Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The NFR Project #41: 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1914)

Mary Pickford, as Tess, steals milk for a dying infant in 'Tess of the Storm Country.'
Tess of the Storm Country
Dir: Edwin S. Porter
Prod: Adolf Zukor (uncred.)
Scr: B.P. Schulberg
Phot: Edwin S. Porter
Premiere: March 30, 1914
80 min.

She was America’s sweetheart and the most powerful woman in Hollywood history. Mary Pickford rose to stardom on the strength of her impish, beguiling persona, becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Tess of the Storm Country, her first of 52 feature films, cements her screen image – the plucky, waiflike heroine who overcomes all manner of obstacles to achieve happiness.

She was born Gladys Smith, and started performing on stage at the age of 7. She worked her way to Broadway, then dabbled in film until finally devoting herself to it in 1913. Shew went west, becoming Hollywood’s first feature-film star.

Tess is a melodrama, a romance of cross-class attractions, illegitimate children, and misunderstandings. Pickford’s character is not a child, but not a woman, either – she plays off both her winsomeness and feistiness as she self-sacrificingly struggles through over an hour of little tragedies. She was the heroic and decent underdog, and audiences loved and identified with her. 

After this film, she was rightly considered “the most popular girl in the world.” Six years later, she would marry Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the two would become the film industry’s first “power couple.”

America’s first film stars were primarily women – Florence Lawrence, Pearl White, Mabel Normand, and then Pickford. She was a great performer, and possessed keen intelligence, managerial ability, and business sense to boot. The nascent studio system had just begun promoting prominent actors, and Pickford grabbed that mechanism and used it to her advantage. A master promoter, she used her worldwide popularity to score pay raises and creative control.

Soon she was producing all of her films, writing some of them as well. She successfully resisted “block-booking” policies that paired her films with inferior ones for distribution. She co-founded United Artists, helped to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Motion Picture Relief Fund.

A staunch protector of her film image, Mary remade the film in 1922, as she loved the character and could give the story better production values. It was just as successful as its first incarnation.

The fatal flaw in her popularity was that Pickford's fans would not accept her maturation. As she grew older, she attempted more sophisticated and complex roles, but the public rejected her. She continued as a mogul for decades, living quietly and drinking copiously. 

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Holiday special: 11 key films on MLK and the Civil Rights movement

How do we remember our heroes? Who was Martin Luther King Jr., really? What did he do? What was it all about?

Finally, there are now more Americans alive who were born after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. than before, and the living participants in and witnesses to the Civil Rights Era are fading away. His life and those times now seem remote. In these times, it sometimes seems that no progress has been made, that we are slipping back into violence, prejudice, and disenfranchisement. The oncoming trainwreck of Donald Trump, a psycho notorious for his hate of black people, means that education, awareness, and action on the preservation of civil rights are more important than ever.

But -- 70 years ago, it was worse. America was a nightmare for minorities. The Civil Rights movement was a stirring and rare example of successful, positive social change – a peaceful revolution that worked, democracy in action winning out over prejudice and hate.

At the head of it all was Dr. King, who even at that time had the aura of a living saint about him. We regarded him as the ultimate hero, the principled man of God whose eloquence and moral fortitude forced bad men to back down, like some spiritual gunslinger armed with only soul power. He was no certain, sanctimonious leader, but an ordinary and flawed man with extraordinary courage, perhaps the greatest communicator in American history. In a time that was simultaneously scared and terrifying, he was a modern Moses.

What Martin Luther King do we celebrate now? The films below try their best to remind us who he really was, and what he and millions of ordinary people accomplished.

The Documentaries

11. King: A Filmed Record . . . Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet/Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1970)

The first film bio of King was made for a unique one-night-only fundraising screening nationwide. The movie, built from newsreel footage, fell out of circulation for years, even after being added to the National Film Registry. It’s really a tribute film, studded with the highlights from King’s life, ending with 20 mournful minutes of his funeral footage.

10. Eyes on the Prize (Henry Hampton, producer; 1987/1990)

This 14-hour, meticulous epic is a definitive history of the black struggle from 1954 through 1985. Its depth, detail, and extensive use of primary sources make it an exemplary historical document.

9. Freedom on My Mind (Connie Field/Marilyn Mulder, 1994)

The virtue of this Oscar-nominated documentary, which focuses on the 1961 “Freedom Summer” voter registration project in Mississippi, is its emphasis on the volunteer front-line organizers of both races that did the grunt work during that dangerous time when activists Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were murdered.

8. 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997)

This heartbreaking Oscar-nominated documentary proved that Spike Lee was just solid on non-fiction projects as he was with his narrative features. The intimate scale of the piece, focusing on the murders of a quartet of Sunday school students on September 15, 1963, puts the human cost of the civil-rights struggle at the forefront.

7. Citizen King (Orlando Bagwell/Noland Walker, 2004)

Part of the prestigious American Experience series of historical portraits, an excellent one-hour summary of King’s life – a good place to start.

6. King (PBS, 2008)

A two-hour look at King’s life, hosted by Tom Brokaw for the History Channel. It includes rare conversations with King’s children, as well as contemporary perspectives on King’s legacy.

5. Freedom Riders (Stanley Nelson, 2010)

An excellent close-up examination of the fight to integrate public transportation in the South. In the summer of 1961, volunteers trained in non-violence ran the gauntlet of beatings, death threats, and arrests.

4. The March (John Akofrah, 2013)

Another model examination of a specific event – in this case, the March on Washington, which culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Features

3. King (Abby Mann, 1978)

The first dramatized version of King’s life, a TV mini-series, features the great Paul Winfield a the civil rights leader, supported by an all-star cast that includes Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Al Freeman Jr., and many more. Winfield is capable of showing a vulnerable and human King, exploring the fear and worry that dogged his until his death.

