Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Making of An American'


It could be the first public service announcement.

The Making of An American
Dir: Guy Hedlund
Scr: unknown
Phot: unknown
Premiere: 1920
14 min.

The Making of An American is an educational film created for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization by the Worcester Film Corporation in 1920. It promotes the learning of English by immigrants; in a larger and more subtle sense, it’s a blueprint for their aspirations. It’s a quiet little masterpiece of idealism.

Then as now, there was extreme concern by white nationalists that immigrants were going to take over and ruin the country — only then, the fear was of incomers from Italy and Poland (the film incorporates both languages in places, a reach out to its target audiences). Then as now, immigrant minorities were stigmatized both for sticking together and for demanding integration and equality. This short is a practical parable about the ideal path outlined for the (presumably legal) immigrant in American democratic process. The path to political consequence starts with the wisdom of assimilation.

First we see poor Italian Pete. He’s just off the boat, and hopelessly monolingual. His already naturalized friend Tony shows off his house to Pete — a concrete, universal aspirational goal is established. Next, Tony tries to land him a job. The supervisor addressed is never humanized; he’s simply a man at a desk with his back to the camera. “Do you know how to work an elevator?” (Ironic foreshadowing!) “Can’t he talk English?” No job for Pete.

Pete ambles down the street until he hears a man speaking his language. He is supervising day laborers digging a trench. Can Pete work here? Yes, he can. It’s about the only job he can get, and it’s not a pleasant one. “There are always jobs enough in America, but not the kind Pete expected.” Even the cartman into whose vehicle Pete shovels debris seems to be grinning derisively down at him.

Pete is trapped in a hell of his own making. “The dream of a beautiful home has vanished. The day’s toil ends in a sordid tenement, amid noise and dirt.”

Now comes the crisis. Pete can’t read the sign ‘WHEN BELL RINGS KEEP CLEAR OF THE GATE”, falls down the elevator shaft, and breaks his leg. As he limps away from the hospital, he sees a sign advertising English classes. Chastened by fortune, he enters, reluctantly.

“By easy stages, the sounds of English became familiar to the foreign ear.” The teacher coaches the class through the symbolic phrase, “I – open – the –door.” Now he’s part of something, a larger group, a similar set of adults engaged in movement toward a common goal. Pete struggles to repeat a phrase, then smiles as he masters it. He is adapting, redeveloping himself into an American.

Time passes, and Pete is wearing snazzier clothes and sporting a cigar. Things are happening for him. Pete can now communicate, take instruction, operate heavy machinery. Pete can contribute more to the economy, his value has risen. “Now it’s up to you to make good money!” says the boss.

One year later, and Pete graduates from his English course. He can read, write, and speak the language. “And at the factory Pete had at length gained the position to which his real ability entitled him.” Now Pete’s the boss, in a nifty straw hat! Now in comes a new, struggling, wolfish-looking immigrant — who can’t speak English. Pete has a flashback. Of course, he counsels the young man to do as he did.

The years pass, and Pete’s got a home, and a wife, and an arbor of grapes, an explicit symbol of earned merit, sufficiency, and peace. He is noted for his “public spirit” and is chosen to be head of the “Safety Council,” improving working conditions. He becomes a benefactor by taking his civic responsibility seriously. At a council meeting, he rises and speaks with apparent eloquence and verve. He is somebody.

“IF YOU KNOW MEN OR WOMEN WHO DON’T KNOW ENGLISH, URGE THEM TO GO TO NIGHT SCHOOL” declares the film at its finish. The benefits are straightforwardly articulated. That the path to empowerment wasn't so smooth or sometimes failed to materialize is outside its purview.

The English-language assimilation in my own family had its own pattern. The ones who came over on the boat learned English with varying degrees of success, but still thought and dreamed in Danish and German, and still spoke it to each other. (It helped that they had their own foreign-language presses, and newspapers, which perpetuated the mother tongue.) Their children, born here, zealously embraced their American identities — not that they spurned their heritage. The children of those children, my parents, knew only fragments of the immigration narrative, pieces jumbled and lost. I still fumble with the pieces, trying to put them all back together.

I leaf through my great-grandfather’s sermons, wrought in excellent penmanship, entirely in Danish. I sigh and look at my Danish-English dictionary and sigh and wonder when I will find the time to work the magic backward, to sail over the linguistic sea and relearn the mother tongue, to unlock his long-dormant thoughts.

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


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Formative Film 18: 'Love and Death'

'Wheat . . . lots of wheat . . . '

FORMATIVE FILM: An autobiography in movies

Love and Death
Dir: Woody Allen
Prod: Fred T. Gallo, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Poll
Scr: Woody Allen
Phot: Ghislain Cloquet
1975

This was Woody Allen’s last film before he garnered spectacular mainstream success and critical acclaim with Annie Hall in 1977. Thus, it counts as the last of his purely “funny” films. In Annie Hall and after, there is always at least a hint of seriousness in his work. This can work profoundly well, as shown in Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors; in many other films, his wit is dulled, and his work slides into a deadly sense of self-regard.

That being said, if we roll back the years we find me, his most avid fan, eagerly awaiting the debut of his next comic masterpiece. I had already fallen in love with his nebbish persona in Play It Again, Sam and Sleeper.

His comic persona was certainly one I could identify with: the oddball, the smart but awkward weirdo with glasses and bad skin, trying desperate to understand a world not made for his benefit. It was carefully crafted out of Hope and Marx and Chaplin, and was the best-realized comic identity of the day. Woody Allen was a throwback to a classic comedic type — the poor soul, the perennial loser. “You’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had.” “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”


American comedy was in transition. When Allen started working in comedy, comics wore tuxes and had jokes written for them. Allen was part of the wave of self-scripted, highbrow but informal comic minds of the 1950s and 1960s. Part of his appeal was his aggression. His repressed fury at the ridiculousness of life exploded through brilliant jokes. Disguised as a nerd, he was actually a rebel we could identify with.

In this film, Woody is Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward (“. . . but I’m a MILITANT coward”) who gets sucked into the Napoleonic Wars and comes out an unlikely hero. Meanwhile, he narrates the up-and-down nature of his lifelong romance with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton). Nothing quite works out for sad-sack Boris, who in the meantime cracks wise about the absurdities around him, existential and otherwise. (“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning.”)

