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.