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:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Silent Clowns Series: Conductor 1492 (1924)

This past weekend, the “Silent Clowns” series in Manhattan screened a fantastic comedy feature, “Conductor 1492”, starring the somewhat forgotten silent comic, Johnny Hines. The film was a perfect example of the creative gag writing that prevailed in comedy throughout the 1920s, even outside the films of the “major” comedians.

The plot involves a young Irishman, Terry (played by Hines) who heads to Ohio to work as a streetcar conductor. Once there, he falls in love with the boss’s daughter. The owner is on the verge of being forced to resign unless he can locate some missing shares from the company’s stock, and get the shareholder to vote with him to keep him as the head of the company. Naturally, Terry sets out to help, and when his father (Dan Mason) arrives from Ireland, the climax of the film proves to be both thrilling and surprising, once the identity of the missing stockholder is revealed.

I had first read about Hines’ work in Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns”. As Steve Massa noted in his introduction to the film, Hines falls into the category that Kerr described as “The Demi-Clowns”. Hines, I think, can be seen as part of the Hal Roach tradition of silent comedy (although he never worked for Roach), which is to say that he favored situational humor rather than the purely character-driven work of a Chaplin or a Keaton. It’s difficult to judge by this one film, of course, but it was mentioned that this ranks among the best of the surviving Hines films (according to Steve Massa, Hines’ short film comedies, made in Fort Lee, New Jersey, are all lost).

The print that was screened came from a gorgeous 16mm copy that was tinted in the style of many silent films of the period. As a film, it served as an interesting glimpse at the feature film work being done at the time by comics other than the “big three”. As I mentioned earlier, the film seems to owe something to the approach Harold Lloyd took in constructing his features around a strong storyline (for Chaplin and Keaton, on the other hand, the narrative was often nothing more than a clothesline on which to string a series of brilliant comic sequences).

Also on the program was “Whose Baby Are You?”, a Roach comedy featuring Glenn Tryon. Tryon was apparently being tried out as a kind of replacement for Lloyd, who left Roach in 1923. The most surprising part of this short was the delightful performance of the baby who plays opposite Tryon, really participating in the gags and working well as a comic partner. As with many Roach comedies, the emphasis is on gags but within a “believable” universe. Lacking the kind of cartoonish humor of the Sennett films (especially of the same period), Roach comedies such as this one feature an emphasis on character and “ordinary” situations, albeit with a comic twist. Tryon never caught on as a major comic, but the style in which he was working, which really owes much to Lloyd, continued to prove successful for Charley Chase and, to a certain degree, Laurel and Hardy (who always knew how to milk “ordinary” situations for maximum comic potential). In the excellent program notes for the series, written by Steve Massa, he mentions that Tryon would continue working in comedy as a writer, and his credits include Laurel and Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert”, one of their best-constructed vehicles.

The audience had a wonderful time, and it was apparent that the comedy of Johnny Hines still worked very well, even though he is unfamiliar to many viewers today. Special mention should be made of the wonderfully informative introductions to the films made by historian Steve Massa, series curator Bruce Lawton, and musician Ben Model (whose delightful piano scores are the perfect accompaniment to these films).

“The Silent Clowns” continues their series of silent comedies next weekend. Check out their website for more information.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excursion En La Luna (Segundo de Chomon, 1908)

