Thursday, December 31, 2015

50 films for the Registry

To end the year I'll fulfill a promise made earlier this month to scan the Library of Congress's list of films not yet enshrined in the National Film Registry and find fifty films to nominate in chronological order. Readers may recall that I complained about the inclusion in the Class of 2015 of such recent films as The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential, without passing judgment on their quality, while older films languished that could benefit in the future from a government commitment to their preservation. My feeling was that the Registry tried too hard to be chronologically diverse in order to get the attention of younger people and the news media, and that their justification of "cultural significance" isn't justification enough to reduce the quota of older, historically significant films Registered. I'm now looking at the list of eligible films on the Registry website, starting from 1890. I don't intend to pick the first 50 films because age doesn't automatically confer significance. Instead, I'll choose titles I've seen or know something about beyond their age. So here we go:

1. Serpentine Dance by Annabelle (1896) - If I recall right, this was part of the 100 years of movies montage that used to run on TCM all the time. Before that, it was often mentioned in film history books as an early example of hand-tinting, sexy dancing, and slow motion.

2. Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) - Possibly the original of the long-popular joke about hick audiences not realizing what they saw on the screen was fake.

3. Life of an American Fireman (1903) - One of Edwin S. Porter's pioneer narrative films from the same year as his better-known Great Train Robbery.

4. The Adventures of Dollie (1908). D. W. Griffith's debut as a director has to count for something.

5. The Curtain Pole (1909). Here I've cheated, since the Registry doesn't have this on their list for some reason, but it's an early slapstick comedy with Griffith directing Mack Sennett, and after more than a century the action is still fairly funny.

6. Frankenstein (1910). Landmark American horror film. Far more people have seen Charles Ogle's makeup in history books than have seen the film, though it came out from under tight wraps fairly recently.

7. Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Another canonical Griffith short, this time focusing on urban crime.

8. Suspense (1913). Co-directed by Lois Weber with innovative threeway split-screen effects.

9. Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The first time most people saw Charlie Chaplin in his Tramp costume.

10. The Squaw Man (1914). Cecil B. DeMille's debut and a milestone for filming in Hollywood.

11. The Lamb (1915). Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s starring debut.

12. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). Fairbanks as detective Coke Ennyday in an absurd Tod Browning story.

13. The Butcher Boy (1917). Buster Keaton's debut under the tutelage of Fatty Arbuckle.

14. Shoulder Arms (1918). Chaplin's pioneer service comedy, defying fears that comedy about war was tasteless.

15. Blind Husbands (1919). Erich von Stroheim's directorial debut.

16. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). John Barrymore in iconic makeup in another pioneer horror film.

17. The Playhouse (1921) Keaton does multiple takes on the same strip of film, with the help of some tape, to create a seamless illusion of multiple selves in the same frame.

18. The Sheik (1921). Talk about cultural significance: after Rudolph Valentino's definitive star vehicle sexy (and wannabe sexy) men were called "shieks" for the rest of the Twenties.

19. Toll of the Sea (1922). First full-length Technicolor film and Anna Mae Wong's debut.

20. The Covered Wagon (1923). Pioneer (no pun intended) western epic.

21. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Lon Chaney becomes a superstar in the indirect foundation film for the Universal horror genre.

22. The Ten Commandments (1923). The bible stuff is only a small part of DeMille's modern morality tale but it pointed toward his remaking into an epic filmmaker.

23. A Woman of Paris (1923). Chaplin's serious film, in which he gave himself a cameo, set a new standard for cinematic sophistication and made Adolphe Menjou a character star.

24. Don Juan (1926). Barrymore swashbuckler is first feature with Vitaphone soundtrack.

25. Chang; A Drama of the Wilderness (1927). Documentary filmed in Thailand by Cooper & Schoedsack of King Kong fame, complete with elephant stampede.

26. The King of Kings (1927). DeMille's taboo-breaking Jesus film; two years earlier Ben-Hur refused to show His face or even His body in some scenes.

27. The Battle of the Century (1927) - Epic pie fight highlights recently-restored early Laurel & Hardy short.

28. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton's disaster comedy with budget-busting special effects and his signature stunt with the collapsing building facade.

29. The Broadway Melody (1929). Winner of second Oscar for Best Picture.

30. In Old Arizona (1929). Early sound location shooting with Warner Baxter in his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid.

31. The Skeleton Dance (1929). Walt Disney's macabre launch of his Silly Symphony series.

32. The Bat Whispers (1930). Roland West's dynamic early widescreen picture.

33. Hell's Angels (1930). Howard Hughes's epic vanity project about the air war in Europe.

34. Anna Christie (1930). Garbo talks and Marie Dressler takes a big step toward her phenomenal late-career stardom.

35. Cimarron (1931) It's pretty bad once you get past the early Oklahoma land rush sequence but it's the fourth Best Picture Oscar winner.

36.Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney's first Silly Symphony in improved Technicolor.

37. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Reshaped (and distorted) the popular image of the jungle lord and a textbook collection of stereotypes and Pre-Code horrors.

38. Flying Down to Rio (1933). First team-up of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus iconic flying scenes.

39. Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Relic of the American imagination's flirtation with dictatorship at the trough of the Depression and attendant crime wave.

40. California Election News No. 1 (1934). M-G-M produced fake newsreel used as propaganda against Upton Sinclair's left-wing campaign for governor of California.

41. Becky Sharp (1935). First feature in improved "three strip" or "three color" Technicolor.

42. The Spanish Earth (1937). Pro-government documentary about Spanish Civil War narrated by Ernest Hemingway.

43. Son of Frankenstein (1939). The first two Universal Frankenstein pictures with Boris Karloff are already in, so let's make it a trilogy as Bela Lugosi's Ygor nearly steals the thing from the Monster.

44. Meet John Doe (1941). On general principles; this Capra picture about a political impostor who turns against his master is one of my favorite all-time movies, and arguably the only 1941 picture consciously rivaling Citizen Kane.

45.  High Sierra (1941). It might have been Humprhey Bogart's breakthrough itself if Maltese Falcon hadn't happened. Key proto-noir about a doomed, sympathetic criminal.

46. I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Another key proto-noir picture dominated by Laird Cregar's dirty cop.

47. Superman (1941). The Fleischer brothers bring the new comic-book superhero genre to film.

48. The Battle of Midway (1942). John Ford films the actual action in Technicolor and donates stock footage to generations of Hollywood warmongers.

49. I Walked With A Zombie (1943). In my view this one by Jacques Tourneur is the  best of Val Lewton's classic RKO horror films.

50. Victory Through Air Power (1943). Disney's ambitious feature-length animated propaganda documentary book adaptation.

And there you have it. We'll see how many make it in a year from now. But whatever happens to these films, may all Mondo 70 readers enjoy a happy new year.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On the Big Screen: CAROL (2015)

While Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt was reprinted at least once under the title Carol, it surprised me that Todd Haynes went for the alternate title for his film of Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of the book. This was never going to be a blockbuster, so I don't assume that the studio feared people confusing The Price of Salt with a diatribe against the high cost of living. Moreover, under its original title Highsmith's novel (originally pseudonymous) is virtually a canonical novel. My assumption was that The Price of Salt is a more pre-sold title than the bland Carol. So why the latter rather than the former? I couldn't tell you until I saw it and saw how Christmassy the thing is. It's Christmassy down to the period setting. December 1952 is for all intents and purposes contemporary with the 1940s setting of some of our most echt American holiday films like It's A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. Carol has the strange effect of reaffirming rather than subverting the notion of that period as our golden age, even though its intent clearly is to expose a cruel repression underway in those years. Its romanticism subverts any subversive intent, but the film's virtues don't really depend on subversive intent or effect. That's a good thing, since subverting the repressive sexual-moral consensus of the 1950s sixty years later would be like shooting a dead horse in a barrel. With that battle largely won, Haynes and Nagy can concentrate on character development and a convincing recreation, rather than a deconstruction, of a time when just about anything seemed possible in the U.S.A. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and the film's production designers nail the look of the period, making all the right choices of color and design. As a kid in the 1970s I saw vestiges of this world all around me and Carol matches my memories of them. Another good choice was the decision to film in Super 16mm, a more intimate format that suits the romantic story and makes the narrower frame more like a window opening directly into the past. For me, making this a nearly impeccable period piece was nearly half the battle.

The other half is the story, of course. That's pure eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-shop-floor romance, the eyes belong to posh shopper Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and doll-department clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the latter sporting a Santa hat and helpfully suggesting, against the grain of the time, that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll. Nowadays Scott Lang's daughter in Ant-Man has a train set in her room, but Thomas the Tank Engine is something different from the deluxe affair Therese recommends, and I suppose the choice is a sort of signal beyond what these women's eyes told each other. Carol is married but estranged; she's already had an affair with a childhood BFF (Sarah Paulson) but her hubby Harge (Kyle Chandler) is desperate to reconcile, or simply to possess Carol. At stake is custody of the Aird's daughter, but despite the risk Carol is drawn inexorably to Therese, choosing a road-trip with her over spending the holidays in Florida with Harge and their little girl. Therese has a boyfriend she has no real feelings for and a BMF who encourages her to pursue her photographic vocation. Carol's Christmas gift of a pricey professional Nikon kit helps clinch Therese's identification of her with a better future for herself on every level, but her connection with her new friend transcends such calculations.

