and even THE FRESHMAN are a little more tied to the time and place of the culture that produced the films. His character types tended to differ from film to film; often alternating between the small-town boy trying to make good, or the rich idler who learns about the important things in life. Buster Keaton also frequently used variations on these character types, yet underneath it all, he was still the clearly defined “Buster” character, and even kidded this fact in moments like that in STEAMBOAT BILL JR. when, trying on a series of hats at a store, he comes across his trademark porkpie hat, and it is immediately tossed aside. This type of gag wouldn’t have worked for Lloyd, because he really becomes the character in a fundamental way, which is a tribute to his skills as an actor. Chaplin rarely underwent any kind of real character transformation in his films, partly because his character was so iconic and well-defined, and because he liked to brings his plots full-circle, with his character ending up where he’d started, often walking off down the road with resignation and acceptance of his station.

Lloyd, then, used character development in a more complex way than other comics. Along with his emphasis on a strong narrative, and an astonishing degree of cinematic inventiveness, he shaped his films in such a way that they require the viewer to engage fully with the film from start to finish, in a way the best comics were able to do.

To say that Harold Lloyd isn’t a “comedian” is to set up a distinction that, I think, misses the point. It is worth noting the differences he brought in his approach to his work, but it is wrong-headed to suggest that they make him any less a comic artist than Chaplin or Keaton. Lloyd’s use of the medium of film is unique to him, and it is difficult to think of any other comic filmmaker who was able to so successfully integrate narrative and gags within their work.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


“Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” So says Al Roberts, the doomed protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic of film noir, “Detour”. Now legendary for its style and technique achieved on a “Poverty Row” budget, Ulmer reportedly shot the film in just several days on a miniscule budget. It manages to pack more punch into its lean, 65 minute running time than most Hollywood films before or since.

Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a born loser who plays piano in the Break O’ Dawn Club in New York for the nightly crowds. His girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings with the club’s band, and performs the film’s haunting musical theme, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”. One night, Sue announces that she’s leaving to try to her luck in Hollywood. Al decides to hitch-hike out West to be with her, but he’s picked up by a traveling salesman, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who-lucky for Al-is heading all the way to Los Angeles. But Haskell dies under mysterious circumstances in the car that night during a rainstorm. Al panics and, fearing the police will accuse him of murder, assumes the dead man’s identity. Just when Al thinks he’s gotten past that obstacle, he picks up a young woman he finds hitch-hiking near a gas station, who turns out to be Vera (Ann Savage), who just happened to ride with Haskell several days earlier, and who immediately spots Al as an impostor. Blackmailing him for a murder he didn’t commit, Al surrenders whatever control he has left over his own life, and takes a detour onto a one-way road to Hell.

Ulmer frames this story in flashback, with Al sitting in a seedy Nevada diner where the jukebox plays “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, almost taunting him about the life and love he has lost forever. What really sells “Detour” is its incredible visual style, all the more remarkable considering the rushed, low-budget production history of the film. Ulmer had been trained at the UFA Studio in Germany during the 1920s, where he worked as an art director for directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He brings his Expressionist style to this film with memorable results. When Al begins telling his story, for instance, the background of the scene falls dark while a loan spotlight hovers around his eyes, perfectly capturing his sense of isolation from the world. Perhaps the most striking stylistic moment is in the final scene, in which the camera pans around the hotel room, racking in and out of focus on various objects lying around the room. Shot in a continuous take, the shot is a marvel of camera technique, and must have surely taken a considerable amount of time to execute, all the more remarkable when considering the extremely tight shooting schedule of the film. The story of “Detour” came from a novel by Martin Goldsmith, and the extensive use of voice-over in the film, while no doubt also an effective cost-saving measure, gives it a powerful “stream-of-consciousness” style to its storytelling. The film was produced and distributed by Producers’ Releasing Corp., one of the smallest of the “Poverty Row” studios that could be found in the underbelly of Hollywood, co-existing with the major studios during the studio era. The gritty, cheap and low-rent atmosphere suits the film perfectly.

“Detour” is perhaps the most engulfing cinematic nightmare ever captured on film. From the film’s opening titles, which roll over a long tracking shot of a lonely, deserted highway at night, to the film’s end, its protagonist is a lost soul, doomed to wander the lonely highways of the Southwest for all eternity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Joy and Wonder of Melies

At the 7th Orphan Films Symposium, held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, audiences had a rare treat to experience a Melies film the way it was meant to be seen.

The film was introduced by Matthew Solomon. The print was a gorgeous hand-colored one, although slightly incomplete at the beginning. Donald Sosin provided a splendid piano score, and Solomon read the film's narration, written by Melies himself.

There was nothing like the thrill as the lights went down, the piano music filling the theatre, and the storyteller's voice inviting the audience to get completely wrapped up in the exciting narrative. This is the way Melies was meant to be experienced. Listening to it this way, one could almost imagine themselves stepping into a dark auditorium at a carnival or fair at the turn of the last century, and being taken to new worlds of escapism, fantasy and excitement.

