Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

There was an anecdote I read years ago -- and I've forgotten where I read it now -- about a joke circulating in Hollywood during World War II, something to the effect of "In the case of an air raid, go over to RKO Radio Pictures -- they haven't had a hit in years."

That always puzzled me, because it seems to me that RKO produced many of the finest individual films of the studio era. Of course, it's possible that this did not translate to big box office hits that some of the other studios may have enjoyed, but the quality of the studio's output speaks for itself with such fine films as Citizen Kane, King Kong, Gunga Din, Bringing Up Baby, Little Women, and the Astaire-Rogers cycle, among many others.

Chief among the examples of RKO's great films must be the 1939 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton in the title role. His achingly beautiful performance stands as one of his finest accomplishments in a long career filled with memorable roles. It has been noted that the Hunchback has relatively little screen time for what is the starring role, and yet Laughton's presence looms large over the film. Even when he is off-screen, we never forget about him. Laughton is one of many fine actors in a cast that includes Maureen O'Hara (in her first Hollywood film), Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, and a youthful Edmond O'Brien, among others.

What really stands about the film is its exceptional production values. I have read that, at the time, Hunchback was the second-most expensive production RKO had yet undertaken (the most expensive being Gunga Din, released the same year), and it shows. Medieval Paris is brought to life in great scale on the RKO backlot, aided by impressive matte paintings. William Dieterle, one of the more interesting studio craftsmen working in Hollywood's studio system, and frequent John Ford cinematographer Joseph H. August create a vivid atmosphere that brims with bustling activity in the daylight, and a sense of quiet menace in the shadow of night.

Perhaps because it was released in that remarkable year of 1939, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been overshadowed somewhat by the other great films of that year, and does not seem to be revived as often as some of those other films (not just the perennial favorites Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but also the genre-defining Stagecoach and the Capra classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). But it stands as the equal of any of the other great films of 1939, and remains one of the finest achievements of the Hollywood studio system.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Justus D. Barnes: Early Film Star

Justus D. Barnes (1862-1946), who achieved immortality on film as the bandit who fires his gun into the camera at the end of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. He came to films from the stage, and worked for both the Edison and Thanhouser companies. He retired from acting in 1917 and later worked as a milkman and ran a cigar store.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Laurel & Hardy in "The Devil's Brother" (1933)

The first of Laurel and Hardy's operetta films, and quite possibly the best, adapted from the 1830 show by Daniel Auber. The boys play down-on-their-luck vagabonds in 18th century Italy who reluctantly become the bumbling assistants to the notorious bandit chief Fra Diavolo ("The Devil's Brother"). Comedy highlights include Laurel's "kneesy-earsy-nosey" finger games and Laurel becoming intoxicated while filling bottles in a wine cellar. The soundtrack retains a number of the songs from Auber's original score. Singer Dennis King brings the perfect mix of menace and charm to the title role, supported by a fine cast including Thelma Todd as the bored noblewoman, James Finlayson as her cuckold husband, and Henry Armetta as the long-suffering innkeeper whose inability to imitate Laurel's "finger games" causes him no end of frustration. One of the only Laurel and Hardy films directed by their long-time producer Hal Roach.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sturges and Slapstick

Watching THE LADY EVE again, I was struck by something about Preston Sturges' technique that I've written about before here. I always hedge about coming out with this outright criticism of his otherwise marvelous films, but after having recently seen both LADY EVE and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, those films have re-enforced my opinion that Sturges simply never mastered the kind of slapstick comedy of which he was so fond of inserting into his films, and that, contrasted with the smooth flow of his dialogue, the slapstick moments stand out for their awkwardness.

The major slapstick moments in THE LADY EVE occur during the part in which Fonda is re-introduced to Stanwyck posing as another woman. He is so distracted by her resemblance to the con-woman he fell in love with on his ocean cruise back from South America that he is continually tripping over himself. Fonda, never a slapstick performer, handles the business admirably, but it feels labored and stiff, not helped by the undercranking to underscore the comic effect. Only his third bit of slapstick in this sequence -- when he brings his head up on a tea tray -- provokes the kind of surprised laughter that the best slapstick earns. It is that element of surprise, created from building up the gags, that Sturges seems to struggle to find in these moments.