Things can't go easy in those days, but Carol is smart (presumably following the novel) in not having its heroines persecuted for their sexuality as such, but having their consummation exploited (by a private eye played by Cory Michael [Eddie Nygma] Smith) to give Harge leverage in the Airds' custody fight. On another level Carol herself is persecuted for her choices, but her subjection to inquisitorial psychoanalysis -- the story rejects the crude notion, articulated by Therese's boyfriend, that there's some psychological problem "in the background" of homosexuals --  is kept behind the curtain and is only referred to in the film. From here the film heads for a sort of Capracorn climax as Carol gives a big speech during the pre-hearing custody negotiations in which, after having ditched Therese in a panicked effort to keep her daughter, she effectively sacrifices her claim to the child, or most of it, rather than give up either Therese or her own nature. It gets positively Chaplinesque at the end, which is a wordless exchange of glances that confirm, despite all, the original exchange at the start of the film.

Like many films these days, Carol is just a little non-linear, opening with a scene that actually comes, when we return to it, very late in the story. But Todd Haynes is enough of an artist to eschew the "x months earlier" blurb that many filmmakers rely on rather than make the point cinematically without spelling things out. I still haven't seen Haynes's best known-film, Far From Heaven, for which Carol is already seen as a companion piece, but a knack for critical period recreation shown there and reconfirmed in his Mildred Pierce miniseries allows us to take Carol and Therese as authentic creatures of their time. Cate Blanchett can take care of the rest easily enough but Rooney Mara holds her own with the master thespian and takes a big step toward fulfilling the promise shown in The Social Network. There's been some controversy with the coming of awards season over critics and Academy members being steered toward considering Mara as a supporting actress rather than an equal to Blanchett. I can understand the complaint given how much screen time Mara has and Therese's nearly co-equal status with Carol in the story. It's really only the custody scene that seems to put Blanchett ahead, but I don't really have a problem (unless Mara does) with putting the two stars in separate categories. Shouldn't people who really like this film want both of them to win something? I have to admit that I haven't seen much this year to compare them with, but right now Blanchett and Mara are my favorites for distaff acting honors this year, and Carol is one of the best films I've seen in 2015.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

National Film Registry Class of 2015

Actually, I'm a few days overdue reporting on the latest selection for to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. The 2015 list was announced last week, and predictably enough, some of the least deserving films dominated the headlines. Those are the relatively recent Hollywood hits that are recognized not so much, necessarily, for quality as for broadly-defined cultural significance. With some of these we can have an interesting debate on their worthiness for eventual inclusion in the Registry. Ghostbusters? I can see that. Top Gun? Maybe down the line its purported "deft portrait of mid-1980s America" would be an argument, if not a cause for argument. But if it's too soon to think about Top Gun, it's way too soon to have canonized still more recent films like The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential. The great flaw of the Registry, I think, is its commitment to chronological diversity. I can understand the thinking behind the inclusion each year of various documentaries, art films and educational films that will be little known to most people. "Historical significance" arguments can even be made, and have been made, in favor of home movies that capture important moments or aspects of American history. But when there remains such a massive backlog of older films, for which the government-subsidized preservation to which Registry films are entitled is obviously a high priority, an imperative to represent the 1980s or 1990s seems counterproductive. Of course, the real imperative behind such choices is to get the attention of the mass media and casual viewers who can't be relied on to know older films or care about their preservation. The Registry presumably benefits from this attention in some way, but the films from fifty or a hundred years ago that must wait another year while the quota of modern stuff is met are not.

There's still plenty to applaud in this year's selection. I was surprised to see the very short 1894 film once known as Fred Ott's Sneeze only getting Registered this year, since as the Register's own press release notes, it was long presented as the representative relic of movies' earliest days. Another ancient film that I haven't seen yet think overdue is 1914's A Fool There Was, the picture that made the once-legendary Theda Bara a legend and established the cinematic archetype of the "vamp." The earliest film in this class that I have seen is Fred Niblo's The Mark of Zorro (1920), which changed the course of Douglas Fairbanks's career, beginning his transformation into the period-costume swashbuckler he's best remembered as, when he's remembered at all and not confused with his son. An inspired choice this year is George Melford's Dracula (1931), better known, of course, as "the Spanish Dracula," filmed by Universal on the same sets as the "American Dracula" with Bela Lugosi directed by Tod Browning. The Registry can use a film representing that brief period after the advent of talkies, and before the advent of dubbing and subtitles, when the Hollywood studios tried to hold their foreign market by making alternative foreign-language versions of their big releases. Whether or not Melford's Dracula is superior to Browning's, as some claim, it may well be the best of this short-lived genre of foreign-language remakes. On purely artistic grounds my favorite choice this year is Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), the film that united Mann and Jimmy Stewart and marked the advent, without necessarily being the first of its kind, of the "adult" or "psychological" western, as well as the genre's golden age. As mentioned, there are many other films of which I confess myself unqualified to judge. I'll presume that experts have ruled on their worthiness, rather than the PR types who may have pushed for the most recent films. When you take a look at the list of films deemed eligible but not yet Registered, the inclusion or recent crowd-pleasers is even more infuriating. The Registry invites movie fans to nominate up to fifty films for inclusion every year. If I were to go through the list in chronological order, starting with the oldest film I can personally judge worthy, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), I wonder how far in time I or any real movie lover would get before reaching the limit. There'd be less clickbait in the headlines if everyone voted this way, but the Registry definitely would better serve its purpose.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Note: This review also appears in roughly the same form on my political blog, The Think 3 Institue.

Over the weekend I finally caught up with Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's documentary The Best of Enemies, an account of the ABC-TV debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 national party conventions and the way they supposedly changed the face of TV journalism. This film is a coincidental companion piece to Kevin M. Schultz's book about Buckley and Norman Mailer, which I read last summer and reviewed on my political blog. All we need now is a chronicle of the literary and cultural feud between Mailer and Vidal, buy it's easy enough to read what the participants wrote on the subject. While the Buckley-Mailer was a lament for the quality of intellectual debate, including some capacity for convergence, that passed when Mailer and Buckley died, Best of Enemies ironically blames two supremely erudite men for the coarsening of political opinion in the mass media. While the film strikes a nearly neutral tone politically, it seems to place the majority of blame for what happened and what would come on Vidal, who was hired by ABC as Buckley's antagonist after Buckley had told them he didn't want to be in a room with the man. Vidal is presented as more determined to carry out a hatchet-job on Buckley than in debating the issues at play in the conventions. The loathing was mutual and seemed to coarsen both of them. We see clips of Vidal debating other people and his voice, always as affected as Buckley's, comes across as more natural and spontaneous than it did in 1968, when he adopted a more stentorian voice as if in parody of Buckley, if not in self-parody, and seemed determined to use pre-planned zingers than in actually engaging with anything Buckley said. His main objective was to get under Buckley's skin, and in an example of "propaganda of the deed," get Buckley to expose what Vidal assumed to be a conservative's true nature.

Of course, this is exactly what happened, to what the film claims was Buckley's lifelong mortification. While all the debates were filmed in color, apparently only a black-and-white print survives of this most infamous one. Here it is complete, as uploaded to YouTube by MetrazolElectricity.

What's interesting is what triggered it: challenged by moderator Howard K. Smith to compare the raising of a Vietcong flag by Chicago protesters to the flying of a Nazi flag in this country during World War II, Vidal answered that the closest thing to a "pro or crypto-Nazi" he could see was Buckley. That provoked Buckley to call Vidal a "queer" and threaten to "sock him in the goddamn face." At the time, Buckley said this was an inexcusable insult because he had fought the Nazis as an infantry soldier, a detail Vidal denied. But the filmmakers told us earlier that conservatives of Buckley's generation fiercely resented the "Nazi" label that liberals and leftists applied to them, not least because, obviously enough, their ideal government was quite far from Nazi notions of the state and leadership. From our vantage, Buckley's resentment only dates him, since we've reached a point where no one takes this N-word seriously and it's actually a premise almost universally accepted that using it (of the H-word) disqualifies you from any internet debate. Did Vidal begin that dilution of this N-word or did time really do that damage? It matters little to the film, which probably resonates more months after its theatrical release now that we've seen a presidential campaign driven almost entirely by insults, though even Donald Trump has not yet threatened to punch his rivals in the face, despite Jeb Bush's increasing efforts in that direction.

Buckley said after the debates -- I don't know whether Vidal ever confirmed or denied it -- that after their most contentious encounter Vidal whispered to him that they'd given ABC its money's worth. The best thing Best of Enemies does -- the worst is to reduce the debates to fragmentary sound-bites that emphasize the snark and bile; it would have been more illuminating to show at least one complete -- is restore the Buckley-Vidal feud to its part in ABC News's controversial and initially reviled plan to minimize its convention coverage -- the other major networks will still going gavel-to-gavel -- and replace reporting to a great extent with commentary. ABC offered "unconventional convention coverage" and, so the film argues, Buckley and Vidal delivered the goods, goosing up the third network's ratings as their feud and the protests in Chicago heated up. This led to other news programs adopting point-counterpoint features, and from there the film draws a line straight to Crossfire and all the arguments we hear on TV today.

While the film's own commentators see the environment today as a reflection of increased political and ideological self-segregation, leaving people unable to truly talk to each other in the sense of seeking common ground, Buckley and Vidal were of the same social class and sounded equally like stereotypical snobs, so it can't be argued that theirs were two different worlds, unless you believe sexual preference crucial. I can imagine modern audiences thinking both men fake, unable to imagine that theirs were anyone's natural speaking voices, and some of the documentary's talking heads argue that neither man could have become a celebrity today talking the way they did. Norman Mailer talked somewhat similarly, reflecting an Ivy League education in spite of a more modest background, and it probably tells us more about this moment in American history than it does about any of these three men that they could be so eloquent yet so crude in many ways. Vidal drove Buckley to threaten violence and Mailer to actual violence, and boasted of his own capacity for hatred, while Mailer was quite capable of violence on his own and Buckley was in many ways a vicious reactionary. I concede that all three were far smarter than today's opinionators -- any one of them might have been smarter than this generation combined -- but they all succumbed to some malign spirit of the age instead of transcending it. They can't be blamed for that cultural change, but I suppose they can be blamed for making that new partisan coarseness sound intellectually respectable, and for encouraging others with more spite than wit that they could do likewise. If anything, they pointed the way toward the uselessness of political eloquence and the equation of insult and truth that threatens to prevail today.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE CIRCUS CLOWN (1934)

If movie fans remember Joe E. Brown at all, it's as the addled millionaire in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), who can't figure out that Jack Lemmon is only impersonating a woman until Lemmon takes his wig off in the final scene. Brown's famous response is, "Well, nobody's perfect." He was less forgiving a quarter-century earlier in Ray Enright's Circus Clown. In that film, Brown is his typical small-town dope, an aspiring acrobat with the circus in his blood, though his father (also Brown) tries to suppress it. When a circus comes to town, Happy Howard runs away with it, in part because he's smitten with a husky blonde equestrienne. We learn early, if we couldn't tell at first glance, that the blonde is too husky to be true, and not even a blonde. The circus folk rib Happy about it for most of the picture, uniting to keep the otherwise-open secret from the clueless rube. He finally learns the truth while drunk. To explain that, we have to back up a little. There's a time during the middle of the picture when it forgets about the female-impersonator subplot. During this interval Happy falls for a genuine female aerialist (Patricia Ellis), whose brother eventually rejoins the circus. The brother is a wreck, blaming himself for his wife's death in an aerial accident. He's become a lush, and before his comeback performance Happy finds him drinking from a bottle. Fearing for his girl's safety, Happy tries to snatch the bottle from him. As they struggle over it, the girl enters the tent. This provokes the sort of tragicomic moment they don't make anymore. Happy has just made good, turning an accidental intervention in an acrobat act into a spectacular spontaneous spree on the trampoline and inspiring the circus boss to offer him a contract as a performer. Now, however, it's more important to him that the girl not think badly of her brother, so he attempts career suicide. He explains to her that, in fact, he'd been trying to force a drink on the brother, who'd been fighting him off. Convinced that he has to sell this well, Happy proceeds to guzzle down the bottle. As far as we know he's never had a drink before, much less been drunk. He staggers through a herd of elephants before halting at the equestrians' tent, where he at last overhears the terrible truth about the big blonde. Inhibitions washed away, he plunges into the tent. We watch from outside as the tent threatens to implode, and we see inside as Happy knocks his tormentor for a loop. At last he emerges, brandishing the wig like a pioneer's scalp, only to plant it on the hippo who pulls his wagon in the circus parade.

Ruin follows this hollow triumph, of course, as Happy's spree costs him his contract. But this is a comedy so we know he'll make good again. The chance comes when the circus returns to his hometown. The girl's brother, who does his flying in clown makeup, is hopelessly soused when Happy finds him in the tent. There's nothing to do but lay him out and don the costume and makeup himself. Happy is no aerialist but he is an acrobat, so against the odds he makes it through the trapeze act as his father feuds with a heckling Ward Bond in the stands. His dad can tell it's Happy up there because not even clown makeup can hide the breadth of Joe E. Brown's mouth, and that's how we can tell that Brown is doing at least some of the trapeze stunts himself.  Actual flying is beyond him, I presume, and since Enright can't film close enough to the flying  to see anyone's face in detail there's no point in sending Brown out there. But there's a bit where Happy swings back and forth from his perch, the gag being that each time he struggles to stay where he's landed but can't keep his balance, and in that scene it looks like Brown himself to me. Circus Clown is another reminder, alongside his baseball comedies, that Brown, best known even in his heyday for his mouth and his yelling, was probably second only to Buster Keaton as a slapstick athlete.

Speaking of Keaton, Brown and his handlers at Warner Bros. really show up Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by knowing how to exploit the star's athleticism in a way Metro never really did with Buster. It's really the simplest thing: make his character an athlete, for goodness' sake! While M-G-M, and possibly Keaton himself, were too invested in the archetype of a bumbler who redeems himself, Brown's best comedies present him as a sort of idiot-savant, someone with indisputable physical skills marred by stupidity or some deeper character flaw. In Circus Clown, as opposed to the subtler baseball films, Brown's flaw is raw stupidity, or at best hopeless naivete, but it's exhilarating to see him on the trampoline, especially when you consider that he was about four years older, at age 43, than the deteriorating Keaton. Just to show off, he even plays the father on the trampoline, in full costume and old-man makeup, and remembers to show that he's not quite as spry as his son. If anything, Brown's way with his voice is often the most annoying thing about his films, as here when he tells a boy a bedtime story (it's Peter Pan, for what that's worth) in an insufferably high-pitched baby voice, or when he gets into a roaring competition with a lion. But when he lays off that stuff, Brown is arguably the best physical comic of Pre-Code cinema. Circus Clown was his last Pre-Code picture, the cross-dressing angle qualifying it easily for the Parade. His decline is coincidental with the advent of Code Enforcement, but can't really be blamed on it, since his comedy actually has little to do with the risque or raunchy. I haven't seen much of his later stuff so I can't really describe his decline, but I'll let you know what happened when I get a chance to see it. Until then, I recommend Joe E. Brown again as one of Hollywood's most underrated clowns.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Too Much TV: THE LAST KINGDOM (2015-?)

After announcing that a review of this BBC series would appear two weeks ago, I decided that I shouldn't risk spoiling things for any British readers of this blog. This eight-part miniseries, hopefully the first of several, aired in the U.S. two weeks ahead of its British broadcast schedule. It adapts the first two books of the prolific Bernard Cornwell's "Saxon Stories," nine of which have come out since 2004. They imagine the role played by a fictional hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, in the survival of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, and with it the idea of England, in the face of invasion and plunder by Danish raiders in the 9th century C.E. Uhtred is both Saxon and Danish; born the former, he is raised a Dane and a pagan after Danes kill his family. When particularly bad Danes kill most of his new family, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) maneuvers between Danes and Saxons, seeking recognition as an aelderman and security in land. He is torn by his dual heritage, realizing his best hope of advancement lies with Wessex and its ambitious king Alfred (David Dawson), yet bristling under Alfred's authoritarian notion of Christian kingship and resentful of lingering suspicions of his ultimate loyalty. He has enemies in both camps: the Danish warlord Ubba (Rune Temte) and the Saxon noble Odda the Younger (Brian Vernal), who resents Uhtred's advancement and his arranged marriage to Mildrith (Amy Wren). He has lovers in both camps, not only Midrith, whose religious fanaticism and cultural chauvinism ultimately alienate her from Uhtred, but also the Danish warrior woman Brida (Emily Cox), his childhood playmate turned first lover, who can't cross cultural borders as he can, not to mention the "witch queen" Iseult (Charlie Murphy), a soothsayer Uhtred acquires and falls for while raiding Cornwallum with his ball-busting Saxon sidekick Leofric (Adrian Bower). Over the course of the series Uhtred becomes a more cosmopolitan if not entirely civilized figure, encompassing more of England's heritage than anyone else even if he's not sure what to make of it all, except to remind us at the CW-like opening of every episode that "Destiny is all."

One unintended consequence of watching The Last Kingdom was my decision to quit watching the American series The Bastard Executioner. Set several centuries later, during the reign of Edward II, Bastard was a poor imitation of British historical drama that lacked any semblance of authenticity. Nothing seemed right, from the over-familiar way in which everyone addressed nobility to the horrid accent Katey Sagal employed as this show's witch-woman. I tolerated all of this until Last Kingdom exposed how little actually happened on Bastard -- its main character was like a king on a chessboard checked on every move as he staggered from square to square --and how lousy all the acting actually was. Compared to Bastard's hero, Last Kingdom's Uhtred is a truly heroic, epic figure. Most importantly, he's a hero you can empathize with to an alarming extent. The Bastard Executioner was a self-pitying dope who looked like Thor's developmentally-challenged baby brother. He had a vengeance storyline to motivate him, but nothing like the rage Alexander Dreymon brings to Uhtred. While the rat-in-a-maze quality of Bastard Executioner only induced ennui, you empathize with the fury Uhtred feels at the forces that frustrate him. While I finally couldn't care what the BE did, I found myself rooting for Uhtred to take his frustrations out on the buttheads, barbarians and fanatics who made life difficult for him. I don't know if this is quite what either Bernard Cornwell or the BBC writers intended, but I found myself sometimes wishing that Uhtred would just throttle Alfred the f'ing Great. And this wasn't because I was sick of the show's complications. It was because actor and writers were so successful at getting us to identify with Uhtred's point of view -- and David Dawson nailed this Alfred's cold imperiousness -- even as we realized that history, if not justice on the show's own terms, were on the king's side. Why should Uhtred have to bow and scrape the way Alfred insists? Why should he have to humiliate himself in public penance alongside Alfred's feckless nephew? Because we in our secular age don't really get it ourselves, we empathize when Uhtred doesn't get it; it really does seem picayune and stupid to us. The Danes are little better; leaders like Ubba will kill you on the spot if you cross them, but at least they don't expect their own people to grovel before them.

Yet as the series builds to its tremendous climax, possibly the best mass battle scene ever made for TV, you see both sides evolving as Uhtred evolves. Alfred bends during a desperate time after he's driven from his capital and his son takes ill. Despite the opposition of his still-more devout queen, the king takes Uhtred's advice and entrusts his child to Iseult's healing arts. He learns, as Uhtred's military advice has already shown him, that pagans are not all evil and can be of help to him. On the other side, paramount Dane Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) doesn't entirely share his compatriot's contempt for Christianity, recognizing the way it emboldens individuals and inspires multitudes. While Uhtred tips the scales in the Saxons' favor, Guthrum is willing to give God the credit and accepts baptism as part of a treaty with Alfred. As I said, a lot happens in these eight episodes, with a lot more to go if the BBC goes on to adapt the remaining novels. It's good to know that all those novels are out there if they don't, but I don't see why they wouldn't. The Last Kingdom is first-class television in the approved modern "serialized" style with a terrific ensemble cast. Adrian Bower's Leofric steals nearly all of his scenes in badass comic relief, while Rune Temte's Ubba is a truly frightening antagonist, topped only in loathsomeness by his late replacement, Jonas Malmsjö's Skorpa. Brian Vernal's Odda becomes more of a villain as the show goes on, while Harry McEntire as Aethelwold, Alfred's troublesome nephew, evolves enigmatically, always potentially a villain, almost always more certainly a fool, yet potentially still more as well. We won't see all of them again if the series resumes, but they leave us confident of what we'll see in the future. Anyone who starts watching The Last Kingdom should finish wanting more.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: MADAM SATAN (1930)

Describe Madam Satan as Cecil B. DeMille's semi-musical comedy-disaster movie and the uninitiated will assume that nothing good could come from such a concept. They're not far from the mark, but it's not what DeMille's contemporaries would have thought before the film first appeared. In 1930 his Jesus biopic The King of Kings was still an exceptional work in his filmography, the Bible scenes in his first go at The Ten Commandments only a prologue to a modern story. Memories of all his supposedly sophisticated society comedies were still fresh, and Madam Satan is like those, if more heavily farcical and dubiously musical. As it turns out, the part that's most DeMille-like to modern audiences is the best part, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

DeMille started the talkie era at a new home, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, after a stint as an independent producer. Madam Satan was his second M-G-M picture, conceived at a time when movies were ideally All-Singing as well as All-Talking. The story I heard at a festival screening last month was that the studio pressured DeMille to make Madam Satan a musical. It's sort of a musical, with most of the songs and dances concentrated in one section except for an out-of-nowhere bursting-into-song moment near the end of an interminable-seeming first act. "Sort of musical" would describe the quality of the music, too. Music isn't the real problem with the picture, however. While DeMille wasn't saddled with a "dialogue director," he probably could have used one. Look at the rest of his career and you might argue that he never really figured out how to deal with dialogue in a way that made it look normal. Look at some of his silent films and you can see how much more efficient he was at storytelling before sound. Had Madam Satan been silent the story still would have been dumb but he probably would have nailed the farce aspect of the first act with little trouble and some panache. With sound the farce is leaden; everyone's timing seems off and the story seems to go nowhere slowly.

Bob Brooks (Reginald Denny) is coming home from a night of hard partying with his millionaire buddy Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). They strive with drunken industriousness not to wake up Mrs Brooks, Angela (Kay Johnson), a stay-at-home wife on whom Bob is cheating with one Trixie, a showgirl (legit singer Lillian Roth). Bob never stays at home long; he's grown bored with Angela, and Angela is boring. Bob is equally boring, by the way, but he's more aggressive about it. Denny played Bulldog Drummond's sidekick Algy in a series of films later in the Thirties; Algy is described by Drummond himself as a "driveling idiot," and you see that quality in Denny's performance here. Roland Young's character is supposed to be a wild and crazy guy, but movie buffs familiar with Young's work -- he was the original Topper, if that means anything to anyone -- will see the problem here. Anyway, things get more farcical when Angela calls on Jimmy Wade to meet his new fiancee. The engagement's a cover story, since Bob uses Jimmy's place for trysts with Trixie, who now has to feign intimacy with Jimmy in Angela's presence. A knock on the door from Bob forces Jimmy to hide Angela in the closet, but she manages to learn the truth about Bob and Trixie. Now she remembers the song her maid sang to her all of a sudden about fighting for her happiness, and by God, she will!

Jimmy Wade is rich enough to hire out a dirigible and a dance troupe for his next big costume party. We're starting to enter the territory of DeMillean spectacle here; the miniature effects for the moored dirigible, with skyscrapers in the distance, look quite good on the big screen, while the antics inside show the influence of DeMille's aesthetic henchman Mitchell Leisen. Early musicals have little to offer in terms of virtuoso dancing or choreography, but sometimes made up for that lack with pure conceptual nuttiness. So it is with Madam Satan's Ballet Mecanique, a dance interpretive of mechanization, the dancers so many cogs presided over by the lightning-bolt wielding Spirit of Electricity. But it really defies description, so look at it instead. This clip was uploaded to YouTube by one absurdomundo, some spiritual kin of mine.

After the entertainment the revelers are to remove their masks, but one latecomer refuses to do so. This is the stunning, the incredible, the irresistible MADAM SATAN! whose true identity is a mystery to none in the audience but all on the blimp. The idea, you see, is that Angela  (did I spoil it???) is so atypically, unprecedentedly brazen that none of her acquaintances would suspect that this gorgeous monster is the once-mousy housewife. It might work on paper, but on film the premise hits a high hurdle early; Kay Johnson in a mask and a slinky costume still isn't as sexy as Lillian Roth; nor can she sing like that legit talent and future biopic subject. Let's compare. Here's Roth rehearsing a number, as uploaded by WMMDN:

Now here's Johnson in her Satanic majesty, at the climax of her re-seduction of Bob. This one was uploaded by ray85milan:

Maybe Bob gets off on novelty. All such speculation is moot, however, as there's a storm coming. Lightning blasts the mooring tower and sends the dirigible adrift into the turbulent sky. Again, on the special-effects level this is all stylishly if not quite realistically done, especially if you see it on a big screen as it was meant to be seen. Fortunately, Jimmy Wade has well-stocked his balloon with parachutes, setting the stage for comedy rather than suspense. Madam Satan climaxes on a mock-epic scale like It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as passengers are tossed from the dirigible to make slapstick landings, the most spectacular Pre-Code Moment of the Film being Trixie's entrance through a skylight into a men's club locker-room. That stuff you'll have to see for yourselves someday.

Length works in Madam Satan's favor. At nearly two hours, you have time to forget the terrible first half-hour and appreciate the often-inspired art direction and overall madness of the picture. Kay Johnson's failings as a demonic seductress don't really detract from the quality. If anything, the way all the men fall for her -- it's like the way the men of Metropolis drool over Brigitte Helm's lead-footed hoochie-koochie dance -- enhances the film's satire of the mentally-idle rich. It just so happens that, with the Depression descending, people didn't find it quite so funny as DeMille or Metro hoped. The director never really worked in this mode again, unless you count his rarely-remembered 1934 castaway comedy Four Frightened People. He may have realized that sound had taken his comedic touch; most of the subsequent laughs he got would be unintended. He may also have realized that this sort of story, the kind that helped make his name, had become obsolete, and adapted in order not to go obsolete himself. The destruction of the dirigible is a symbolic farewell, if not a Viking funeral, to one stage of DeMille's career. It's the triumph of spectacle over wit in his work, and in this case it's a deserved victory that makes Madam Satan worth seeing today.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: BORN RECKLESS (1930)

It's called a "John Ford Production" but who directed it? We're told that it was "staged" by Andrew Bennison. What this seems to mean is that Bennison played that short-lived role of the early talkie era, the dialogue director. Folks at Fox Film apparently weren't sure of Ford's ability to direct dialogue, or else Ford, more interested in free-range camera movement in the manner of his erstwhile studio stablemate F. W. Murnau, couldn't be bothered with the dialogue scenes. There's definitely some impressive camera movement here for a 1930 film, along with the sort of dense set design typical of Fox's late silents. The camera lurks through the narrow, crowded streets of the main city set early on to establish the protagonist's milieu. The art direction is impressive without quite being convincing, and that goes for the story, too.

Ford and Dudley Nichols adapted what apparently was a popular novel by Donald Henderson Clarke. Louis Beretti was well enough known that star Edmund Lowe could be identified as the novel's title character in some movie advertising, though Fox didn't see fit to name the film after the novel. Beretti is a neighborhood hood who goes to war and survives to make a fresh start back home. He keeps his criminal career secret from his old-world parents, switching from dapper gangster duds into a worker's overalls before coming home for spaghetti dinner. The cops aren't fooled so easily and Beretti is brought in for questioning. At the suggestion of a drunken reporter (Lee Tracy, shortly before his brief breakout to stardom) the authorities give Louis and his buddies the option of enlisting -- it's 1917 and bands are playing "Over There" everywhere -- with the promise of pardons if they make good as soldiers. The real idea is to burnish the police chief's reputation as a patriot, but whatever the ulterior motives involved Beretti is willing to give war a shot.

The next section is a botch that nearly cripples the film and can probably be blamed all on Ford. War is supposed to change Louis Beretti in some way, but Born Reckless never follows him into combat. Instead, we get a lot of Fordian shenanigans in boot camp and behind the lines featuring some of the usual suspects like Ward Bond. John Wayne is supposed to be in the picture somewhere, historians claim, but I didn't notice him. A subplot is set up in which Beretti befriends a wealthy young man determined to prove himself in combat despite coddling from his parents, but after the establishing scene we don't get the payoff until Beretti narrates it to his friend's widow after the war. The military sequence plays like the road to a dead end, and having reached it Ford and Bennison simply give up and go back to the U.S.A.

Beretti has a longing for the widow, whom his dead buddy apparently talked up quite well, but before our hero can make a move we learn that Joan Sheldon (Catherine Dale Owen) has already hooked up with a new beau. While I missed John Wayne's passing presence in this picture, there was no mistaking an unbilled Randolph Scott as the new beau. At 32, Scott is as young as I've ever seen him. He's still paying his dues here, playing little more than a handsome profile who has no more than a few words of dialogue in his few scenes. But enough of him. Beretti goes more or less straight, opening up a niteclub whose presumed violations of Prohibition appear to bother no one. But his old friendship with the local underworld big shot, cleverly named Big Shot (Warren Hymer) deteriorates as Beretti is torn between respectability and his old crowd.The plot threads tie together when Big Shot, returned from a stretch in stir, makes a new racket of kidnapping, snatching Joan Sheldon's child. Beretti rescues the kid before a final showdown with Big Shot. Both scenes are nicely shot, the rescue introduced with a tracking shot of Beretti walking across a field to the kidnappers' hideout. The showdown is a slow burn leading to an explosion, Lowe and Beretti chatting at a bar with an odd, evasive formality that distantly anticipates the technique of Leone and Tarantino before they abruptly open fire on each other as the camera retreats through the bar's swinging doors. There are definitely pieces of a superior gangster film here, but it looks like Ford didn't know how to put them together. Part of the problem is Edmund Lowe's much too laid-back performance as Beretti, but you can't blame him for the film's faulty construction; he may have had as little proper direction as the movie as a whole did. Despite any ambiguity in the credits, Born Reckless is often unmistakably, and in this case unfortunately, a John Ford film.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Here is the end of an era: A Time for Killing is the last film produced by Harry Joe Brown, Randolph Scott's longtime production partner. Scott had retired five years earlier on the high note of Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country, leaving Brown to deal with upheaval in the western genre. The influence of spaghetti westerns is arguably apparent in some dramatic use of widescreen close-ups and in a darker, more brutal tone. I was willing to credit that tone to Phil Karlson, the credited director, since Karlson made some of the darker, more brutal films of the 1950s. Yet there's also a self-destructive inconsistency of tone I at first blamed on studio interference with Karlson, only to learn that Karlson was the interference. At first, Brown had a dream team working on the picture: Roger Corman directing and Robert Towne screenplay, edited by Monte Hellman. Brown, or Columbia Pictures higher-ups, fired Corman because, for once, that industrious director had fallen behind schedule. For Corman this was an A assignment and he apparently treated it as such, ambitious to achieve epic visuals on location. Karlson was brought in to speed the job to completion, while Hellman quit and the script was rewritten. The result is a mess, a sloppy mix of Hollywood past, present and future -- the last in the form of Harrison J. Ford in his first credited movie role -- and conflicting notions of what a western should look like.

Some of the inconsistency may have remained had Corman done so; his frequent stooge Dick Miller stuck around in an annoying comic-relief role as a cowardly Union soldier that may have been part of the original conception. If anything, Brown must have wanted more of Miller; there are blatant studio pick-up shots of him and his comedy partner that muck up the pacing that Karlson was supposed to improve. Their pathetic comedy seems increasingly out-of-place as the story turns darker and darker. Meanwhile, the best-known comic performer in the cast, Max Baer Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies, turns in a once-in-a-lifetime turn as an unhinged Reb, one of a band breaking out of a western prison camp days before the end of the Civil War. This psycho loves fighting and killing for their own sakes, and is almost as likely to pick fights with or kill his own comrades as he is to fight the pursuing Union troops led by star Glenn Ford. Baer is skyrocketing over the top, and yet he's topped by his character's commander, a Confederate officer played by George Hamilton in a once-in-a-lifetime channeling of pure evil.

If Baer's evil is a barbaric yawp, Hamilton's is arrogant, almost satanic spite directed at Glenn Ford. He resents Ford, it seems, merely for showing him courtesy, if not also for showing mercy to one of Hamilton's men who was sentenced by Ford's own spiteful commander to be executed by untrained black orderlies; the wretch survives two volleys before Ford puts one in the brain. It all seems futile to Ford because word from the East indicates that General Lee's surrender and the war's end are no more than days away. If the finished film has a theme left, it's that war endures in hearts and minds after armies stand down. Hamilton embodies all the unreconstructed Rebs who endured to the time the film was made, and beyond. "This war will continue for a hundred years," he vows, despite learning from a dispatch stolen from a murdered messenger that the war, indeed, has ended. He flaunts the telegram to his hostage, played by Inger Stevens, a missionary who is Ford's fiancee, to show that he doesn't give a damn about it. And after he rapes her -- Corman/Karlson only take us to the brink of the act, but do show us Hamilton dragging his spur across her naked side -- she in turn withholds knowledge of the surrender to Ford, as if fearful that he wouldn't avenge her if he knew the war was over. Instead, he continues the pursuit across the Mexican border to an abandoned town where most of the remaining cast are slaughtered, but the two comedy-relief idiots get to escape. Ford only learns the truth when Baer, who murdered the original messenger with a shot to the face, confesses it hysterically after getting gut-shot by one of his own team.

Glenn Ford himself seems to have been intrigued by the idea of a hero weary of violence betrayed by a beloved's bloodlust. In Richard Thorpe's The Last Challenge, made around the same time, he breaks up with Angie Dickinson after learning that she'd paid Jack Elam (in vain) to dry-gulch a hot-shot young gunfighter looking to pick a fight with Ford's marshal. If Ford seems tired, showing all his fifty years, in both films, that seems in part to be an artistic choice by the actor. In Time for Killing it looks like he reconciles with Stevens, but an air of hopelessness hangs over both films, underscored in Killing by the strategic and philosophical pointlessness of the whole running battle. The makings of a possibly great western are strewn about the landscape of Karlson's film. The location footage, much of it presumably Corman's and shot by Kenneth Peach (who worked mostly in TV), is often as impressive as Corman hoped, making the studio inserts all the more glaring. Also in the eclectic cast are (Harry) Dean Stanton as one of the more reasonable Rebs and Timothy Carey as an arrogant Union sharpshooter. Among the negatives is the utterly generic, inappropriately upbeat score by Mundell Lowe. In the end the location work and the extreme villainy of Hamilton and Baer -- they get the best close-ups, by the way -- make Time for Killing worth seeing, but no one who sees it will doubt that it could have been a better if not great western.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

