Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mabel's Busy Day (1914)

Another Keystone using the “racetrack” as a backdrop for their antics, MABEL’S BUSY DAY is nominally centered around Mabel Normand. Even at this point, 18 films in to his Keystone output, Chaplin was still seen as a supporting clown, as evidenced by the prominence of Normand’s name in this film’s title.

Mabel Normand was one of the greatest assets to the Keystone studio during this time; perhaps its biggest star, her natural charm and brilliant comic timing made her a favorite with audiences. She was also a highly skilled comedy director; she both wrote and directed this film. Her career was unfortunately later tainted by scandal (she was close to film director William Desmond Taylor, whose murder, along with a number of other high-profile scandals, would rock the industry in the early 20s). But to see even a relatively minor film like MABEL’S BUSY DAY is to see the charm, vitality and comic skill that made her a major star.

Here, she plays a hot dog vendor, who bribes policeman Chester Conklin to let her onto the racetrack grounds in order to sell her wares. Into this setting wanders Chaplin as a racetrack tout, cutting in line, entering the grounds without paying, and kicking a policeman to the ground when he tries to stop him. Meanwhile, Mabel’s customers are stealing hot dogs left and right, so Charlie intervenes, offering to protect her business, and promptly makes off with the entire tray of sausages, giving away free samples to the entire crowd! Confronted by Mabel and cop Chester Conklin, Charlie tries to explain everything, but a fight breaks out with Charlie and Mabel duking it out, as officer Conklin is repeatedly knocked down into the crowd of bystanders every time he tries to intervene. Finally, her entire business destroyed, the exhausted Mabel breaks down in tears as Charlie, exasperated from fighting, embraces and consoles her.

The film is interesting as an example of Chaplin playing a character other than his “tramp” persona. The costume is slightly fancier than usual, and he sports a boutonniere that suggests an air of false sophistication. At no point in the film does Chaplin work toward audience sympathy, instead playing a completely selfish (but hilarious) scoundrel, never thinking twice about kicking a policeman or stealing a hot dog. It’s fun to watch him interact with the various characters around the race track, too: early on, he annoys a trio of women watching the races, thoughtlessly blocking their view, then leaning on one woman’s shoulder before casually picking her purse. Chaplin’s skill at finding the humor in such bits of business is crucial to getting laughs from this kind of material. It certainly differs from his later interaction with the baby in THE CIRCUS, to give just one example, where we can sympathize with his character for stealing bites of the baby’s hot dog because we know he is a hungry tramp. Here, though, his actions are so thoroughly self-serving that they take on a kind of absurd quality that is quite funny in the universe of Keystone.

It’s interesting to speculate how much of the appeal of these “on location” comedies derived from the fun of watching the Keystone clowns interacting in recognizable, every day settings. Although of course many of the Keystone comedies, not to mention comedies from other studios during this period, utilized extensive location shooting around the Los Angeles area, the use of actual public events as a backdrop for the proceedings does make for a bit of interesting contrast, and serves to emphasize the craziness of the goings-on within the environment. There’s a moment in MABEL’S BUSY DAY, for instance, where Charlie mercilessly kicks and pummels a policeman as the crowd of actual bystanders looks on from the distance.

While MABEL’S BUSY DAY is a minor effort, it still contains the charm and verve that makes the work of master clowns like Chaplin and Mabel Normand so appealing almost a century later.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Knockout (1914)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was arguably the most popular comedian working at Keystone during the time that Chaplin was with the studio. An incredibly gifted comic performer and director, Arbuckle had a unique style that he developed within the roughhouse environment of Keystone. Unlike many of the interchangeable grotesques, Arbuckle took advantage of his size to project a boyish charm that belied his imposing physique. For example, in his introductory shot in THE KNOCKOUT, he emerges from a bakery carrying his dog, and the two share a doughnut. This imagery – pairing the comic with an animal sidekick - would later be used by Chaplin to establish audience sympathy in THE CHAMPION (in which he attempts to share a sausage with a dog), and in A DOG’S LIFE, which features a number of such scenes. It also helps, perhaps quite literally, to establish the clown as “underdog”.

THE KNOCKOUT is first and foremost an Arbuckle comedy, one in which Chaplin puts in what basically amounts to a supporting appearance. A fairly elaborate two-reel affair, the film begins with Arbuckle engaging in extended, roughhouse slapstick with a couple of tramps posing as pugilists to earn some extra cash. Arbuckle himself goes in to the ring to fight Cyclone Flynn (Edgar Kennedy) who offers to split the purse if Fatty throws the fight. He refuses, and the big fight is the highlight of the second reel. To add to the pressue, sheriff Mack Swain informs Fatty that he’s betting heavily on him, “so win or I’ll kill you.” Chaplin appears as the referee – taking a bow before the audience prior to falling backward in the ring, and accidentally taking a punch or two to the face when moving between the two pugilists. Things build to a frenzied climax when Fatty, getting knocked out and losing the match, angrily whips out two six-shooters, which he begins firing into the audience and chasing the rival boxers! The Keystone cops get word that a maniac is on the loose, and give chase with typically ineffective results. The chase leads the men through a high society party, in which they tear through in the middle of a musical performance. Finally, Fatty and the cops engage in a rather unbalanced match of tug-of-war, which ends with Fatty dragging the entire of team policemen down the street.

This description of the film exemplifies the way in which Arbuckle’s comic universe could get exceedingly cartoonish, even by Keystone standards. He uses a number of creative devices, including a rooftop chase and a number of shots taken with a moving camera, to heighten the lunacy. Arbuckle was a master at creating this sort of controlled chaos. Even as he roars through the streets firing his guns at anything that moves, there is a method to his madness, at the center of which is his clearly defined character. Like Chaplin, Arbuckle recognized the need for the audience to at least identify with him as a character beyond the broadest slapstick mugging, which no doubt contributed to Arbuckle’s immense popularity with audiences before his career was cut short by an unfortunate scandal in 1921. Combined with his creative use of filmic technique, Arbuckle takes a place beside Chaplin as perhaps the leading slapstick comic filmmaker of the WWI era. It is uncertain, however, who directed THE KNOCKOUT; a number of sources credit Charles Avery, while other, more recent sources credit Mack Sennett. It is fair to say that, regardless of who directed the film, it demonstrates much of the technique and craftsmanship that Arbuckle himself would later develop further.

There is an interesting moment where Arbuckle, witnessing a tramp harassing girlfriend Minta Durfee, mugs angrily and moves toward the camera until his face fills the frame in a giant close-up that is at once menacing and comical. There is also a closeup of Minta Durfee used in a reaction shot in the first reel, as well as a later close shot of an anxious Mack Swain cheering on the boxing match from his ringside seat. In fact, THE KNOCKOUT contains several moments where the framing suggests greater care than the average Keystone comedy of this period. Subtle but creative use of camera angles, and the use of medium shots to bring the audience a little closer to Arbuckle, serve as evidence of this. These little moments are crucial in establishing the connection between the clown and the audience; Chaplin clearly knew this, and used such moments sparingly throughout his career. While some critics have seen this as evidence of Chaplin’s lack of technique, it is rather a sophisticated use of such techniques by limiting their use, thereby increasing their effectiveness when used.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Fatal Mallet (1914)

THE FATAL MALLET is perhaps the roughest and the most shapeless of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies. The plot, such as it is, revolves around rivals Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett, battling Mack Swain for the hand of Mabel Normand.

In a rural setting, rube Mack Sennett is busy flirting with Mabel, when Charlie spies them, and initiates the rivalry by hurling a brick at the couple. As Charlie and Sennett battle it out, burly Mack Swain swoops in and walks off with Mabel. The two men join forces against their common enemy, and after Swain gives chase, they hide in a barn where they find a mallet to use as a weapon. Knocking Swain out and dumping him in the barn, Charlie moves in on Mabel, and after Swain regains consciousness, both he and Sennett retaliate against Charlie, with the three of them fighting on the bank of a pond. Both Swain and Charlie take the plunge, leaving Sennett as the nominal “champion” of this particular rivalry.

The plot description alone gives an idea of how arbitrary much of the action is in this film. It seems to move beyond the usual farcical premises of the Keystones of this period and brings to mind the senseless violence of the Jules White-Columbia two-reelers of thirty years later. Rarely can any of the characters go more than a few seconds without hitting, smacking or otherwise assaulting whoever happens to be standing closest at that particular moment. The arbitrary nature of the “rivalries” between the three men indicates how their allegiance can turn on a dime. And even a young boy (played by Gordon Griffith) who shows infatuation with Mabel is subject to a swift kicking by a jealous Charlie!

There is little time for character development in a film like this. Like the film directly before this (A BUSY DAY), THE FATAL MALLET was directed by Mack Sennett. It has the appearance of a casual, almost improvisational effort dashed off in a single day. There is some indication, even in a roughhouse, knockabout effort like this, that Chaplin was trying to emphasize little bits of business to set him apart from the broad grotesques of the Keystone lot. There is the moment when he sizes up the young boy before delivering the swift kick that knocks him to the ground. There is also the moment in the barn when he holds rival Sennett at bay with the mallet, assuming a “tough guy” stance and posture, jerking quickly forward to intimidate his rival, that recalls his confrontation with the driver of the orphanage wagon at the conclusion of the chase sequence in THE KID. Ultimately, these little moments are fleeting, and only stand as a mere hint of the carefully crafted comedy that Chaplin would begin developing later on in his tenure at Keystone.