In a previous post on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, I'd written that Sturges never seemed to be able to solve the problem of finding a way to get his characters to fall into a swimming pool. As Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake argue, she threatens to push him into the pool, and in the rather chaotic ensuing struggle between McCrea, Lake and the butler, all tumble into the pool. When Sullivan's valet attempts to pull the butler out of the pool, he is himself pulled in, at which point the scene ends. It's funny enough, but feels chaotic and hurried.

That is something I have come to admire all the more about Sturges' contemporaries in film comedy, especially Leo McCarey, George Stevens and Frank Capra, all of whom had come up in silent comedy and understood slapstick staging and timing inside out. These men knew how to make the slapstick sequences organic to the whole and of a piece, whereas in Sturges' films, these scenes stick out and call attention to themselves.

As a contrast with how Sturges handles the pool scene in SULLIVAN, I would point to the famous scene in Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, with the floor of the high school gym opening up to reveal a swimming pool in the middle of the Charleston contest. As Stewart and Reed dance deliriously, blissfully unaware of the potential embarrassment that awaits them, we watch in anticipation of the big moment when they will fall in. It's a cathartic moment they finally do, and is only heightened by the other students diving in. The flustered school principal, watching nervously from the sidelines, finally decides that it looks like so much fun that he dives in, too -- a nice capper to the sequence. A scene like this could easily be out of place and distracting in a film like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but Capra draws on his slapstick training to make it entirely of a piece.

As a final point of contrast, I would point to a scene from another Sturges film I had recently seen, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. This is one of Sturges' most brilliantly conceived and executed comedies, almost like a symphony in its intricate construction. But there is a lengthy and protracted slapstick sequence with Rex Harrison, involving his efforts to retrieve his dictation machine from a top shelf, which brings the proceedings to a halt. Sturges lets this scene play out for minutes on end, and while it was clearly intended to be a comic exercise in frustration à la W.C. Fields, it is instead just frustrating in its failure to build to anything.

I offer this only as an example of how Sturges' contemporaries, who had spent years working in silent comedy for producers like Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, were able to keep the slapstick tradition alive in their films 20 years on. Sturges was unmatched at creating unique comic worlds, populated with his favorite character actors speaking that wonderful concoction of Sturges dialogue that is his hallmark. But when it comes to slapstick, I continue to believe that Sturges never quite mastered finding a way to integrate it into his world of comedy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Saturday Night Fever" (1977) Director's Cut

It's an interesting contradiction that a film that is so very much of a specific time and place (late '70s Brooklyn, at the height of the Disco craze) has held up so well for 40 years. It's one of those films that, I imagine, must have seemed hopelessly dated in one sense just a few years after its release. But perhaps now, separated by the distance of time, we can better appreciate its strengths and qualities that keep audiences coming back to it.

The story of Tony Manero, a young working-class Italian-American man in Brooklyn struggling to find himself through the only thing that matters to him -- dancing -- is certainly one audiences continue to identify with. John Travolta's star-making performance, John Badham's energetic direction and the pulsating music of the Bee Gees elevate the film to an experience that still brims with vitality. Norman Wexler's script (based on "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night", an article by Nik Cohn that appeared in New York Magazine the previous year) is startlingly honest, granting real seriousness to Tony's struggle to move beyond the world he knows and make a name for himself.

After seeing SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER on the big screen, I was struck by just what a nicely-photographed film it is. I think this gets lost when watching the film on TV, or even on DVD, where some of the definition and detail is lost, but there are some moments that are really quite stunning. The cinematographer, Ralf D. Bode, frequently shoots the closeups of Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney together with a soft, gauzy look that gives them a dreamlike quality, which contrasts effectively with the naturalism of the scenes with Travolta and his friends. He brings a similar quality to the dance sequences (particularly the "Night Fever" number), heightened by the colorful flashing lights and fog on the dance floor. Looking over his filmography, I realize I have only seen a couple other films photographed by Bode, but I do not remember anything particularly unique about their cinematography. In any case, he did really fine work on SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, which is greatly emphasized by seeing the film on a big screen.

Further Reading:
"Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" by Nik Cohn
Roger Ebert's 1977 Review of Saturday Night Fever
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" review of Saturday Night Fever
Janet Maslin's Review of Saturday Night Fever in the New York Times (Dec. 16, 1977)
"Saturday Night Fever at 40: You Should Still Be Dancing"

Monday, November 13, 2017

"The Movie"

Something that has stuck with me, ever since I first read Roger Ebert's review of CASABLANCA, was his description of it as "The Movie". I knew exactly what he meant by that, and still agree with the assessment. Although I prefer to avoid such hyperbole as "greatest", "best", "most important" and other such ultimately meaningless platitudes in talking about films, there is something about CASABLANCA that has elevated it to a level of enduring cultural iconic status that is, I think, perhaps unique.

