Tuesday, December 18, 2018

NFR Project 54: 'Daughter of Dawn'


The Daughter of Dawn
Dir: Norbert A. Myles
Prod: Richard Banks
Scr: Banks and Myles
Phot: unknown
Premiere: October 1920
80 min.

Romanticizing the exotic comes easily to filmmakers. A Native American story, filmed with Native American participation, replete with Native American authenticity in detail, which tells a rusty old tale of romance, is more fun for anthropologists than moviegoers.

For me, this is an instance in which the film’s backstory is vastly more interesting than the film itself. This film, a unique independent effort that captured vital data about the appearance of late-colonization period Native American tribes, was presented with fanfare to President Wilson in the White House on November 20, 1920. Then it vanished.

In 2005, a private investigator approached Brian Hearn, film curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. He had the only copy of the film, payment for a case he worked on. After some negotiation, the five heavily damaged reels were turned over, and a long and painstaking restoration process began. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Historical Society possessed the original script and some film stills to help guide the process. The film was digitized (it was held together in places with masking tape) and given a new score. Finally, in 2013, it screened again.

The result is a pleasant, run-of-the-mill affair, centered on a romantic triangle and including tests of manhood, the kidnapping of women, and combat, all played out against the plains and rocky defiles of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. The cast is composed of Native Americans — more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes participated in the filming.

Yet, at the end, it’s unimpressive. The story drags on, and the usual romantic clichés override whatever authentic Native American characters and narratives might have been buried in plain sight. They are used as window dressing, an exotic evocation of the flip side of the pioneer narrative: Indians are evil and must be destroyed/Indians are noble and must be idealized. As yet, few correctives to this binary vision have emerged.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: the Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

'First Man': Neil Armstrong as the Last Roman?

'First Man': ENOUGH WITH THE STARING.


First Man
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Scr: Josh Singer, from the biography by James R. Hansen
Phot: Linus Sandgren
Premiere: September 28, 1919
141 min.

 Who am I to argue with an Oscar-winning director? My usual little old miscreant self.

This two-and-a-half-hour epic on the life of the colorless yet accomplished Everyman, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, feels longer. With the best intentions, the result is a faithful, plodding hagiography of a secular saint, a modern man of steel with a heart of sentimental mush. It’s a Gary Cooper movie.

Given the chance to watch it from the front row of the theater, a mistake I haven’t made since Raging Bull, it was odd to see the film as the epic it was touted to be. It seemed as though most of the action consisted of talking heads and reaction shots, much more of a TV aesthetic. Lots and lots of close-ups. Neil Armstrong staring and staring and staring . . .  until finally I felt like the subject of an unsuccessful hypnotist.

Of course, the subject cries out for film treatment. I am a child of the Space Age, and “our” astronauts were the ultimate heroes and role models. We drank Tang, a sugar and-orange-flavored-and-colored powder, because “the astronauts drank it.” We ate Space Food Sticks. As is always the case with a movie that wants to be taken as gospel, the makers of First Man got a lot of ink about their attention to period detail. I was born in 1960, the same year as the daughter Armstrong and his wife lost to a tumor only two years later, an event which haunts his character in flashback throughout the film. I can testify that, visually, they nailed the period details. However, at the heart of the film is a lie so maudlin that it clanks like a cowbell.

Armstrong is aptly played by the most Sphinxlike actor in Hollywood today, Ryan Gosling, a performer so enigmatic he makes Garbo look like Jerry Lewis. Gosling and Chazelle hit paydirt with La La Land, a Minnelli-esque musical-tragedy pastiche. Now First Man weighs in like the second film in a trilogy about the travails of white people, a movie that insists that momentous occasions in history are always laden with emotional freight, that resurrects the strong, silent type and valorizes it (if only everyone would just leave Neil alone everything would be fine!). It’s as if Chazelle’s Armstrong is the Last Roman, the final and ultimate noble incarnation of American goodness. He is a closed-mouthed knight in civilian clothes.

Gosling is the master of poker-faced underplaying, working at a low emotional temperature throughout, interspersed with clench-toothed moments of subdued anguish beneath the placid yet unblinking visage Armstrong presents to the world. Actors who play heroes often have a blank, negative capacity to their personas that allows us to identify with them and project our feelings onto theirs. But Chazelle and Gosling go so far in quest of absolute zero that their Armstrong is a not just a cipher, but an uninteresting one. (I have Goslingphobia, brought on by Drive.)

Neil Armstrong was a regular guy, albeit intensely intelligent and focused. In the words of Hollywood, he had no redemptive arc. He did his job, lived his life, and was a very private man. He shunned the spotlight. So, how do you make a movie about him? Now, I’m sure that he was devastated and affected by his daughter’s early death. It gives the title character an emotional hook, something with which to work.

So (SPOILER ALERT) they threw in the bit near the end of the film about him throwing his dead daughter’s bracelet into a crater on the Moon and crying. It rings hollow because it’s so shamelessly speculative, or as I’m sure it was pitched, “emotionally true” if not something Neil Armstrong would ever do. It gives the lead character an emotional center and weight, it gives closure; it ties the story together. And we slaughter truth on the altar of the cheap epiphany.

Meanwhile, this 12 Years a Caucasian plods on. And what was so great about being repressed, anyway? The marriage of Neil and Janet Armstrong is presented as being typical of the time — everyone lodged in their traditional roles, not communicating. This is misrepresented in the film as the kind of Stoicism that made America great, not as the kind of problem that led to huge numbers of couples getting divorced, from the ‘70s on (including the Armstrongs).

So strip away the false, and what do you have? Another paean to man’s ingenuity, with the usual pumped-up special-effects sequences you might expect. The real story of the mission to the Moon isn’t a stirring, romantic adventure. It was accumulation of tiny moments, of the contributions of thousands, coordinated and assembled with audacious frenzy. That’s a story worth filming. That was Hidden Figures.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The case for FilmStruck


On October 26, WarnerMedia announced that it intended to shut down FilmStruck, the streaming service for classic and world cinema, as of November 29.

I can’t argue the dollars and cents of it. Money is a language that is deaf to all others, and that overrules them all. Nor can I argue that is a fledgling cultural institution that “must” be sustained, like some precocious cripple.

Instead, as a subscriber since Day One, let me tell you what FilmStruck does. It gathers in one place some of the best, most interesting, and most challenging films ever made. It’s a window into other worlds. It’s a history of film in and of itself. It is a cultural nexus, a node of activity, a resource that stimulates thought, feeling, and community. SIGN THE PETITION TO PRESERVE IT HERE!

