Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The NFR Project #51: 'Civilization,' the anti-war film that got Woodrow Wilson reelected

War displeases Jesus.
Dir: Reginald Barker, Thomas H. Ince, Raymond B. West, Walter Edwards (uncred.), David Hartford (uncred.), Jay Hunt (uncred.), J. Parker Read Jr. (uncred.)
Prod: Thomas H. Ince, Al Woods
Scr: C. Gardiner Sullivan
Phot: Joseph H. August, Dal Clawson, Clyde De Vinna, Otis M. Gove, Devereaux Jennings, Charles E. Kaufman, Robert Newhard, Irvin Willat
Premiere: December 31, 1915
86 mins.

 What do you do when you want people to hate war? You make a war film, of course.

Civilization is a big-budget extravaganza that relates intense pacifist sentiment. It’s an attempt to reinforce the strong isolationist feelings of much of the American public before the country joined World War One. Like its parent cause, the film fails.

Jesus rebukes the warmongering King
The conflict broke out in the summer of 1914, but then-President Woodrow Wilson successfully led efforts to keep the U.S. neutral, even after such incidents as the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania in May of 1915 (of the 1,198 casualties, 128 were American citizens). The bulk of the American public had no desire to go to war, and those who did were typed as allies of “war profiteers.” In 1916, Wilson was reelected, using the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.”

Screenwriter C. Gardiner Sullivan was inspired to write the story on Easter, 1915, and pioneer film mogul Thomas Ince thought it was worth a lavish realization. At a reported cost of $1,000,000 (in reality, more like $100,000), it was a huge popular success, and may have helped Wilson win the contest over Charles Evens Hughes, which was decided by the narrowest margin of victory in a presidential election until 2004.

The film is told in that worst of all narrative forms, the allegory. The heavy-handed symbolism is inherently condescending, making pacifism and idealism seem like uncomfortable affectations. An unnamed European power goes to war. Inventor Count Ferdinand invents a fine new submarine, and captains it. When faced with torpedoing a Lusitania-like ocean liner, he balks, destroying his submarine, his crew, and himself.

Then – stay with me – he goes to Purgatory and meets Christ, who commandeers his body for use in the world above. Restored to life, Count/Christ comes back to his native land and preaches peace. The King has him jailed, but a chorus of thousands of anguished women protesters compel him to visit the Count in prison. There, he finds the Count dead, but Christ  (through superimposition) rises out of the Count’s body and takes the King on a Christmas Carol-like cautionary tour of the battlefield, showing his first-hand (spectrally at least) the consequences of warmongering. The King, convinced, declares peace and the unmurdered portion of the soldiery returns home, to great rejoicing.

The production is stilted and undynamic, consistent with the undeveloped film aesthetic of the day. The big battle scenes, captured by multiple directors and cameramen, are unintentionally the most dynamic part of the film. The thankless job of playing Jesus was given to George Fisher, who portrays him woodenly –for how could you invest the Messiah with complexity, especially in an allegory?

The pretentious sanctimony of this early message picture became non grata immediately after Wilson did an abrupt about-face and declared war four months after it opened. The film was pulled, and was replaced by pro-war films just as subtle, like D.W. Griffiths’ Hearts of the World, The Beast of Berlin, and To Hell with the Kaiser! Powerful new techniques of mass persuasion, implemented by government workers drawn from the advertising industry, emphasized the savagery of the Germans and the righteousness of taking up arms, typified by recasting the conflict as “The War to End All Wars.” It was all too easy to turn public opinion from one pole to another.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The NFR Project #49: 'Regeneration,' the first gangster-film feature

Dir: Raoul Walsh
Prod: Not listed
Scr: Carl Harbaugh, Raoul Walsh
Phot: Georges Benoit
Premiere: September 13, 1915
72 mins.
Raoul Walsh’s first feature film, Regeneration, is considered the first feature “gangster” film as well. More importantly, it signals a leap forward. It escapes the clumsy presentational style of prior film work, getting the camera up and moving, into the thick of things. Tied to clean, clear editing, Walsh’s work is streamlined and compelling. For the first time, American film has a great director who abandons stage-bound consciousness, a filmmaker who thinks filmically.