2. Boycott (Clark Johnson, 2001)

The story of the event that started it all – the Montgomery bus boycott. Jeffrey Wright plays King here with perhaps too much impassity; his King seems intimidated and terse when not on the pulpit (which could have been the case – King was only 26 years old when his activism began). Where the movie excels is how it shows how a social-action movement is put together, and overcomes obstacles. Anyone planning a non-violent revolution will find the blueprint here.

1.  Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014)

A stirring film about the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that’s at its best when showing us the inner and intimate life of the protagonists, King (David Oyelowo) and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), who find their marriage under attack as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attempts to drive them apart by sending them audio tapes of King’s spied-upon infidelities. The movie falls down when the famous talking heads fill the screen – LBJ was not as much of an opponent of King’s as he is portrayed here, and George Wallace was cleverer than intolerant goober Tim Roth gives us.

Director Ava DuVernay gave a great response to those who questioned Selma’s historical accuracy, words that applicable to any attempt to remember the man and the struggle. “Bottom line is, folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it . . . Let it come alive for yourself.”

Friday, January 13, 2017

The NFR Project #39: 'Mabel's Blunder'

Mabel Normand, an early Hollywood hyphenate.
Mabel’s Blunder
Dir: Mabel Normand
Prod: Mack Sennett
Scr: Mabel Normand
Phot: unknown
Premiere: Sept. 12, 1914

She was the first female comedy star. She was funny without playing an eccentric type; she was no Dumb Dora or crazy old maid. She was a recognizably contemporary woman, normal except for the situations she found herself in. She was lovely, but could make funny faces. She could do slapstick; she was the first heroine to be tied to the railroad tracks in film, and is held to be the first person to throw a custard pie. She was the life of the party until it all caught up with her.

She came from the prosaic confines of Staten Island, and soon grabbed the attention of comedy kingpin Mack Sennett, both professionally and personally. She thrived as a comedy draw, and was key in encouraging and teaching Chaplin about how to work on film. After he left Keystone, she paired up with Fatty Arbuckle for a string of successful films.

At the height of her popularity, throughout 1914, she wrote and/or directed some one-quarter of her own films. The results, as in Mabel’s Blunder, are not significant stylistically – they look like any other Keystone comedies. Here, she’s an “office girl” with a horny boss, who’s in love with the boss’s son. She misapprehends that he’s cheating on her (it’s his sister; oddly, she must have never come up in conversation before). She changes clothes with her brother, conveniently his chauffeur, and tracks them. Complications multiply. 

There’s an early sighting of future comedy great Charley Chase, and Keystone stalwart Al St. John is in the cast, as is the future prolific director and Buster Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline.

Other early female directors such as Guy-Blache, Azner, and Dulac are far more watchable. Still, it’s fun to see Normand’s winsome charm at work – and it certainly shows that the gender of the person behind the camera didn’t matter.

Normand is better known now for her involvement in scandals of the era. She lived hard, had many disappointments and died young. But she’s till funny.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The NFR Project #25: 'The Musketeers of Pig Alley'

Elmer Booth, foreground, and Harry Carey, Sr.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: N/A
Scr: D.W. Griffith, Anita Loos (both uncred.)
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: Oct. 31, 1912
A lot happens here in 1,000 feet of film. The Musketeers of Pig Alley is the first gangster film, but it’s much more. Here, director D.W. Griffith uses an approach that allows for moral complexity and realism, and his director of photography Billy Bitzer uses techniques such as isolated focus and erratic framing to create new ways of seeing. Film as an art with its own unique set of techniques advances demonstrably here.

It’s a story set in the slums of New York, but it’s not a symbolic story like Griffith’s earlier A Corner in Wheat, nor a melodramatic like the urban expose The Cry of the Children. It’s gritty and dark, despite its nominally happy ending. There are loose ends and dead ends in the script, the first by the prolific Anita Loos, herself one of the first professional screenwriters, but they give this short story in film the extra dimensionality of strangeness.

In a nutshell, the story concerns a struggling young musician and his wife. They live in poverty with her mother, who dies at the three-minute mark, seemingly just to underscore the misery. The husband is robbed; the robber later saves the musician’s wife from being drugged at “the gangster’s ball,” which a female friend drags her to while her husband is working. Providentially, the husband recovers his wallet during a shootout between two rival gangs; the couple give the friendly robber an alibi in return.

Among the film’s virtues are a grim attention to detail, and a general underplaying that was rare at the time. Crime had been the subject of film before, but this movie takes us directly to the lowest level of society, the crowded alley. In the final seconds, a title reads “LINKS IN THE SYSTEM” and shows the gangster taking money from, and seeming to agree to do the bidding of, an off-screen hand. It seems like a strange, disconnected, menacing moment – right before we snap back to the final sight of the embracing couple.

A lot has been written about the performance of Elmer Booth as the chain-smoking, cocky gang leader Snapper Kid. His tough, nervy, hyperactive characterization was much different from the mysterious villains of the past. It’s said to have influenced Cagney and others. Unfortunately, Booth was riding in the car the drunken up-and-coming director Tod Browning drove full-speed into the side of a train on June 16, 1915, and was killed instantly.

A handful of important actors appear here. Lillian Gish plays the lead; Harry Carey Sr. is Snapper’s sidekick, Bobby Harron, who was to be a leading man for Griffith until his untimely and unexplained death in 1920, is a rival gang leader; and Dorothy Gish, Lionel Barrymore, and Donald Crisp lurk around the edges of the screen.

Tackling the nitty-gritty was a bold move that would find flower later in silent features such as Underworld and The Racket, and culminate in the crime sagas of the early talkies.

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