I still watch too much TV

And that's not even counting the news, which can take up a lot of my time sometimes. You'll have to look at my other blog for my reviews of the news, but over here at Mondo 70 it's time for a new season of "Too Much TV," which proved the first time around (improbably to me) one of the most popular features, judged by pageviews, in the seven years of this blog. As before, there's a bias toward genre programming here, as there seems to be more programming in that broad category than ever. How broad is it? For me, it ranges from superhero shows to historical dramas. It might be better to say it's a category that excludes sitcoms, reality shows and the more mundane dramatic shows. I don't dismiss the last type out of hand, but I watch too much TV already, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. Anyway, in the next few weeks we'll look at some shows that have come (and, in some cases, gone) since my last TV review. The new season will start this weekend with BBC America's The Last Kingdom, probably with a passing glance at FX's Bastard Executioner. From there, and in no particular order, I'll cover Ash vs. Evil Dead, Into the Badlands and Supergirl and take a belated (and probably too late) look at Da Vinci's Demons. Time permitting, I may take retrospective looks at some much older shows I'm watching, or update some of the ongoing shows I reviewed earlier this year. I'll probably review some movies, too. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Big Screen: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

The director Tom McCarthy is in the peculiar position of having released films in 2015 that are considered among the year's worst and the year's best. The first and apparently worse of the two is The Cobbler, an idiosyncratic Adam Sandler film. The latest, Spotlight, is seen as an Oscar contender and one of the best films of recent times, or ever, in the journalistic procedural genre. It's the story of how a special investigative reporting team on the Boston Globe, goaded by a new editor, broke the story of a systematic cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston of child molestation by priests and opened a floodgate of revelations around the Catholic world. This is meat-and-potatoes cinema in which content outranks form; expect nothing visionary from it because the story doesn't need it. The journalistic procedural has a pretty strict structure of inquiry, resistance and revelation. Its success depends as much on the quality of the revelations as on any effort by director, writers (McCarthy collaborate with Josh Singer) or actors. Spotlight has a formidable cast of Oscar winners and nominees and superhero actors (the categories overlap) but most of them commit to a realistic professionalism in their performances, with only Mark Ruffalo standing out by conventional standards as the most energetic and argumentative member of the Globe staff. There's admirable realism in the writing as McCarthy and Singer steer clear of certain movie cliches. Hints are dropped of a traitor within the ranks, a reporter or editor who had much of the goods on the Church years earlier but buried the story for unfathomable reasons. The truth proves less dramatic but more plausible: at the time, the guilty party simply missed the implications of the material. The moral vindicates the judgment of the new editor (Liev Schreiber wins the underplaying competition without sacrificing moral seriousness) that "the story needed Spotlight." It's really a vindication of the major metropolitan newspaper, of journalism as a collective endeavor that requires an institutional power base to carry out its essential work in civil society of speaking truth to power. When a lawyer for abuse victims (Stanley Tucci) reminds Ruffalo's character that he'd already talked to the Phoenix, a weekly paper, Ruffalo observes that the Phoenix's dismal financial situation renders it powerless as a tool against the abusers. But if Spotlight is an appeal for power to the press, its entertainment value depends on the moral indignation it generates from interviews with survivors and carefully calibrated info dumps. The film describes a reign of "spiritual abuse" in which molesters exploit their virtually holy standing with vulnerable families and children. In two different cases the early, probing attentions of abusers is equated with God taking a personal interest in people's lives. It will be another film's task to tell the Why of it all, though Spotlight allows characters to make suggestions about celibacy and arrested emotional development. This film is all about the subtle horror of discovery, and despite what I wrote above there are appropriately subtle ways for directors like McCarthy to milk those moments. The best such moment is a long-take that has the entire team teleconferencing with an expert on abusive priests who informs them that their estimate of the number of abusers in the archdiocese is far too conservative. The camera simply pulls back gradually, as if to encompass the enormity of this particular revelation, as the reporters are momentarily too stunned to respond and the caller asks if they're still there. It isn't visionary, but it's effective storytelling, and that can't be taken for granted at the movies. Since I've mentioned some of the actors, I ought to give Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian D'Arcy James their just shares of the credit. We probably won't have better ensemble acting this year, though none of them may win a personal award. I can't imagine Spotlight being the best film of the year -- I've already seen better and many of the big pictures are still yet to come -- but I can appreciate why some people think it might be.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Like the buffalo and the Native Americans, The Daughter of Dawn was nearly lost. An independent production of the Texas Film Company, this all-Indian cast film had few known showings before disappearing for decades. Now you can stream it on Netflix, and now that the film is much closer in time to the epoch it portrays than it is to our own it probably looks more like an authentic historical document, simply by virtue of age and wear, than it may have to whoever saw it 95 years ago. Back then, the film's cornier aspects may have stood out more. While they still stand out now, they matter less than the idea that here is a movie of Indians hunting buffalo in which the actors probably had living knowledge of how it was done. Daughter of Dawn puts us one degree of separation from the legendary Old West; two of its main actors were children of the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Its historical value is indisputably, almost immeasurably greater than its aesthetic value.

Norbert Myles and Richard Banks's scenario is self-consciously archetypal in a generic way. He's less interested in a narrative grounded in the authentic details and rhythm of Native life than in "the eternal triangle" that could appear anywhere, at any time. This time it's a triangle of a woman and two men. The woman is our title character (Esther Labarre), named for the time of her birth but in fact the daughter of a Kiowa chief. She has two suitors. One, Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota), is rich in goods. The other, White Eagle (White Parker) is a hunk compared to the pot-bellied Black Wolf. White Eagle is also a good citizen; he locates a buffalo herd and leads the Kiowas on a successful hunt that highlights the picture. The chief knows that Black Wolf can offer more for his daughter but he also respects her opinion and her emotions. Knowing her preference for White Eagle, the chief decides to let a trial of courage decide her future.

Black Wolf and White Eagle are to jump off a cliff. It's more steep than high but it promises a rough landing. Whoever survives will win the Daughter of Dawn. I'd hate to think any actual tribe settled such disputes that way, but no one claimed that this is an anthropological text. Anyway, both men survive, but Black Wolf survives by cowering on a ledge while White Eagle nobly takes his lumps all the way down. He'll be fine, while Black Wolf is shamed out of the tribe. On the rebound, he finally accepts the loyalty of Red Wing (Wanada Parker), who's been pining inexplicably for this lout through the whole picture and now volunteers to share his exile.

Rather than take his punishment like a man, Black Wolf turns traitor, betraying the Kiowas to this film's bad guys, the Comanches. He shows them the way to the Kiowa village, promising them horses and women, so long as he gets Daughter of Dawn. To cut to the chase, a recovered White Eagle leads the rescue mission, setting up a final showdown with Black Wolf. This climactic fight is reasonably well staged for 1920, Myles gradually moving closer, cut by cut, from long shot to close-up. But he follows it with a corny, clunky anticlimax as Red Wing knifes herself out of implausible grief for this dead Bluto of the Kiowas and an intertitle comments: "Constancy, thy name is Red Wing."


As a Native critic might have said, "Ugh." But while the story is the stuff of pulp fiction, with apologies to pulp fiction, Daughter of Dawn is fascinating even more as a piece of cinematic history than as a relic of Native folkways. For silent film buffs there's inherent drama to every rediscovery, and Daughter deserves its place on the National Film Registry (Class of 2013) regardless of its dramatic limitations. With so many major-studio Hollywood pictures from the silent era still missing or unlikely to be found, it's a wonder that an outlier project like this one can be seen so easily today, and that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


The poster above is an accurate representation of the protagonist of Bobby Kendall's silent film. On film, the alien robot is a charmingly preposterous creation. He's really no more than a cardboard frame built on top of a remote-control toy truck, with a control panel painted or drawn on his torso and a permanent expression of open-mouthed anxiety drawn onto his red-eyed face. His arms look useless, and when he uses them to touch or manipulate things, Kendall resorts to POV shots in which the arms are clearly being held in the director's hands. It's not to be taken seriously, after all, and the robot's abject simplicity makes him almost a 21st century version of the tramps and pasty-faced clowns of a century ago. He's a sign of Kendall's intentions, which are not, as far as I can tell, to make science fiction, but to get back to the essence of moviemaking. Silent films are about images and movement, and boy, does this film move.

In slightly less than an hour, Kendall follows his little robot from his crash site through the Collar City known as the Home of Uncle Sam, the place of my birth and my daily work. In the first section, "Terror," the robot struggles to find an exit from a post-industrial wasteland. In the second, "Wonder," he makes it into the city proper, exploring downtown Troy during one Saturday's outdoor farmer's market. In "Exploration" he tries to make contact with the planet's indigenous life, primarily an indifferent cat, and takes a treacherous trip through some parkland. In the final section, "Love/Freedom," he discovers the possibility of companionship and appears to find fulfillment as a child's toy.

The robot is Kendall's only special effect, but his dogged mobility brings this micro-budgeted film to life. Much of the film consists of long tracking shots following the robot as he scoots down roads of varying smoothness. These are impressive compositions, and they only get more so when the robot reaches populated areas. The Farmers' Market sequence is a modest tour de force as Kendall follows the robot through a crowded Monument Square and environs, leaving you wondering how the little guy doesn't get stepped on, or how no one ever sued Kendall for tripping over the thing. It takes you back a little to the early days of silent comedy when Mack Sennett's troupe would set up shop at public events and make comedy wherever they might find it. There aren't really any gags in Alien Robot, but it's still a sincere throwback to that century-old spirit. That comes through in the final sequence, when the robot, after watching two people enjoy a railyard picnic, befriends a little girl playing alone in her yard. There's something sentimental if not corny to this courtship, as the girl guides the robot with her little stick and finally does a happy dance as he circles elegantly around her. The closing high-five is a more modern touch, of course.