It’s the best kind of receptacle for an art form. It’s efficiently and elegantly designed, expertly curated, with just enough information to educate and contextualize the film the viewer is about to see — or see for the 100th time. The mix of movies presented in stately rotation to date range from popular greats such as Singin’ in the Rain to challenges such as Kobayashi’s taxing The Human Condition, or Klimov’s brutal Come and See. (Besides, how else can I, in an idle moment, watch a beautifully sharp Seven Samurai on my Android phone, any time of the day or night? This is much more spiritually important to me than you might imagine.)


 As a film writer, I have used the service as the basis for for numerous stories and much valuable research. Oddly, the loss of FilmStruck would affect me less than most. I have spent years ferreting out obscure films of all kinds, and I know all the tricks of the trade. I can dig and scour and find what I need.

But for most film-lovers, access is the key to their enjoyment and their development of knowledge. The early promise of a wide-ranging, accessible cornucopia of film online withered and died under the conservative dictates of commerce. Potential customers must deal with a profusion of competing streaming platforms and archives, each with its own menu of films ranging from mediocre to awful.

Without FilmStruck, streaming movies become just another commodity, a lowest-common-denominator passel of mind-numbing time-wasters, the Criterion titles and other gems scattered far beyond the reach of most. Without FilmStruck, another art form vanishes from sight, the past disappears, and the culture disintegrates because the collective memory and the concept of quality are gone.

The genie is already out of the bottle. We know that a FilmStruck is possible, and that it’s as fine an artistic and entertainment endeavor as has come down the pike in many a day. These people know what they are doing, and I heard some of them took this on in addition to their regular jobs. You cannot buy that ind of dedication  it comes from the heart.

Already site maintenance has been discontinued, and I run up against film choices that reveal "no content available." I can only urge that the service continue in some form or other. Hey — you got a guy standing here with money in his hand, willing to pay for it. Powers that be, this revenue stream has only begun to flow. Let’s make some money, watch some movies, and do the world some good. Long live FilmStruck!



Wednesday, October 17, 2018

NFR Project 53: 'The Dragon Painter' (1919)


The Dragon Painter
Dir: William Worthington
Prod: not listed
Scr: Richard Schayer, from the novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa
Phot: Frank D. Williams
Premiere: September 28, 1919
53 min.

The Dragon Painter makes an excellent companion piece to the previously reviewed Broken Blossoms, a vastly more popular film featuring an Asian character made the same year. In sharp contrast to the “yellowface” performance of Richard Barthelmess, Dragon Painter is an attempt to create an alternative, non-stereotyped kind of cinema from an Asian-American perspective.

This film was the product of the Haworth Pictures Corporation, founded and funded by the first Japanese film star, Sessue Hayakawa, who had achieved fame and fortune thanks to his performance in only his second film, The Cheat (1915). He was an international star, but could only find roles in mainstream films as a suave villain or an exotic heartthrob, or both simultaneously. As a legitimate actor, Hayakawa wanted to be treated like one. So he went ahead and took care of it himself.

In March, 1918, Hayakawa formed the independent Haworth Pictures Corporation. The Dragon Painter is the ninth of 22 Haworth films that served as popular starring vehicles for him over a span of five years. These productions were a relief for audiences who wanted to see three-dimensional Asian characters conveying a full range of adult emotions.


The Dragon Painter’s story is set in a mythic, rural Japan (a pristine Yosemite Valley substitutes for the real thing). Here, Hayakawa plays Tatsuo, a tortured artist. A magnificent wielder of the brush, he believes that the divinity of the mountain changed his love, a princess, into a dragon, 1,000 years ago, and that he is doomed to include the dragon, unseen but ever-present, in all his paintings. He is a classic rebel: a “wild man,” a truth-teller who has no truck with the fancy and false ways of civilization.

Meanwhile, an older master Kano, who has no son, seeks a protégé to pass his craft to, as well as a spouse for his daughter Ume-ko (Tsuru Aoki, a fine actress and Hayakawa’s wife). Kano summons Tatsuo, telling him his daughter is the princess he seeks. Tatsu and Ume-ko do fall in love, and Kano takes him into the family.

Only — Tatsuo stops painting. “What use is it to paint you now that I’ve found you?” he asks. “I destroyed the divine gift you possessed,” she responds. In a Shakespearian move, she feigns suicide. His inspiration returns — the intertitle proclaims that “sorrow gave back to Tatsuo the mystery that love had taken”. In strong contrast to Hollywood’s typical overwrought ending, Ume-ko simply reappears one day, and Tatsuo realizes that he must integrate art and life. “Now that sorrow has returned your genius, and you have learned that Love must be Art’s servant, I can take my place at your side again without remorse,” she says, and the film ends with him working, her hand on his shoulder. It’s a refreshingly mature outcome for any commercial film, no matter what era.

Even in this attempt to get the cultural integrity “right,” there are contradictions. The film story was taken form a novel written by white American southern woman who was enamored of the East and who traveled extensively there with her second and third husbands. Father figure Kano is played by a Caucasian actor in yellowface, the prolific Edward Peil, Sr. (ironically, he is the only actor to be in the casts of both this and Broken Blossoms). American audiences praised it for its authenticity, but Japanese critics were quick to point out its unconvincing flaws.

Still, it’s a well-acted, well-thought-out piece, complete with magnificent outdoor cinematography from cameraman Frank D. Williams. The pace is crisp, yet the movie takes pleasure in the landscapes Tatsuo tries to capture.

Hayakawa’s life was a thrill ride from the word go. He had already tried suicide after being disqualified from joining the Japanese Navy due to a burst eardrum. He studied political economics at the University of Chicago, where he was a star quarterback. He became an actor by chance; he later turned to a career as an artist (fighting the Nazis in the French Resistance for a time as well). He came back to acting long enough to win praise in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), then became a Zen priest.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: the Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.



Friday, October 5, 2018

Just for fun: 'Sky High,' kung fu film, and lucha libre

How does a shatteringly simple-minded pop song resonate down the ages? How does it palpitate its way into a most unlikely list of others mediums, other countries?

When you think of "Sky High," a 1975 hit for the English band Jigsaw, written by Clive Scott and Des Dyer. I think of what pushed me over the edge into the arms of the Dolls, the Stooges, the Ramones.


"You've blown it all sky high/By telling me a lie/Without a reason why/You've blown it all sky high . . ." We mocked it as we drove down the road in our Trans Ams (OK, I had a Beetle). It layered the band's funk with an overpowering orchestral arrangement by Richard Hewson and an inordinate amount of vocal reverb and wah wah pedal. The result is a stupefying firestorm of lush sound that made the unrefined, literally unprocessed thrash of punk much more attractive to the ear.