*Note: Chaplin’s next Keystone comedy, HER FRIEND THE BANDIT, is considered lost; therefore, I will not be reviewing it in this series.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Busy Day (1914)

In the development of many comedians’ screen personae, the trajectory of reaching their mature screen character seems to be a case of “One step forward, two steps backwards.” While some comics (Buster Keaton in particular) seemed to emerge almost fully-formed from the get-go, others took a little longer to arrive at the characters that audiences would forever remember them for. Chaplin falls into the latter category, and A BUSY DAY is an example of this phenomenon at work.

Coming off of the characteristic and well-constructed CAUGHT IN THE RAIN, Chaplin’s next appearance was in this loosely constructed comedy shot at an actual parade, with a largely improvisational feel to it. This was a fairly standard Keystone approach - to choose an actual public event (a racetrack, parade, etc.) and turn the comedians loose to wreak their unique brand of havoc in otherwise "natural" surroundings. Here, Chaplin plays the lead character in drag, but aside from this switching of genders, the film is largely a re-tread of situations he had already explored more creatively in earlier efforts, and even partially recycles the premise of KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE, with Chaplin-in-drag interrupting the filming of a newsreel. The story revolves around Chaplin's jealous rage when he spots husband Mack Swain flirting with another woman (Phyllis Allen), and goes on a rampage, fighting with Swain, the police, and other bystanders before finally getting kicked off the pier and into the water.

A BUSY DAY was directed by Mack Sennett, who also appears in the film as the newsreel director. Sennett’s presence behind the camera may explain the hectic pace and uncharacteristic humor. That said, A BUSY DAY still delivers laughs in the best knockabout tradition of Keystone.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Caught in the Rain (1914)

The first film whose direction can definitely be attributed solely to Chaplin, Caught in the Rain is an example of the kind of farce comedy set-up that had been a staple of the theater and was finding its way into film.

The premise is simple: after Chaplin is caught flirting with Mack Swain's wife in the park, the inebriated tramp then follows the couple to a hotel where they are staying. Swain's wife is a sleepwalker, and in the middle of the night she sleep-walks right into Chaplin's room, causing an expected reaction of outrage from Swain. The Keystone cops are called in to apprehend the tramp.

There are two scenes in particular that show Chaplin's hand in the direction. The first occurs when he arrives at the hotel and makes a nuisance of himself in the lobby. The second is when he is undressing to get into bed, removing all of his clothes to reveal his pajamas underneath. In both cases, Chaplin allows the entire scene to play out in a full shot, held for an inordinately long duration (by Keystone standards), which captures the full detail and nuance of his performance without unnecessary cutting away.

From a plot standpoint, there is a crucial device here that points to Chaplin's mature characterization. Rather than aggressively making his way in to the hotel room where Mack Swain's wife is sleeping, Chaplin makes his character a victim of circumstance, with the wife's sleepwalking as a device to bring them both into the same room together without any bad intentions on either characters' part.

Even small touches such as this point to the techniques that Chaplin was employing that set him apart, and would help to establish the audience sympathy that would make him a superstar.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Caught in a Cabaret (1914)

Caught in a Cabaret is the first Chaplin film that really feels like a Chaplin film. In it, he introduces a number of his favorite themes, as well as stylistic approaches, that give it the feeling of being the first film over which he had a strong degree of creative control. Indeed, it is the earliest film whose direction can be certainly attributed to Chaplin, though he actually co-directed the film with Mabel Normand.

The situation is set up that Chaplin is a lowly waiter in a rough cafe in a bad part of town. While on his lunchbreak, he saves society girl Mabel Normand from being menaced by a thief. Her parents and friends take Chaplin for a hero, and he is their guest at a garden party in which he is hilariously out of place, passing himself off as "Baron Doobugle, Prime Minister of Greenland". He must leave in a hurry to get back to the cafe as his lunchbreak is almost over. Mabel's jealous boyfriend tracks him back to the cafe, and sees his real identity. The boyfriend then returns to the garden party and suggests that they go "slumming", whereupon he brings them to the cafe and Mabel becomes enraged when she learns that the Prime Minister is really just a waiter.

In terms of performance, Chaplin gives his most nuanced, subtle performance yet. He immediately sets himself apart from the rest of the zanies in the cafe in which he works with his methodical bits of business. He is first seen, while waiting tables, stopping by the table of one customer to pour several unfinished drinks into one glass, which he drinks himself. He also playfully flirts with other female characters here in a genteel manner, rather than the aggressive pursuits seen in earlier films. There is none of the grotesque mugging directly in to the camera as there was in earlier films; everything here is played in full-shot to capture the whole of Chaplin's performance. One of the most remarkable aspects of Chaplin as performer is the way he always used his entire body - never just mugging or simply taking a fall. Rather, he puts his entire body to the service of every gag, his posture, stance, and facial expressions combining to produce a total comic effect.

There is a leisurely pace to the film, too, aided no doubt by the fact that it is a two-reeler, giving Chaplin more time to develop plot and pacing. Chaplin allows himself a little "sidekick" in the form of a dog, a nice touch that looks forward to Scraps the mut in A Dog's Life. There is some of his trademark hostility toward children, such as kicking a boy to the ground after he comes entangled with the dog's leash. There is also a fight between Chaplin and fellow waiter Chester Conklin that displays that almost balletic approach he would take to such rough slapstick, even at this early point in his career, combined with a kind of playful, "it's only a game" spirit that he would repeat with John Rand in The Pawnshop. Similarly, his tangle with tough Mack Swain in the cafe (which ends with Chaplin knocking him out with a mallet) looks forward to his later resourceful triumphs over big bullies like Eric Campbell in the Mutual series and Malcolm Waite in The Gold Rush.

The film is a study in comic contrasts as well. Chaplin, as the waiter, appears to be at first more refined than the characters surrounding him, wiping down tables with a rag - until he stops, and blows his nose into the rag, before continuing to use it to wipe down the tables! This is also the first Chaplin film to deal explicitly with class difference. Though a staple of comedy from this period, no comedian went further to the roots of the class differences in the United States at this time than Chaplin did. It is in this respect that Caught in a Cabaret marks one of his most important films in his development as a filmmaker.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)

This was the first film in which Chaplin reputedly had a hand in the direction and writing. It's difficult to say (the direction has variously been credited to Joseph Maddern and even to Mack Sennett), though various historians have pointed out that it's quite likely that Chaplin did at least have a hand in the story construction, since he practically remade the film at Essanay a year later as In the Park.

Either way, Twenty Minutes of Love is a slight little film, one of the many "park" comedies cranked out by Keystone. There are the usual mix-ups and confusions, but Chaplin's performance is already showing signs of his mature characterization, such as when he observes a young couple necking on a bench in the park, and, so overcome with a mix of frustration and repulsion, absentmindedly embraces and kisses a tree!

Twenty Minutes of Love also marks the first time that Chaplin's character is really at the center of the chaos. While he certainly creates mischief wherever he goes, he's almost like the calm eye of a comic hurricane, with just the perfect mix of innocence and an impish, sometimes devilish quality. There had been strong traces of this in his earlier appearances as the Tramp - his turns as comic heavies didn't allow for this kind of development - but here he seems more close than ever to being fully formed (which would finally happen with his next film).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

Even though it’s completely uncharacteristic (Chaplin is a top hatted, goateed villain who goes around pricking people with a pin), Mabel at the Wheel may very well be one of the sheer funniest films Chaplin appeared in during his tenure at Keystone, and is by far the most elaborately mounted production he’d appeared in up to this point. In a role clearly meant for Ford Sterling, Chaplin hams it up as a cartoonish villain that almost seems like a forerunner of Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. At two reels, this must have seemed like a veritable comic epic at the time, especially given the scale of the racetrack scenes, and the talent involved in the film (in addition to Chaplin and Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain put in appearances, along with a cameo by Mack Sennett himself as a rube spectator).

Mabel Normand is the nominal star of the film, but it’s unquestionably Chaplin’s film all the way. It’s as if he just decided to go for broke, saying, “You want me to play Ford Sterling? Fine. Then I’ll out-Sterling Sterling!” He plays the entire performance at full energy, never missing an opportunity to mug into the camera, sticking out his tongue, crossing his eyes, and gesticulating wildly. There’s a fun scene in the beginning when Chaplin, attempting to steal Mabel away from her racecar driver boyfriend, takes her out for a spin on his motorcycle, and not even noticing when she bounces off the back into a mud puddle. This one also includes a great brick-throwing scene that gets really violent, sort of a brick-throwing battle to out-do all brick-throwing battles. The second reel of the film takes place at the racetrack, where villainous Chaplin orders his two henchmen to kidnap Mabel’s boyfriend. She takes over at the wheel, though, and saves the day by winning the big race. It’s here where Chaplin really amps up the performance, stealing the show from every single performer who happens into the same frame as him.

If it sounds as if I'm praising Chaplin for the exact qualities that I have criticized Ford Sterling for in previous reviews, it is worth noting that here, the strong elements of parody in the plot call for this kind of over-the-top take on the character. Sterling was a gifted comedian with a flair for exaggerating mugging, but his performance style rarely varied, at least during his time at Keystone. In some films his performance style worked fine; in others, less so. Chaplin's ability to vary between subtle character humor and this sort of exaggerated parody demonstrate the range he brought with him when he came to the movies from the stage.