It was especially fun seeing the film on the big screen in a state-of-the-art megaplex (the Towson Cinemark theater). We went for the 2pm show but it was already sold out, so we got tickets for 7pm and it played to a packed house. Some of the Bogart cult was in attendance, complete with trenchcoats and fedoras, reciting the iconic lines.

Especially in this day and age, when the moviegoing experience seems to be split between bigger, louder, and emptier Hollywood fare, and the museum-like reverence of the art and revival house, it can be a breath of fresh air to view a classic like CASABLANCA as a living, breathing, vital experience, as fresh today as it was 75 years ago.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Movie Soundtracks & Frame Blow-up Books

Going through my collection of movie soundtrack albums tonight, I came across these two old favorites. One is a collection of recordings of routines by W.C. Fields (subtitled "...His only recording"), also featuring eight songs by Mae West, and the other is a collection of scenes from the films of the Marx Bros., featuring "the original voice tracks from their greatest movies". These albums were extremely popular during the height of the nostalgia craze in the early '70s, and were also quite useful in the pre-home video days, when such albums were the only way to re-visit favorite scenes from these films.

There was also a series of books, many by Richard J. Anobile, that served a similar purpose and included frame blow-ups and dialogue transcriptions from famous films. I have one called Why a Duck?, which consists of scenes from the Marx Bros.' comedies. Anobile wrote others, too, including Who's on First, A Flask of Fields, A Fine Mess, plus individuals volumes on classics such as PSYCHO, THE MALTESE FALCON and FRANKENSTEIN, among others. He even wrote one on THE GENERAL, though it's hard to imagine how his scene-by-scene frame blowups would work for a silent film.

I wonder how many people still collect these? Home video eventually rendered these kinds of books and albums obsolete, but as classic film comedy fans know, it's hard to ever pass up a chance to spend time with your favorite comedians, no matter what the format.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unexpected Audience Laughter

I noticed something interesting at last night's SUSPIRIA screening -- though it was hard to miss, as it was actually quite distracting: sometime around the second half of the film, roughly half the audience began laughing raucously at the film, which totally took me right out of the carefully-crafted, haunting atmosphere of the experience.

It reminded me of my experiences watching VERTIGO, another haunting, dream-like film that often inspires fits of uncomfortable laughter from audiences. At least in that case I can understand the laughter as a nervous response to the increasingly unhinged behavior of the Jimmy Stewart character.

I'll never forget the first time I saw VERTIGO with an audience in film school years ago. There was one moment in particular that got such a strong laugh from everyone in the room but me, and I've never understood it. It occurs when Scottie Ferguson gives the distraught Judy Barton a brandy and tells her to drink it down. That moment got a huge laugh from everyone. The professor, also laughing, said, "Hey, it was the '50s..."

I still didn't get it.

There was another incident I recall, more recently, during a screening of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT at Loew's Jersey City. At the moment of the reveal that Kropp's leg has been amputated, someone in the audience let out a loud burst of uncomfortable laughter, possibly out of surprise. The poor devil was the only person in the entire house to react that way, so it must have been embarrassing.

At least it was an honest reaction.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Hitchcock's Perfection

Taking in a screening of Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS recently, I realized that this has become probably my most oft-watched Hitchcock film. Certainly it's the one I can return most frequently without losing any of the suspense or freshness of Hitchcock's technique. As I wrote in a recent post on NORTH BY NORTHWEST, sometimes the iconic sequences of Hitchcock's best-known films can come to play better in my mind, where they exist in a kind of rosy retrospection.

That is not the case with THE 39 STEPS, however. It is a film I have seen probably at least a half-dozen times if not more, and each time I am swept up anew in the breathless pace of the endlessly engaging story, the erotic chemistry of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll's performances, and of course, Hitchcock's masterful technique that shows his fertile creative mind at its most active and visionary. After the screening, I commented that the film is one of the very few that I would describe as "perfect" -- not a wasted frame or extraneous moment in the entire piece.