And yet -- it was big in Japan, HUGE in Japan. In fact, it was ripped from the soundtrack of a film I'd dearly love to see in the revival house. It's the first Australian-Hong Kong co-production, The Man from Hong Kong, a kung-fu/exploding-car actionfest. IT co-stars, appropriately, Australian one-time James Bond George Lazenby as the the bad guy ("gun runner, dope peddler, ruthless czar of international evil" -- quite a job description! this villain can multitask) and Hong Kong's Jimmy Wang Yu, who made his name as One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Chinese Boxer (1970), and in The Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976). (Wuxia [Chinese martial arts] film fans will recognize the great Sammo Hung as a subordinate baddie; he handled the fight choreography for the film.) The film's poster features a rainbow hang-glider, a sure sign it was filmed squarely in the center of 1975.


And, somehow, it became the ring-entry theme for one of the three great masked Mexican wrestlers, luchador Mil Mascaras (Thousand Masks). Who is also big in Japan.


Popular culture seeps out in unlikely places. How do these things happen? Interesting, but it makes my head hurt after a while. The unlikely survival of "Sky High" in so many dimensions tells us that our creative efforts may find a niche someday. You simply have no say in how that plays out.




Thursday, September 20, 2018

NFR 52: Forbidden love and yellowface - 'Broken Blossoms' (1919)

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms.
 Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
Dir: D.W. Griffith
Prod: D.W. Griffith
Scr: D.W. Griffith, from the Thomas Burke short story “The Chink and the Child”
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Premiere: May 13, 1919
90 min.

Yellowface. It’s the still-common practice of a white actor portraying an Asian character in film, in both lead and supporting roles. The practice extends at least back to Mary Pickford playing Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly in 1915, and the controversy extends to such recent releases as The Last AirbenderCloud Atlas, and Ghost in the Shell. It relates to blackface performance, as well as “redface” (whites playing Native Americans), whitewashing, racebending, and other terms much alive in media debate today.

The idea that people of non-white races can’t carry a film is an old one, belied in the case of Asian actors by early examples such as Sessue Hayakawa, who had already become a film star thanks to The Cheat (1915) and Anna May Wong, who was about to become one in The Toll of the Sea (1922). However, Hollywood did not have the guts to cast either as a positive central character, as it was considered impossible to sympathize with and root for a character played by someone considered to be of a definitively different and inferior kind. Over and over, for decades, these and other Asian actors in film were relegated to playing “exotics,” villains and villainesses, subservient types, hapless victims, ham-handed and idiotic comic foils, and the like. (Hayakawa eventually broke away from the studios and made his own independent films, in which Asian characters could take on dimensionality.)

Meanwhile, playing an Asian character was deemed to be a challenging bit of “stunt” acting, a transformation akin to the impressive body-morphing performances of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Christian Bale in The Machinist. An Asian performer could not be expected to expected to delineate the subtleties of an Asian character (???), therefore a nice bankable white person could wrap the mysterious, evocative, and utterly stereotyped Oriental Otherness about themselves, while still shining out and signaling their whiteness beneath. Cognitive dissonance, but it made the filmmakers money.


At any rate, young white actor Richard Barthelmess was tapped for the role, and it made him a star — he went on, ironically, to be silent film’s emblematic leading man, the fresh-faced, naïve but determined hero in films such as Way Down East (1920) and Tol’able David (1921). As Barthelmess aged, he made the jump to sound with little difficulty, but less impact, headlining the intriguing and dark Heroes for Sale (1933), then moving into excellent work in supporting roles such as Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and the 1942 version of famous Western slugfest The Spoilers.

As Cheng Huan, known more popularly as “the Yellow Man” in the intertitles (the original story by Thomas Burke from his Limehouse Nights [1916] was titled “The Chink and the Child”) Barthelmess emotes through a facial mask of imposed passivity, accentuated by the Asian makeup he’s wearing. Cheng Huan came to England eager to teach the ways of the Buddha, but slumps into opium-fueled lethargy as a common shop owner.

The story is a typical melodrama, intimate in scale in contrast to D.W. Griffith's mammoth productions Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. It's set in the poverty- and crime-stricken confines of London East End district Limehouse, also home to fictional opium dens, white slavers, and Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. There is an abused child-woman, played to perfection by Lillian Gish. Her character Lucy is given the age of 15, but as played by Gish she’s more of an addled 8-year-old, definitely prepubescent. Her wan, droopy helplessness is disturbing, especially the much-lauded gesture of her repeatedly forcing a smile onto her face. She only really comes to life when her father’s about to kill her, and she bashes about the inside of a small closet in hysterics.

She is the hapless punching bag of her father, the drunken boxer Battling Burrows, played by none other than — oh my God! is that Donald Crisp? You may remember him solely as the gruff but saintly patriarch in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941) and National Velvet (1944), but he started off playing baddies, and he is a real stinker here. He drinks, he grimaces, he pantomimes terribly.

Griffith intimidates the viewer with extreme closeup -- here, Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms.
One day, a badly beaten Lucy collapses in Cheng Huan’s shop, and he takes her in, caring for her and lavishing her with attention. Here the taboo of miscegenation raises its ugly head. Miscegenation, for those of you who don’t know, is the belief that people of different races shouldn’t love, physically or otherwise, formerly enshrined in law in many places, including the U.S. Cheng Huan can’t be shown relating sexually to a white woman, especially a 15-year-old. So he idolizes and spoils her, keeping their relationship on an infantile, asexual level. (At one point she asks, “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” Ouch.) It is this sexless nobility that elevates Cheng Huan, oddly making him the most Christian of characters.

Of course, their idyll cannot last, and the inevitable happens. Griffith is doing what all the great film moralizers do — he outlines the abuse and retribution, while bemoaning same. Women and minorities have no chance in Western society in the world of Broken Blossoms, but Griffith pleads for them anyway, no matter how awkward or condescending he may be.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Dragon Painter.





Tuesday, August 7, 2018

NFR Project 51: Maurice Tourneur's 'The Blue Bird' (1918)




The Blue Bird
Dir: Maurice Tourneur
Prod: Unknown (‘presented by’ Adolf Zukor)
Scr: Charles Maigne, from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck
Phot: John van den Broek
Premiere: March 31, 1918
75 min.

If there were such a thing as a practical course that prepared one for becoming a filmmaker, Maurice Tourneur took it. Trained as a graphic artist and illustrator, he served apprenticeships with sculptor Auguste Rodin and muralist Amelie Puvis de Chavanne. Switching to theater, he served as an actor and as a director in some 400 productions over the course of 11 years. Sensing the possibilities of the new medium, he then trained in the film industry, eventually becoming one of the most honored directors of the silent era.

The Blue Bird is one of four Tourneur films in the National Registry, all dating from his American period (1918-1928). All share a strong visual aesthetic — which first propelled, then hindered Tourneur’s career.