Segundo de Chomon is one of cinema’s true originals. At the beginning of the twentieth century, working for the Pathe company, de Chomon turned out a highly inventive series of spectacles that pushed the boundaries of the medium in ways that surpassed even the efforts of Melies and Zecca. De Chomon eschewed any kind of traditional narrative structures in his films in order to offer a heightened sense of spectacle. His work lasted well into the first decade of the twentieth century, and seem to be very much the kinds of films that Tom Gunning had in mind when he coined the term “Cinema of Attractions” to describe this period of filmmaking. Above all, de Chomon’s work is marked by a high level of inventiveness and originality, even when compared to the work of his contemporaries Melies and Zecca, both of whom worked in the trick film genre so popular at the turn of the last century.
It was a surprise, then, to come across this film by de Chomon which is a blatant copy of Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”. Dating from 1908, it came a full six years after the Melies film, and is startling in how blatantly it follows the Melies film, right down to movement of actors and the placement of scenery and props within the frame. Like the Melies film, de Chomon’s “Excursion en la Luna” reflects the influence of 19th century literature on the choice of story, borrowing (by way of the Melies film) from Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and H.G. Wells’ “First Men on the Moon”. This narrative impulse, borrowing from the 19th century novel, stands in sharp contrasts to the moments of spectacle which borrow from the stage traditions of the period.
De Chomon’s film begins at night, with a group of astronomer’s gazing upon a full moon neatly placed in the night sky. The costumes, the gestures, and the comic personalities of the astronomers are borrowed directly from Melies. De Chomon frames the image so that the spectator can appreciate the painted scenery representing the outside of an astronomical observatory. With the actors in the foreground, the building mid-plane, and the cloudy night sky with the moon in the full background, de Chomon achieves a sense of depth missing from most of the Melies’ films, which tend to frame their subjects in a very flat space. In this original, hand-tinted print, de Chomon uses a blue tinting to indicate nighttime. The astronomers, excited about the idea of traveling to the moon, dance about merrily. As with many films of this period, the lack of intertitles makes it difficult to follow the action precisely.
We then cut to the interior of the observatory, very reminiscent of one of the similar observatories seen in numerous Melies films with an interplanetary theme. Here, though, the viewer may be struck by the smaller scale of de Chomon’s set. The great hall at the opening of Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” suggests a giant structure, even if it’s all paint and plaster. De Chomon, however, keeps the set smaller, revealing only part of the observatory’s dome open to the sky. There is a large, Meliesian telescope pointed upward. The head astronomer, dressed like a wizard (identical to Melies’ Prof. Barbenfoullis in “A Trip to the Moon”) sketches out the logistics of the voyage on a blackboard, while the other astronomers sit and listen impatiently. Before long, the other astronomers rise, seize control of the blackboard, and without further ado, don their astronomer’s garb and exit the frame together.
We are next in the casting works, in a scene so strikingly similar to that in “A Trip to the Moon” that it could have been borrowed from Melies’ film. The bullet-shaped capsule is pounded out, and some comic mayhem ensues when one of the astronomers gets his belt loop hooked on the arm of a crane that lifts him off the ground (replacing the gag in Melies’ film which features the astronomer tumbling into a tub of nitric acid).
The astronomers’ ascend to the top of a platform where a giant cannon waits to shoot the capsule off into the stratosphere. The capsule is loaded into the cannon in a shot extremely similar to the corresponding one in Melies’ film, except there is no chorus line of girls to see the astronomers off.
De Chomon next rips off Melies’ most famous and iconic image, that of the rocketship making contact with the moon, although instead of kissing the moon’s eye, de Chomon’s rocketship flies directly into the man in the moon’s mouth, whereupon the man in the moon belches forth flames, hand-tinted yellow against the blue-tinted outer space background. This scene fails to achieve the iconic level of imagery that Melies created, and reminds the viewer that this but an imitation of a far more original work.
As in Melies’ film, the astronomers bed down for the night before awakening to snowfall. In the moon’s interior, they are almost immediately confronted by the moon men, who proceed to take them before their king. In the king’s chamber, consisting of a throne set against a cavernous backdrop of painted stalactites, they are treated to a line of dancing girls in hand-tinted dresses who perform a show for them. This is a perfect example of de Chomon’s willingness to pause the narrative for spectacular effect. The dance number goes on for quite a while, and both the number of dancers, plus the elaborate choreography, suggests the kind of music hall influence that was so prevalent in the early cinema. Before long, the king becomes irate, beckoning forth a small army of moon men who give chase to the astronomers. De Chomon switches gears back to a narrative mode on a moment’s notice, barely even providing motivation for the king’s sudden change of temperament other than to provide an excuse to move on to the next scene. Unlike Melies, de Chomon provides no sense of thrill or suspense in the form of a chase sequence. In Melies’ version, the astronomers make a daring escape, with Melies himself wielding an umbrella at the moon men, striking them and causing them to burst into puffs of smoke. De Chomon completely eschews the chase structure, instead bringing the astronomers directly back to their ship, followed by only two moon men, in the next shot.
Finally, the astronomers arrive back at their ship, resting precariously on a cliff, in a shot composed with exact precision of the corresponding shot in Melies’ version. It falls through a painted night sky, and bursts into flames (yellow-tinted), as fellow astronomers watch from the ground, in the same setting that we saw in the first scene of the film. The capsule lands on the ground right in front of them, still flaming, as the astronomers emerge, apparently unharmed. Also emerging from the capsule is one of the dancing women from the moon! De Chomon ends on this shot, with the astronomers, and the moon woman, in full frame.
De Chomon’s film is an audacious piece of plagiarism, of course. It’s almost difficult to be able to enjoy on its own terms, especially considering how devastating the effects of imitation (and outright piracy) were on Melies’ company financially. It’s interesting, though, to see how another “trick” filmmaker of this period handles the same subject matter. Ultimately, the film is less satisfying than the one Melies gave us. Melies was fully enchanted by the idea of filmic spectacle, and in “A Trip to the Moon”, was able to weave such moments into a wholly satisfying narrative. De Chomon, on the other hand, seems to move less freely between the two approaches. The film is heavy on narrative when it should be light, and conversely, the dance sequence brings the action to a noticeable halt just when events should be building toward a climax. Melies was a master of pacing, and even though his work is most often (and rightly) noted for its moments of highly stylized spectacle, he was also quite innovative at developing longer and more complex narrative structures within the fantasy framework. De Chomon is at his best in films consisting of pure spectacle, such as his “The Red Spectre” (1907), and the delightful “Danses cosmopolites à transformation” (1902), which fellow film blogger Tom Sutpen has written about on his blog (Show and Tell: Segundo de Chomón's Danses cosmopolites à transformation ([1902]). When he moves into these more complex narrative forms, one is given the impression that he’s rather bored with the story, and doesn’t quite know what to do with the actors in this “downtime” from the spectacle. Strangely, though, when the appropriate moments for spectacle do present themselves, de Chomon seems to stop short of taking advantage of their full potential, instead preferring to keep things moving on to the next scene. As a result, the film is over before it’s really had a chance to display any particularly memorable moments of spectacle (the few that are present are rather half-hearted imitations of moments stolen from Melies).
The tension between narrative and spectacle in the early cinema is one that demands further examination, and the emphasis on one element over the other can be seen as a result of stylistic choices on the part of individual filmmakers, as well as part of larger historical and cultural discourses of the period.
I will presenting a paper on this topic, titled “Narrative and Spectacle in Early Cinema: ‘The Cinema of Attractions’ in Silent French Film”, at the 2010 NYU Graduate English Organization Conference on April 2nd. The paper examines this issue in the broader sense of literary and theatrical influences on the early cinema, contrasting the approaches of different filmmakers to represent the full artistic diversity of the French cinema in the early period. For more information on the conference, visit:

Monday, March 08, 2010

Alfred Clark: Narrative and Special Effects Pioneer

In late 1895, Thomas Edison replaced W.K.L. Dickson with Alfred Clark as supervising director of his film division. Dickson, of course, is the man generally credited with the actual invention of the Kinetoscope, the device patented and distributed by Thomas Edison as a peep-show viewer for the earliest films produced in the United States.

Comparatively little has been written on the contributions of Alfred Clark to the early American cinema, but this film, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”, which he produced in 1895, is a testament to the innovations in storytelling that Clark brought to the medium.

This is one of the earliest films to feature a historical re-creation of a scene. Earlier Edison films, of course, featured re-creations of contemporary scenes (“The Barbershop”, dating from 1893, for instance). Perhaps the only other film to pre-date this in terms of staging a historical re-creation was “Blacksmithing Scene”, which -- as Charles Musser has noted* -- depicts an earlier era of the blacksmith shop, with the three men passing around a bottle of beer.

In any case, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” can safely be called the first historical film in the sense we have come to think of it. Clark stages in the action against a white backdrop, suggesting that this is also one of the earliest Edison films to be photographed outside of the Black Maria. Clark conveys a sense of distance by dividing the frame into four rows of actors: Mary, in the front; the executioner directly behind Mary; two officers behind the executioner; and finally, a row of four guards in the very background. This creates a much greater sense of spatial dimensions than was commonly scene in the Edison films shot against the flat, black backdrop of the Black Maria, which utilized very little sense of depth at all.

There is, of course, the fact that by staging a historical re-enactment, Clark is also working with a heightened level of narrative. The story, as it is, is quite simple-depicting a single event. But rather than the documentary-like subjects that Edison had showcased in the months priors (“Sandow”, “Annie Oakley”), this film features actors portraying characters, and acting out a very rudimentary scenario.

Mention should be made, too, of the special effects; in this case, stop-motion. Clark may very well have been the first filmmaker to utilize this technique. The effect is actually quite convincing here, as Mary (actually played by a male actor) kneels down, the cut is made as she is replaced with a dummy, whose head is (quite realistically) severed right in front of the viewer’s eye. It’s difficult to know how viewers in 1895 would have responded to this. It’s hard to imagine that they could have been technically savvy enough to understand the way in which the effect was achieved, even if they believed (or wanted to believe) that a real human head wasn’t actually being severed.

The film was produced on August 28, 1895, predating the Lumiere screenings at the Grand Café by exactly four months. It’s worth noting that, while the Lumiere films screened at their December 28th show are often heralded as the “birth” of the motion picture, Edison, Dickson and Alfred Clark had already achieved a remarkable degree of technical sophistication.

Largely overlooked in the history of both narrative and special effects, Alfred Clark’s “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” stands as an important, early landmark film in its use of both techniques. It’s rather unique among the other Edison films of the period. Alfred Clark is one filmmaker of the early American cinema whose reputation is ripe for re-appraisal.

*See Musser's program notes on "Blacksmithing Scene" included on the DVD Edison: The Invention of the Movies (Kino International, 2005).

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part III

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904)

The film opens on a French nobleman, in slightly grotesque makeup, looking at the ad he has placed in the personals for a wife. The ad says to meet at Grant’s Tomb.

The next scene finds the nobleman waiting at Grant’s Tomb, framed in a magnificent long shot. A woman enters the frame, introducing herself to the nobleman. Then another enters. And another. Finally, an entire crowd of women has shown up, and outraged, give chase to the nobleman through the city and countryside. Finally, they chase him into a stream. The basic idea for this chase was perhaps the inspiration for Buster Keaton’s later “Seven Chances”.

What follows is a typical Porter chase, with each shot allowing all of the figures to run through the frame, all the way from the very far background and up past the camera. This is not the way audiences came to expect chase sequences to be shot or edited, of course. It provides an interesting glimpse at the developments that were taking place before settling on anything approaching a Classical style of filmmaking.

While humorous, the comedy wears thin after a while due to this approach to creating the chase sequence. The idea itself is a good example of the ways in which early producers borrowed (read: stole) from eachother: the film is a remake of a Biograph picture from earlier in the year, and later, Lubin would remake the same idea.

The European Rest Cure (1904)

This is without question the funniest and sharpest comedy Porter ever made. A brilliant parody on the kind of “sightseeing” approach to travel that lives on in the Rick Steves programs today, the film seems positively ahead of its time in its mocking of the stereotype of the “American abroad”.

The very beginning of the film is as much a travelogue as anything else, this film begins with a couple embarking on a boat headed for Europe. Porter takes advantage of the location shooting to hold on long shots of the crowd waving goodbye to the passengers on board, as the ship sails off. There is a nice traveling shot of the Manhattan skyline from the boat as well.

Porter cuts into a theatrical interior for the “storm” sequence, in which the man is shown becoming seasick due to the rocking of the boat (an effect which appears to have been achieved by rocking the camera, as the action lacks the kind of physical movement achieved by Chaplin with his stage built on rockers that was used for “The Immigrant”).

From this sequence, Porter cuts to an entirely different scene: “Kissing the Blarney Stone”. The set is a patently fake painted flat. The man is held over the edge of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone when he is suddenly dropped, falling out of frame. The tour guide seems strangely unfazed.

The next scene is “Doing Paris”. A goateed, beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking Frenchman sits at an outdoor café while the traveling American husband and wife talk loudly, the husband excitedly pound his fist on the table and calling for the waiter. After a little too much wine, they stand and begin dancing a kind of manic, drunken Can-Can, while the Frenchman continues to look on silently. This scene is one of the few instances of truly sharp satire in the films of Porter, whose comedy usually took the lower approach of sex- and slapstick-based humor. Some women try to settle them down. One of the American tourists stands on the table and pours wine over the man’s head.

Next up is “Climbing the Alps”. The party arrives in the gloriously fake, painted alps wearing Swiss alpine get-ups. One of the men falls over the edge of the cliff, but is miraculously pulled back up.

“Hold Up in Italy” is the next scene. The tour guide takes the group into one of the roughest sections of the city, and after one of the party gets separated from the rest of the group, is targeted by some thieves and is mugged at gunpoint.

We next find the party “Climbing the Pyramids of Egypt”. There is a brilliant bit of comic timing, as one of the men begins to climb the pyramid, and after climbing out frame, the camera holds for what seems like an unusually long time, until the man comes crashing back down in to the frame.