Mabel at the Wheel may not be characteristic Chaplin (quite an understatement), but it remains one of his best non-“Tramp” performances, and a good example of what the Keystone crew was capable of when everyone was firing on all cylinders.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Star Boarder (1914)

Chaplin is back in his usual makeup and costume here. With a more structured plot than we’ve seen in the Chaplin-Keystones up to this point, Chaplin and his flirtatious landlady are unknowingly caught in a private moment by a boy with a camera. When the photo turns up in a Magic Lantern show that the boy projects that night for the amusement of the other boarders, the landlady’s jealous husband is none too pleased. Less farce than situation comedy, this is a good example of how a more structured plot allowed for better character development and for getting more mileage out of the situations as opposed to the off-the-cuff, improvisational approach. Still, it can’t help feeling like a warm-up for better things to come.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cruel, Cruel Love (1914)

Any film that opens with Chaplin playfully flirting has to be good, and Cruel, Cruel Love contains easily one of his finest performances from these really early shorts. Though sporting a top hat and slightly wider mustache than usual, there are strong traces of Chaplin’s great performances to come in films like Monsieur Verdoux. He gets a chance to play a character that might, in the hands of other, less-skilled performers, be labeled a “villain” or “heavy” role. Instead, Chaplin injects just the right mixture of charm and vulnerability, while at the same time overplaying things just enough to heighten the parody of the situation. Rather than aping Sterling, as had been called on to do in some of his early appearances, here Chaplin makes the character his own.

There’s a fun scene in which Chaplin is fooled by his servants into believing he’s swallowed poison, and has a delirious vision of himself in Hell being poked and prodded by two devils, gesticulating and overplaying to expert comic exaggeration. There’s also some effective cross-cutting, as both the doctors, and Chaplin’s love interest, race to his home before the poison takes effect. Overall, this is a highly effective parody of stage melodrama and contemporary film making, and perhaps the first film in which Chaplin is able to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

Though Chaplin’s character is pretty unlikable here, he does get some good comic by-play with the patrons of a bar toward the beginning of the film, including Fatty Arbuckle as a fellow drunk desperate for a drink. Arbuckle turns up in smaller parts in a couple of these early Chaplin-Keystone comedies, and it’s always a shame that he isn’t given more screen time to interact with Chaplin, as their scenes together hint at the skillful comic interplay that would become apparent when they were finally co-starred together in The Rounders.

The scene where the inebriated Chaplin lets himself in to the woman’s home looks forward to the solo drunk act of One A.M. two years later, with his cane getting hooked on the furniture and trying to make his way up the staircase serving as a kind of warm-up for ideas he would explore and expand on later.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tango Tangles (1914)

Another one with a largely improvisational feel, here Chaplin appears out of makeup and usual costume, playing a drunk at a dance hall. There’s not much more to the set-up than Chaplin and Ford Sterling fighting over a girl on the dance floor, with much of Sterling’s trademark arm-flailing, frenetic gesticulations and nose-biting. The film ends when the two men collapse from exhaustion. Tango Tangles is primarily of interest for the chance to see a very young-looking Chaplin without his usual makeup engaging in the usual roughhouse stuff, apparently filmed at least partially on location at a real dance hall. Arbuckle actually almost steals the show with his understated performance style and impressive pratfalls. To paraphrase what Theodore Huff said about By the Sea, Tango Tangles is a slight effort enlivened by a certain impromptu charm.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Film Johnnie (1914)

This is the first of the Keystone comedies that uses the studio itself as a backdrop for the comedy. This one fails to take full advantage of the possibilities provided by turning Chaplin loose on the Keystone lot, and feels like a dry run for better things to come. After falling madly in love with the Keystone Girl (Virginia Kirtley) that he sees on the screen in a nickelodeon, Chaplin shows up at the Keystone studio, where he wanders around the set wreaking havoc, firing a six-shooter at the actors and crew. Interesting mostly for its glimpses behind the scenes of the studio, this still feels like a rushed effort that demonstrates little characteristic Chaplin humor. It does, however, contain perhaps the most extreme and exaggerated comic mugging that he ever performed on film. It’s also fun to watch his brief interaction with an out-of-costume Fatty Arbuckle and Ford Sterling as he hangs out in front of the studio, asking for handouts. Chaplin would return to this same basic idea several times in later films, including one at Keystone, with more success.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Between Showers (1914)

This is another one that feels like a throwaway effort, presumably shot very quickly to take advantage of the heavy rainfall that had hit LA, as indicated by the puddles on the road in the film. The premise is utterly ludicrous: Ford Sterling’s umbrella is broken, so he decides to steal one from a cop, who’s too busy making out with his girlfriend to notice. Then, in what feels like it could be a completely different film, Sterling tries to help a pretty girl cross a large puddle of water that has formed in the gutter from a torrential rain, and pretty soon he and Chaplin are fighting each other viciously for her attention. At some point, policeman Chester Conklin returns to get his umbrella back, linking the ongoing fracas between Sterling and Chaplin back to the opening scenes of the film. That’s about all there is to this one, plot-wise.

It’s the little touches by Chaplin that make it worth watching. By this point, he clearly had figured out that if he wanted to stand out from the rest of the Keystone zanies, he had to downplay his comedy with a degree of subtlety. That’s the thing here – Sterling seems to be trying too hard to be funny, and Chaplin appears to walk away effortlessly with the film’s best moments (one example: when a bystander is knocked into a pond and cries out for help, Chaplin leans over and cups his ear with his hand, as if he can’t understand what the man is saying!) Sterling’s wild gesticulations, jumping up and down, and mugging endlessly through each shot reveal a limited bag of tricks. This isn’t to say that Chaplin couldn’t mug just as shamelessly as the rest of them though – one of the delights of his performance here is when he will turn to the camera and giggle, as if he’s just done something terribly clever. He also shows what a scene-stealer he could be by extending many of his pratfalls for full effect by rolling backward or twisting his legs around in the air.

All in all, a minor, throwaway effort with some of the touches that Chaplin would bring in to full effect later in his tenure at Keystone.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914)

A fairly typical bedroom farce, this one is significant as the first time Chaplin used his “Tramp” costume (though this film was actually released after Kid Auto Races at Venice), and also demonstrates that – even though he’s essentially a supporting player here – he had the ability to steal the show from such established performers as Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin.

Bedroom farce might at first seem all wrong for Chaplin, but he actually gets a lot of mileage out of the situations here, and would return to elements of farce all throughout his career, right up to A Countess From Hong Kong. Certainly at Keystone, bedroom farce was one of the standard plot setups that would get used over and over again. Here, Chaplin wisely plays the rather calm center of the frantic goings-on surrounding him. As a drunk staying in a hotel, his inebriated state provides the perfect excuse to wander around obliviously, stopping only to flirt with any girl who happens to cross his path. It’s easy to pinpoint why Chaplin walks away with the film – shamelessly mugging for the camera and inserting little bits of business wherever possible, he’s easily the most interesting part of the film, and his absence is always felt when the scene shifts back to the other characters. Mabel Normand’s appealing performance adds much to the proceedings, livening things up whenever Chaplin isn’t on-screen. She’s one of the only few other performers in these films who comes across as a real character, as opposed to the grotesque types of Sterling, Conklin, et. al.

Perhaps the most notable part of the film are the scenes toward the beginning taking place in the hotel lobby, where director Henry Lehrman wisely lets the camera roll while Chaplin does his stuff, rather than insisting on a frantic pace. The scene where the drunken Chaplin interacts with guests in the lobby before trying to get himself seated in a chair demonstrates what made him so unique compared to every other performer on the Keystone lot.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (1914)

Watching Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., two things immediately come to mind: the irony that the crowd watching the film being made is watching the man who, within the year, would become the most famous person the world had ever known, and yet watch his antics here without the slightest clue as to who he is. The other is that the film, despite its obvious importance as the first public appearance of Chaplin's "Tramp" character, really lacks any strong comedy. The last time I blogged about this film here, I praised it for kidding Keystone's own habit of taking advantage of public events as a backdrop for their comedies, and for demonstrating an awareness of the medium itself by having Chaplin play directly to the camera.

Watching it again, though, the fact that the same basic idea is repeated over and over becomes all too clear. It really is the cinematic equivalent of an infant who's discovered a home movie camera and starts making obnoxious faces. By the time the film arbitrarily ends on a giant close up of Chaplin pulling faces into the camera, it's clear that this was a throwaway effort, made to take advantage of a public event that could serve as a backdrop. It also had the unintended advantage of allowing Chaplin to test out his character in front of a "live" audience. This is the first in a series of the Chaplin-Keystone comedies shot at a racetrack, and could have benefited from a fun impromptu feel, but the film ultimately suffers for a lack of inventive comic business, made even more apparent through endless repetition.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Making a Living (1914)

Chaplin's first film only occasionally demonstrates the little comic flourishes that would contribute to his later acclaim. With a breakneck pace and lots of rough, crude slapstick, Chaplin hardly has time to be "Chaplin" in this film, and instead spends most of it frantically pursuing or being pursued by rival Henry Lehrman. The plot, such as it is, seems to revolve around showing as many situations as possible in which Chaplin's character makes his rival's life miserable, stealing his girlfriend, his job, etc. and always followed by a massive fight between the two of them.

Making a Living is really too rough and crude to stand as an example of the kinds of trademark bits of business that would make Chaplin's performances so unique, even in the weeks and months to come at Keystone, though there are a few moments that look forward to his later work, such as when the down-and-out Chaplin compares himself to a scruffy bum, maintaining an air of dignity that the bum mocks. This pose of dignity, of course, would later become a trademark of his tramp character. There's another particularly funny moment in which Chaplin - eager to get his plagiarized story into the papers before his rival finds out - feverishly distributes copies to all of the newsboys on their bicycles who are getting ready to make their rounds.