To be sure, there were hints of the gangster genre to come in short subjects such as D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) (see this link to my earlier essay, and others below), the real foundation and source of the crime film is the cinema of social concern, exemplified by earlier films such as The Cry of the Children (1912) and Traffic in Souls (1913). Spurred by the Progressive moment of the turn of last century, these films illustrated the plight of the poor, the immigrant, and others members of the disenfranchised.

In these Dickensian “sob stories,” the protagonists are victims in need of rescue. In Regeneration, the hero is an anti-hero – a bad guy with a good heart. In this case, his story is based on Owen Kildaire’s 1903 autobiography, My Mamie Rose, which chronicled the writer’s rise from illiterate, impoverished orphan to respected author.

A fugitive trapped in the shadows.
The film starts much as any socially conscious film of the period did. Owen is orphaned at 10, and taken in by the couple across the hall of his tenement, not so much out of compassion as out of a desire for a free laborer. Exposed to constant drunkenness and violence, an early shot pushes in to Owen’s dismayed face as his adoptive parents clash over his head. For once, there is no magical solution to the child’s problems – he simply stews in the foul environment of the Bowery (and Walsh shot much of the film on its streets, hiring local ne’er-do-wells to fill the crowd scenes).

Rockcliffe Fellowes, who plays Owen as an adult, is known today only for his role as a straight man in the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, but boasted an extensive career in silent film. Owen leads a criminal gang. He is hard and dour, but also wistful. Unlike his compatriots, there is a glimmer of thought in his eyes. He collides with society girl Mamie (Anna Q. Nilsson, another now-forgotten silent star) at Grogan’s, a tawdry variety hall where the criminal class goes for entertainment. (Owen quaffs a beer, and this shot is intercut with a quick one of Owen-as-child in the same setting, gobbling an ice-cream cone – alcohol as the poor man’s comfort food.) She is “slumming” with her rich friends, escorted by the natty district attorney, who has eyes for her. When Owen rescues the D.A. from harassment in the hall, a spark ignites between the gangster and the debutante.

Soon Mamie is volunteering at the local settlement house. These were the settings for the efforts of a kind of urban Peace Corps of the day, a do-gooder movement that put social-welfare workers in the heart of the slums, living among the people they were trying to help. Gradually, she earns Owen’s trust and he begins to show signs of remorse and a longing for a better, more compassionate life.

Cops and criminals battle it out
The only male missionary in the picture is portrayed as weak and effeminate, but Owen exemplifies the virtues of muscular Christianity. He travels with her, and saves boatloads of children, when the excursion steamer they set out on catches fire – a reference to the General Slocum disaster of 1904, in which more than 1,000 died. He saves a baby from its drunken father. It’s as if Owen is rewinding his own history, and amending it for the good as he goes.

Inevitably, Owen has to choose whether or not to keep living in the gutter (his gang’s H.Q. is literally underground, a filthy cellar sprinkled with mattresses, filled with his men drinking, smoking, gambling, and plotting heists). He abandons his former life, and his one-eyed lieutenant Skinny takes over. When Owen shields him from the authorities after he stabs a cop, Mamie feels betrayed. She seeks him out in his lair, only to find herself trapped by Skinny, who has the usual designs on her.

In a dynamic closing sequence, Owen comes to the rescue. A brawl between cops and criminals fills the screen, and Skinny ends up shooting Mamie inadvertently. Owen’s quest for revenge is stymied by superimposed visions of Mamie reminding him that vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” Skinny’s life is forfeit, but his death doesn’t lie on Owen’s head. In a bold move, the film lets the heroine expire, but posits Owen as the torchbearer that will keep her mission alive.

What makes Walsh’s work special is the fact that he wastes none of the audience’s time. He has confidence in the ability of the viewer to follow the story, so he makes his point and moves on quickly, in scene after scene. Though his in-studio shots are uniformly lit in the manner of the day, whenever he gets on location Walsh tries and succeeds in making some incredible and evocative low-light shots that emphasize shadows – an objective correlative to the movement of Owen, a liminal figure, into and out of the light.

Regeneration doesn’t peddle any miracles. The characters’ behaviors spring from a naturalistic source, instead of being imposed from without for the sake of the plot. Owen is not a victim of fate, but a mature personality who makes choices good and bad, and who develops in a complex manner. This kind of respect for the dynamics of character and the unflinching look at contemporary slum life makes Regeneration still watchable. It feels real.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: the anti-war epic ‘Civilization,’ featuring Jesus.