Finally, they visit the “Mud baths of Germany”, where the older American man is forced into a tub and covered in mud, then has buckets of cold water hurled at him.

The couple returns “home sweet home”, thoroughly exhausted from their trip. This is a unique film in the sense that it runs 14 minutes, which is rather long for a 1904 production. Even though it lacks the imaginative editing of Porter’s best work, the painted flats representing the different locations have a certain charm about them, and as satire, Porter never did better.

The Strenuous Life; or, Anti-Race Suicide (1904)

It’s the little moments that make a film like this one so interesting. In the scene when the office manager is brought come in a horse-drawn carriage, the streets of New York are covered in snow. It’s amazing how, before films were routinely shot on the West Coast, weather elements were a natural part of so many films. In this same shot, the camera happens to catch an elevated subway train racing past in the background.

This film itself is nothing terribly interesting in Porter’s output. The overworked office manager comes home and finds his wife has apparently given birth to quintuplets. I can’t help wondering if there is footage missing from this film, as it seems to end rather abruptly and doesn’t make terribly much sense as it currently runs. It is perhaps only notable otherwise for a use of a medium shot when the husband and wife are weighing their first child.

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Porter opens this film on the shot of a man leaving for work, saying good-bye to his wife and daughter. A title announces him as an ex-convict. When his boss finds out about his past, the man is fired. Looking for work, the man is discriminated against everywhere he goes. Walking home, he saves a little girl from being hit by an oncoming car, but is gone before the family can thank him. Returning home discouraged and humiliated, the man is out of options. In a fit of desparation, he heads out into the night to burglarize a home, which just happens to belong to the family of the young girl whose life he saved. The girl’s father catches him, and holds him at gunpoint while he calls the police, but the girl, recognizing the man, identifies him to her father as the man who saved her life. The police arrive, but the father sends them on their way.

An incredibly powerful film, this is perhaps Porter’s masterpiece as a filmmaker. It lacks the kind of narrative structural techniques that marked “The Great Train Robbery” as his most important contribution to the medium, but unlike that film, contains deeply believable characters and profound character dynamics. The discrimination faced by the reformed ex-convict is all too believable, and the sight of the man humiliated in front of his family is just painful to watch. The film avoids going over-the-top in its display of emotions or performance style, and as such, remains a model of restrained expression in the early cinema.

Cinematically, Porter seems to have been fairly well set in his ways by this point. As a cutter, it seems that “The Great Train Robbery” is something of an anomaly in his career. By 1904, working in a more complex narrative mode, Porter chooses to emphasize performance and mise-en-scene over editing. “The Ex-Convict” is a film that must be seen by anyone interested in tracing the development of early narrative forms.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Capra's Bitter Tea