Chaplin and director/co-star Lehrman reportedly hated each other, and it's fair to assume that these tensions spilled over in to their first couple of collaborations together, perhaps limiting the comic potential of the ideas. Still, Chaplin earned quite a bit of praise for his performance in this film, most famously when an anonymous critic referred to him in a review as "a comedian of the first water" (Moving Picture World). Seen today, Making a Living is important as the first work of an important artist, but ultimately offers little more.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Georges Méliès and "Tonight, Tonight" (1996)

It often seems that the most inventive film and video work being done today can be found in music videos. With their brash displays of techniques, often exhibiting a very wide range of influences, music videos can be an exciting conglomeration of stylistic flourishes borrowed and pieced together into a post-modern pastiche.

"Tonight, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins is a good example of pastiche at its most effective. The video (which is already all of 15 years old!) combines visual elements from several films by early French cinema pioneer and magician Georges Méliès. Despite obvious references to Méliès' most famous film, A Trip to the Moon, the video actually appears to have been most strongly influenced by his 1904 film, The Impossible Voyage, with its lead characters traveling across a celestial sky in a large, futuristic aircraft. Two of the passengers jump from the aircraft and fall gracefully to the surface of the moon using their open umbrellas. The umbrellas prove to be useful when they are attacked by the Selenites, the moon's inhabitants who can be vanquished by the blow of an umbrella. After taking off in a rocket, the two land in the sea, where they encounter animated fish that recall the undersea creatures of Méliès' Tunneling the English Channel.

Remarkably, the Victorian fantasy of Méliès blends almost seamlessly with the MTV-era music of the Smashing Pumpkins. The visual motifs (the man in the moon, a fantastic lunar surface, comets and crescent moons) are not only inspired by Méliès' films, but also manage the impressive task of capturing the spirit of his work, conveying a real sense of wonder and discovery that is wholly appropriate to the song. The video's designers do a credible job of matching the tones of the hand-coloring process used on a number of Méliès' films. The music and visuals of the piece are completely of a whole. Though separated by nearly a century, the imagery and stylistic flourishes of Georges Méliès and the music of the Smashing Pumpkins synthesize very effectively.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi

I recently had a chance to pick up a copy of “The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi” (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), by Arthur Lennig. One of the preeminent film biographers, Lennig (whose other works include the insightful and revealing “Stroheim”) manages to give readers a good sense of Bela Lugosi the person, and how this Hungarian actor came to be so powerfully associated with a single role. For an actor whose career spanned nearly half a century, I have always felt that film writers are too quick to discuss Lugosi’s work only in terms of his most famous roles. This attitude, while understandable, overlooks the breadth of his acting roles over the years, including memorable turns in such films as the manic comedy, International House, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka.

Lennig draws on extensive research and interviews with those who knew and worked with Lugosi over the years to draw a complete picture of the actor. A particular revelation of the section dealing with Lugosi’s work in the theater is just what a diverse series of roles he played early in his career. Apart from his becoming so strongly associated with the role of Dracula, Lennig conveys the frustration Lugosi felt as a foreign actor in Hollywood, typecast in heavy roles.

Particular attention too is given to the relationship between Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Universal, seeing Karloff as the “next Chaney” (who had been such a moneymaker for the studio in the 1920s), treated Karloff as the crown jewel of the studio, while Lugosi was rather unceremoniously cast aside following Dracula. There was apparently a bit of bitterness between the two, though neither expressed this publicly (the two would work together, memorably, in The Black Cat, made for Universal by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1934).

In addition to the light shed on Lugosi’s early career, his later years are given similarly in-depth treatment. Lennig covers Lugosi’s battle with and eventual recovery from drug addiction, as well as his infamous work with Edward D. Wood Jr. (a series of films which, thankfully, Lennig does not belabor). Such films as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla are also discussed. This period probably represents the nadir of Lugosi's career.

It is rather poignant how deeply Lugosi cared about his most famous role. While he would describe it as both a blessing and a curse, the role of Dracula certainly made Lugosi into an icon. If he had played no other role, it is probably safe to say that Lugosi's name would still be remembered by film fans just as strongly today. In addition to the meticulous preparation he went through in getting into character for the part, it is also interesting how he handled the issue of self-parody in films like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which he plays the Count straight as the two comedians pull their comic business. Lennig reports that Lugosi was put-off by the lackadaisical attitude that Abbott and Costello took to their work (and attitude shared, incidentally, by others who worked with them, including Buster Keaton). Whatever else can be said about Lugosi's appearance in the film, it certainly reinforced his iconic status.

"The Immortal Count" stands as one of the most solid, well-researched and enlightening film biographies I have read in some time. Arthur Lennig manages the impressive task of revealing the actor behind one of the most iconic roles in all of cinema. The reader comes away with a revealing account of Bela Lugosi, the man and the actor.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Saucy Chambermaid (1908)

Among the many films available for viewing through Europa Film Treasures, there is a unique subject from 1908 titled Das Eitle Stubenmädchen (The Saucy Chambermaid). According to the notes on the site, the film was made in Austria by the Saturn company, and directed by Johann Schwarzer.

Unlike the hardcore erotic films that began appearing in the period following World War I, there was still a certain amount of credibility attached to such projects in the early cinema. Georges Méliès, for instance, produced a number of “blue” movies. Such films were a staple of early American programs as well, though it should be noted that films from the Edison company, for instance, rarely if ever displayed the kind of out-and-out nudity present in films like The Saucy Chambermaid (I can find no example from the Edison catalog).

That said, the film still plays like something of a dirty joke. The scene is a bedroom. On the floor is a nude marble statue in a reclining position. The maid enters to clean the room with a feather duster and, spotting the statue, proceeds to undress herself bit by bit, comparing herself to the statue in the process. As the maid assumes the reclining position similar to that of the statue, she is surprised when the man of the house enters the room. She springs to her feet, dashing in to the next room and begging for mercy as the man laughs uproariously in wicked delight. He calls the maid back in to the room to retrieve her clothes, which he withholds from her until she gives him a kiss. Grabbing her clothes, she finally makes her way in to the adjoining room as the man follows, laughing all the while.

Typical for the period, the film is framed entirely in wide shot, and plays out with actors entering and exiting the frame through doors. While more explicit than similar “blue” movies coming out of the United States at the time, The Saucy Chambermaid is still restrained compared to films that would follow in the coming decade. The fact that its production company, director, and year and country of origin have been documented demonstrates the degree to which it was still seen as very much a “legitimate” production. The hardcore erotica of the post-war period is typically devoid of any kind of production information, with any information about its makers and performers lost entirely to time.

Of course, the erotic film, in 1908 still a staple of “gentlemen’s clubs” and burlesque, would gradually go underground until eventually it existed totally off the radar of any recorded history of film (it has only been relatively recently that there has been any research into those films at all). As the films became increasingly graphic, and as venues sought to appeal to a more and more sophisticated clientele, “blue” movies were forced off the program. According to the notes on the Europa Film Treasures site, Saturn Films was eventually shut down by a court order in 1911, following demands by Viennese officials and Catholic groups. Films like The Saucy Chambermaid would have no doubt begun to be seen as quaint, at least from a purely technical standpoint, as it retains the single shot and proscenium staging of the earliest film subjects, and lack the narrative and spatial qualities that were making for far more exciting films in the work of leading pioneers of the period.

The Saucy Chambermaid retains its dirty sense of humor and stands as an example of the erotic film at a time before it was abandoned by exhibitors in the quest for more respectable and sophisticated entertainment.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Marx Bros. at MGM: The Big Store (1941)

A good case can be made that The Big Store (1941) is the worst film the Marx Bros. were ever associated with. I maintain that it least returns their characters to an appropriate, contemporary setting, where they are able to wreak havoc on high society types, in this case against the backdrop of a ritzy New York department store. In that regard, it is at least a step up from the previous year’s Go West, which had placed the brothers in a totally unfamiliar and inappropriate Western setting. But the film still suffers from a dearth of good comedy sequences, protracted musical numbers, and commits the particularly unforgivable mistake of making the Marx Bros. co-stars with the leading man in their own film – in this case, crooner Tony Martin.

Unlike their previous two films for MGM, which had been directed by ex-vaudevillian Eddie Buzzell, The Big Store was helmed by experienced comic craftsman Charles F. Riesner, who had started with Chaplin’s company as an actor and associate director, before going on to direct comedians like Buster Keaton (with whom he worked on Steamboat Bill Jr. in 1928). While the film is well-crafted, it lacks the comic bite and surprise that marked their earlier efforts with men like Norman McLeod and Leo McCarey, who really knew how to keep the pace going. Given such sub-standard material to work with, it is hardly fair to blame Riesner for the film’s short-comings.

Setting the film inside a lavish New York department store was a step in the right direction after the choice of putting the brothers into a Western parody the year before. The problem is that, unlike an opera house, the department store is not a sufficiently pompous or portentous target for their chaos. That said there are some good gags to be had with Groucho as the floorwalker, insulting the customers (his innuendo toward an older couple in the bed department is particularly fun). One rather significant problem that the writers at MGM never quite seemed to solve was how to make the viewers really care about the plight of the romantic couple. It worked in A Night at the Opera, if only because Kitty Carlisle’s entire singing career was at stake. But starting with A Day at the Races, the dilemmas facing the romantic couple became increasingly irrelevant to the point where, by the time of The Big Store, one has to ask the question, “who cares?”

