Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The NFR Project #31: 'The Evidence of the Film' (1913)

The Evidence of the Film
Dir: Lawrence Marston/Edwin Thanhouser
Prod: Edwin Thanhouser
Scr: Unknown
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 1/10/1913
Meh. If you want thrills, stop right here.

I can see why this film was nominated, but that doesn’t make it interesting. It’s another sample from the overlooked Thanhouser Company, the New York/New Jersey film studio that turned out an estimated 1,000 pictures between 1909 and 1918 (see my previous post on ‘The Cry of the Children,’ 1912).

This is another melodrama, with a self-conscious gimmick. An unscrupulous financier attempts to steal $20,000 worth of bonds by deftly switching packages on an innocent messenger boy. Fortunately, a film crew captures the deception; the film is seen by the boy’s sister – serendipitously, she’s a film editor – and she enters it in court to exonerate her brother and give the villain his comeuppance.

As Ned Thanhouser (grandson of the studio founders) points out in his essay for the National Film Registry, you can see the incremental improvements in film technique developing here. Analytical editing begins, using shots to compare and contrast instead of simply pushing the action forward in time. Close-up, medium, and traveling shots are entering the film vocabulary, along with the utilization of multiple planes of action, cross-cutting for rhythm and suspense, and most important of all, regard for continuity – both in the scene itself and the internal logic of position and direction. Narrative cinema is starting to dictate its ground rules.

The conceit of the plot device is weak, and much as I might like to make its example speak to our current video-everything, eyewitness culture, it’s a damp squib.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Matrimony’s Speed Limit.’

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The NFR Project #30: 'Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day'

Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in 'Lime Kiln Club Field Day.'
Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day
Dir: T. Hayes Hunter/Edwin Middleton
Prod: A.L. Erlanger & Marc Klaw
Scr: Charles Bertrand Lewis
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 11/8/2014
Approx. 1 hr., 5 min.

Again, we have film that is not available to the general public online, which makes it difficult to discuss. However, it does give me a chance to bring up the subject of the most neglected American comedian, Bert Williams.

This is an uncompleted film, halted in post-production by producers Klaw and Erlanger, prominent vaudeville producers of the day, in the year it was filmed, 1913. Sixty-five minute of unedited footage was first printed in 1976; it was assembled, analyzed, and presented at the Museum of Modern Art in late 2014.

The movie is another in a long line of “Negro” entertainments; the characters engage in stereotypical behavior in a scattershot plot that features Williams as its protagonist. The National Film Registry cites outtakes that show black performers and white crew getting along, “enjoying themselves in unguarded moments.” Even these small snippets of recorded interracial harmony are extraordinary for the time.

The other emphasis is the talent of Bert Williams (1874-1922). From the Bahamas by way of California, Williams was a brilliant physical and verbal comedian, comedy writer, and songwriter. First in partnership with George Walker in a popular “coon” act that brought them to vaudeville in 1896 (where they popularized the cakewalk dance), and Broadway in 1903. Williams also made a number of hit recordings of comedy songs such as his signature “Nobody” and “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” (In a time when 10,000 records sold classified a hit he sold 250,000. He, Jolson, and Nora Bayes were the top recording artists of their time.

After Walker sickened, Williams went solo and continued his success. He teamed with white comic actor Leon Errol for the Ziegfeld Follies. Despite institutional racism, despite still having to “black up” for shows, Williams stated that considered himself fortunate. Still, he was described as incredibly sad by those who knew him offstage. Isolated from black culture, tolerated by white culture as a profit-maker, Williams was uniquely alone, the pain of which may have contributed to his early death.

Hopefully, we will get to see this footage and learn more about Williams’ performing style. Here’s some film of his famous poker-game pantomime, which shows just how great he was.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Evidence of the Film.’

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The NFR Project #29: 'The Land Beyond the Sunset'

Martin Fuller as Joe the Newsboy
The Land Beyond the Sunset
Dir: Harold M. Shaw
Prod: unknown
Scr: Dorothy G. Shore
Phot: George K. Hollister
Premiere: 10/28/1912
Here’s a social-problem film, much like the same year’s “Cry of the Children.” Like it, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” also deals with the rights of children. However, “Land” progresses to an ineffable, baffling, and disheartening “artistic” conclusion.

This film was produced to benefit the Fresh Air Fund, a worthy cause inaugurated in 1877 and still in existence in New York. Its simple aim is to get low-children children out of the city and into the natural world at no charge. At the time this film was made, a huge push was on to end child labor, enforce child welfare statutes, and increase educational opportunities. Society was beginning to see past thinking of children as adults in training, economic assets, or the precocious votive figures at the center of the Victorian cult of childhood. Children were newly human, with needs, feelings, and rights.

The film leans on the pathos-laden stereotype of the deprived child. The impoverished Dickensian child-martyr is a familiar trope. This one features Joe, the plucky, winsome, tragic newsboy, well-known from illustrations of the period, Horatio Alger’s interchangeable newsboy characters such as Tom, Luke, Ben, and “Rough and Ready,” as well as bluegrass songs such as “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy.”