At the 1933 Academy Awards ceremony, Frank Capra experienced what must have been one of the greatest embarrassments of his personal life, let alone career. Nominated that year for “Lady for a Day”, a light comedy adapted from a Damon Runyon story, Capra was sure he would finally win the coveted Best Director award. When Will Rogers, who was hosting the ceremony that evening, announced the best director, he ended his speech with “Come and get it, Frank”. At this point, or so the story goes, Capra leapt to his feet and rushed triumphantly to collect his award, when suddenly he realized his horrible mistake: the “Frank” that Rogers was referring to was Frank Lloyd (nominated that year for “Cavalcade”, a staid, theatrical historical drama from a Noel Coward play about the British Empire at the turn of the century). Capra froze, embarrassed, and returned to his seat.
Capra would win the award the following year, of course, for the “sleeper” hit, “It Happened One Night”, which would go on to become the first film to win the five major Oscars, and one of the biggest hits of the year, much to the surprise of everyone involved. Despite one of the most chaotic production histories ever recorded, the film ended up an effortlessly fun and charming film that forever established the Capra style, and firmly entrenched him as a kind of cinematic observer of the American social landscape during the pre-WWII years.
In the years before his success with the prototypical screwball comedy, Capra had tried his hand at a wide variety of styles. After a stint writing and directing for the comedian Harry Langdon, Capra became the star director at the low-budget Columbia Pictures, ruled over with an iron fist by Harry Cohn. Columbia was hovering just above “Poverty Row” status during the late 20s and early 30s, and Capra’s films were virtually the company’s sole “prestige” product during that time. His “war” trilogy (“Submarine”, “Flight” and “Dirigible”), comedies (“Platinum Blonde”), social message pictures (“American Madness”) and women’s pictures (“The Miracle Worker”) couldn’t have been more different from each other. It was as if Capra wasn’t merely content to turn out a house product, as so many other directors were, but was constantly struggling to find his style.
Surely the most unusual attempt from this early period is his 1933 film, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. The story involves the wife of a missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) who accompanies her husband into a war-torn zone of China to rescue some children from an orphanage. Captured by the bandit leader, General Yen (Nils Asther), Stanwyck struggles with her simultaneous attraction and repulsion for the general. When the general symbolically dies in the end, Stanwyck is on her way back to her old life, realizing she will never be the same again. The film is a striking stylistic hodge podge, seeming to owe a lot to the films that Josef von Sternberg was making over at the Paramount lot at the same time. Yet there is still unmistakably something “Capraesque” about the film. (I’ve written on the film’s connection with the later Capra films on Dan Streible’s “Film Historiography” blog, “‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ as Capra-corn”).
Watching the film, one has to wonder what on Earth inspired Capra to make it. It’s so unlike anything else in his oeuvre that it’s impossible to watch the film without noting its bizarre mix of approaches that seemed to have been borrowed willy-nilly from a variety of sources. In particular, there is a dream sequence that seems to owe much to German Expressionism, as well as surrealism. In the dream, Stanwyck imagines herself being attacked by the General, done up to look like a weird cross between Fu Manchu and Nosferatu. Another figure, presumably her husband, dashes into the dream wearing a Zorro costume (!), knocking the villain out of the picture (he vibrates and shakes, moving toward a wall, before disappearing in a burst). When the “husband” removes his mask, it is revealed that he is in fact General Yen, thus representing Stanwyck’s confusion and lust for the general.
The sequence is unlike anything in Hollywood cinema of the period. The entire sequence plays as if Capra was just trying to cram in every single stylistic idea he could purloin. Dan Streible referred to the film as “Capra’s art film”, which is an apt description, I think, of what he was trying to achieve with it. In his quest to bag an Academy Award, it was as if he was going to make a picture that pulled out all the stops. The ultimate “Oscar” movie. One that the Academy just couldn’t say “no” to.
In the process, Capra created a labored, self-consciously stylized effort that remains a strange, atypical film in his output. Contemporary audiences seem unaware how to even take the film, often responding with a mix of incredulous laughter and confusion at the film’s racial elements. The film is ultimately a melodrama, but one that operates under serious restrictions due to the interracial relationship of its protagonists.
The following year, Capra would find his style, and in the process would finally find the success he’d craved so badly. While there’s no question that his post-“It Happened One Night” display a maturity of technique and a consistency of directorial style, Capra would never again make a film as perversely strange and fascinating as “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Balazs, the Close Up, and Dreyer's "Passion"

Few canonical works of cinema draw more split reactions than Carl Th. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, perhaps the last great film to emerge from the silent period, released right at the tail end of the medium in 1928. While not an “entertaining” film in the conventional sense, there is a truly gripping dramatic element to the film that cannot be ignored. Dreyer fills his film with such a sense of historical atmosphere and “presence” that it’s almost eerie. The film’s universe seems to exist in a kind of suspended state, as if Dreyer were somehow magically able to transport his camera back in time. The starkness of his sets, the stylized yet restrained cinematography (by Rudolph Mate), and of course, the subtlety of his perfectly-chosen actors, achieves a level of verisimilitude without equal in the historical film. The original court transcripts of Joan’s trial, preserved in an archive in France, were used as source material for the script. In addition to the standout performance of Falconetti, Antonin Artaud brings an incredible level of humanity to his performance as the sympathetic clergyman.
The film is a virtual textbook example of Balazs’ idea of the emotional qualities conveyed through the close-up. The film is filled with faces, most notably the unforgettable image of Falconetti, her face conveying the unspeakable ordeal she is to endure. The images of the judges are equally powerful, their intolerance and impatience conveyed through the communicative gestures of the face, once again demonstrating the capacity of the close up as technique to provide the viewer with an opportunity to read all sorts of emotion and psychology into the image. The sense of "impatience" I refer to is one that Dreyer seems to emphasize in the close ups of the judges; rather than being outraged, they seem rather tired of Joan's claims, as if they just want to get the whole ordeal over with. It is easy to forget just how much of the film contains extreme close ups. Dreyer isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on these close proximities without providing an establishing or master shot to orient the viewer. Dreyer is less interested in spatial orientation than he is in emotional orientation, and the close up is the perfect means through which to convey this.
Through Joan, Dreyer presents a character so absolutely committed to her belief in her mission from God, her ideology and spiritual position is never questioned by the audience. Dreyer places Joan within the historical context to provide a framework from which the viewer can identify with this single-minded character. As I mentioned earlier, there is a very real sense of gripping drama in the proceedings thanks to the emotional investment that Dreyer provides. The film is never dull. After the trial sequence, Joan is led through an emotional torture chamber in which she is humiliated, degraded, and finally threatened with physical torture. She weakens momentarily, signing a confession that will allow her to escape execution, but realizes her mistake, recants her confession, and faces the burning at the stake.
This last sequence is the kind of scene that filmmakers would usually exploit for its spectacular qualities, despite the grim and even tragic nature of the event. Dreyer contrasts Joan’s preparation for the execution with the daily lives of the townspeople, including much merry-making and even a shot of a mother in the crowd casually nursing her infant, who seems unfazed by the goings-on. Joan’s execution is handled in an appropriately subtle manner, and is followed by a sequence in which the townspeople riot in protest to her death. Again, this sequence, which other filmmakers might take the opportunity to turn into a major spectacle, is kept brief and subdued by Dreyer.
The strangely mixed reaction to the film seems to draw viewers into two camps: those who find the film overwhelming dull and boring beyond all reason, and those who invest in the emotional power of Dreyer’s imagery. Few silent films really require an engagement with the image for full effect in the way this one does. It has been reported that Dreyer hoped to shoot the film in sound, which would have been extremely risky from a technical standpoint in 1928. There are arguments that the use of intertitles interrupts the visual rhythm of the film, as well as creating a momentary disconnect from the viewers’ connection with the emotional conveyance of the close ups. It could just as well be argued, I think, that the medium of the silent film is perfectly suited to this film, as it allows the images to speak for themselves. The images are the key to the film’s power, and offer a rich experience for viewers willing to engage with them.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Melodrama Meets Screwball: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Melodrama meets screwball comedy in this bizarre offering from MGM.

MGM, the studio of gloss and glamour, with “more stars than there are in the Heavens”, was capable of producing some pretty off-beat stuff in the early 30s. One can cite the obvious examples-films like “The Unholy Three” (Jack Conway, 1930) and “Freaks” (Tod Browning, 1932), both of which have their origins in the Lon Chaney-Tod Browning cycle that was so popular for the studio during the 20s. But to take a much less obvious, and therefore much more interesting example of the kind of strangeness that existed even at the mightiest and most conservative of Hollywood’s major studios, one need look no further than this 1932 melodrama from director Jack Conway. The delirious, hysterical and contradictory “Red Headed Woman” remains as fascinating for its contradictions as anything else.

The plot involves a scheming gold digger, Lil, played by “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow, her usual blonde hair dyed red for the title role of this picture. She pays a little visit to her boss, the young and handsome Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) to convince him to give her a promotion. Bill’s wife Irene (Leila Hyams) is out of town, but returns unexpectedly at the worst possible moment, and all hell breaks loose. Divorce follows, as Bill marries Lil, who proceeds to bask in her new wealthy lifestyle, even going so far as to start an affair with the head of a rival company (Henry Stephenson) that is in competition with her husband. What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that everyone else is laughing at her behind her back, and when Bill and Irene begin to make plans to get back together, Lil will stop at nothing short of murder to preserve her happiness.

The film is a weird mix between melodrama and elements of the screwball comedy (which, even though it didn’t really become fully formed for another two years after this film was made, elements of it pop up in the kind of over-the-top romantic wheeling and dealings that take place between the film’s protagonists). The script, by Anita Loos, presents Lil as an absolutely psychopathic characterization which borders on the satiric. Harlow is first presented to the audience underneath a towel, after which her new red hair is revealed. Loos inserts a delightful little inside joke here, as Harlow, commenting on her new hair style, says “So, gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

Both Harlow and Morris give outstanding performances. The supporting cast is great, too. Leila Hyams conveys the perfect amount of strength and vulnerability as the wife whose world is rocked by Harlow’s gold digging antics, providing a good dramatic counterpart to Harlow’s often light-comical portrayal. Lewis Stone is Morris’ wise and patient father (a kind of forerunner of his Judge Hardy character), and May Robson is a delight as always as the humorous Aunt Jane. Special mention should be made, too, of Una Merkel as Harlow’s wise-cracking roommate, and an early appearance by Charles Boyer as a chauffeur with whom Harlow begins yet another affair while on a trip to New York.

The film is decidedly “pre-code” in its attitudes and sensibilities, although as an MGM film, still skirts some of the harsher issues that films by Warner Bros., say, were grappling with during the depression era. There’s a strange kind of moral compass in the film which doesn’t seem to know quite which way it’s pointing at any given time. Harlow’s character, whom we’re clearly meant to sympathize with as she’s the star, is strangely unlikable. I’d argue that this is largely due to shortcomings in the emotional range that Harlow is able to project in her films, which is a consistent problem I’ve had with viewing her work. Playing the role more as a caricature, the audience is left to decide for themselves how we should be reacting. If this were a more open-ended drama, that would work fine, of course. But in a film such as this, with plot and narrative wrapped up so tightly and moving at such a quick pace, there cannot be any room for doubt. Unfortunately, the film, largely as a result of the one-note performance delivered by Harlow, fails in this respect, making it much less satisfying dramatically than films like “Baby Face” (Alfred E. Green, 1933) from the same period that dealt with similar subjects. Plot-wise, it tends to get a bit overcomplicated toward the end, and gravitates away from the two most sympathetic characters (Morris and Hyams) who really keep the viewer invested in the plot.

The workman-like direction of Jack Conway doesn’t help matters, either, as the film tends to get slowed down at points during which it should really keep moving. Conway was one of MGM’s most reliable “house” directors, and could deliver great genre pictures and star vehicles, where a strong directorial style was not a requisite. With a film such as this one, and especially considering the wildly varying emotional tones of Anita Loos’ script, a director like William A. Wellman, or even Howard Hawks, would have perhaps been ideal, with their ability to keep things moving and to veer between comedy and melodrama with the speed and precision of a race-car driver. Harold Rosson’s cinematography is similarly flat and uninspired here, with the camera serving more as a recording device rather than being allowed to engage in the kind of interesting transitions and visual metaphors that helped propel so many early sound films. The art direction, attributed to Cedric Gibbons, is strangely flat as well, lacking the best Art Deco gloss that makes films of this period so visually distinctive from a standpoint of production design. It’s tempting to speculate that, because of the subject matter, MGM made the decision to “dress down” their sets for this one. Unfortunately, it tends to get stuck in a kind of artistic middle gear between the grittiness of Warner Bros. and the “Grand Hotel” opulence of MGM’s signature style.

In some ways inspired by the “vice” pictures so popular at the time, which studios like Warner Bros. tended to specialize in, MGM was ultimately the wrong studio for this kind of thing. In an age when film studios are but one asset among hundreds owned by giant corporate conglomerates, it sounds positively absurd to argue that “one” studio was right for a film while “another” wasn’t, but one has to remember the absolute authorial control of the studio heads such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer. While Warner’s studio might have seen this film as an allegory for survival during the depression, Mayer’s approach tended to emphasize the star, and the glamour aspect, which seems positively at odds with the actual story at work here. There are a number of contradictions at work in the film as a result, aside from the fact that we’re asked to identify with a schemer capable of murder in her selfish pursuit of money just by virtue of her star image (this is the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock would have great fun playing with in his casting of stars like Cary Grant in films like "Suspicion". Hitchcock was master enough to subvert star image and genre; Conway seems to play everything at face value). There’s the stylistic contradiction between melodrama and comedy, and the contradiction between the glossiness of the studio style and the grittiness of the subject matter. The opposition between comedy and melodrama is most obvious in the last scene, in which the strong melodramatic conclusion we have just witnessed is capped off with an unnecessary prologue featuring a cute wrap-up gag with Harlow’s character. It’s a stylistic violation, a kind of winking at the audience as if to say, “you know Jean Harlow wouldn’t really do anything like that.”

Despite the contradictions at work in the film, it still makes for interesting viewing in terms of understanding the kinds of approaches and studio styles toward different subject matter. While not the kind of film MGM specialized in as a studio, the movie has still has strong performances to recommend it. The film may be of the most interest today for anyone examining the role of star image and star vehicles in studio-era Hollywood.