The film demonstrates a marked improvement over Go West in its casting. Margaret Dumont makes a much-welcome return in this, her final appearance with the Marx Bros., as Martha Phelps, owner of the department store. Douglass Dumbrille, so perfect as the heavy Morgan in A Day at the Races, here plays Mr. Grover, the crooked store manager who immediately becomes a target of Groucho’s barbs. While much credit has been given to Margaret Dumont over the years, it really is worth noting just how much supporting actors bring to these films by standing in for various pretentious “types” for the Marxes to skewer.

Unfortunately, The Big Store is also the most “music-heavy” film of the MGM period, with a wide range of numbers. Some, like “Sing While You Sell”, would have been more enjoyable had they been reduced in length; as it is, the number goes on entirely too long, even managing to find time for an interlude in which Virginia O’Brien delivers her deadpan, jazzy rendition of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. Others, such as “If It’s You”, crooned by Tony Martin to Virginia Grey, are pleasant enough. I am perhaps in the minority when I say that I enjoy and even look forward to the musical numbers in the Marx Bros. comedies – they were, after all, an integral part of their Broadway shows and musical comedy background. The difference is that, in these later MGM films, the songs are featured seemingly for the sole purpose of being plugged to sell sheet music, rather than contributing to the entertainment value of the show. Thankfully, Chico does get two chances to show off his unique piano skills (including a duet with Harpo), and Harpo has one of his best harp solos in any of their films, playing with his reflections in surrounding mirrors. The most outrageous music number has to be the infamous “Tenement Symphony”, a well-meaning if rather cloying piece preaching racial harmony among the diverse ethnicities in New York’s lower east side. As with every other aspect of these last three MGM films, the number suffers from being ludicrously over-produced, with Martin accompanied by an entire boys’ choir and symphony orchestra!

Which, when you get right down to it, sums up the problem with the final three films the Marx Bros. made for MGM. The studio seemed to be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on everything but quality comedy writers. The Big Store in particular feels like a second-rate (though still costly) MGM musical in which the Marx Bros. provide the comic relief.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Marx Bros. at MGM: Go West (1940)

With Go West (1940), the studio at least had the sense to allow the Marxes to test their material out on the road again. Unfortunately, the final results hardly seemed to justify the effort. Go West remains one of the dullest and uninspired films the team appeared in. Frustratingly, it actually opens with a very solid and funny scene, of the kind in which Chico and Harpo manage to pull one over on Groucho (in this case, while waiting at a train station to make the journey west). If the rest of the picture had managed to sustain the level of wit present in its opening scene, it might very well have turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable comedy. Instead, Groucho (in particular) gets mired down in painful one-liners that turn his normally fearless and cavalier screen character into a coward.

The unfamiliar setting of the old West no doubt works against the film as well, since the Marx Bros. were always more at home in contemporary surroundings, where they could wreak havoc on the established order of society. The writers fail to get any real mileage out of the Western genre as a subject for parody, instead simply dropping Groucho, Harpo and Chico into a routine Western backdrop without really making them integral to it. Add to this the fact that far funnier Western satires had already appeared – most notably Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937) – and Go West seems even more tired and ineffective in comparison. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, nearly every major comedian appeared in a Western parody at some point, though perhaps only Bob Hope’s Paleface films approached a level of real brilliance.

The generally humorless supporting cast doesn’t help matters any, either. Robert Barrat is hardly the comic foil that Sig Rumann was for the Marx Bros. in their first two MGM films. Walter Woolf King, who had appeared as a sufficiently unlikable heavy in A Night at the Opera is wasted here. And the romantic couple is bland and colorless to the point of being almost totally forgettable, making it even harder than usual to get invested in the film’s subplot (though leading man John Carroll is granted a nice tune, “Riding the Range”, which allows for a fun moment when Groucho and Chico join in).

As a result of its lackluster plot and performances, Go West plods through its 80 minute running time before arriving at its climax, involving a fast-action chase on a locomotive. Like the finale of Laurel and Hardy’s County Hospital and W.C. Fields’ Man on the Flying Trapeze, what makes this scene work so well is the obvious use of special effects and sped-up action, combined with casual cutaways to Groucho’s throwaway one-liners. It's not a bad comedy scene, though it perhaps seems better coming after so much lackluster material during the preceding 80 minutes.

Ultimately, Go West suffers from all the constrictions and restrictions of studio-era production, and is characteristic of the kinds of challenges presented by trying to produce a free-wheeling comedy within the confines of MGM’s factory system.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Watching CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, one cannot help feeling an almost spiritual connection with the past. Not just a connection with the paintings discovered on the walls of the long abandoned Chauvet cave in the south of France, but with those who painted them – a long-forgotten group of people about whom we know nothing, other than what they tell us through their art.

Except that they’re not forgotten. Not really. Werner Herzog’s film is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for creativity and self-expression. And though the cave paintings that he lovingly showcases in 3-D were, in fact, created over the span of several thousand years by various artists, the fact that the oldest of them are said to represent the earliest human artistic endeavors is staggering and humbling at the same time.

Humbling, in the sense that not only does the cave serve, however inadvertently, as an archive of these earliest known artistic endeavors, but also in that it provides a kind of communal space where the past meets the present, as a contemporary artist (Herzog) comes into direct contact with the first generation of artists. One of the most haunting moments is a feeling that Herzog describes having experienced himself when entering the cave: an overwhelming sense of interrupting the artists in the middle of their work, as if he can feel their eyes upon him as he makes his way through their studio. It perhaps takes an artist, in this case a filmmaker like Herzog, to fully articulate the kind of connection that these paintings provide to the culture that created them. It is quite moving to think that these paintings, seen only by small groups of people tens of thousands of years ago, and shut off from view for nearly 30 millennia, are now receiving their widest audience exposure yet through the recorded image of the motion picture.

It is as a filmmaker that Herzog makes his most insightful observations about the paintings themselves, noting the use of multiple legs on a depiction of a bison to create the illusion of movement. Herzog also observes how the play of light and shadow, cast from the torches of these early artists on to the cave wall, would have provided the sensation of motion, just as the battery-operated torches of Herzog and his crew demonstrate. As Herzog describes the ways in which these paintings would have been observed, there is a reverence and wonder in his voice that suggests a very real spiritual connection between himself and his predecessors of 32,000 years ago.

At one point in the film, it is suggested that, at one time, the cave probably served a religious purpose, as indicated by an altar on which rests a cave bear skull. How appropriate, then, that the cave still provides a kind of spiritual connection with those who first explored the human’s capacity for artistic expression and who continue to speak to future generations that look upon their work.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Marx Bros. at MGM: At the Circus (1939)

When the Marx Bros. signed on with MGM in 1935, producer Irving Thalberg suggested a new formula designed to “fix” the disappointing box office results of their last Paramount comedy, Duck Soup, which had come out in 1933. Thalberg proposed softening the edginess of their comedy, and adding elements such as romantic sub-plots and musical numbers, to broaden their appeal, particularly with female moviegoers.

As perhaps the biggest of the major studios, MGM had a bad track record when it came to producing comedy. The studio managed to do fine with classy, romantic comedies like Dinner at Eight and The Thin Man, but really character-driven stuff, centered around the distinct persona of the leading comedian, seemed to be beyond them. The most notorious case of MGM neutering a really unique comedian occurred with Buster Keaton, who joined the studio in 1928. After turning out one genuinely great film for them (The Cameraman, which – not coincidentally – was the last silent feature over which he had a great degree of creative control), he was shoehorned into increasingly inappropriate vehicles that turned his screen character into a bit of a dimwit, peppered with excruciating one-liners rather than pratfalls, until finally he was teamed with Jimmy Durante, whose rambunctious screen persona overshadowed Keaton’s on-camera.

However, with the release of the Marx Bros.’ first MGM film, A Night at the Opera (1935), it was Thalberg who was vindicated by the box-office receipts. The film itself is really a masterpiece of construction – an expertly structured and well-written comedy that manages to balance its different elements very well. Their follow-up film for the studio, A Day at the Races (1937), continued much in the same tradition, albeit somewhat less successfully (critics of the film rightly cite the “Water Carnival” sequence as an over-produced distraction that brings the film to a halt).

While it’s easy in hindsight to criticize Thalberg’s decision to water-down the Marxes’ comedy to heighten their box office appeal as a crass commercial move, it must be said in his defense that he recognized the need for top-flight writers like George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, who had worked with the brothers on the stage and whose scripts had served as the foundation for their first two screen hits, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). Thalberg also recognized the benefit of sending the Marxes on stage tour, to test scenes that had been written for the film, in order to see how they played before a live audience. This was an incredibly wise decision on Thalberg’s part, and both A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races benefit from the expert timing and polish that the Marxes were used to developing through their work in vaudeville and subsequently on Broadway night after night.

Sadly, during production of A Day at the Races, Irving Thalberg passed away at a tragically young age. The Marx Bros. made one rather lackluster picture on loan-out to RKO, Room Service (1938), an adaptation of a Broadway show that lost much in its translation to the screen.

When the brothers returned to MGM in 1939, things had changed.

Without Thalberg, the Marx Bros. were effectively powerless to fight for top-notch writers and directors, not to mention the ability to test their material on the road before filming, all of which had been so crucial in the success of their first two films with the studio.

Between 1939 and 1941, they would star in their final three films for the studio. These films have been almost unanimously panned as artistic and comedic flops - overproduced, expensive vehicles lacking the wit and charm of the earlier Marx Bros. comedies. While the films certainly fall short of the highest standards of films like Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, let alone their first two films at MGM, they nonetheless contains moments of comedy that are too good to ignore completely.