The film itself was the perfect combination of Melies' emphases on narrative and spectacle, integrated into an unforgettable whole. The story of Rip Van Winkle, familiar to viewers, provides a backdrop for the wonderful effects Melies creates, which are theatrical in nature but wholly unique to the cinematic form. The colors in the print recall the influence of the kind of heightened spectacle that audiences would have been familiar with from stage traditions of the time, recalling Charles Musser's points about the "intertextuality" of early cinema (and it was exciting to see the film with Musser in the audience, whose work has probably done more to influence my own writing on early film than any other).

Even though the film was more than 100 years old, it felt as fresh, magical and delightful as ever. It makes the viewer appreciate what a truly magical film can feel like. Recent efforts into the fantasy or spectacle forms have been abysmal failures at every level-lacking the wit, energy, ingenuity and pure joy of the worlds Melies takes viewers to again and again. I'm sure the old master would be delighted to know that his unique blend of comedy and magic, and narrative and spectacle, still hold the power to totally enchant and entrance audiences, as if they were still children listening with rapt attention to the fairy tales told by their parents. Indeed, that's about the only experience I can liken the viewing of a Melies film to. His films contain the ability to "entertain", in the truest sense of that word, more than any other artist in the medium.

The magic of Melies will never pass. His work is timeless, never dated, quaint or old-fashioned. As long as there is a capacity for joy and wonder in the world, Melies will never be irrelevant.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Silent Clowns Series: More Films from the Streamline Films Collection

One of the things I love about the “Silent Clowns” series is that it affords me the opportunity to see the work of comedians who I’d only ever read about before. That was certainly the case with the screening on Sunday March 21st, which featured five wonderful and brilliant comedies from a host of different comic talents.
This week’s program was also an important reminder of how many of these silent comedies only exist in cut-down versions prepared for the home market, or for theatrical re-release in the sound era, when they were frequently “enhanced” with narration and sound effects. Such was the case with the first film on the program, “Love’s Intrigue”, which is a 1940 re-editing of a 1922 Sennett comedy, “Gymnasium Jim”, starring Billy Bevan supported by such Sennett stalwarts as Kewpie Morgan, Jack Cooper and Marvin Loback. The film was screened without its soundtrack, instead accompanied by a fun score composed and performed by Ben Model. This is a delightfully cartoonish film in the tradition of many of Sennett’s 1920s films. Some of the technical effects are really awe-inspiring, including Bevan’s high dives into a bucket.

Next on the bill was “Up on the Farm” (1924), featuring Lee Moran. As Steve Massa mentioned in his program notes, Moran was part of the team of Moran & Lyons, the most popular movie comedy team prior to Laurel and Hardy. The film opens with a sequence in which Broadway Smith (Moran) has to race to a house to hear the reading of a will, at which he finds out he will be inheriting a farm. In order to stay in the city, he moves the farm to the top of an office building. In one thrilling sequence, his horse-drawn cart teeters over the edge in a moment of thrill humor reminiscent of that of Harold Lloyd.

“Movieland” (1926) is part of a subgenre of silent comedy that deals with a comic let loose on the backlot of a movie studio. Examples can be seen in the Keystone comedies at least as far back as 1914. In this particular case, the comic in question is the brilliant acrobat, Lupino Lane. Lane, as Massa notes, was part of a prestigious British theatrical family, and remains one of the most impressive physical comics in silent films. Lane’s brother, Wallace, also appears alongside him in this picture, and they share a scene in which Lane-posing as a stunt dummy, is brought into the prop shop and watches in horror as the propman saws the heads and arms off of the dummies. The sequence is reminiscent of the scene in “Sleeper” in which Woody Allen poses as a robot and is taken in for repairs.

“What! No Spinach” (1926) stars the forgotten Henry Sweet. Sweet plays a sort of “everyman” character in this film, about a man who stands to inherit a fortune if he marries within 48 hours. Comedienne Gale Henry turns in a splendid comic performance as the landlady, with expert mugging and timing. The plot is reminiscent of Keaton’s “Seven Chances”, although the sequence of Sweet being pursued by a cluster of would-be brides can be traced all the way back to the Edison film, “How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personals Column” (1904).

Finally, Snub Pollard’s “The Old Sea Dog” (1922) shows off the skills of not only its star, but also director Charles Parrott (soon to achieve fame in his own series as Charley Chase). A fun two-reeler, there are a lot of good sight gags in this one, and Pollard gets a chance to play opposite Roach heavy Noah Young, who was always seen to good advantage in the films of Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy. Pollard’s films are driven more by gags rather than by character, but his presence on-screen is always fun. The film also features superbly funny titles by H.M. Walker, who created the memorable titles for so many Roach comedies.

This season, The Silent Clowns continues to showcase "Jewels and Gems" from a variety of film collections. These prints came from the Streamline Films collection. The series is curated by Bruce Lawton, features music composed and performed by Ben Model, and excellent program notes by historian Steve Massa.

For more information on future screenings, visit their website at: