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.