Their first picture upon returning to the studio was At the Circus (1939). While hardly one of their best efforts, the film isn’t without its charm, and it still maintains a certain energy that manages to carry it through its dull moments.

The film was directed by Edward Buzzell, a former musical comedy performer (his best-known performance today is probably the delightfully bizarre 1930 2-color Technicolor short, The Devil's Cabaret). The script was by Irving Brecher, who had previously written the vaudeville-flavored New Faces of 1937 starring Milton Berle and Joe Penner at RKO. The problem with Brecher's script isn't that it lacks decent comedy scenes, only that the plotting is too loose to really get invested in at any level (A Night at the Opera and to a lesser extent A Day at the Races at least presented a well-structured plot with just enough sense of conflict to hold interest in it). The other qualm with Brecher's writing style is that the jokes could really be performed by almost any group of comedians, so that there are fewer of the really characteristic moments that could be found in the first five films the Marxes made for Paramount. The film was produced by Mervyn LeRoy, who produced The Wizard of Oz for MGM the same year. On a side note, the film's main titles - featuring caricatures of the Marx Bros. - were drawn by noted cartoonist Al Hirschfeld.

The plot finds circus owner Jeff Wilson (played by popular singer Kenny Baker) struggling to save his company from impending bankruptcy, turning down persistent offers to be bought out by villainous businessman John Carter (James Burke), and trying to make good so that he can marry his sweetheart Julie Randall (Florance Rice). Groucho, as attorney J. Cheever Loophole, is brought in to protect Jeff while the whole circus is en route to via train to their next destination. Of course, Carter’s henchmen have infiltrated the troupe, Jeff Wilson gets knocked on the head and his $10,000 stolen, and Groucho is too busy cracking wise to do much of anything about any of it.

In order to save the circus, Groucho secures them a booking at a big society party given by Jeff’s aunt, Suzanna Dukesbury, without telling her exactly what kind of a show it is that she’s paying for. Things almost fall apart when the maestro, Jardinet (played by that great character actor, Fritz Feld), arrives to conduct the symphony orchestra that had originally been booked to entertain at the party. Groucho instructs Chico to give him a big send-off. He leads him to a giant floating bandstand, where Jardinet begins conducting his orchestra, while the bandstand promptly untied from the dock and set afloat!

The show must go on, and the curtain finally goes up on the circus, leading to a climax in which the villains try to disrupt the performance. This scene suffers from some fairly obvious uses of back projection and stunt doubles, which take away from the fun somewhat. It's really a kind of comic free-for-all, with even the circus gorilla (played by Charles Gemora, so memorable as Ethel in Laurel and Hardy's The Chimp) attempting to steal back the stolen money. Even as she watches her society party fall apart at the seams, one gets the impression that Margaret Dumont is having more fun than she lets on, particularly when she ends up getting shot out of a cannon!

The film’s big fade-out laugh comes with the unforgettable image of Jardinet set adrift on the floating bandstand, where he continues to furiously conduct the orchestra, totally oblivious to the fact that they are sailing off down the river.

While the film has some excellent gags such as this, it is also filled with moments that come very close to being solid comedy scenes, but never really reach their potential. Chico and Harpo sneaking in to the room of the circus strong man while on the train, Groucho, Harpo and Chico interrogating the midget circus performer in his tiny room, and the scene in which Groucho tries to get onto the circus train without his badge all have the basic ingredients that could have made for strong comedy, but they never quite come together. In short, the set-up is there, but the scenes lack the strong payoff of a really strong comedy sequence.

A scene was shot, but deleted, that introduced Groucho's character prior to the train sequence. The sequence took place in a courtroom, and while it might have slowed the pacing of the film's beginning down a bit, it's a shame the scene doesn't survive, as any courtroom scene with Groucho is guaranteed to be a laugh riot.

At the Circus is aided by a strong supporting cast – including Margaret Dumont as wealthy dowager Suzanna Dukesbury – that add a lot to the fun. Nat Pendleton is good as the circus strongman (probably a reference to his performance as Eugene Sandow in MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld). Eve Arden has a great turn as Peerless Pauline, whose act consists of walking on the ceiling with a pair of specially-made shoes. She and Groucho share a fun scene in which he tries to retrieve stolen money from her. After Groucho catches her stuffing the cash in her brassiere ("There must be some way I can get that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office"), he suggests that she demonstrate for him how to walk on the ceiling. However, she talks Groucho in to donning a pair of the shoes as well, and ends up leaving him stranded, hanging upside-down from the ceiling!

This scene is reflective of a strong current of exasperation running throughout the comedy of At the Circus. Groucho is basically prevented from succeeding at any of his tasks because of he is constantly being one-upped or thwarted by another character. Groucho's entrance in the film is a scene in which he has been offered a job by his old friend Chico, traveling with the circus troupe to protect the owner. However, when Groucho arrives and attempts to board the train that is about to depart, Chico refuses to let him on since he doesn't have the requisite badge. Groucho is repeatedly pushed back out into the pouring rain. Another such instance is the interrogation scene, where all Groucho needs to secure a confession is to get the circus midget (Jerry Maren) to give him one of his cigars, so that he can match it to the one found at the scene of the crime. His efforts to get the necessary sample are repeatedly thwarted by Chico, who keeps pulling out cigars of his own to offer to Groucho. Then there is the already-mentioned scene with Peerless Pauline. These are the kinds of scenes that always made for the most memorable Groucho-Chico exchanges in earlier films. Here, though, it's as if the entire universe has it in for Groucho!

The film has at least one moment of unparalleled brilliance – the “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” musical number, performed by Groucho, and written by the team of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who would write “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the same year. Along with “Hello, I Must Be Going”, it would become one of Groucho’s favorite songs to reprise over the years on his appearances on television talk shows. Aside from its brilliantly witty lyrics, the song is also a marvel of orchestration (when Groucho sings the lines about "She once swept an admiral clear off his feet/the ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat", the arrangers very carefully included the "Sailor's Hornpipe" within the orchestration). And even though it has been the target of many jibes over the years from fans of the Marxes, “Two Blind Loves” is actually an enjoyable little tune, made all the more charming by Kenny Baker (who is nowhere near as bad in this film as some critics have made him out to be). Chico is allowed an energetic piano solo, performing "Beer Barrel Polka" to the obvious delight of the train passengers (and the audience). Aside from Groucho’s “Lydia”, the best musical number in the film is Harpo’s jazzy and soulful rendition of “Blue Moon”, accompanied by a vocal chorus of black gospel singers. It is both beautiful and haunting.

If At the Circus was a generally amusing comedy punctuated with a few moments approaching greatness, then the Marx Bros.’ following film was an inversion of that – a generally dull picture that only occasionally provided solid laughs.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Porter's Chase Comedy

A prototypical “chase” comedy, How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904) demonstrates just how quickly things were developing in these early years of cinema. Directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Thomas Edison Company just one year after The Great Train Robbery, it is heavily influenced by the French farces of the early period, and is most interesting today for its use of the chase to structure its narrative.

This was, in fact, not even the first version of this same idea produced that year. Biograph had produced the first version earlier in 1904, and then after Edison’s version appeared, the Lubin company would make their own version. Such copying was not at all uncommon during this period, and it provides for an interesting comparison between the different versions to see minor variations on the same idea.

The premise finds a French Count placing an ad in the personals, “object: matrimony”, instructing the bride-to-be to meet him in front of Grant’s Tomb. The next day, the Count is shocked when dozens of women show up, expecting to marry him. In a sequence that may have very well inspired the second half of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances twenty years later, the outraged women give chase, over hill and dale, across streams, over a fence, finally pursuing the Count into a stream, where he gives up. One of the women wades into the stream, consoling him, and then walks off camera with him. The film ends once the characters (and the story) have effectively run out of steam and exhausted themselves.

Much of the film’s running time is devoted to the chase, which seems drawn out and protracted by the standards introduced several years later by Griffith and especially – in the comedy film – by Mack Sennett. The chase had emerged in the British cinema through films like Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray (both 1903), in which it served as a way to link shots taken in a variety of locations, as well as to propel the narrative events forward. Porter borrowed the chase structure from the British, and the inclusion of the comic elements into this structure suggest the influence of the French farces produced by the Pathé company, particularly those of Ferdinand Zecca. Of course, given that the film itself is a remake of the version directed by Wallace McCutcheon for Biograph (Personal), Porter was really working from an established model to begin with.

Instead of building the tempo through editing the way that Sennett did at Keystone, Porter instead holds on a static shot of each set up as all of the characters make their way through the frame, not cutting away until the final participant has exited the frame. The pursuers move in a long line straight through the frame. There was still an expectation at this time that all of the action must be presented in its entirety in order to maintain a sort of cognitive logic for the viewer. Similar concerns were expressed over the use of cutaways such as the closeup, which early producers feared would confuse audiences accustomed to seeing actors presented in full proscenium framing. Like so many other conventions, the chase would eventually fall out of favor due to over-use, and it was really through the work of D.W. Griffith at Biograph, and especially his protege Mack Sennett, at Keystone, who would revitalize the chase and help transform it not only in to a staple of American comedy film, but a crucial part in the development of editing action sequences.

A final note: the film is interesting for its use of locations. By 1904, the Edison company had re-located to the Bronx, where a new studio space was constructed (their Manhattan location, which they moved to in 1901 – a small, glass-roofed studio on top of a building - was a short-term solution to finding more space and better open-air lighting conditions). Biograph’s version had been shot in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but Porter filmed in front of a New York landmark, Grant’s Tomb. It’s interesting, purely for the sake of comparison, to see how barren the surrounding area was in 1904, compared to today, when the Tomb is surrounded by trees.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Love in the Film

William K. Everson's greatest gift as a writer was his ability to convey his love of whatever films or filmmakers he happened to be writing about. I had the honor of working as an archivist for his papers during my time at New York University, and it was always inspiring to read his thoughts on the films he showed over the years at both the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society and the New School series.

His 1979 book, Love in the Film, is an interesting look back at the great romantic films covering the entire history of the medium up to the time it was written. Although all the standards are there (Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, Brief Encounter), what makes the book most interesting are the obscure and offbeat films that Everson goes into detail about, including works from the 20s such as Clarence Brown's Smouldering Fires and William DeMille's Conrad in Quest for His Youth, plus lesser-known films such as James Whale's excellent but often overlooked 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge, Lewis Milestone's Hallelujah I'm a Bum (certainly an offbeat choice!), and Zoo in Budapest.

Everson organizes the book by decade. There is a strong emphasis on the 1920s through the 1940s, with the period from the 1950s onward represented by only four films (and only one film - Annie Hall - from the 1970s). For each decade, Everson provides an overview of prevailing trends, attitudes and values reflected in the films that he goes into more detail about in their individual entries. His approach, as with other of his books, involves a largely interpretive form of criticism, providing a context in which to appreciate how these films deal with the theme of love. Everson's always-insightful reviews provide a way of digesting the films and understanding the relationship between such a diverse list of titles spanning so many decades.

Like his later Hollywood Bedlam, a look at screwball comedy, Love in the Film is organized in a "filmography" format that makes it easy to consider each film individually and on its own terms. Everson avoids the trap of having to connect similar threads and themes from film to film into a thesis, instead examining each film separately.

For collectors of film books like myself, Love in the Film is a welcome addition - not only for Everson's always-worthwhile insights - but also as a guide for obscure and overlooked films to seek out. Everson's descriptions certainly convey his enthusiasm for each title, and make readers want to go see each of these films for him or herself.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra

While researching Hollywood films that depict the moviemaking process for what is shaping up to be a book-length project, one of the most intriguing figures I've come across is Robert Florey. Florey, of course, has already been championed - by William K. Everson and others - as an interesting if off-beat director of B-pictures. What I find so intriguing about Florey is that he made at least three films dealing with Hollywood itself. The first of these, his experimental 1928 short, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra, sets the tone for the other two, which were mainstream releases by a big studio (The Preview Murder Mystery and Hollywood Boulevard).

This short was co-directed by Slavko Vorkapich, later to become known for his work editing montage sequences for MGM. The main credits are starkly simplistic, and I got a chill reading the credit "Camera work - Gregg"; Gregg being Gregg Toland at the beginning of his highly innovative career.

The film's opening is similar to that of the opening of Hollywood Boulevard, with Florey's trademark canted camera angles showing looming buildings - tall, Expressionist structures that look like they could have come straight out of a UFA production. While Hollywood Boulevard uses actual Hollywood locations, it conveys the same sense of being overwhelmed. The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra owes something to the Soviet and German "city symphonies", in its focus on a single time and place and its characters representing clearly-identifiable "types", but is firmly in the avant-garde tradition, filled with heavy-handed symbolism and Expressionist settings (only a handful of shots appear to have been taken on location at all). The film presents a nightmare vision of the "becoming a star" trope that was so popular at this time in films like Souls for Sale and Ella Cinders. In researching the films of the silent era that depict Hollywood and the filmmaking process, the overall view of Hollywood seems to be surprisingly darker than it would be later in the 30s (at least until A Star is Born, in 1937). Part of this is no doubt due to the then-recent scandals involving stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid. Souls for Sale, in particular, plays off the image of Hollywood as a kind of moral wasteland, with the father of its young star-struck protagonist preparing sermons in which he condemns the town. The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra is very much made from the point of view of "outsiders", albeit ones who want to break in to the business just as badly as the characters they depict.

As the film is ultimately more a showcase for its technique rather than its content, it is not particularly enlightening in terms of investigating what it says about the industry at that time. Of its two directors, Vorkapich went on to have what could arguably be considered the more "successful" career, establishing himself with a particular skill at the biggest of the studios. Florey would never rise above the level of B-pictures, but always demonstrated an astonishing degree of inventiveness and stylization in most of his work.

Taken strictly on its own, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra would not be a terribly interesting insight into the filmmaking process itself, but because three of its makers went on to have established careers in the Hollywood film industry, it can be seen as an example of their work before they were reigned in by the commercial demands of the studio system.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Adventurer (1917)

This past weekend's screenings of the Silent Clowns Film Seriesincluded a comedy that has long been one of my favorite of the Chaplin-Mutuals, The Adventurer, produced in 1917.

The film was Chaplin's final Mutual comedy. Some critics have found significance in the fact that, as with his final Essanay and First National comedies, Chaplin here plays a convict escaping from prison. Nonetheless, Chaplin himself described the Mutual period as the happiest years of his professional career. It's easy to see why - the sheer unbridled joy, creativity and enthusiasm is evident in every one of the dozen comedies he made for the company in 1916 and 1917.

As a convict on the run, Charlie is forced to hide out among a bunch of high society types, giving him plenty of opportunities to lampoon the upper classes. Every figure of authority and order is fair game for Charlie - one of the prison guards, who is supposed to be on the look out for the runaway prisoner, is shown hiding out in the kitchen, flirting with the cook! Once his cover is finally blown, he leads the guards on a wild chase through the house that includes one of his best-choreographed gags: catching the heads of heavy Eric Campbell and the prison guard in a pair of sliding doors.

What really comes through in these earlier Chaplin comedies his sense of playfulness. Charlie here is almost like a playful puppy. This is no more evident than in the opening sequence in which he eludes prison guards on the beach by digging his way through the sand, popping his head up between the guard's legs, and ducking in and out of caves on the beach, each time eluding his pursuers by a hair. There's a wonderful moment where Charlie, thinking he has finally eluded the guards by scurrying up the side of a cliff, casually tosses rocks down at the guard below. As he does so, another guard approaches him from behind, stepping on his hand. Charlie looks down, seeing only the guard's shoe. Realizing that he's been caught, Charlie quickly covers the guard's shoe with sand before taking off again.

Chaplin's career would next take him to First National, where he began tackling increasingly heavy subject matter. His films would become a bit more mature, a bit more focused on character and plot. But the carefree abandon of the Mutual comedies continues to make them one of the most cherished and beloved bodies of work in screen comedy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Muybridge and the Illusion of Motion

Michael Brown's sculpture, "Unsupported Transit (aka Ghost Horse"), is an interesting example of the ways in which art and new media can be used as critical tools.

The artist's website describes the project as follows: "Reverse cutouts of Muybridge's galloping horse overlaid on ten small mirrors; Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) aimed at each mirror produced a reflected image of a galloping horse onto a frosted glass dome. With sequenced flashing LED's and precise overlapping of the reflections an animation of the galloping horse is created" (

I first encountered Brown's sculpture when I contributed a video to the NPR Muybridge contest in the spring of 2010, held in conjunction with the "Helios" exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. My entry, titled "24 Frames", examined the notion of the "frame" in the age of new media by breaking down a second of digital video footage, captured on an SD card in a Lumix camera, into 24 consecutive frames. The video image, of course, records at 30 fps (or, to be more precise, 29.97), and in fact, in digital video, there is no more "frame", only a series of zeroes and ones. By returning the digital image to the standard "24 frames" of the celluloid film stock, I hoped to reveal the amount of information that each frame can hold. This, of course, was directly inspired by Muybridge's notion of the individual images that he had to capture separately in order to create the illusion of movement.

But where my project involved a digital image, Brown's sculpture (which, incidentally, was the winning entry in the contest), returns the viewer to the pre-cinematic mode of spectatorship that was, of course, the only means of spectatorship available to audiences of the 1870s and 80s. Therefore, it might be more appropriate to term his work "non-cinematic", but even that is misleading, as his principles of motion provided the very foundation, along with other models, on which the cinema itself was built. As I argued in a recent paper on Muybridge's contribution to the project of documentary, his work as all too often been written about only as it relates to the cinema. Rather than thinking of him merely as a precursor to "real" movies, it's worth exploring the amazing contributions Muybridge made to the capturing of motion outsidethe cinema as we know it. As I noted in an earlier post about Muybridge’s contributions to the Panorama, his work presented ways of viewing images that are still not entirely possible within the cinema. Similarly, Brown’s “Unsupported Transit” offers, in its sculpture form, a unique experience that cannot be replicated by film.

Michael Brown's "Unsupported Transit" takes Muybridge's most famous motion study and turns it into a self-reflexive study of the medium itself. Significantly, the video that Brown posted to YouTube for the Muybridge contest is simply a recording of his sculpture. Like Muybridge's work, Brown's sculpture itself stands as a work of art. The beauty of the piece is that it re-creates the illusion of movement totally independent of the recorded moving image itself. A still image - that of a silhouette of Muybridge's horse photograph - is mounted in such a way that when the light from the diodes reflects off of it, it creates the illusion that it is in motion. By taking this approach, Brown forces the spectator to confront the very artificiality of the moving image itself. What is a movie, after all, but a series of still images that are granted the illusion of life when played back at a certain speed, just like the illusion created by the lights hitting the still image of Muybridge's horse.

Aside from providing a neat link between the 19th century series photography and new media, Brown’s sculpture also demonstrates the way in which these tools can be used, self-reflexively, to comment on the nature of the medium itself, and the properties inherent to each form (be it moving pictures, photography, sculpture, or light show) that are unique to each and provide a distinct experience in themselves.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Wrong Door (1904)

I’ve hesitated writing about this film for a long time, because ultimately, what can one say about a film that consists of little more than a single bathroom joke?

I had come across this film on Google Video as part of the collection (curated by Ira Gallen) while doing research on some area of early cinema. I was immediately struck by such sheer, joyful vulgarity in a film made in 1904! I’d never heard of the film before, and a quick search revealed that it was called The Wrong Door, that it dated from 1904, and that it had been directed by Ferdinand Zecca, one of the more creative and innovative pioneers working in France during the early period. Although it wasn’t relevant to the material I was researching at the moment, I filed it away as something I absolutely had to return to.

Flash forward to March 2010. I was preparing a paper on narrative in early cinema for the NYU Graduate English Organization conference. In the paper, I argued that there was a story element present in even the most “spectacle”-driven films. One of the film makers whose work I examined in the paper was Ferdinand Zecca.

In trying to come up with a video clip with which to illustrate an example of the kinds of films I was discussing in the paper, my mind suddenly returned to The Wrong Door. What better film to illustrate the idea of a simple story designed as a foundation on which to rest the film’s comic punchline? At just over a minute, it was also the perfect length for the conference presentation. My only question: how would the audience respond?

When I arrived at the conference, I asked my friend Yair Solan - who was one of the conference organizers and a fellow silent film historian himself – whether or not he thought the film would go over well with the academic English department crowd. By sheer coincidence, he knew the film, having seen it at the Slapsticon festival a couple years earlier. And he hadn’t forgotten it! With his encouragement, I showed the film at the end of my presentation, completely unsure how the audience would react.

The reaction was a mix of shock and uproarious laughter. It is a little shocking to see a film from this period that is so blatantly and cheerfully vulgar. Another person I showed it to recently described it as a kind of forerunner of the vulgarity of such contemporary filmmakers as the Farrelly Bros., who have turned shock into shtick. There’s little in The Wrong Door that leaves anything to the imagination.

The film consists of two camera angles: an exterior shot of what appears to be a train station, and an interior shot of the telephone booth. Interestingly, the signs are printed in English, and the labeling of the “Water Closets” suggest that the film is supposed to take place somewhere in England, with the lead character a rube of some kind, probably visiting from France (where the film was made).

The rube enters the frame, shuffling along and holding his grumbling stomach, before asking a porter where the restrooms are. The porter points toward the doors labeled “Water Closets”. Right next to them, however, is a door labeled “Telephone”. Guess which door the rube enters?

Once inside, he looks at the telephone confused, mistaking it for the toilet. He walks up to it, pulls down his pants, sits on the ledge, and relieves himself. Outside the telephone booth, a man is knocking on the door, waiting to use the phone. The rube opens the door of the booth, looking relieved, and makes his way offscreen. The man, who has entered the phone booth, backs out quickly, holding his nose.

There is relatively little information available on the film. The film takes place in front of a painted backdrop, suggesting the cheaper production values characteristic of its production company, Pathe, as opposed to the higher production values of Gaumont.

The character of the rube is dressed in checkered pants, ill-fitting jacket, bandana tied around his neck, and a derby, suggesting a sort of rural bumpkin, or even comic tramp. In my research on the film, I have been unable to determine whether or not this was a recognizable comic character that appeared in other Pathe comedies of the period. There was certainly an abundance of comic characters in the French cinema during this period – the Bout-de-Zan films by Louis Feuillade, the Onésime films by Jean Durand – so it is quite possible that this character that Zecca featured in The Wrong Door appeared in other films as well.

There has been speculation over the fact that the signs in the film are written in English. At first I considered the possibility that the film had been shot in an alternate version with English signs for English-speaking audiences, but then realized that the gag only makes sense if the rube character is unable to read the signs. The signs, then, are naturally in English because the French rube has arrived in England, presumably by train (hence the setting of the film in a train station). This seems the most plausible explanation.

What is especially unique about this subject is its extremely short length, suggesting it was made to be shown as a sort of “filler” on the program. The fact that it consists of just a single gag would support this, though it’s also a little difficult to imagine this film being shown alongside other comedies. Even something like Zecca’s The Inquisitive Janitor (1901), with its implications of voyeurism and sex farce, doesn’t even begin to approach the level of vulgarity of The Wrong Door.

The film certainly holds up as an example of the tendency in early cinema to emphasize the “effect” – in this case comic – using the story as a set-up for the final punchline. As one of my fellow panelists at the English conference commented after the film was shown, it was certainly an “edifying example”.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Upstream (1927)

Recently discovered after being lost for more than 80 years, Upstream is a delightful light comedy that is distinctly Fordian. His theme of the family manifests itself neatly in the form of the family unit provided by a theatrical troupe, staying in a New York boarding house.

Earle Foxe stars as Eric Brashingham, “the last – and least” of a long-line of an acting family. He is in love with Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), but has a rival in actor Jack LaVelle (Grant Withers). Brashingham is called on to star in a London production of “Hamlet” – the producers don’t care that he’s a rotten actor, they just want the Brashingham name attached to the show. An old actor boarding with the troupe (movingly played by Emile Chautard) coaches Brashingham for the big performance. Surprisingly, Brashingham is a huge hit, and becomes the sensation of the theatrical world. However, he quickly finds that his behavior has alienated him from his long-time friends and colleagues.

The film is filled with customary Ford humor. A real highlight is the vaudeville comedy team “Callahan and Callahan” (Ted McNamara and Sammy Cohen) who provide many of the film’s best moments. And that grand old comedian, Raymond Hitchcock, has a wonderful supporting part. He’s a perfect fit for Ford’s stock company, and it’s a pity he died just two years after this film was made.

There had been much talk that this film demonstrated the Murnau influence on Ford’s visual style, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the film to support that idea. Murnau’s style did seem to influence Ford’s approach to filming Four Sons the following year, but Upstream seems to be fairly conventional by the standards of 1927, even though it was shot by Charles G. Clarke, who would also photograph Four Sons.

The film seems to be in keeping with other light comic work that Ford was doing in the late 20s, such as Riley the Cop (1928). It’s an interesting reminder of the wide variety of genres he was working in before becoming more established with Western and war films later on in his career. Comedy, of course, would remain an important part of Ford’s style throughout his career. Here, he demonstrates a light directorial touch that would serve him well again with the fun (and undeservedly underrated) comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), with Edward G. Robinson.

Following its rediscovery in New Zealand in 2010, Upstream had its re-premiere in Los Angeles. The film was screened at the newly-renovated Riklis Theater at the Museum of the Moving Image (in Astoria, Queens). The new music score was composed by Donald Sosin, and was performed by Sosin on piano along with violinist Susan Heerema, clarinetist David Tasgal, and drummer Ken Lauber. Joanna Seaton wrote lyrics for a new title song to the film, and performed vocals for a couple of other numbers used in the accompaniment (including “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Oh You Beautiful Doll”, and “Auld Lang Syne”).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Return to the Kingdom of Shadows

During a recent trip to MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, I came across an interesting exhibit that reminded me that the basic principles that first enchanted audiences with early cinema more than a century ago are still at work today.

The work was Peter Campus’ “Shadow Projections” (1974), and brings contemporary spectators back to the Kingdom of Shadows that audiences first entered at the end of the 19th century. The work features a kind of “shadow projector”: a white screen, with a light on one side, and a projector shining light onto the other. Standing in front of it, the spectator not only sees his own shadow, but a detailed projection of themselves with visible features. It’s quite uncanny, really, how detailed the shadows appear when projected onto the screen.

As I was at looking at the exhibit, a child ran right up to the little screen, absolutely fascinated by what he was seeing. He was taken with the way his movements were replicated on the screen by his shadow! I couldn’t help thinking that this is a child who has only known a world with HDTV, CGI movies, digital photography, video games with 3-D graphics, various electronic devices for viewing online video, and so on. And yet, he was positively fascinated with the pure motion of a shadow against the screen. During my time at the exhibit, children and adults alike expressed a similar fascination – something so simple, yet with an undeniable ability to captivate.

It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to imagine the same kind of fascination that spectators at the first film screenings would have felt. Upon seeing his first movie in 1896, Maxim Gorky said:

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without color. Everything there – the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air – is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life, but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless specter.”

The desire to depict motion can be traced back as long as man has set out to depict the human experience through art. Cave paintings depicting animals with multiple legs are said to represent the illusion of motion. The “shadow play”, of course, has a long history, dating back to ancient China, with shadow puppetry emerging during the Han Dynasty.

It is only a short technological leap to the Zoetrope and the Magic Lantern, both of which enchanted audiences in the 19th century. Shadows remain an essential part of the cinematic experience – from animated works like Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed to the celebrated sword fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Peter Campus’ Shadow Projector returns the moving image to that “soundless specter” by reducing the image to its bare essentials. Stripped of the bells and whistles of computer graphics, 3-D imagery, color, sound, and other artificial enhancements, the shadow reminds us what first drew audiences to early cinema in the first place, and indeed, why we still refer to them, after all, as “movies”.

When I see - even in the media-saturated visual culture of the 21st century - the fascination that just watching the movement of one’s own shadow projected on a screen can still provide, as it did for that child at PS1, it demonstrates that the study of early cinema is more relevant than ever.