Joe lives in a trash-strewn hovel with his alcoholic, abusive grandmother. (Oddly, the set looks almost exactly like the Kramden apartment in “The Honeymooners.”) After peddling his papers somewhere else, he returns with a mere pittance each evening. Grandma cuffs him roundly, steals his meager earnings, and spends the dough on gin.

Fortunately, the folks at the Fresh Air Fund are out there, pressing day passes to the country into the hands of needy children. Joe sneaks out while the old dame is doing a face plant. He runs to the gates, almost too late, but a nice lady bargains him in and they board a steamboat up the Hudson River. (My grotesque fascination with tragedies brought to mind immediately the General Slocum disaster of June 15, 1904, in which just such a steamer, loaded mainly with women and children, burned and sank in the Hudson, killing 1,021 people – New York’s greatest loss of life until 9/11.)

The film does capture the contrast between city and country. ‘His first sight of the world beyond the slums,’ the title card says. Joe gets fresh air, good food, fun and games, and a bit of prayer. Most significantly, no one seems to want to hurt him. The committee woman who watches over him encircles him with her arm. She reads the children fairy tales, and we leap into a dream sequence in which Joe is a prince, his grandmother a witch, and the committee women fairies. Summoned via stop-motion, they drive the witch away, and lead the prince to a magic boat (‘he needed no oars’) that takes him to the Land Beyond the Sunset.

Now it gets weird. A more positivist, practical kind of filmmaker might have ended it there. Fresh Air fund aids needy kids, who get to breathe free and have fun. Hooray! The End.

But -- coming out of the story’s spell, Joe sees his grandmother knocking him down, over his head as a ghostly double exposure. Holding on to the fairy book, Joe gives the others the slip (all too easily – did they lose a lot of kids this way?), hangs back, and steps toward the beach.

There he finds a boat, conveniently with no oars. He climbs in, pushes off and, book clutched to his chest, he drifts out to – the Land Beyond the Sunset? Certain death? Both? Was this better than going back to Grandma? Is Joe two papers shy of a full bundle?

 It seems to be an aesthetic miscue today, but the idea of the dying child focusing one's attention, as in Andersen’s “Little Match Girl,” was a tried and tested one. Perhaps the creators thought the ending would burn home the point.

The compositions are strong in the outdoor sequences, shooting in nicely modeled perspective to give the frame a feeling of depth. The final sequence, in which Joe bobs out beneath a setting sun, is held for an exceptionally long time. The achievement of getting such definition and beauty from a low-light situation such as this at the time makes me wonder about other work of Harold Shaw. He made 76 films between 1912 and 1924, before dying at 48 two years later.

The best print of this is found on the exemplary “Treasures from American Archives:50 Preserved Films” (2000). The soundtrack medley of tunes from the period are uniquely apt and include “The Poor Orphan Child,” “There is a Happy Land,” and “the Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.”

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Field Club Day.’

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The NFR Project #28: 'From the Manger to the Cross'

Jesus turning water to wine at the Marriage in Cana -- 'From the Manger to the Cross.'
From the Manger to the Cross
Dir: Sidney Olcott
Prod: Frank Marion
Scr: Gene Gauntier
Phot: George K. Hollister
Jesus is big box office. Ask Mel Gibson.

Unlike religions such as Islam and Judaism, Christianity has no law against representing God, holy beings, or its prophets visually. There is no ban on instrumental sacred music, either. As a result, a staggeringly grand amount of religious-themed art, permeating Western culture, has grown around the faith, promulgating it with direct appeals to the senses. So, it’s a no-brainer. A film about Christ is an evangelical act (as long as it adheres to doctrine – see Martin Scorsese, Monty Python).

“From the Manger to the Cross” can’t even be termed the first religious epic, as it has no epic pretensions. It’s in no way innovative technically or aesthetically – and there was probably little incentive for it to be. (OK, one detail stands out -- angels are, smartly, depicted as beams of light here.) The stage pictures that are created for the camera derive from the high-contrast dramatic religious paintings of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens.

The heavy use of quotation and title cards adds to the Bible-lesson/”greatest hits” vibe of this version of the life of the Messiah. The acting is appropriately wooden and earnest. Mary is covered from head to foot, with even hair wimpled, an oddly puritanical touch. Jesus is played with the wistful passivity that seems to be the hallmark of most life-of-Christ film characterizations. Herold is a moody bastard, and Judas wrings his hands like the stereotype of the greedy Jew. When Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt, we get a picture-postcard shot of them admiring the Pyramids. No sense in wasting the trip, for either the characters or the crew filming them. A staid and conservative interpretation of the Gospels’ highlights is called for here, and met.

The one distinction that sets it apart it that is was filmed on location in “the Holy Land,” a decision that upped its costs considerably but paid off handsomely on the other end. (Some obvious sets find their way into the narrative as well.) This results in the odd aesthetic train wreck of “genuine” locations and native extras tied together with a handful of Caucasian actors, standing in front of them and enacting a story that none of the natives would find comprehensible. When this Christ expires, he doesn't give up the ghost so much as he shrugs it off. More effective, gaudier religious-film spectacles were to come.

Just as travelers flocked to Jerusalem and Mecca, so now they could get a little it of sanctimony by gazing on the holy city’ walls. The idea of pilgrimage to sacred sites is universal; cinema made the journey convenient for the cost of a nickel.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Land Beyond the Sunset.’