Here he’s at the height of assured inventiveness with a fairy-tale subject that’s but one of five film adaptations of the popular 1908 play by Belgian playwright and Nobel-winner Maurice Maeterlinck. Today, Maeterlinck is best known for creating the source material for Debussy’s sole opera, Pelleas et Melisande. The playwright was fond of symbolism and allegory, which made an impact with the audiences of the time, but which seem like a passel of condescending homilies today.

The story bears similarities to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published eight years before. In both, children go on quests in magical landscapes, accompanied by creatures not normally animate, only to learn that there’s no place like home. In Blue Bird’s case, the children are the decidedly Old World, Mitteleuropean Tyltyl and Mytyl, brother and sister who go on a dream journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness for the sick child across the road from them. With a talking Dog and Cat, and the “souls” of Water, Fire, Light, Sugar, Milk, and Bread, they search the Kingdoms of Night, Happiness, and the Future. (In a sublime moment, fire in a fireplace magically unfolds itself and dances, revealing its inner essence through a performer in a flame costume moving sinuously over a blowing fan that makes the cloth mimic tongues of fire licking, tasseling upward.)

Returning empty-handed, they find the Bird in their home as it was all the time. They give it to their sick friend, who promptly loses it but remains healthy and happy. Breaking the fourth wall, Tyltyl encourages the audience to find the Blue Bird in their own humble homes.


Backed up by a creative team that stuck with him for several productions, Tourneur was able to design and execute a sumptuous visual plan. Every setup is art-directed to within an inch of its life, every frame is a little artwork. This kind of attention to detail was by and large extremely unfamiliar to American moviemakers, who thrived on action and improvisation. Tourneur’s mature artistic integrity made him an auteur long before the phrase became popular.

A menagerie of smoothly executed effects proved dazzling. Though sometimes credited as an influence on German Expressionist film, Tourneur’s approach is much more of a direct influence on the creative team behind Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 starring fantasy vehicle The Thief of Baghdad. Tourneur showed that a comprehensive and coherent visual world could be constructed on film, through ardent discipline that exploited the possibilities of production design.

Other film version of Blue Bird include a 1940 Technicolor outing starring Shirley Temple — specifically programmed to counter the smash hit Wizard of Oz the previous year, it bombed big-time. An infamous, all-star 1976 American/Soviet coproduction directed by a 77-year-old George Cukor cratered as well.

In the end, Tourneur’s desire not a just be a cog in a major studio’s machine prompted him to leave America while filming The Mysterious Island and return to France. There he overcame the poor opinion of those French who thought of him as a World War I draft dodger; later he made films in a tense truce with Nazi occupiers. Tourneur’s last great film, Le Main du Diable (Carnival of Sinners, 1943) was a parable about an artist making a deal with the Devil.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Broken Blossoms.





Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On the Impossibility of Seeing a Film As It Was Intended to Be Seen

Screenshot from the trailer for the first CinemaScope epic, The Robe (1953)


True story. If you remember theatrical films shown on television in the 1960s, or if you just remember annoying things in general, you will recall that at the beginning of said films, and sometimes at their ends, all the figures on the screen would be compressed vertically, like Giacometti sculptures. Eventually, they would all pooch out again, and you would enjoy what you could see of the film's intended epic grandeur.


For indeed you were now helplessly held in the paw of the pan-and-scan technique, by which an arbitrarily designated squarish section of film was shot and transmitted, fitting the aspect ratio of your television screen. Many a night we would try to interpret what was happening in the off-stage portions of the film, as actors threatened and pleaded into the wings. This occurred most often when lauded Biblical or historical epics were on the schedule -- a big must in our family. (I never understood how big, beautiful, and fluid West Side Story (1961) was until I saw it in our local revival house, the Ogden.


The reason was of course the anamorphic lens. Whuut? Considering how smart I think I am, I sure don't know much about this subject. Here are some good links to help you understand the technology and its offshoots, rivals, boons, and limitations -- Harrie Verstappen's eloquent outline of the problem in Movie Screen Aspect Ratios on his Looniverse site; John L. Berger's wonderful Widescreen.org; and Ben Kirby's elegant explanation in Empire.


These writers and other film historians demonstrate a constant shift in the presentation of film from one kind of advanced technology to the next; with decidedly mixed results for the viewer. The CinemaScope/Cinerama films could never be seen properly unless and until they were housed in the intended auditorium.


Aspect ratio is only one of many factors that are dicey in a movie theatre, at a drive-in, in a improvised venue, and on any one of hundreds of differently designed viewing platforms, from mammoth hi-def units to phones.


In theatres, images are usually too dim and sound is far too loud -- my first film back in a theatre after a long neurological illness? -- Blade Runner 2049. I nearly passed out and left squinting and deaf. On recorded film as well, the quality soars and craters. It takes a diligent viewer to buy, visit, support, and subscribe to


Digital distribution has its own drawbacks. I watched Frost/Nixon (2008) in a crowded theatre one night and, as Michael Sheen says, "Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?", the movie stops. Twenty minutes and any groans later, we were excused with vouchers for a future screening. There is no foolproof way. The best you can do is hope for a trained and concerned projectionist and house manager who work together to make the screening as high-quality as possible.


My personal CinemaScope/Cinerama fix got met at Denver's idyllic Cooper Theatre, perched on a hilltop in Glendale in modernist splendor. The best explication of its glories can be found here in Shannon Stanbro's "The Cooper, Theatre of Tomorrow" in Historic Modern Denver. There were elevated smoking balconies at the right and left rear; there were "crying child" rooms, soundproofed, fronted with large windows and containing speakers so that new mothers could stay and keep watching the film instead of fleeing into the lobby with their squawking kids.


I've meant to write about the Cooper as part of my long-running Formative Film series, and am about five titles away from talking about it in depth. It is safe to say that viewing some of the original Cinerama and CinemaScope titles there, including a pristine and astonishing archival print of How the West Was Won (1962), were life-changing film-going experiences. But then, anytime we wanted to see a 70-millimeter, large-format drama or action film, we went to the Cooper, unconscious connoisseurs. We did dwell in the heart of the New American Cinema era (1967-1982), more exciting and inclusive than it would ever be again, without knowing it.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

NFR Project 50: Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the First Action Hero ('Wild and Wooly,' 1917)



Wild and Wooly
Dir: John Emerson
Prod: Douglas Fairbanks
Scr: John Emerson, Anita Loos
Phot: Victor Fleming
Premiere: June 24, 1917
72 min.

 Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is rightly regarded as America’s first action hero. Before Clark Gable was dubbed “the King,” that title was bestowed on Fairbanks. He was Hollywood royalty. He and actress Mary Pickford were the film industry’s “power couple,” so successful that they formed United Artists film studio in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.