I find, more and more, that I am drawn to the early works of directors, often those formative films made before they hit their full stride and became identified with a certain style or genre. I'm not sure if I would consider THE 39 STEPS to be an "early" Hitchcock film, given that it was already something like his 20th film as a director, and made fifteen years after he'd entered the film industry. But it nonetheless contains the kind of energy and vitality and creative experimentation that I associate with the earlier films of directors, and in terms of Hitchcock's filmography, it certainly set the standard for many of his most successful films to follow, not to mention establishing a prototype for the entire espionage film genre.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Rosemary's Baby" and Great Character Actors

ROSEMARY'S BABY must have one of the finest casts of character actors since some of the classic Universal horror films of the '30s and '40s. Made by Paramount in 1968, the film straddles the very tail end of the last vestiges of the old studio system, and the era of New Hollywood. And one of the best aspects of the former is the great roster of character actors who make up much of the supporting cast.

Watching the film again at the Charles Theatre recently, right before Halloween, I raced to count all the familiar names in the opening credits: in addition to the wonderful Ruth Gordon, we have Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly, and Elisha Cook Jr., among others. Seeing these familiar faces as characters involved in a Satanic cult makes the proceedings all the more unsettling. Polanski likely chose these actors precisely for their strong identification with certain "types", which would have been especially recognizable to moviegoers in 1968. It's an inspired casting decision. 

And I love seeing John Cassavetes do his impression of Elisha Cook!

Monterey Pop and the Avant Garde

I watched D.A. Pennebaker's film of MONTEREY POP a few weeks ago at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore for the first time, and hadn't jotted down any thoughts on it yet, perhaps because it is such an "experience" beyond being just a filmed record of the concert.

However, something that I have found myself thinking about quite a bit since then is the way that the film, and indeed, much of the Direct Cinema movement, fuses the concepts and energies of both the documentary and avant garde traditions. There are sequences in MONTEREY POP show the direct influence (and directly influenced?) the techniques of Jonas Mekas' diary film shooting style, for example.

Similarly, if you look at an earlier film by Pennebaker, DAYBREAK EXPRESS (1953), it's difficult to even classify -- is it a documentary of a morning train commute, or an avant garde city symphony (or jazz riff, in this case), animated in light and shadow? Why can't it be both?

The Blair Witch Project & Low Budget Filmmaking

In retrospect, I've wondered if it was the success of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that really kicked off the period of excitement for low-budget DIY filmmaking in the early 2000s? Certainly the early success stories of Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith paved the way for this kind of thing, but even in the '90s, there was still considerable cost involved if shooting on 16mm or 35mm. That BLAIR WITCH (shot on 16mm and Hi8 video) coincided with the availability of consumer-level digital tools made filmmaking seem open to anyone with a good idea, and the possibilities endless.

I wonder if there is a film since then that has had the same kind of impact on aspiring filmmakers?

Saturday, November 04, 2017

North by Northwest (1959)

I caught a screening of this Hitchcock classic as part of the Filmtalk screening and discussion series at the Enoch Pratt Library this afternoon. I hadn't seen it in several years, at least. Despite its status as perhaps the "ultimate" Hitchcock film, I have to confess it is not one that I re-watch as frequently as some of his other movies, even though it is undoubtedly an immensely enjoyable film. This isn't so much due to overexposure, as I have not actually seen it that many times compared to, say, PSYCHO, or THE 39 STEPS, or even ROPE. For some reason, it's a film that has tended to play better in my mind, perhaps due to the standout sequences (the crop-duster, Mount Rushmore) that rank among some of the most iconic in all of cinema.

So it came as a pleasant surprise, upon seeing it again for probably the first time in at least a decade, that I enjoyed this highly entertaining film even more than expected. More than ever lately, I have found how much more I enjoy seeing films with an audience, even if just a few people, where you can share in the experience of the film together.

As I mentioned above, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a film that holds few surprises for me at this point, even if I do hold a good deal of affection for it. This time around I was struck more than ever by the playfulness of Hitchcock's approach, and even moments of wry humor, such as the strains of "It's a Most Unusual Day" wafting through the hotel lobby moments before Cary Grant is kidnapped. And I was struck by Hitchcock's unconventional (especially for the period) use of space and time in building up to the crop-dusting sequence. The lengthy stretches of silence and the vast expanse of the landscape in the moments leading up to the attack by the plane look forward to his use of similar elements, to an even greater degree, in THE BIRDS a few years later.

And was there ever a director with more of a gift for making actors look good than Hitchcock? NORTH BY NORTHWEST offers strong evidence that the answer is "no".