If the robot is in some ways a 21st century silent clown, in another way he's a humble embodiment of cinema itself. Seeing Troy from ankle-level and on the move from the robot's perspective must be like seeing things through a movie camera for the first time; the artifice automatically changing what we see as well as how we see it. Kendall has a few more tricks up his sleeve than tracking shots; like a good silent director he's also adept at montage, which he uses to establish the first terrifying, then wondrous strangeness of the cityscape. But when he's following the robot through the city he arrives at something like pure cinema. And on top of that, like many a silent film Alien Robot has an original score, which I was lucky to hear performed live by the band Lastdayshining, including Kendall. The score elevates the film, underscoring its often ecstatic sense of discovery and wonder. The combined effect is more artistry than amateurism -- which is more than I can say for that poster -- reminding us of what can still be done with limited resources and an understanding that cinema itself is a special effect. I don't want to exaggerate the film's virtues, but it definitely deserves a lot of appreciation, just as Bobby Kendall deserves encouragement in his future ventures.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE GOLDEN BED (1925)

Cecil B. De Mille is identified with a certain kind of movie spectacle exemplified by his second version of The Ten Commandments (1925), now the oldest movie regularly shown on network television. Back when he made the first version, in 1923, he had a different reputation. In both phases of his long career he was widely perceived as a vulgarian, but while late De Mille, the director remembered today, is identified with historical or Biblical spectacle, and with reverence disguising sex, violence or overall sleaziness, early De Mille -- it's really middle De Mille, following a period where he was perceived as a pioneer cinematic artist -- goes straight to the sleaziness, but with style. In the early to mid 1920s a De Mille picture meant scandalous behavior among the opulent classes. Increasingly he covered his preoccupations with a veneer of archetypal ambition. His big gimmick was to interrupt his modern sex stories with interludes set in olden times to illustrate his themes more vividly. The 1923 Ten Commandments was different only insofar as the Moses material went into a long prologue, after which came a modern story in which the penalties for violating the commandments were illustrated with a winking earnestness. The Golden Bed comes at the end of this phase of De Mille's career -- it marked the end of his first stay at Paramount Pictures before he became an independent studio head -- and is perfunctory in its gimmickry. An intertitle equates the film's belle fatale with the legendary Lorelei and De Mille dutifully demonstrates by showing us a possibly-nude maiden urging a shipwrecked sailor to climb up out of a storm-tossed sea and onto her rock. The shot lasts less than a minute and then it's on with the show. There are plenty of characteristic De Mille moments yet to come, but Golden Bed strikes an overall tone that seems atypical of the great showman, and it's unclear whether audiences or reviewers -- one contemporary called it De Mille's worst film -- knew what to make of it. Since its release it's been largely forgotten and unseen. The organizers of the De Mille festival at the Madison Theater in Albany called their showing a world premiere of a George Eastman House restoration of the picture, and chief organizer Michael V. Butler put a distinctive stamp on it by compiling, with a collaborator, a new score that proved surprisingly effective given its dependence on Soviet composers, above all Khachaturian and in particular his Spartacus ballet music. But if it worked for Caligula it was certainly going to work for De Mille. It was still a strange juxtaposition since Golden Bed itself is very much a product of its own time and place, De Mille and his regular writer Jeanie MacPherson tapping into American literary influences above and beyond the Wallace Irwin source novel. Call it De Mille's Magnificent Ambersons and you may get the idea.

The Golden Bed is about the fall of an American family and how they nearly take a rising family with them. In Atlanta live the increasingly shabby yet ever genteel Peakes and the aspiring hardscrabble Holtzes. Papa Peake (Henry B. Walthall of Birth of a Nation fame) was bred to spend money but not to earn it, a title tells us. He's staked his family's future on his beautiful, spoiled, blonde daughter Flora Lee (Lillian Rich), while neglecting still-pretty but definitely second-best Margaret (Vera Reynolds). Flora has been bred to land a rich husband; early proof of her talent is the way young Admah Holtz, a candymaker's son (who grows up into Rod La Rocque) will give Flora free peppermints while making Margaret pay. As Papa patiently explains to a jealous Margaret, when Flora lands the right husband there'll be candy for everybody. Everything works out just in time; Flora lands a European aristocrat and Papa hosts the wedding the same day that the bank repossesses his furniture. As it is, Margaret still has to go out into the world and get a job. She goes to work for Admah, who has inherited the store and the name of "Candy" Holtz. Margaret hits the ground running with ideas for Admah to spruce up his slovenly shop, e.g., take the used flypaper off the candy shelves. Admah appreciates her entrepreneurial sense but is almost cruelly oblivious to the way Margaret plainly pines for him. He jokingly orders her to leave by the employees' back entrance after hiring her, not realizing how humiliating the moment is for her, though she pluckily jokes about noblesse oblige. Worse, he'd gone to Flora's wedding and hovered at the margins like a neglected puppy, except that Flora didn't neglect him. She saved him a flower from her bouquet and threw it to him while her new hubby wasn't looking. He still has a chance.

Now that Margaret has civilized the place and Admah isn't pulling taffy in the shop window anymore, the Candy Holtz business picks up. With Margaret as his conscience Admah rejects schemes to adulterate his produce by using sugar substitutes. As they condemn Atlanta to Type 2 diabetes, Flora is abruptly widowed during an Alpine vacation when her hubby and a rival with whom she'd started an affair fight their way off a cliff. I guess you can call that a De Mille touch, down to a primitive version of the Saboteur effect as the two men take the plunge. Now that Flora's free again, not to mention left out of hubby's will "for some reason," Margaret doesn't have a chance with Admah. Flora becomes Flora Holtz virtually by fait accompli and Margaret practically vanishes from the picture for an hour. Candy Holtz has achieved his dream, but he's also cut his own throat. Like father, like daughter; Flora lives to spend and is determined to rule Atlanta society, even if Admah can't really afford it. When she loses her bid to be hostess of the Peachtree Ball, she browbeats Admah into hosting a rival ball, playing on his class insecurity by blaming his working-class background for her defeat. Admah has been warned by his banker, whose wife won the right to host the ball, that he'll get no more credit if he continues his extravagance, but he blows practically all of his latest $40,000 loan on staging an insane candy-themed ball. This is the true De Millean showstopper, a nutty (and chocolatey!) masterpiece of demented set design (topic for future discussion; De Mille's true heir in our time is Tim Burton) garnished with hostesses in costumes made of candy -- that is to say, edible costumes. C.B. doesn't mean that in a purely theoretical sense, either. Censors reportedly went nuts over scenes of men nibbling near sensitive areas on those outfits. So which ball would you go to? Most of Atlanta society agreed with you, but Admah and Flora's moment of triumph is about to turn to ashes like many Cinderella stories. You see, after all that party planning Admah is running on fumes and Flora's dressmaker won't let her have her party gown until she pays her back bills. In a Dreiserian moment of decision (read Sister Carrie, or read about it if you're in a hurry), Admah takes the day's sales receipts out of a safe to pay the dressmaker, and that, children, is what we call embezzlement. Oh, and Flora is practically cheating under his nose with social butterfly Bunny (a young Warner Baxter). With Flora walking out on him and the police closing in, Admah may think the world has turned against him but this is really a moment of self-destruction, perfectly illustrated by De Mille in what should be this film's signature shot. In a self-parody of Samson and Delilah a quarter-century in advance, an enraged, self-pitying Admah brings a full-sized candy gazebo crashing down behind him by pushing the pillars apart. Next on his schedule: five years in prison.