Love and Death is a parody of pretentious seriousness, of, specifically, intimidating Russian literature and film. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are pummeled here, so is Eisenstein (and Ingmar Bergman suffers some blows to the groin). Great cultural moments are just there to set up the punchlines. Everyone in the film is oblivious to the silliness of it all — except for Woody and us. That wonderful sense of being in on it turns us into accessories.

The biggest gift the film gave to me was a sense of exuberance and possibility. I hadn’t seen this kind of anarchic energy on film since the Marx Brothers. Allen takes the trouble to make the movie look as legit as possible — the settings are opulent, the edits are ambitious, the camerawork is innovative (when it’s not mimicking its betters). All these choices make the film stronger. It’s half in love with everything it makes fun of, and that affectionate scorn lights up the film and makes it more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, as Allen’s career progressed, his movies became as weighty, airless, and pretentious as those he earlier mocked. It’s hard to age as an artist; sometimes you get stuck.

And as far as his personal life goes, I know that he may be a despicable human being. But his work still entertains me and lifts me up, so I still go back to it, and I still write about it. The list of great artists who are terrible people is long and getting longer every day. I have to separate the creative spirit from the mess of a person it inhabits. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading Dickens, or appreciating Shakespeare, or looking at Degas, or listening to Domingo.

It would be nice of our favorite artists were heroes, and that all art was ennobling. They aren’t and it isn’t. Monsters create beauty, and beauty often lacks the power to transform either its creators or its audience. The impulse that drives it is morally neutral. Nonetheless, our need generates it, and sometimes of great value comes of it — even though its source seems as impossible one.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Sinking of the Lusitania'


On May 7, 1915, the British passenger ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a torpedo launched by a German U-boat and sank off the Irish coast. Of its 1,962 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. This traumatic event propelled the United States into World War I, and served as a benchmark of outrage that motivated everyone from statesmen to soldiers to go Over There.  


‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’
Dir: Winsor McKay
Scr: Winsor McKay
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: July 20, 1918

12 min.

In years since, the incident has become more ambiguous. The construction of the ship in 1904 was financed by the British Admiralty, it was given powerful engines and the capacity to be converted to war use. The British government has been faulted by several historians for allowing the shipment of a substantial amount of munitions— 4,200 crates of rifle ammunition, 51 tons of shrapnel shells, and more — in the Lusitania’s hold, which made it a legitimate target in German eyes caused a second explosion that doomed the ship. It is asserted by a few that that the British government connived to see the Lusitania sunk, precisely to lure the U.S. into the war.

But at the time, it was a genuine shock. It colored a Preparedness militancy movement that was encouraged by the popular press. It swayed the American public, which went from a majority for neutrality in 1914 to one for declaring war only three years later, on April 6, 1917. American idealism was engaged. This was the war to end all wars, which would make the world safe for democracy.

It touched people, one of whom as the cartoonist and pioneer animator Winsor McCay. He was already well-known as the creator of iconic characters such as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Gertie the Dinosaur.” He, with his assistants John Fitzsimmons and Apthorp ‘Ap’ Adams began the laborious hand-work of drawing and photographing the 25,000 images that make up this 12-minute narrative, advertised as “Winsor McCay’s penpicture of the blackest crime of all history”.

As the first dramatic animated film, it’s a hauntingly sublime account of the facts as they were known at the time. Simultaneously, it’s inevitably a piece of propaganda, “a historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity.”

As we have seen before in McCay’s films, he is very open and inclusive about his process, the sheer magnitude of which at the least makes it memorable. The painstaking work of drawing one animation cel after another must have been excruciating. (For some shots, McCay figured out how to make a set of repeated-cycle background drawings against which he would draw objects in movement.) We see McCay at his desk, as a “Mr. Beach” gives the details of the sinking. We see his office, with stacks of paper and six assistants (none of whom are Fitzsimmons or Adams). McCay’s ambitious attempt to render full animation as a kind of documentary is treated almost as a stunt or magic trick.

The film proper begins, and we see the Lusitania’s four funnels and the distinctive, rakish set to the bow. It steams past the Statue of Liberty as a curtain is drawn across the scene.

A title reads: “Germany, which had already benumbed the world with its wholesale killing, then sent its instrument of crime to perform a more treacherous and cowardly offense.” Against ironically beautiful renderings of sea and sky, the submarine looms into view had-on, then we see it surface in profile. It is so well-drafted it almost looks rotoscoped

We watch the intersecting trajectories of the liner and the submarine. Two fish do a double take, then swim out of the way as the torpedo approaches the ship’s hull. We see the explosion, the scattering of debris, gouts of smoke churning up into the sky. It’s all very compelling. The smoke finally obscures the screen . . .


Then we are given a list of “men of world wide prominence” who were killed – writer Elbert Hubbard, playwright Charles Klein, tycoon Alfred G. Vanderbuilt, producer Charles Frohman. The smoke lifts again . . . “Germany, once a great and powerful nation, had done a dastardly deed in a dastardly way.” A woman in the waves, as in the background overloaded lifeboats descend. A swamped boat floats into view.

The “second torpedo” explosion is shown, making the Germans’ actions seem all more despicable. The ship heels over to starboard and begins to sink by the bow. Suddenly, hair-raisingly we can see small figures leaping, falling into the water, and it’s visceral like 9/11, and I can smell what Ground Zero smelled like a week after that attack. Then it becomes easier to imagine the feelings that prompted McCay to make this picture.

The morbid fascination that disasters inspire is at work here, in the masochistic fascination with the agonies of death and destruction, the insistence on martyrhood, the only way to make sense of it. “No warning was given – no mercy was shown,” says the title. “The babe that clung to his mother’s breast cried out to the world – TO AVENGE the most violent cruelty that was ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and innocent people.”

Throughout, McCay’s style is dark and severe. The looming hulls, the smoke that has a life of its own, everything in the film has a sinister cast, miles away from McCay’s usual sunny fantasies. Just to drive the message home, we see finally a mother and baby sink to their deaths beneath the waves. The title blares, “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! – AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

Unfortunately, it took McCay more than three years to complete the 12-minute project. The U.S. was well into the war by the time the film debuted on July 20, 1918; the conflict would end on November 11.

Historical hindsight is what it is; emotional arguments are the strongest. Whatever else it was, the sinking of the Lusitania was a tragedy. In terms of film, it pushed the boundaries of what could be done, and what could be pictured, outward. In the words of McCay biographer John Canemaker, “. . . the film was a milestone in the demonstration of the alternatives available to the creative animation filmmaker.”

