Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Foolish Wives'


Foolish Wives

Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Arthur Ripley

Premiere: January 11, 1922

140 min.

The stereotype of the early American film director is that of a harsh egomaniac equipped with a monocle, riding crop, and megaphone. Erich von Stroheim invented it.

Von Stroheim started off simply as Erich Stroheim, born in Vienna in 1885. He added the “von” and a fabricated noble background when he immigrated to America in 1909. By 1914, he was in Hollywood, working as one of D.W. Griffith’s many assistant directors on the epic Intolerance. During World War I, he began taking up the many villainous roles that cemented him in the public consciousness as “the Hun you love to hate.”

Finally established as a writer/director, Stroheim produced turgid and costly melodramas such as Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey. He hit the jackpot with Universal, getting them to fork over more than a million dollars to make his Foolish Wives.

Stroheim as a filmmaker was doubly frustrating for producers that tried to rein in in. He wanted to create on an epic scale, but he was also obsessed with detail, spending recklessly to recreate the gilded pleasure spot of Monte Carlo in the studio confines of California. Fighting with the studio, the director managed to record hours of footage from which to make his final edit — which ran for six hours. The studio cut ruthlessly to get it down to normal feature length.

In Foolish Wives, Stroheim stars himself as the bogus Count Karamzin, a spendthrift grifter who seduces wealthy women and extorts money from them. His portrayal is perfectly despicable. The film illustrates his attempts to claim another victim, the wife of a U.S. ambassador. He is ultimately unsuccessful and brings on his own comeuppance.

It is difficult to see now where the money went, as we are used to films sporting large casts of extras and elaborate sets. At the time, however, such extravagant and detailed settings were unheard of. Stroheim would continue in the same vein until the studios finally got wise to his shenanigans and removed him from directorial duties. Meanwhile, Foolish Wives stood as a monument to what unlimited resources could create in Tinseltown.

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


Friday, October 2, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Cops'



Dir: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Scr: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Phot: Elgin Lessley

Ed: Buster Keaton

Premiere: March 11, 1922

18 min.

Cops is a perfect little film, taking the premise of the comic chase and blowing it up to epic proportions. It’s the 12th of 19 shorts that Keaton starred in and directed between 1920 and 1923. I already wrote about his first significant short, One Week, here.

Buster Keaton was the greatest pure filmmaker of all the silent comedians. In Cops, he uses geometry and perspective to make his gags work, and to play tricks on the viewer. Here’s he’s the oblivious young fool who creates havoc wherever he goes. In the opening shot, he’s behind bars – but he’s not in prison, he’s stuck outside the gates of his beloved’s grand home (she’s the mayor’s daughter). She won’t respond to the plighting of his troth unless he becomes "a big business man.”

In short order, he steals money from a cop, and is in turn defrauded by a sharpster who sells him furniture that’s not his to sell. He loads the goods into a wagon (the furniture’s real owner thinks Buster’s a moving man, and helps him load up, to Buster’s quiet amazement). He has some fun with the slow, old horse that pulls the wagon – he stops and gives the horse an injection from goat glands (the Viagra of its day). Rejuvenated, the frisky animal pulls Buster into the midst of a police parade.

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While stopped in front of the parade grandstand, Buster reaches for a cigarette but can’t find a match. Improvidentially, an anarchist tosses a bomb that lands right next to Buster (it’s the stereotypical round shape with a long, sputtering fuse). He calmly lights his cigarette from it, then tosses it away. The subsequent explosion, comically tattering the uniforms of the marching men, sparks the chase.

What’s funnier than one cop chasing a hero? Hundreds. As Buster dashes to and fro, he finds swarms of cops on his tail. He nimbly avoids being collared time and time again, and eventually traps all his pursuers in their precinct house. However, his girl spurns him again, and he sadly unlocks the doors and allows himself to be swallowed up by a sea of clutching hands. The grim final “The End” title card is shown on a gravestone topped by Buster’s porkpie hat.

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


Thursday, August 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Tol'able David'

Tol’able David

Dir: Henry King

Scr: Edmund Goulding, Henry King

Phot: Henry Cronjager

Ed: Duncan Mansfield

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1921

93 min.

Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) is a parable on film. It’s positively folkloric, the tale of a youngest child’s unexpected success and maturation, like an all-American Grimm’s tale. This easily relatable story was a great success, furthering a string of hits for its star, Richard Barthelmess.

Barthelmess was already popular and acclaimed for his work in movies such as D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). This was the first film that Barthelmess produced, for his new production company Inspiration Pictures. He was a star, and Tol’able David made him even more of one. He had the power to choose his material, and until he stopped playing leads in the early 1930s, he often played in controversial and challenging films such as The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933).

In the film he plays the merely “tol’able” teen of the title. He lives in rustic peace in rural Greenstream, a kind of sanitized and sentimental sanctification of the common country American experience. Viewers included many still on the farm, as well as those who sprang from and could remember the same.

David is first seen dreaming over an illustrated Bible containing the story of David and Goliath. He is the youngest in the family, living with his father and mother, and older brother and his wife and their newborn. The older brother drives the horse-drawn hack that delivers travelers and goods from the railroad to the general store in the middle of town. The most important duty of the driver is to carry the mail, seen almost as a sacred duty. David dreams of driving the hack himself, but is routinely put down on account of his age.

He is foolishly fond of the girl next door, Esther, but their story is interrupted when three bad men come to town. They are cousins of Esther’s father, three crooks on the lam from the law. Crude and bullying, they take over Esther’s house. The worst of them is played in a hulking fit of sheer menace by Ernest Torrence, who would later show off his comic talents playing Buster Keaton’s father in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

One could not ask for more of a melodrama. Torrence’s character wantonly kills David’s dog, and cripples his brother. David’s father dies as a result. David longs for revenge, but must abandon it when pled to by his mother. He takes care of the family by working at the general store.

The day comes when David must drive the hack, and he loses the mail on his way home. Torrence’s character grabs it, and David must confront all three bullies in order to meet his responsibility. The justifiable-vengeance trope, long a theme in Westerns, is played hard here.

Director King keeps things simple. The villains are subhuman, the hero is pure, the setting idyllic. This brand of Americana, as it came to me known, would make up a considerable part of studio output as the years passed. King would capture little moments perfectly -- a leering look from Torrence, or David shyly dancing with himself as we see the couples whirl inside the hall. King builds characters out of many small observations, providing a much richer feeling for the material.

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 ‘Cops’.