To this quadrumvirate Griffith brought artistry, Chaplin humor, Pickford pluck and grace, and Fairbanks delivered power. On film, he was a living embodiment of pure energy, a relentlessly cheerful and resourceful protagonist who could not be defeated. His invigorating screen exploits gave viewers permission to dream big.

Fairbanks’ greatest triumphs came in swashbucklers and costume dramas in the 1920s, but he started out in comedy, and Wild and Wooly, made two years before the birth of United Artists, is a sterling example of the brisk blend of romance, humor, and adventure that was to become a Fairbanks trademark. It was crafted by the team of Fairbanks, screenwriter Anita Loos, and director John Emerson, who made seven films that established the Fairbanks persona – a peppy, charming, optimistic go-getter; an enthusiastic super-child in a man’s body.

Loos, one of the first real screenwriters, was key to Fairbanks’ early success. Her scripts have wit, drive. Their action is precise, fast-paced, to the point, not showy but as motivated as possible, subordinating itself to the telling of the story. Her movies move along leanly, stripped of affectation, boring exposition, and other distractions. Her intertitles are spare but pungent, used primarily for punchlines and witty observations. For the first time you get the sense that the person writing the story can see it from beginning to end, and can work back from the ending to tie everything together, to enrich the script.

Fairbanks was a “personality” actor – rather than impersonate characters he played himself, with minor variations, throughout his career. And he was compelling – the perfect hero type, one that all the ladies want to dally with and all the men want to buy a beer. Though capable of extraordinary deeds, his persona was that of a regular guy, “Everybody’s Hero.” There is an essential blankness at the center of every leading man that allows the viewer to substitute themselves and sink into identification with the protagonist. Fairbanks was the male template of the time.

During the period, there was a huge emphasis on “muscular Christianity” – a robust male ideal that combined the worship of physical health with that of chivalrous and knightly virtues. (Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent adherent.) In America, the East was identified with weakness, cities, addictions, and disease. The West, however, was rugged and natural, truthful and more “real.” It was a blank slate, a proving ground where a man could be reborn as his best idea of himself.

In the Fairbanks-Loos-Emerson films, Doug, via various plot contrivances, is repeatedly faced with an extraordinary set of physical challenges to overcome. His character is defined through action and accomplishment, which moves him from being a hero in vitro to becoming the real thing. In this way, Fairbanks was a more serious version of Harold Lloyd, the wholesome, striving adventure comic who made The Freshman (1925) and Safety Last (1928). It’s illuminating to find out that comics legends Siegel and Schuster modeled Clark Kent on Harold Lloyd, and Superman on Fairbanks.

Westerns in particular were good vehicles for this storyline. In Wild and Wooly, Doug is a banker’s son in the citified, sissified East who dreams constantly of the American frontier. He sleeps in a tepee, eats by a campfire (both located conveniently inside his father’s mansion), lassoes the butler, and carries on target practice. Hiss office is draped with works by Remington and Russell, Mexican blankets, rifle racks, and the like. He yearns for a vanished West or, more precisely, a mythic West that never existed. His gestures are too big for the board rooms in which he finds himself trapped. On Sundays, he gallops through Central Park, rolling his own cigarettes and sauntering into the movie house for a dose of Westerns.

When his father’s bank is asked to invest in a railroad spur to the town of Bitter Creek, Arizona, Doug leaps at the chance to examine the prospects in person. Representatives from the town realize that Doug’s character wants a dose of the imaginary West. Doug doesn’t want to be a cowboy, he wants to play a dime-novel version of one. So, they decided to retrofit their modern community as an incarnation of Doug’s imagination – at least long enough to land the contract. It’s Westworld, 1917.

The faux experiences they stage include a faked train robbery, followed by an Indian uprising, which gives the real villain, a grafting Indian agent, the idea to stage a real robbery in the confusion. At film’s climax, Doug is trapped by real Indians (broad stereotypes that chug redeye and plug townspeople), armed only with a gun full of blanks. That Doug promptly saves the day through miraculous striving goes without saying. His character’s vision is validated twice in the film – first, and falsely, his fantasy of the West; then, the fantasy brought to contingent life, rising from the beneath the surface of dull reality.

Fairbanks was all about wish fulfillment. His character longs for adventure, then finds he is uniquely suited to its demands. For Fairbanks, either the world is not extraordinary at all, or else it is all the time, and he chooses to live the latter. If wrong must be righted, then it’s the hobbyist, the enthusiast, the dilettante, the dreamer, who is up to the task – that is, the viewer. Somehow, under the costumes and stunts of derring-do, Fairbanks was us.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: The Blue Bird.




Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Excerpt: '1960 -- Horror Film's Pivotal Year'

A frame from the (in)famous shower sequence in Hitchcock's Psycho.

The following excerpt comes from my recently completed manuscript The Shape of Horror: A World History of Frightening Films. 

1960 was a pivotal year for film horror. No fewer than four groundbreaking horror movies — Britain’s Peeping Tom, America’s Psycho, Japan’s Jigoku, and Italy’s Black Sunday — were released, each of them seismically disturbing to censors and audiences alike, and all deeply frightening in a completely new way. (The last two films mentioned inaugurated their own national horror-film cycles, to be discussed in later chapters.)

European and Asian film industries gained massive amounts of ground in the 1950s. As nations rebuilt themselves after World War II, they found America ready and willing to absorb their cultural products. Soon lumped in with more serious foreign “arthouse films,” genre pictures from around the world played in America — and made money. Then, when Britain’s Hammer Studios succeeded by reviving the classic movie monsters, it emboldened other European, Asian, and American film studios to leap back hard into the genre.

There were few harbingers, especially in England and Europe, of the creative boom to come. There weren’t many non-sci-fi-oriented horror films being made on the Continent. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film, Vampyr (1932), was a notable exception, a dreamy, avant-garde affair that has much more to do with Cocteau than Caligari. There were films based on ghost stories and eerie fables, or hoary, gory “blood and thunder” melodramas such as the popular series made by British actor/theatrical impresario Tod Slaughter (Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) between 1935 and 1948. Horror anthology films were as old as Richard Oswald’s Uncanny Tales of 1919, but the Ealing Studios’ 1945 production of Dead of Night brought that subgenre back with a roar. Other films, such as Mizoguchi’s 1953 Ugetsu, contain moments of genuine horror but are not horror films as such.
His flesh inscribed with Buddhist prayers, the protagonist of Ugetsu faces vengeful ghosts.
 Japan’s biggest, and tallest, contribution to the horror-monster genre was Godzilla, who debuted in 1954. His creation was inspired by the financial success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms two years earlier. Godzilla, a giant prehistoric sea monster revived by nuclear testing, was angry, unpredictable, and violent, a colossally destructive embodiment of the atomic terrors endured by Japan during World War II. His immediate popularity triggered a domino-fall of sequels, an entire subgenre (tokusatsu, or live-action special-effects-laden fantasy, sci-fi, and horror films), and within that, further division into kaiju (giant monster) and kaijin (humanoid supervillain) movies.