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Formative Film 17: 'Harold and Maude'


If you are lucky, you see a film that speaks to you, and if you are really lucky, you find one that knocks you out and rules your life for a time -- in a good way. It’s usually something you see when you’re a kid or a teen, and it stays with you for a long time. You see it years later, and even if it no longer strikes you as it did, it still pulls at you.

Harold and Maude
Dir: Hal Ashby
Prod: Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis (uncred), Charles Mulvehill (as C.V. Mulvehill)
Scr: Colin Higgins
Phot: John A. Alonzo
1971
91 min.

That’s what Harold and Maude is for me. When I first saw it, I was a 16-year-old going crazy in the suburbs, tired of deadly normalcy and longing to get out into the hopefully much more interesting real world. Harold and Maude gave our circle of friends a rebellious and catchy gospel to live by for a time, a dark optimism that floated us through the steaming wad of disillusion the looming adult world had to offer. It questions everything but the sheer anarchic rush of being alive.

This is a film you will either adore or despise, and I have enraged my share of unwary recomendees with exposure to its fuzzy, feel-good platitudes. The movie bombed when it premiered in 1971. It took repeat showings at repertory film houses such as the Ogden in Denver, where I first saw it, to give the movie cult status and earn it a little critical reappraisal.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a parable about a wealthy, morose, mother-dominated young man, Harold (Bud Cort at his pale, staring best), who attends funerals for fun and stages fake suicide attempts for attention. At one burial he runs into the blithe, sassy, rebellious 79-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon in a defining role) who charms him and opens him up to the possibilities of a carefree, affirming existence. It’s a modern screwball comedy, and Maude is the manic pixie girl who also happens to be a septuagenarian. 


Colin Higgins’ divine script is perfectly paced, with each honed scene following the next like pearls on a string. Director Hal Ashby deadpans the film’s gags, trusting the blackly humorous material and never straining for effect. The result is clownshow anarchism, a nose-thumbing that just skirts pretentiousness. It’s quite a feat. The scenes of Harold and Maude’s fast-blossoming relationship (the move plays out over the course of a week) are punctuated by interludes of Harold’s unhappy interactions with blind, computer-selected dates and authority figures. The doctor, the priest, the military man -- all the normative examples of mature male identity in this film are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Harold must reject the fatuous, pale patriarchy in order to step out from under the sway of death.

Harold and Maude documents a psychic pivot point in the history of American culture. Maude, a long-time political activist and protester, has seen the worst of the 20th century (a beautifully subtle, fleeting reveal shows us that she is a Holocaust survivor) and is now a hedonist. The political engagement of the ‘60s is turning into the self-obsession of the Me Decade, and Maude is its pioneer figure. “If you want to sing out, sing out,” sings Cat Stevens -- the perfect enlightenment-oriented pop composer of his time --  on his soundtrack to the film; “Ah ah ah, it’s easy.” “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by . . .” These were magic words for us, and they swept us up. They cheered us up, they freed us up.

At the time I screened it was the midst of the ‘70s, wall-to-wall cynicism and faded denim. The hippies were defeated, and Nixon was gone. Vietnam was over. We were exhausted. The search for meaning turned even further inward. Harold and Maude was a cultural signpost.

We had already exposed ourselves to dark, deliberately shocking countercultural comedies such as Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966), Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969), Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa? (1970), and Alan Arkin’s Little Murders (1971), but Harold and Maude had a sense of affirmation about it that made it special. In rewatching it today, I harbor as much suspicion of Maude’s narcissism as I do her foes’ obtuseness. Still, after I watch I am a little light-hearted (and –headed) again.

Formative Film is an autobiography in movies. Next up: I rationalize being a Woody Allen fan while reviewing Love and Death (1975).

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The NFR Project: 'Exploits of Elaine' develops the movie serial


We’ve met Pearl White before, in our entry on The Perils of Pauline, which had been released only nine months earlier than Elaine. The serial form had started in America only two years earlier, with the simply declarative What Happened to Mary. But it was White who caught the public’s fancy, and this series was meant to capitalize on her sudden fame. She was spunky, she was funny, and she had grit, all qualities audiences wanted in a heroine.

The Exploits of Elaine

Dir: Louis J. Gasnier, George B. Seitz, Leopold Wharton, Theodore Wharton
Scr: Charles W. Goddard, from work by Arthur B. Reeve; George B. Seitz; Basil Dickey (uncred.)
Phot: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
Premiere: December 28, 1914
14 episodes totaling approximately 7 hours (28 reels)


Elaine is an improvement on Pauline, for several reasons. First, there is an actual cliffhanger at the end of each episode (each Pauline chapter was self-contained); second, it makes a bit more of an effort to make sense. The plot is based on work by Arthur B. Reeve, who created an American version of Sherlock Holmes — Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective.

Elaine, with Kennedy’s ingenious assistance is searching for the man who killed her father. The entire serial is intact, and portions of it are easy to find online. The action is hot and heavy — in one episode, she is shot up with drugs, hypnotized, and forced to open the safe! In another, Kennedy brings her back from the dead! About which she is markedly unappreciative.

The key advance in this serial is the creation of the now-standard mystery villain. The primary malefactor, known as The Clutching Hand, is in reality someone close to Elaine — someone we might never suspect — and the tension generated by the looming revelation of the identity of the baddie helps to fuel the interest of the viewer.


Director Gasnier had directed Pauline, and co-director George B. Seitz was a successful New York playwright who went West to make it big and did. Seitz wound up making an astonishing 108 films, most notably Tarzan Escapes (1936) and no fewer than ELEVEN Andy Hardy movies (these were a 16-film set [1937-1946] from MGM centered on Mickey Rooney as the loveable, typical American teen scamp; they were wholesome and profitable).

Slopping great portions of adventure, mystery, and romance make The Exploits of Elaine an interesting today, though not as compelling as it was 100 years ago. The thrills and chills of the movie serials would continue in neighborhood theaters for another 40 years.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.




Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The NFR Project: Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency, 1908


Home movies of genocide.

Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency

Dir: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
Scr: N/A
Phot: Joseph K. Dixon, Roland Dixon
1908
26 mins.