It would be too brutal if the film ended here, so we get a final act in which Flora is punished and Admah is reformed through labor, while Margaret reopens the original Candy Holtz store and proves herself a successful businesswoman in her own right. This sets up a sad, almost chilling emotional climax that anticipates not only Orson Welles's Maginificent Ambersons but the mad pathos of southern gothic literature. In short, Bunny kicks Flora to the curb at the first opportunity, and with her youth gone and her looks going its only downhill for her. On the day Admah is released from prison a threadbare, moribund Flora makes her way to the old Peake mansion, which is now a boarding house. She has a poignant reunion with her old pet monkey, now working for an organ grinder -- I could write a whole post on the monkey as her totem animal going back to a childhood doll, the way its mischief at the Candy Holtz store embodies Flora's destructive rivalry with Margaret, and whether the monkey's name, Louella, is a dig at Parsons the gossip columnist -- before the new mistress of the house reluctantly lets her tour the place. How far Flora has fallen is hard to say; she may be homeless, but there's no hint of prostitution, and I might have found her comeuppance excessive except that I know that Hollywood actresses actually did fall that far if not further. Anyway, Flora's old Golden Bed is still in its old place -- I should explain that Admah had bought the house for her, and presumably refurnished it, as a wedding present -- but its crowning swan's head is broken and tied to the bed, upside-down, with wire. Meanwhile, as I mentioned, Admah is getting out of prison, and Margaret has put together a nice dinner to welcome him back. But he -- can't -- let -- go! Some morbid instinct draws him, too, to the boarding house, where he finds you-know-who in the Golden Bed. She recognizes him, but seems to have forgotten, in her decrepitude, that she and the "Candy Man" had been married. You'd like to think that her calling out for Bunny in her last moments would be the ultimate deal-breaker, but I think she actually has to die before Admah will finally quit her. Of course, Margaret has no clue about this nearby deathwatch and sadly falls asleep at an untouched dinner table. But the film does us the kindness of closing on a things-could-yet-be-worse note. After all, neither Admah nor Margaret commits suicide. Instead, he finally shows up about twelve hours late, and "your sister died in my arms" proves a satisfactory excuse. The Golden Bed actually closes on a note of bittersweet perseverance as the two survivors watch a construction crew reporting for work across the street and realize that the only thing to do is start over.

I feel justified in giving a detailed synopsis because most of you are never going to see this film. I hope the synopsis conveys that you're missing out on something because Golden Bed packs a wallop that's probably unexpected in a Cecil B. De Mille movie. It's as anti-romantic a movie as C.B. ever made while retaining considerable emotional power. In fact, it's an all-out attack on a certain romanticism, in movies and the wider culture, that Walthall, D. W. Griffith's Little Colonel, may have purposefully symbolized. Golden Bed is a vindication of bourgeois virtues, as forgotten by Admah but learned under pressure by Margaret, against an aristocratic romanticism of leisure and conspicuous consumption that Flora Peake was shaped to embody and Admah Holtz could not help idolizing. Knowing that Flora was consciously shaped by her father into the creature she becomes justifies the pathos of her wretched end if we realize that by spoiling her, her father victimized her while guaranteeing the victimization of others. Amid the often outlandish set design there's surprising seriousness of purpose, or else an on-the-nose satiric impulse. But whatever message you take from it, artistically Golden Bed demonstrates how good a visual storyteller De Mille was in the silent era. We'll have a chance shortly to discuss his struggles in early talkies, but when he didn't have to worry about staging dialogue the director was, on this evidence, quite good at getting emotions on screen and finding the right images to keep the story moving and its meaning plain. His three lead actors deserve a lot of the credit. Earlier this year Rod La Rocque impressed me as the heroic idiot in The Log of the Jasper B., and now I'm more impressed by his range. Neither Lillian Rich nor Vera Reynolds had much of a career, so maybe C.B. does deserve more credit with them, but Reynolds especially is very good and seems to have deserved better than she got. So does this film; I consider myself lucky to have seen it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My vow of silents

Usually I don't preview my viewing or reviewing plans here but I found that pun too good (?) to waste. Be informed, therefore, that up through the Thanksgiving holiday, circumstances permitting, I'll be taking a look here at a diverse range of silent movies viewed in various places. From Netflix comes The Daughter of Dawn, a recently rediscovered 1920 film shot with a Native American cast. From Troy, New York comes a new silent sci-fi featurette, When An Alien Robot Crash-Lands in Troy, NY, which I'll be seeing tonight with live musical accompaniment. Tomorrow takes me to the Madison Theater in Albany, where a Cecil B. De Mille festival climaxes with the "world premiere" showing of a George Eastman House restoration, with a new musical score, of the great showman's long-obscure 1925 film The Golden Bed. In addition to all these, I DVR-ed some early Douglas Fairbanks Sr. pictures off Turner Classic Movies last night and may have something to say about those in time. Stay tuned as the reviews come in....

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: CRACKED NUTS (1931)

Most people who watch the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup (1933) probably suppose it to be a one-of-a-kind movie. But back in Pre-Code days, during the heyday of the "nut" comics who descended on Hollywood from the Broadway and vaudeville stage, it was a natural if not commonplace idea that putting the nuts in charge of a country was funny. Duck Soup, if anything, represents the end or, if you prefer, the culmination of this comedy subgenre. Before that, you had Million Dollar Legs, in which W. C. Fields ruled a nation by virtue of physical strength and wrestling prowess. And before that, you had Cracked Nuts, easily the least remembered of such films. The main reason for that is that its starring team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, once arguably more popular than the Marxes, have been forgotten since Woolsey's premature death in 1938. They certainly were more prolific; after earning movie stardom with their supporting roles in the 1929 musical Rio Rita, the team starred in twenty features over the next eight years. It's something you wonder about, because their comedy hasn't aged well, which is the other main reason that Cracked Nuts is forgotten. They were a phenomenon of early talkies, when there was still some novelty to the fast talk and double talk the nut comics specialized in. Beyond that, something is lost now that may never have been there. Wheeler is the juvenile of the group, the amiable sap, the one more likely to have a romantic interest. Woolsey is the huckster, the guy in the glasses with the cigar who looks and sounds like a caricature of George Burns. In Cracked Nuts, directed by Edward Cline, Wheeler is a wastrel heir to a fortune desperately courting a girlfriend (frequent co-star Dorothy Lee) guarded by her intimidating aunt (Edna May Oliver), and also desperate to prove himself by investing his remaining wealth in some worthy project. He advertises his readiness to invest and is answered by dissident exiles from the South American kingdom of El Dorania. Led by smooth talking Boris (Karloff, months before Frankenstein's release), they convince Wheeler to "buy" their revolution, and promise to install him as the realm's new ruler. I don't know how common it was for Wheeler and Woolsey to play autonomous characters, but taking this approach in Cracked Nuts establishes Wheeler as a conventional, perhaps sympathetic sad-sack comic pining for his dream girl. But the business of him sneaking into Lee's apartment and hiding in Oliver's shower, fully clothed and armed with an umbrella, didn't really impress me. Oliver's assessment of the character as a hopeless idiot did not seem unfair.

Meanwhile, unknown to Boris and the other conspirators, events in El Dorania have overtaken their plans. The king has been overthrown peacefully, having surrendered his sovereignty at a casino craps table to an American gambler (Woolsey). The stage is set for a mock-epic war of comics, who prove to be old buddies but whose claims to power are, of course, irreconcilable. Add to this the complication that Boris's conspirators and a powerful general at home intend to use whoever wins as a figurehead, and are willing to kill both once their usefulness expires, and add to that that Wheeler's girl and her aunt have followed him to El Dornaia, and he must still prove himself to them.

Why doesn't it work? More correctly, why doesn't it work now? Then, Cracked Nuts was a hit and made a profit for RKO, while Duck Soup notoriously flopped and put the Marxes' future in movies in jeopardy. With more historical context to work with, we can guess that the Marx film was seen as yet another in a soon-tiresome mythical kingdom genre that was fresher two years earlier. And that's all I've got, because I really can't imagine how anyone found Cracked Nuts funnier than Duck Soup. The Wheeler-Woolsey picture is inferior on every level. One reason why they haven't endured is that their comic personalities are shallow. The Marxes transformed themselves into iconic characters, each with a broad, intense, easily grasped persona. With Robert Woolsey in particular, you never see anything but a vaudeville comic doing his shtick. There's a fatal vibe of self-amusement when he and Wheeler lapse into practiced patter, like the scene when they find seemingly limitless ways to use the word "well" in a sentence, while the Marxes' comedy crackles with sibling rivalry and better writing. Wheeler and Woolsey never seem to do more than tell jokes self-consciously, except when Wheeler gets to sing and dance. They seem like rough drafts of better future comedians, never more so than a scene in which they compare war strategies while contemplating a map of El Dorania. The accursed nation has landmarks named "Which" and "What," among other things, and Woolsey's attempt to explain it all to Wheeler plays like a very rough draft of Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First."

Nor can Cline and his writers match the epic absurdity achieved by Leo McCarey and the Duck Soup writing team. There's no sense of larger satire here, nothing like the "We're Going to War" number or the surreal take on war-movie cliches in the Marx film. The climax of Cracked Nuts is the attempted execution of Woolsey by aerial bombing, with an unbilled, clean-shaven Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed man himself, piloting the death plane. As in many sound comedies, Turpin, apparently not trusted with dialogue, is reduced to a cameo turn in which his face is the one and only joke. The big joke of the scene is that Woolsey sneers at his fate, Wheeler having told him that he'd defused the bombs in advance, and refuses to move from his throne of doom even after live bombs start dropping. Years before, Cline had worked on Buster Keaton's early short subjects, but you wouldn't guess that from what you see here. Only a wordless sequence at the start of the picture with Wheeler waiting for an elevator hints at Cline's mighty heritage. Consider who he was working with, however. I've liked at least one Wheeler-Woolsey that I've seen, but that remains the exception. Watching them here, doing a mythical-kingdom bit, puts them head-to-head with the Marx Bros, and for that reason it also puts them in their place, however inconspicuous, for posterity.