Studios such as Toho (also the home studio of Akira Kurosawa — Godzilla was released in 1954, the same year as The Seven Samurai), Tsuburaya (home of transformational superhero Ultraman), P Productions, and Toei created highly successful film and TV franchises based on kaiju and kaijin. By Godzilla’s fifth appearance, he had begun the slow transition from mindless force of destruction to rogue champion of those in distress, and eventually to the status of national symbol and mascot.

A new feeling was slowly developing across national cinemas, edgy and disturbing. Actor Charles Laughton’s single directorial effort, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, though classified as a film noir, is a dark, Expressionistic children’s nightmare, a cautionary tale with mythic overtones. In it, Robert Mitchum plays one of his signature roles, an evangelical preacher who is also a serial killer, stalking two young children in his search for stolen loot. It combines a strange, silent-era dreaminess with a scathing portrayal of hypocritical evil.

Robert Mitchum as evil incarnate in The Night of the Hunter -- LOVE tattooed on one set of knuckles, HATE on the other.
Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, also made in 1955, was a game-changer. The story of a wife and mistress who combine forces to kill the abusive man who rules over them was adapted from a popular 1951 murder mystery by the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose work would be adapted into other memorable films such as Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face. In a way, Diaboliques was a throwback to the “old dark house” mystery/horror films of the 1920s. However, it differs from everything that came before it in three key ways.

First, the plot. Diaboliques was among the first films to implore its audience (with a final title card) not to reveal its twist ending. The film is constructed as one long buildup to a traumatic payoff, which calls into question everything the viewer has seen and believed. It pulls the rug out from under its audience, assaulting their sense of logic and continuity.

Second is Clouzot’s emphasis on the subjective experience of the film’s central figure, its guilty protagonist, the wife Christina. Played by Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife, the film is shot from her perspective. The gloomy, banal setting of a Gradgrindian boys’ school, the film’s dank, sodden, and moldy atmosphere, and the fragmented and shadowed interiors, evoke the unexpressed feelings that boil underneath as the principals attempt not to panic. Clouzot again and again concentrates on small details and atmospheric touches, and on pauses that linger just a shade too long, using every filmic tool at his disposal to create a sense of impending and inescapable doom.

Vera Clouzot faces the unfaceable in Les Diaboliques.
Third and most important is the unrepentantly dim view of humanity that Diaboliques embodies. There is a despair in the film about the inherent selfishness of human motivation akin to that found in the film noirs of the day, but Clouzot goes deeper. His past provides clues for his attitude. Clouzot started out translating German films into French, but was fired by his German studio for his friendship with Jewish producers. Later, he worked for a German film company in France during World War II and was then condemned afterwards, and for a time blacklisted, as a German collaborator.

In Diaboliques, all actions seem pointless seem destined to frustration. Emotions are irrelevant in the struggle for domination. No one is safe or worthy of trust, and paranoia rules the day. Instead of an attack from without, Clouzot gives us the horror from within, made manifest in the scope of the daily lives and petty ambitions of “normal” people.

The film is topped with shocks and a riveting twist ending. The result is filmmaking as primal thrill ride. Crowds flocked to the film, and it encouraged many repeat viewers, who were eager to see just how the film had tricked them the first time. Now film was a blatant tool of manipulation and assault. Henceforth, triggering a visceral response was an essential component of film horror.

The stage was set for the psychological-thriller boom. Fifty years after Freud’s theories of consciousness emerged, abnormal and dangerous mental states were cropping up everywhere in film, presaged by movies such as Night Must Fall (1937), Gaslight (1940), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Scarlet Claw, The Spiral Staircase, and Leave Her to Heaven (all 1946). Alfred Hitchcock made suspense, mystery and unease his stock in trade for decades — and in 1960 he made the most influential and graphic horror film in history.

Psycho was a low-budget affair, disdained by Hitchcock’s studio Paramount as too perverse a script to film. As a result, Hitchcock produced it himself and made millions. Based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, which was in turn based on the real-life career of American serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho put sex, sexuality, mental illness, and (seemingly) graphic violence front and center. To boot, it gave viewers protagonists that vanish abruptly, and encouraged identification with the villain, himself a victim.

Like Clouzot’s climactic scene in Diaboliques, Psycho’s infamous, complexly edited “shower scene” hit the viewing audience in the collective unconscious — a more perfect staging of fatal helplessness is hard to imagine. Hitchcock took the “don’t reveal the ending” gimmick and pushed it hard — forcing exhibitors to refuse to seat viewers after the film started, with promotional, life-sized cardboard cutouts of the director pointing at his watch in every theater lobby that showed the film.


Hitchcock doubled down on Clouzot’s cynicism. The victims in Psycho are random, and the crimes depicted are discovered and stopped almost by chance. The audience’s desire to see the innocent saved and the guilty punished is repeatedly frustrated — in fact, there is no culpable “guilty party” left by the end of the film, and no sense of a happy ending — the only resolution being found in the final image of a car and the body it contains being pulled out of a swamp.

Hitchcock’s effortless technique, developed by decades of experience, made Psycho a hit, cementing his position as a brilliant filmmaker. Conversely, the experienced, brilliant, and honored British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, made the same year, destroyed his career. Both featured mentally ill serial killers motivated by voyeurism and sexual excitement. Why was the reaction to Peeping Tom so different?

Peeping Tom is the embodiment of Terence Fisher’s definition of a horror movie as an adult fairy tale. It’s a visual poem about sex and death, created by Powell, best known for his work with writer/producer Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes). Powell took a script by polymath and cryptographer Leo Marks and turned it into a transgressive masterpiece.

In it, a young cameraman, Mark Lewis, turns out to have been observed and tormented by his psychologist father his entire life, examined and documented relentlessly for a study of fear. Mark works as a focus puller by day at a low-budget movie studio making a silly comedy, and supplements his income by taking and selling pornographic pictures. He lives in one room of his father’s mansion, renting out the other rooms and keeping to himself. In his spare time, Mark films women as he kills them, capturing their reactions to their own death as they see it in a mirror attached to the camera.