After digging into the backstory behind these films, that’s the most succinct description of this material I can concoct. It’s supposed to be documentary footage of the traditional activities of Native Americans; in fact, it’s a bunch of staged footage that reflects the fantasies of the filmmakers. It seems a peculiarly American kind of schizophrenic cruelty to make a “vanishing race” vanish, then romanticize and memorialize it. The biggest benefit of this rediscovered material might be the realizations it prompts.

Rodman Wanamaker was a Philadelphia department-store tycoon. He was into Indians and in 1908 funded this, the first of three large and fanciful expeditions to the American Northwest, to document the remnants of once-proud tribes. The man responsible was minister and self-styled Indian expert Joseph K. Dixon, who used Wanamaker’s vast resources with abandon.


The expedition settled in at the town of Crow Agency, 60 miles east of Billings, and directly and ironically adjacent to the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn. Here Dixon and associates crafted their work. There is a shot from a mission school, a depiction of bronc-busting, a horse procession, and some dicey attempts at reenactment of the Big Horn battle. (The Crow, already displaced once from their traditional Ohio-area homeland, were U.S. allies during the conflict with the Sioux, their traditional enemies.)

The results are depressing. Dixon saw what he wanted to see. Russel Lawrence Barsh has written a penetrating study of the expeditions in his “An American Heart of Darkness: The 1913 Expedition for American Indian Citizenship.” He writes:

“Dixon succeeded in collecting 34,000 feet of motion-picture film and 4600 stills. In contrast with contemporaneous work done by the Bureau of American Ethnology or pioneering anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, and George Bird Grinnell, however, Dixon's work was maudlin, romanticized, and commercial. . . The first expedition took Dixon and his camera crew to Crow Agency, Montana, in 1908 where, with the blessings of the Indian Office, they made a silent film of Longfellow's Hiawatha with Crow Indians in the leading roles. (The idea was not original: it had been done with Iroquois actors in New York a few years earlier.) Camped ‘60 miles from civilization,’ as he later described it, Dixon ‘examined 21 Indian maidens before I got a Minnehaha that would exactly fit the part,’ auditioned ‘hundreds’ of Indians for the other parts, and ‘sent four expeditions of Indians to the Big Horn Range of mountains 40 miles away to get a deer, so that when Hiawatha came to lay the deer at Minnehaha's feet he might have a real deer.’ Rodman Wanamaker was so pleased with the results that he arranged for Dixon to deliver illustrated lectures on Hiawatha 311 times in Philadelphia and New York, where he was heard by more than 400,000 people.”


Despite Dixon and Wanamaker’s desire to make a pleasing fantasy and hammer into the skulls of America’s mainstream, ugly truths crop up. The most chilling sequence is that of a line of young Native American women, in identical, “civilized” uniform dresses, being marched out of a school by a brace of nuns. They look like prisoners. They are.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.



Monday, June 10, 2019

Formative Film 15/16 -- 'Network'/'Rocky'


Movies were changing in a very concrete way, and the contrast between these two pictures shows us what happened.

Network
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Prod: Howard Gottfried, Fred C. Caruso
Scr: Paddy Chayefsky
Phot: Owen Roizman
Release date: Nov. 27, 1976

Rocky
Dir: John G. Avildsen
Prod: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Scr: Sylvester Stallone
Phot: James Crabe
Release date: Dec. 3, 1976

Lakeside Twin Theatres
4655 Harlan Street
Wheat Ridge, CO

The New American Cinema movement that began with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 was dazzling. Thanks to uncaring parents and lax ticket-sellers, for a decade I could see a lot of things I was way too young to see over at our local Arvada Plaza movie theater, a 20-minute walk from our house. The films were revelations, difficult and strange in a way that was a lot more bracing and appealing than the kids’ movies of the day. I devoured them all without flinching.

Then came Jaws in the summer of 1975. Everyone saw it, and it became the number-one of topic of conversation until the fall; the next summer, we all went to see The Omen. These were good old genre pictures writ large, throwbacks to B movies with A movie budgets. Ten years of bold experimentation were winding down, and crowd-pleasing extravaganzas hearkening to the tried-and-true clich├ęs of the Studio Era were in the air.

The Lakeside Twin was a very nondescript, functional duplex of a movie theater. Now that I was old enough to drive, I scorned taking girls to my childhood movie theater. At the same time, “my” car was my mother’s 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, called the Skunkmobile due to its black paint wearing off in nice, white longitudinal stripes along the top of the vehicle. The Skunkmobile did not really have any uphill power, so when I took girls out, I always had to choose places that could be reached by a level route. The Twin was far enough from home, but not impossible to get to.

I already knew about Chayefsky, one of the most legendary figures from the live TV era, which I’d just missed out on. Network was wonderful — dark and canny, relentlessly downbeat, a Swiftian scream of satire directed at TV, the medium that had propelled Chayefsky to face in the first place. It was also a classic New York film, full of tough, hyperarticulate performers not afraid to mess around with contradictions. Watching them act was just as enthralling as absorbing the subject matter. I wanted to do that. I could do that. I was going to be an actor, preferably William Holden.

(One of my favorite memories took place in the NYU dorms the night Network premiered on network television; during the famous "mad as hell" scene, everyone in lower Manhattan opened their windows at home and screamed out into the street. It was hilarious.)

Meanwhile, my girlfriend was bored. My enthusiasm for whatever film I watched has always been quite complete; I generally walk around talking like the characters for an hour or so after and require a long debriefing. Thanks to our cinephile mother, were raised to observe and analyze movies in detail.

This night, my beloved was having none of it. I looked at realized that, beautiful and sweet though she might be, she didn’t like to discuss movies and would have to go. I dumped her. (She did let me know that she had only been seeing me out of pity.)

The next week, I got up the nerve to ask another girl out, and Rocky was on the bill.

In the time long before online fan clubs and aggregation reviews, buying a movie ticket was a crap shoot. You had word of mouth and one or two newspaper reviews to go on. We were swept away by the energy and heart of Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough effort about a boxing underdog and his girlfriend.

Now, Rocky is built on the foundations of the boxing-film subgenre, and I hadn’t watched them — Golden BoyChampionKid Galahad, and Body and Soul — yet. Once I did, I realized how by-the-numbers Stallone’s script was. Here was the chipper striver, embodying the American dream by coming outta nowhere, a Cinderella boy making something of himself, and discovering the important things in life as well. It was corny, easy to swallow, easy to root for. It was a premonition of the simplistic 1980s. We bought it, but the star-spangled chauvinism would get old fast.

