Monday, April 12, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Peter Pan' (1924)


Peter Pan

Dir: Herbert Brenon

Scr: Willis Goldbeck

Phot: James Wong Howe

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Dec. 29, 1924

105 min.

The first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play is a perfectly charming piece of work. The story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up became an instant children’s classic, but the primary engine of its fame was the lauded theatrical version, which played to packed houses for years.

For the uninitiated, the story takes place in Edwardian London, where three young children encounter the bluff, brave Peter, stuck willingly in eternal boyhood and looking for adventures with his companion the fairy Tinker Bell. Using a combination of fairy dust and “wonderful, lovely thoughts,” Peter teaches them to fly and takes them off to Never Never Land, where there are pirates, Indians, and mermaids to encounter.

This film wisely follows the playscript closely. From the pantomime dog Nana to the wire flying effects and on to miniatures and double exposures, all the fantastic elements in the film are played out to great effect. Character actor Ernest Torrance plays Peter’s foe Captain Hook to comic-villain perfection (he is best remembered as Buster Keaton’s irascible father in Steamboat Bill, Jr.). Betty Bronson plays Peter, continuing the tradition of casting a mature woman in the role. There is something to read there about the androgynous nature of childhood.

Of note is the contribution of cinematographer James Wong Howe, here still early in his lauded, Oscar-winning career. This is only the tenth of his 130-plus films, but his uncanny eye melds the footage into a coherent whole.

In a cynical time, you could do worse than watch this bit of whimsy.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock, Jr.’


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Iron Horse'


The Iron Horse

Dir: John Ford

Scr: Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton

Phot: George Schneiderman

Ed: Hettie Gray Baker

Premiere: Aug. 28, 1924

150 min.

John Ford was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and a favorite of mine. He already had a mastery of the Western, having directed more than 50 films, mostly Westerns, before his assignment to The Iron Horse. The success of the film version of The Covered Wagon a year before prompted the creation of another big-budget film about the taming of the West. This was Ford’s first large-scale production – an epic of Manifest Destiny in which he perpetuated myths about the “Empire of the West” that remained lodged in films for decades.

The movie leans heavily on the assertion of authenticity. A title card proclaims that “Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history”. However, this is a reality in which good guys beat the bad guys, young love triumphs, and Indians are merely pesky plot devices.

The overarching subject is the creation of America’s transcontinental railroad, seen as a visionary project initiated by Lincoln, and semi-sacrosanct as a result.. It is seen as a boon and a necessity for the white pioneers who were eager to be gobbling up the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific grew towards each other, and the film outlines the adversities the railroad workers faced. Fighting climate, geography, and Indian attack, the workers are cast as heroic men who were agents of an irrepressible desire for “progress.”

The narrative deals only cursorily with the Chinese railroad workers of the Central Pacific, focusing on the Union Pacific’s amalgamation of Civil War veterans, Irish, and Italian workers. The story progresses on several levels, foregrounded by the romance of our hero Davy (George O’Brien -- this film would typecast him as a Western star) and Miriam (Madge Bellamy). Davy enters the story as a Pony Express rider who takes refuge on the Union Pacific train, the crew of which he joins readily. There is a villain – a maimed white man who masquerades as a renegade Cheyenne (the Pawnee, who save the day at film’s end, are allies).

What makes Ford such an extraordinary filmmaker? He seems to know exactly what to put on film and how to frame it. He keeps his cuts and pans to a minimum, focusing on the human figures in the frame. He keeps the characters’ relationships clear, and knows just how long a sequence needs to be to convey its meaning. His editing is unobtrusive, drawing no attention to itself. Ford serves the story with uncanny ability. At a Ford film, you are never confused and always entertained.

The Iron Horse was the top money-maker for 1924. Ford went on create the greatest Westerns on film – Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. As his career progressed, he began to question and deconstruct the concept of Manifest Destiny and white superiority in films such as Fort Apache, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Peter Pan.’


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Greed'



Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Joseph Farnham

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Joseph Farnum/1999 reconstruction Glenn Morgan

Premiere: Dec. 4, 1924

244 min.

Greed is a grim, glorious, mutilated masterpiece. It’s the prime example of the story of the visionary director in conflict with his studio. Its stark realism and dry cynicism had never been seen before in film. Now, even in its truncated and restored version, it’s possible to grasp the greatness of von Stroheim’s seamy epic.

The movie is based on the 1899 novel McTeague by Frank Norris. In it, a young miner becomes an apprentice to a dentist, learns the trade, and sets himself up in practice in San Francisco. He falls for Trina, the shy girlfriend of his best buddy Marcus. Marcus gives her up, McTeague and Trina marry, and all is well until Trina suddenly wins a $5,000 lottery. Now Marcus is jealous. He blows the whistle on the unlicensed McTeague, who must give up dentistry. He and Trina slide into poverty, but she refuses to part with the $5,000 in gold coins. Finally, McTeague beats her to death and takes it.

McTeague goes on the run, and Marcus joins the posse tracking him down. In Death Valley Marcus catches up to McTeague. They fight, and McTeague kills Marcus. But wait – Marcus has handcuffed himself to McTeague who is now trapped, waterless, lashed to a dead man.

Stroheim thought of Norris’s novel as akin to a Greek tragedy. Stroheim gives us his low-down on the squalid lives of the lower classes of America. The principal characters, despite some evidence of the good in them, are all dragged down by their basest impulses. The result is a stark and depressing film, the opposite of the escapist fare most movies of the day provided.

Stroheim was a well-respected and profitable director, but was already notorious for his condescending unpleasantness, as well as his perfectionist obsession with every detail (the film was shot entirely on location, a rarity for the time), and his tendency to blow his budgets and shooting schedule. Eventually, his defiant and dictatorial ways lost him work as a director, though he would continue with a healthy career as a character actor.

When he was finished with filming, he had 85 hours of footage. He cut it down to a 7-hour film. When told by the studio to cut further, he got it down to 4 hours. The studio took the film away from him, and cut it down to an hour and a half. The unused footage was recycled. The studio version is all that survived. Unsurprisingly, the studio cut was a flop.

Fortunately, in 1999 Rick Schmidlin produced a reconstructed version of Stroheim’s original, filling many gaps with production stills. It’s the closest we will ever come to understanding Stroheim’s original vision.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: John Ford’s The Iron Horse.