He earns the affection of a lodger, Helen, who gradually discovers his secret. Mark is a pitiable figure, a tragic antihero who is aware of his compulsions but is unable to break away from them. His camera is always with him; he even films the investigation of his crimes. As played by Carl Boehm, he is Peter Lorre-like, quiet and thick-lidded, almost whispering his lines, as invisible as he can make himself. (We never see Mark in the act, as it were — he is perpetually placid.)

Helen, played by Anna Massey, is meant to be a “Plain Jane.” Excluded as an object of desire and therefore as a potential murder target, only she has the power to divert Mark from his obsessions even temporarily. She becomes his confessor, and he shields her from his violence as best he can — “Don’t let me see you are frightened,” he implores her. For Mark, fear is the only palpable emotion, the only thing that can excite him sexually, and what provokes him to kill the object of his sexual impulse.

Peeping Tom's climax.
When Psycho ends, evil is captured (if not yet brought to justice) and the return of normality is implied. Peeping Tom goes much deeper, equating image-making with death. Taking a woman’s picture turns her into an object to be used, for sexual gratification, or Mark’s substitute for sexual gratification, which is playing the films of his kills over again. “Whatever I photograph I always lose,” he mourns, explaining his compulsion to kill — and photograph — again. In the end, Mark kills himself in an elaborate set-up, recording his own fear as he runs himself thorough on the blade attached to his camera, ironically completing the study his father began. “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid,” he cries.

And what does it mean that we’re peering over Mark’s shoulder through the film? The audience came to see the sex and violence, too. What is the extent and nature of the audience’s complicity with the horror-makers, and, finally, the monsters themselves? Norman Bates’ brand of madness is easier to digest than Mark Lewis’. It lets you off the hook.

Peeping Tom uses the device of the bold heroine who sees through a monster’s disguise, which comes straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Helen is at least physically intact at movie’s end, the original “final girl” in horror film who survives not due to a man’s rescue but due to her own intelligence and guts. It’s a character that would get lost for decades. Horror’s misogyny was about to increase exponentially.


KEY FILMS

The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton
1955
Some think of it as just a thriller, or a dark fable, but this is one of the scariest and most subversive movies ever made. It was actor Laughton’s only directing credit, and it makes you wonder what else he might have made. James Agee’s script, one of only four he wrote, is masterful. A serial-killer preacher stalks two children in a quest for stolen money. In the process, every social institution and position of trust is brought into question or turned inside out.

Night of the Demon
Jacques Tourneur
1957
Director Tourneur, who developed under the guidance of famed horror producer Val Lewton, perfects the “unseen monster” subgenre with the aid of master screenwriter Charles Bennett. Unfortunately, producer Hal E. Chester made the executive decision to show the monster at the beginning and end of the film, utilizing the talents of model-maker/animator Ray Harryhausen. Skip over opening and closing mentally — you’ll have a much better time.

Les Diaboliques
Henri-Georges Clouzot
1955
Clouzot’s twisty mystery founded the cinema of shock — an entire movie constructed to provide a disturbing payoff at the end. Two women scheme to murder the man who is ruining their lives. The movie’s atmosphere of dank gloom, the quiet desperation of its characters, and its vicious cynicism set the tone for horror films ever after.


Peeping Tom
Michael Powell
1960
A serial killer is also a moviemaker — he films the women he kills as they watch themselves die. So horrific and despised that it ended Michael Powell’s career, it is now rightly regarded as a classic about voyeurism, manipulation and the very meaning of movie-making.


Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock
1960
The quintessential transgressive film. A lonely hotel houses a shy young man and his murderous mother. It mixed sex, madness and violence so effectively that it became Hitchcock’s most successful movie. In response, the shock-laden exploitation film market exploded.


Eyes Without a Face
Georges Franju
1960
The Mad Doctor movie steps forward into more graphic territory here, but Franju’s soulful direction gives heft and mythic weight to the story of a father who kills beautiful women to transplant their features onto the visage of his scarred daughter.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

From my archives: 'David Lean directs Noel Coward'



“I loved its follies and apathies and curious streaks of genius,” wrote Noel Coward of his decision to return to England when World War II began. Had he not, the rise of David Lean would not have been deterred, but it may not have been as swift or as assured.

Coward provided Lean with writing that was strong and well-structured; Lean, as an already accomplished editor, knew how film worked. He could eliminate the extraneous. He had a keen sense of how to breathe cinematic life into a flat concept or character. Lean serves the material; later he will serve himself, with ever-more preposterous results.

Their mutually beneficial relationship is captured definitively in Criterion’s new box set. The first film in the series, the breathtaking World War II propaganda film In Which We Serve, was written for the screen; the next three – This Happy BreedBlithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter, are stage-derived. Lean solves the problems put to him in two out of three cases by the plastic limitations of the material, at best with Encounter, but to middling effect in Breed -- and comes up empty in Spirit.

When the war began, Coward was in a unique and ambivalent position. A tremendously popular entertainer, he was a prolific songwriter and playwright with a reputation as an effete, cutting drawing-room wit whose undeclared but obvious homosexuality both amused and repelled England’s middle class. Coward had written his grand stage chronicles of English life, Cavalcade and This Happy Breed; his patriotism was showing. He volunteered for the war effort in numerous ways, and In Which We Serve was the grandest of these, earning Coward an honorary Oscar and an air of unassailable legitimacy.

Based on the exploits of Coward’s friend Lord Mountbatten early in the war, the naval saga In Which We Serve is a perfectly pitched paean to the fighting spirit. In this case, it is delineated not by violence and victories, but by patience and fortitude in the face of what were at the time seemingly impossible odds. In this film, Britain’s classes are exemplified, and barriers between them are tacitly overcome as all bond together in unity, modesty, understated humor, and stiff-upper-lip stoicism.

Noel Coward and crew, rescued in In Which We Serve
 Coward, in particular, was making a huge gamble. His insistence on making it “his” project included casting himself as the brave Captain Kinross, master of the destroyer Torrin. Coward’s portrayal of a noble, unaffected, and incredibly straight naval officer was probably his greatest performance. Coward’s Kinross is absolutely calm, repressed to the point of being wooden; an apt critique of the heterosexual male stereotype in performance. (Later, Coward would overhear criticism of his performance from a neighboring table at a restaurant. As he left, he flounced over the offenders, put his hands on his hips, and hissed, “Well, I thought I was VERY GOOD!”)

Coward knew he needed top help to realize his project. He selected talents such as future Oscar winners and nominees Lean, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Ronald Neame, and camera operator Guy Green. Likewise, his casting initiated long-term relationships between Coward and Lean and actors such as Bernard Miles, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey, Celia Johnson, and Richard Attenborough.

Neame’s inky shadows and sharp highlights lend depth and dimension to the combat scenes, a nourish contrast to the traditionally lit domestic and flashback scenes. This high-contrast look will maintain itself in all succeeding black-and-white Lean films.