THAT night, my date and huddled in the car after the show as a wet snow swirled around us. Were we making out? Hell no, we were discussing the movie. We drove over to Goodberry’s at Wadsworth and Ralston for some coffee and cinnamon rolls, and we stayed together through high school.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

NFR Project: 'Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street'

Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
Dir: N/A
Scr: N/A
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Photographed May 21, 1905
6:14

It’s hypnotic. The simple progress of a subway car uptown seems banal today, but when it opened it was a technological miracle worthy of public interest.

Many films made during the first decade of the medium’s existence were “actualities”; that is, unedited reels of documentary film that captured far-off and exotic locations. The idea that movies could annihilate the frustrations of distance was a powerful one. For a time, many customers paid for a chance to see a place they might otherwise never visit, such as the Pyramids, the Rockies, and the like.

This film documents the recently opened New York subway, following a car as it made its rattling way along the system’s new tracks, along the line of the IRT #5 line that still runs under Park and Madison Avenues on Manhattan’s east side. Capturing the images was quite a project, requiring a train holding the camera to pace the subject car from behind, along with a companion car on a parallel track pacing the subject car and illuminating it with a bank of lights.


The effect is striking, a staccato rippling of light that’s simultaneously soothing and unnerving (early travelers were warned not to look at the scenery flashing by). The effect seems like a precursor of Dada’s absurd experiments with film, or Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell’s 1955 collaboration The Wonder Ring, which documented NYC’s soon-to-be-torn-down 3rd Avenue elevated train.


The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Friday, May 17, 2019

NFR Project: 'Something Good -- Negro Kiss'


It’s only 20 seconds long, but the contrast it provides in thinking about on-screen presence is a valuable one.

Something Good — Negro Kiss
Dir: Unknown
Prod: William Selig
Scr: N/A
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 1898
20 seconds

This “Negro kiss” film came as a direct result of the 1896 John C. Rice/May Irwin “The Kiss,” a huge nickelodeon hit from 1896 which wewrote about here. Evidently William Selig, an Edison competitor who based his Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago, thought a similar product, enacted by black people for black audiences, would make money. This is the earliest preserved Selig-produced film.

It probably failed, as it languished unknown, until it was rediscovered by USC archivist Dino Everett decades later, and properly identified with the help of Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago. It depicts two vaudeville performers, Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle, embracing.


In sharp contrast to the stagey and stiff Rice/Irwin kiss, Brown and Suttle sway in gentle harmony together, locking lips then parting, then returning to kiss again. In between kisses they smile, they laugh, they josh with each other. For the first time, we see two normal, unaffected people close up, a refreshing blast from the past that belies all the staid and awkward filmmaking of that period, and eloquently contradicts all the white-promulgated stereotypes about African American behavior common at the time. It’s a breath of fresh air.

The National Film Rregistry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Reviewing China’s sci-fi blockbuster ‘The Wandering Earth’


In recent years, China has stepped up as the world’s largest consumer of entertainment. The gravitational pull of its enormous audience means that, for years, Western films have been rewritten and recut to appeal to Chinese audiences (and Chinese censors). Now the Chinese film industry is cutting out the middleman and producing its own blockbusters, films completely off the West’s radar such as the romantic comedy The Mermaid, adventure films such as Wolf Warrior 2, and fantasies like Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu)

Dir: Frant Gwo
Prod: Gong Geer, Yang Hongtao, Hong Wang
Scr: Gong Geer, Junce Ye, Yan Dongxu, Frant Gwo, Yang Zhixue
Phot: Michael Liu
Premiere: February 5, 2019
125 min.


The new science-fiction epic The Wandering Earth is garnering attention due to its unpromoted posting onto Netflix this week. Why the streaming service would choose not to trumpet such a profitable film smacks of cultural prejudice. Why not promote the hell out of it? Can China produce a viable blockbuster, and is it worth seeing?

Yes on both counts. The Wandering Earth breaks no new ground, but it is entrtaining, kinetic and visually rich, mounted firmly on the template of the by-turns wisecracking and tear-jerking action flick.

Like many another science-fiction film, the premise is ridiculous. The sun is unexpectedly expanding, and Earth is threatened with destruction. Scientists discover another viable star to orbit, “only” 4.2 light years away. Outfitting the planet with 10,000 “Earth engines” to push it through space on a 2,500-year journey to its new home is a practically unworkable idea — but if you let go of that, the movie flows along nicely. (There's already a good story by Emily Rome via Inverse about the scientific plausibility of the film.)

The conflict of the film stems from the Earth’s flyby of Jupiter, intended to give it a gravity assist to propel it out of the Solar System. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s gravity knocks out many Earth engines and threatens the Earth with capture and destruction by the giant planet. It will take the efforts of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (played by film star Wu Jing), his estranged son Liu Qi, and assorted misfits to come up with a strategy to save the planet. (Comic relief is provided by the half-Chinese, half-Australian goofy ne’er-do-well Tim; is this a slam of Western slackerism?)

The defining feature of The Wandering Earth is its relentless pace, it nervous giantism. It mounts set piece after set piece, each one bigger than the last. Director Frant Gwo has obviously studied the work of directors George Miller and Luc Besson; unfortunately, he’s also studied Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. The movie strains to prove its technical chops, and it succeeds; it looks great. But narratively, the result is like an overpacked closet — you open the film, and everything comes tumbling out, overwhelming you.

Something is ALWAYS on the verge of not working out in the film; it’s one last-second escape to the next. Imagine a film made out of nothing but climaxes, and you have The Wandering Earth. The breakneck pace is halted only when an emotional speech needs to be made, during which everything comes to a shuddering halt. The production design is Standard Gritty Futuristic, with inventive art direction by Ang Gao; Roc Chen’s score is a horn-heavy imitation of the swelling orchestral accompaniments we’ve come to expect with this brand of fare.


So, our heroes struggle again and again to overcome impossible odds. Given the relentless stimulation the move feels compelled to provide, it’s hard to maintain the emotional through-line the movie is trying hard to lay down as well. The film premiered in Chinese New Year — a time when families gather together from across the country (and go see movies together). At bottom, The Wandering Earth is about family connecting — a father with his children, a brother with his sister. This gives the film just enough heart to keep it from floating away on a cloud of technological frenzy.

And there’s a hint of subversiveness as well. The hero must override a HAL-like computer system, and bureaucratic resistance from the never-seen United Earth Government, to save the day. Considering how conformist we’ve been taught Chinese society is, it’s refreshing to see a little unilateral John Wayne-style action take place.

So, with The Wandering Earth it’s obvious that China can replicate Western tent-pole cinema. Now: can it do better?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The NFR Project #71: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1920), or: Political Incorrectness in the Big Woods

Wallace Beery captures Lillian Hall in The Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans is another difficult “classic.” The 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper is enshrined as the first Great American Novel. It is almost more famous as the focus of Mark Twain’s immortal and incendiary 1895 critical thrashing, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Mohicans has been dug up, re-examined, re-interpreted, lauded or hooted at, and returned to the grave several times in literary history. It is reviled today by the right-thinking due to its inherent racism, its endorsement of Manifest Destiny, its obsession with the perils of what was termed miscegenation. Wait a minute — maybe that’s what MAKES it the Great American Novel.

The Last of the Mohicans
Dir: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Scr: Robert A. Dillon
Phot: Philip R. Du Bois, Charles Van Enger
Premiere: November 21, 1920
73 min.

Like it or not, we are stuck with it on our reading lists. As poorly written as it is, as wooden as the characters are, it is what we used to call a “rip-snorter.” It’s set during the French and Indian War, 1757, and has some basis in historical fact . . . making it, fittingly, the first notable “based on a true story” trope as well.

The basic plot is the effort to get two sisters, comely and of marriageable age, Alice and Cora, to their father, a British colonel who commands a frontier fort. The evil mainspring of the plot is Magua, a crafty and deceitful Huron who desires vengeance against Cora’s father for hooking him on that ol’ white lightning, and who develops a hankering for Cora. The ensuing complex of chases, rescues, captures, sieges, combat, torture, massacre, and whatnot crowd the pages.

This is a basically a battle over the ovaries of the young ladies involved. Cora and Alice are half-sisters. Alice is blond, and betrothed to dashing young Major Duncan Heyward, who is also a bit of a thickie. Cora has dark hair — due to her vaguely, miniscule yet significant amount of West Indies blood! — that drives Magua ka-ray-zay. It is this Cora-inspired lust that places all of them in peril, again and again, and eventually gets three people killed. Wombs are treacherous.

Working on the side of the angels, fortunately, are the prototypical calm, noble savages Chingachgook and Uncas (the latter our titular, doomed hero), and Natty Bumppo aka Hawkeye, a frontiersman with superhuman powers — he can hunt, shoot, fight, canoe, leap, stab, and presumably go to the bathroom with greater strength, agility, and speed than any man in fiction. The Last of the Mohicans may not be a Great American Novel, but it is the first Great American Action Movie.


This is the first of three Hollywood runs at the tome. Behind the camera was Maurice Tourneur, a prestige artist three of whose films — The Wishing RingThe Poor Little Rich Girl, and The Blue Bird — precede this entry on the National Film Registry list. Tourneur got through about 40 percent of the filming when illness forced him off the project. Into his place stepped his editor and second-unit man Clarence Brown. This turned out to be Brown’s big break.

It’s interesting to guess at who shot what. Tourneur used a very stage-picture kind of look in his films, with plenty of visual cues placed to create a sense of depth. Brown’s shots are very flat and functional, two-shots that emphasize emotion and relation. (Brown would later become Garbo and Crawford’s go-to director.) This is the reverse of later Hollywood habit, when second units were sent to do the action sequences and links, and the name directors stayed in the studio with the lead performers.

Their joint creation works well, moving briskly from one picturesque sequence to another (much shooting was done at Big Bear Lake and in Yosemite). There are stunts, explosions, a bit of gore, even a little baby-tossing. The problem of miscegenation is stated boldly; unlike in the novel, there is an unconsummated passion displayed between Cora and Uncas that makes their movie-logic doom all the more certain. Sure, Magua (Wallace Beery!) gets it in the neck, but not before we are shown a dying Uncas crawling to the body of Cora, and twining his fingers with her, before expiring.

Of course, it is condescending (an intertitle describes Uncas’ “simple words of a savage – yet revealing depths of thought and imagination”) and white actors in “redface” play Native Americans (Boris Karloff is in there, somewhere). This it has in common with other films of period, ones we’ve covered previously: Traffic in SoulsBroken BlossomsBirth of a Nation. It was symptomatic of the time, but still deserving of study.

And the text is not as irredeemable as it seems. Though the 1936 version, starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, reiterates the conceits of the original, take a look at Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation. Mann is not a director we associate with pastoral settings (ThiefManhunterHeatThe Insider) but he makes something compelling, visceral, and questioning of the narrative. Daniel Day-Lewis trained for the role of Hawkeye by legendarily going off into the forest and living off it for a few months before filming, just to get into the right frame of mind. He goes for authenticity, employing nearly 1,000 Native American actors.

The result stands the fairly narrow ideas of Cooper and gets them to resonate. Tourneur and Brown’s version is beautiful, but rings hollow.

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



Sunday, March 31, 2019

Predictably, I disliked the new 'Dumbo'

Michael Keaton as the incarnation of all that is evil -- Walt Disney? 
Did you ever play pile-on as a kid? It’s pretty simple; you tackle whoever has the ball and everybody else piles on top of you until the carrier is crushed at the bottom, out of breath.

It’s what’s happening right now critically with Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which if it had been better, or made more money, would be referred to as Disney’s Dumbo. It’s pile-on time for Burton. This is unfortunate, as it’s not his fault.

Dumbo
Dir: Tim Burton
Scr: Ehren Kruger
Phot: Ben Davis
Release date: March 11, 2019
112 min.

First of all, I’m going to see whatever Burton makes. I’m one of those people. There are a couple of dozen directors out there whose work I’m going to watch. Even if it blows. Why? Because they are interesting, and I like to see what they are thinking about and how their work is evolving, for better or worse.

This means I sat through Alice in Wonderland (2010), which read like an epileptic fit I once had inside Meow Wolf. This means I sat through the new Dumbo. Because by God, I am going to give Tim Burton the benefit of the doubt.

And really, does any director have a chance with Dumbo? Disney’s new Brilliant Plan consists of reshooting everything successful — as live-action when the original was animated, and I’m sure vice versa when we run out of intellectual property — back and forth, across eternity. Given the importance of the character, it was, natch, necessary to update all the racism and underage drinking out of it, meanwhile making it fall within the parameters of today’s set of mainstream sensibilities — racially and ability-sensitive, anti-corporate, inclusive.

Given that, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, especially if you never saw the original. In fact, if you never saw the original, you would wonder what all the fuss was about. In that context, it’s a diverting fantasy. Compared to the original, though, it’s a train wreck (or fire — things tend to burn down in this film). How come?

Oddly, the original Dumbo was prompted by a merchandising tie-in. In 1941, a new toy called a Roll-a-Book, much like a panorama or an early Viewmaster, needed a sample story for the device to use. The device failed, but Disney bought the story rights.

The original Dumbo was not produced under optimal circumstances. In the wake of the box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo was made in a stripped-down, cost-effective fashion unlike Disney’s previous, more craftsman-like efforts. In addition, a five-week animators’ strike during production affected the work, and permanently changed the atmosphere at the studio.

The original was one of those traumatizing Disney experiences I suffered as a child, along with PinocchioMary PoppinsBambiSnow White, Old Yeller . . . With Dumbo, you have to jettison a lot. In the original, Dumbo drinks water spiked with champagne, leading to the bizarre and inventive “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence (which freaked me out as a kid and inspired in 5-year-old me an epic anesthetic-triggered sequence of nightmares during my tonsillectomy), which leads directly into the insanely problematic “When I See An Elephant Fly” sequence.

Dumbo and his friend Timothy the mouse are befriended by a group of crows, who are characterized as African American men. Yeah. Just to make sure we get it, their leader is named Jim Crow. He is voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white man (best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) using a stereotyped “Negro” voice. The rest of the voices are performed by black performers (James Baskett, Hall Johnson, Nick Stewart).

So, we have to get rid of all that. Unfortunately, the screenwriter goes to the old Disney standby — the dead parent! It can’t really be a Disney film unless someone is dead or dying, can it? There’s one beautiful moment when Holt the trick rider and single parent (Colin Farrell) talks to his precocious oldest child Milly (Nico Parker) in the lamplight of their circus tent, which behind them bears the illustration of Holt and his wife and partner, Milly’s dead mother. Which the film promptly comes back to again and again until you’re like OK I GET IT.

But it doesn’t help. The screenplay fails because it is timid, it tiptoes around the story, it doesn’t want us to get too upset, it is afraid of messing it up. Which causes it to mess it up. Dumbo wants to be edgy and impactful, but it doesn’t have the balls.

Basically, the new version is about being yourself and all that shit. That Colin Farrell has to walk around with a sawdust-filled fake arm is pretty representative of the whole problem. He’s a traumatized WWI veteran! Can he still be a valuable member of society? Sure! Cast away thy superfluous simulacrum of an appendage! The character is saddled with symbolic action that no one would ever really engage in.

It’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is real here. The entire production was studio-shot; there are no outdoor sequences at all. It is vacuum-sealed. Is it fair to call it live-action? It is really a digital work, with human bits pasted in here and there. This is now out mainstream cinema, all superheroes and fantasies. Late-empire dreaming.

What other problems were there . . . .oh, yes, why is Eva Green in this movie? She’s a great actress when you give here something to do. She’s given nothing here. Is she good? Bad? Indifferent? Does she have a backstory? Is her character anything but a means to an end? Nnnnnnope.

And Michael Keaton. Well. He gets to do that thing that every classic Disney villain does — he gets to yell, “GET THOSE KIDS!” (Later he gets to yell, “GET THAT ELEPHANT!”, which is just icing on the cake.) With Keaton, you get something killer or you don’t. In this case, he does not get the opportunity to create a distinctive character. When his theme park burns down, I find myself worrying about the villain’s insurance policy. This is not what the audience should be thinking about when this is happening. In fact, the whole idea that this new story is some kind of subversive allegory about the evil corporation stamping the life of out of the American Dream doesn’t fly either.

On the plus side, Danny DeVito does fine, he’s indestructible. (There’s a brief attempt at pathos, when it’s revealed he’s not a set of twins, as advertised. Why? What was that?) Burton also takes very good care of his supporting players. He finds great faces, including in this outing Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis, DeObia Oparei as Rongo the Strongo the strongman (and one-man band, and accountant), and Frank Bourke the organ grinder. It’s a pleasure to see Roshan Seth as the snake charmer (loved him since Juggernaut) — though he is called on repeatedly to portray stereotypical Indian characters, he is charming and memorable.

And the heavy-lifting award goes to Phil Zimmerman, who must undertake the thankless chore of playing the psychotic, sneering, sadistic Disney villain, named Rufus Sorghum to underline his bumpkin-nature. Here he must play the animal trainer who torments the animals (WHY do they always hire sadistic psychos to take care of the animals? What are the hiring procedures implemented by the circus? Can they not make applicants take the Myers-Briggs test?) and of course must suffer a satisfying grisly and embarrassing punishment-death as a result. Right on, Phil!

Oh, and Dumbo flies. That was cool.




Friday, March 29, 2019

Adieu, Agnes Varda (1928-2019): A Tribute


It serves no purpose for those who say they were long into Agnes Varda before she was popular save to massage their pretentious little egos.

That being said, I was WAY into Agnes Varda before all y’all.

She was 90 years old, so her passing is like that of any extremely old relative — sad but not unexpected.

Why is she such a big deal? The fact that she won general acceptance without trashing her integrity made her unique. She remained herself, despite the tendency of media to neutralize her outrageous independence as cute and winsome. For many she was just a tiny little troll lady who made quirky, inoffensive films. But her work was not cute. She was by far the most subversive of directors.


First of all, she was just a good filmmaker. She could make great narrative films (‘Cleo from 5 to 7,’ ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,’ ‘Vagabond’) and great documentaries (‘Black Panthers,’ ‘Uncle Yanco’).






She is lauded as the Mother and Grandmother of New Wave cinema. She was cited as a leading Second Wave feminist, a thinker and a writer on gender and society. It’s a topic she treats directly, and that permeates her work as a filmmaker. How could it not?





However, she went far, far beyond that in her films that are called documentaries but aren’t (‘The Gleaners and I,’ ‘Daguerrotypes,’ ‘The Beaches of Agnes’). This is the work she did that was really life-changing for me as a viewer and as a writer.






She would focus on a subject and, basically, look into it with her camera. (This got easier for her as filming gear got smaller and lighter, less obtrusive.) At times you felt she was spying on reality. She could capture a world, a scene, a vibe. She could insert observations, confessions, admissions of a lack of understanding. She could use film like an instrument with many components, constructing meaning and argument with the ease of a magician.

That approach reads like a blueprint for self-indulgent disaster, and in the hands of many it is. Varda’s gift was her intelligence and honesty. She would never take the easy way out. She would let her own ambiguities into the film, so that we could see and factor in her viewpoint, even her bias. Her subjective honesty is revolutionary for me. It allows the author to investigate, to feel, to think, to get all that in front of people, to get them to see freshly. Varda shows you how to do it. If you follow her lead, you find how stony and narrow this path is.

She had heart. Not sentimentality, but heart in the true sense of inciting and sharing her passionate, compassionate truths. She could listen with her camera, the hardest thing of all. The impulse of anyone who wields a camera is to say what they have to say. Varda lets the camera follow, sits quietly in the corner, breathes. The humans in Varda films are substantial, thorny, complicated, real.

Her films are classics because to can return to them and finds new things, always. By giving us fresh visions of humanity, she endorsed the human experience. You walk out of a Varda film and for a minute your persistence of vision gives you the world as she saw it, delightful and moving.



Monday, March 4, 2019

The NFR Project #70: The Attack of the Jewish Mother in 'Humoresque' (1920)

Humoresque
Dir: Frank Borzage
Scr: Frances Marion, William LeBaron (uncred.)
Phot: Gilbert Warrenton
Premiere: May 30, 1920
71 min.

Schmaltz. It’s a Yiddish word that literally means chicken fat; my wife can remember her grandmother keeping a jar of it handy in the fridge, for frying or simply for spreading on bread. It’s an acquired taste, strong and cloying, but an integral part of home life for most Jewish-American families (especially for those for whom butter was dear, or for those who observed the law of kashrut, which forbids the mixing of dairy and meat). Perhaps this is how the word grew out of its original usage and came to mean any entertainment larded with excess sentimentality. Humoresque is pure schmaltz.

One of the oldest jokes to still kick around from vaudeville days is, “Doc, will I be able to play the violin after this operation?” “Certainly.” “That’s great! I didn’t know how before!” The gag stems directly from the enormous, nation-wide success of Humoresque. (The Marx Brothers’ first film, now lost, was a 1921 parody titled Humor Risk.) The story of the travails of an impoverished musical prodigy is a tribute to the spirit of the immigrants who fought their way out of squalor; it’s also a monument to the monstrousness of mother love.

The screenplay was adapted by Fannie Hurst from her own story. In those days, magazines were plentiful, their pages crammed with freelance contributions, and there were many well-known and popular female authors whose work was adapted to the screen, including Hurst, Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Edna Ferber (Showboat), and Mary Roberts Rinehart (The Bat).

Humoresque is set and shot in New York City’s Lower East Side, still a teeming tenement in the 1920s. Papa Kantor works in a shop on the ground floor, blithely forging antiques. Upstairs, his large brood is crowded into a cold-water flat outside of which the elevated train tracks run, so close you could touch it.

Despite these circumstances, the home atmosphere is warm and cozy — in Yiddish, hamish. While Mama Kantor rules the roost, little Abraham plays down in the street, when he’s not dodging anti-Semite kids who beat him up and chalk a dollar sign on his back. In love with Abe is little Gina, who’s so poor her only pet is a dead kitten she pulled out of the garbage. (I’m not kidding!)

While to Abie’s father a cash register is “beautiful moosic” (the film manages to affirm many more Jewish stereotypes than it dispels), Abe falls in love at first sight with a violin. He begs for one. His mother’s dream suddenly comes true. Mama Kantor is the classic Jewish mother — short, stout, emotional, smothering. “My baby – a musician!” she exclaims.

It’s important to remember that in this period, excellence in the arts was a pathway out of poverty for scorned minorities. Talent sometimes overrode prejudice, and many star-struck parents pushed their children relentlessly to make something of themselves. Mama Kantor, the real head of the house, overrides Papa’s reluctance and gets Abe his violin. “Sublimest (sic) of all is the faith of a mother,” reads a title card.

Of course, Abe grows up to be a brilliant concert violinist, performing literally for the crowned heads of Europe. (As he plays, Mama Kantor buttonholes the servants, opening her locket to display a baby picture of Abe, naked on a bearskin rug. Oy.) Abe returns home for a triumphant benefit concert for the neighborhood. (The prolific and gifted silent-era film composer Hugo Riesenfeld wrote a score for the film; it would be great to find it and hear it in sync with the movie.) He opens with the Kol Nidre, the ancient and heart-tugging melody that opens the High Holy Days. His signature piece is Humoresque, presumably the well-known Dvorak piece of 1894.The crowd goes wild — he gets 15 encores.


A big-time booker shows up with a contract, but Abe can’t sign it. “I just signed a contract with Uncle Sam,” he says proudly. He’s off to WWI. Needless to say, Mama is not pleased. “Cut out my heart – but leave me my wonder boy!” she cries. He responds, “You wouldn’t want me to hide behind my violin?” This is where the love of a mother turns really scary. She can’t let go of him. She’s kissing him on the lips. She makes him sit on her lap! In his uniform! This is the kind of stuff that Philip Roth would break down for us decades later.

He leaves his mother holding his violin, a painfully obvious Freudian moment. Abe comes home from the war with a shoulder wound and a psychological block. He’s afraid to try and play again. An operation fixes the physical problem, but not the mental. It takes his faithful girlfriend Gina (remember her? She hangs on at the edges of the film, ceding center stage largely to Mama) to break him out of his fear, and, frankly, his mother’s domination.


Frank Borzage’s direction is unremarkable technically. There were two kind of studio directors at the time — artists who used the camera in a bravura way, and those who simply stuck to telling the story as unobtrusively as possible. Borzage is not a visual innovator, but he was great at getting in close and conveying relationship and emotion. This would serve him well later in a string of hits featuring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (Seventh Heaven, 1927; Street Angel, 1928; Lucky Star, 1929). Borzage would pick up Oscars for his direction of Seventh Heaven and 1931’s Bad Girl.

In a more aware age, it’s easy to assign pathologies to the characters, but at the time this was a heart-warming, heart-wringing success that ran at New York’s Criterion Theatre for an amazing 12 weeks. It dates terribly today, but Humoresque spoke clearly to the audience of the in what was called Mammaloschen – the mother tongue.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Maurice Tourneur’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’