Lean, known already as the best film editor in England, now showed his organizational and leadership capabilities. Although he was a notoriously bad hand at drawing, he resolutely storyboarded the action -- and annotated his shooting script to within an inch of its life before hitting the soundstage. “All the important imaginative thinking, he (Lean) maintained, had to be done before the shooting commenced; there was no time for lengthy improvisations on the set when a director was working with numerous actors and technicians.” (1) This thoroughness and discipline served him well in future; his stone-faced seriousness on set would later lead to rifts with more easygoing colleagues such as Trevor Howard and Robert Mitchum.

Lean began production on In Which We Serve as a glorified assistant director; however, Coward wearied of the time-consuming, technical rigors of film direction and turned over the helm entirely to Lean after a few weeks. Even in his first effort, some of Lean’s trademarks -- confident pacing, deep-focus shots, and close attention to the human face -- are evident. “. . . .the fact that Lean was able to stamp his personal style upon a production overshadowed by Coward’s looming (and egotistical) presence says much for his ability.” (2)

Overcoming a initial lack of support and cooperation from the British military with an intervention from King George VI himself, Coward and Lean’s film wound up on release to be quite literally a rousing success, serving as a template for the stiff-upper-lip heroics of war films to come. The fruitful association continued.

This Happy Breed was a sentimental, historical stage epic in the style of Coward’s previous Cavalcade of 1931 (that show initiated the cliché in which a loving shipboard couple wanders away from in front of a life preserver . . . labeled “H.M.S. Titanic”!). Where Cavalcade profiled the upper crust, Breed looks warmly, if condescendingly, at the working class.

Robert Newton and Celia Johnson in This Happy Breed
It’s another tribute to the spirit of embattled England, studded with heartaches and happiness, rendered in a deliberately dull Technicolor palette to more accurately reflect the dingy reality of plebian life. It’s an uneven if deeply felt panorama that fails to engage.

“ . . .he took every mundane event the cinema avoided – washing up, drying clothes, a great many meals – and worked the dialogue into them. For a British film to do this was unusual enough, but to show the kitchen sink, albeit in muted Technicolor, was revolutionary.” (3) This, along with a not-so-obscure moralizing about the comeuppance of those who don’t know how to “keep their place” oddly presages the conventions of British “kitchen-sink” social realism that were to flower 12 years later with John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger.

Blithe Spirit, a farce about ghosts and fidelity, initially hailed as a masterful work, has not stood the test of time. Its brittle drawing-room sauciness is a return to form for Coward, and it had a long and happy run on stage in London. However, in Lean’s hands, the jokes fall flat – male lead Rex Harrison waspishly declared years later that it’s useful to make a comedy with a director who knows what’s funny. It is known best watched for its Oscar-winning special effects and Margaret Rutherford’s definitive performance as the batty medium Madame Arcati.

Kay Hammond as whimsical ghost Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
Lean and Coward’s final collaboration, Brief Encounter, equals In Which We Serve in quality and significance. A third adaptation of a Coward stage work, it tells the story of two married people who meet by chance in a railway station, fall in love, realize that an affair would destroy them both, and part.

It’s a fever-dream, stream-of-consciousness visual poem punctuated with the heavy thuds of “realities” to be faced up to bravely. Our narrator and protagonist, Laura (Celia Johnson is absolutely perfect as the clipped, overwrought, unconventionally ravishing heroine) feels so keenly the lost chance that Alec (Trevor Howard as a noble young doctor) represents that she contemplates throwing herself under a train a la Karenina in the penultimate scene.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter
 As is the case in almost every subsequent Lean film, the willing spirit is chained by the weak flesh, the social imperative. Wild, nonconformist impulses threaten the blasé normality from which they sprung and are snuffed out ruthlessly. Tellingly, Lean is quoted as saying: “I am drawn to the person who refuses to face defeat even when they realize that their most cherished expectations may go unfulfilled.” (4)

Like Rosy Ryan in Ryan’s Daughter, Zhivago, Lawrence, and Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Laura is swept out of and above mundane reality by her passionate obsession, but is flung to earth. In the end she does the right thing – and crushes out her soul like a cigarette butt.

Coward and Lean both moved on to reach iconic heights – Coward as a sort of aging roué, and Lean as the eminence grise of cinema, for better and worse. To watch these four films in chronological order is to see Lean grow from a contractor to a fully assured artist who is ready to do what he needs to make his vision come to life.

  1. “Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean,” Gene D. Phillips, pg. 55.
  2. “Noel Coward: A Biography,” Philip Hoare, pg. 328.
  3. “David Lean: A Biography,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 181.
  4. Phillips, pg. 96

DAVID LEAN DIRECTS NOEL COWARD
Including:
In Which We Serve (1942)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Brief Encounter (1945)

In Which We Serve (1942)
Britain
Director Noel Coward, David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director David Rawnsley
With Noel Coward (Capt. E.V. Kinross, R.N.), Bernard Miles (Chief Petty Officer Hardy), John Mills (Ordinary Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake), Celia Johnson (Mrs. Kinross), Joyce Carey (Mrs. Hardy), Kay Walsh (Freda Lewis), James Donald (Doc), Derek Elphinstone (Number 1), Michael Wilding (Flags), Robert Sansom (Guns), Philip Friend (Torps), Richard Attenborough (Young Powder Handler – uncredited)
Runtime 114 minutes

This Happy Breed (1944)
Britain
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward (uncredited), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Producer Noel Coward, Ronald Neame (Neame uncredited)
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
With Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), Reg (John Blythe), Vi (Eileen Erskine), Kay Walsh (Queenie), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Amy Veness (Mrs. Flint), Alison Leggatt (Aunt Sylvia)
Runtime 111 minutes

Blithe Spirit (1945)
Britain
Director David Lean
Screenplay David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Noel Coward (Coward uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
Costumes Rahvis (dresses only)
With Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth), Kay Hammond (Elvira), Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Jacqueline Clarke (Edith)
Runtime 96 minutes

Brief Encounter (1945)
Britain
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (latter three uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame (latter two uncredited)
Director of Photography Robert Krasker
Art Director Lawrence P. Williams (as L.P. Williams)
With Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot)
Runtime 86 minutes

DVD
USA, 2012
Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1)
Aspect Ratio 1:37:1
Sound Mix Mono
Extras New high-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archives’ 2008 restorations. Audio commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder. Interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day on all four films. Interview with Ronald Neame, short documentaries on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, TV documentary David Lean: A Self Portrait (1971), 1992 episode of The Southbank Show on the life and career of Coward, 1969 audio recording of conversation between Coward and Attenborough, trailers, 46-page booklet with essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow.