Monday, November 23, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Sky High'

 Sky High

Dir: Lynn Reynolds

Scr: Lynn Reynolds

Phot: Benny Kline

Ed: unknown

Premiere: January 15, 1922

60 min.

It’s damn near impossible nowadays to understand how big a star Tom Mix was. He made hundreds of Westerns during his career and was dubbed “The King of the Cowboys.” On film, he could beat up a bad hombre, wrassle a critter, recover the gold, win the heart of a lady, and engage in wild stunts, all with a winning grin. He rode Tony the Wonder Horse. He was cowboy as superhero.

Mix wasn’t an actor who took on the Western genre. Mix was a product of the West, a real cowboy who wandered in front of a movie camera and became a star. He really could ride and rope and shoot.

Mix grew up wanting to join the circus. He rattled around the country for a few years, working at everything from cowboying and rodeo competition to Wild West shows to bartending to serving as a lawman. Eventually he went with an outfit that supplied horses and extras to Hollywood moviemakers. In 1909, Mix began a film career that lasted until 1935.

He knew that they key to success was, for him, action and plenty of it. Before Mix, the premier film cowboy was the melancholy loner plated by the hulking, poker-faced William S. Hart. His moody works elevated Westerns to tragic status, often melodramas about bad men who turn good.

But Mix was a good guy from the start, an upstanding hero who could always be counted upon to save the day. He was cheerful and had a sense of humor. He wore gaudy, overstylized garments. His adventures were family-friendly, something kids and adults could both enjoy. His appeal was universal.

So he spun out film after film, charging through the ins and outs of the action film, Western-style. His approach recast the conventions of the movie Western. Feats of derring-do and last-minute rescues were carried over into the Mix films, just as the dime novels, stage acts, and Wild West shows had outlined before film.

Sky High features Mix as Grant Newberry, Deputy Inspector of Immigration. The movie opens with a scene of him thwarting illegal immigrants – in this case, Chinese men whom he treats none too respectfully, in keeping with the casual racism of the era. Then there’s bright young thing Estelle, whose guardian is the secret head of the smuggling ring. Did I mention the Chinese are being smuggled in through the Grand Canyon? Well, they are.

This turns the location into a grandiose movie backdrop. The novelty of shooting the Canyon is exploited to its fullest, with action sequences taking place within and above it (Mix dropping from an airplane into the Colorado River is an elegantly faked bit). The hero does almost all his own stunts.

The cowboy films of the era usually leaned on the tropes of the melodrama – hero, villain, damsel in distress. This formula served the Western well, and thrives in Mix’s work. In the nearly 300 films he made, Tom wears the white hat, gets the bad guy, wins the girl. In simpler times, that was more than enough.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III.




Thursday, October 29, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Nanook of the North'

Nanook of the North
Dir: Robert J. Flaherty
Phot: Robert J. Flaherty
Ed: Herbert Edwards, Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Gelb
Premiere: June 11, 1922
78 min.

Nanook of the North is the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film. But is it a documentary?

Robert J. Flaherty was an explorer and photographer who decided he wanted to make a film about the Eskimo (Inuit) he had encountered. He shot film for two years, built up a rough cut that was praised – and dropped a lit cigarette onto his original camera negative, sending it up in flames and destroying it. He promptly returned to the Arctic region, spending a year remaking his film, this time centering it on the story of one Inuit family. Except it wasn’t really a family.

Nanook was actually named Allakariallak, and he did not live in a primitive manner. His wives were actually Flaherty’s women. Flaherty got Allakariallak and a cast of other natives to enact traditional hunting and crafting techniques. The natives hunt walrus, fox, and seal; Nanook captures a kayak-load of fish to feed his “family.” The group treks across the icy wastes in their dogsled, kept constantly in motion by the search for food. In the wild, they build an igloo to shelter themselves.

So, is the film invalidated by this approach? Does it accurately record these people’s behavior? The controversy over Flaherty’s manufacturing of a narrative on film continues in serious ethnographic circles. In a contemporary culture in which “reality shows” are rigorously scripted, it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal today.

His work has been classified as “salvage ethnography” – the recording of cultures threatened by modern civilization. He did it without condescension, in fact romanticizing the Inuit struggle for existence. No one can deny its power as a film. It is still beautiful and compelling. Flaherty is deeply in love with the landscape and his subjects, and it shows. We can’t help but emphasize with the film’s subjects; as strange as their existence is, they are recognizably human.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Tom Mix in ‘Sky High’.



Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Miss Lulu Bett'


Miss Lulu Bett

Dir: William C. DeMille

Scr: Clara Beranger

Phot: L. Guy Wilky

Ed: unknown

Premiere: November 1921

71 min.

The output of early Hollywood was primarily escapist fare. But there was also room for “serious” films, many of which were taken from honored books and plays. Such is the case with Miss Lulu Bett.

It’s the adaptation of a 1920 Zona Gale novel, which she adapted into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The story is a cross between Cinderella and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The heroine of the title is a young drudge trapped in a small town, one who works all day cooking and cleaning for her sister’s family in exchange for room and board. When she’s not being taken for granted, she’s browbeaten and belittled by her petty family.

Change comes in form of her brother-in-law’s brother, who comes for a visit and jokingly offers to marry her. She takes him up on it as a means of escape from her circumstances. After a week, though, he reveals that he may be a bigamist. She returns home, scolded into not revealing the truth in order to keep the town gossips’ tongues from waggling. Of course, despite this wag they do anyway, speculating on Lulu Bett’s unfitness for marriage. Fed up with her reprised role as the family servant, she declares her independence and leaves the house. Only after doing so, she gets together with the town’s schoolteacher, who has loved her all along.

Director William C. DeMille was the brother of the famous Cecil B. DeMille, and he was known for his unflashy, naturalistic films. Here he creates a work of quiet realism, keeping his camerawork unobtrusive and focused on “the toils of the commonplace.” The result is a clear-eyed examination of the constraints placed on the women of the day. Becoming someone’s, anyone’s wife was seemingly the only ticket out of the family home.

But Lulu makes a way. First, she saves her niece from a foolish attempt at elopement, then frees herself from mental slavery in a gripping scene. Smashing dishes, spitting dialogue, Lulu renounces her family and packs up and leaves for good. This proto-feminist liberation was in keeping with the times – women were given the right to vote only two years earlier, and the idea of the independent, self-assured woman was just beginning to take hold in popular culture. Though hardly remembered today, Miss Lulu Bett is a hallmark of America’s changing attitudes.

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


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Foolish Wives'


Foolish Wives

Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Arthur Ripley

Premiere: January 11, 1922

140 min.

The stereotype of the early American film director is that of a harsh egomaniac equipped with a monocle, riding crop, and megaphone. Erich von Stroheim invented it.

Von Stroheim started off simply as Erich Stroheim, born in Vienna in 1885. He added the “von” and a fabricated noble background when he immigrated to America in 1909. By 1914, he was in Hollywood, working as one of D.W. Griffith’s many assistant directors on the epic Intolerance. During World War I, he began taking up the many villainous roles that cemented him in the public consciousness as “the Hun you love to hate.”

Finally established as a writer/director, Stroheim produced turgid and costly melodramas such as Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey. He hit the jackpot with Universal, getting them to fork over more than a million dollars to make his Foolish Wives.

Stroheim as a filmmaker was doubly frustrating for producers that tried to rein in in. He wanted to create on an epic scale, but he was also obsessed with detail, spending recklessly to recreate the gilded pleasure spot of Monte Carlo in the studio confines of California. Fighting with the studio, the director managed to record hours of footage from which to make his final edit — which ran for six hours. The studio cut ruthlessly to get it down to normal feature length.

In Foolish Wives, Stroheim stars himself as the bogus Count Karamzin, a spendthrift grifter who seduces wealthy women and extorts money from them. His portrayal is perfectly despicable. The film illustrates his attempts to claim another victim, the wife of a U.S. ambassador. He is ultimately unsuccessful and brings on his own comeuppance.

It is difficult to see now where the money went, as we are used to films sporting large casts of extras and elaborate sets. At the time, however, such extravagant and detailed settings were unheard of. Stroheim would continue in the same vein until the studios finally got wise to his shenanigans and removed him from directorial duties. Meanwhile, Foolish Wives stood as a monument to what unlimited resources could create in Tinseltown.

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


Friday, October 2, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Cops'



Dir: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Scr: Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton

Phot: Elgin Lessley

Ed: Buster Keaton

Premiere: March 11, 1922

18 min.

Cops is a perfect little film, taking the premise of the comic chase and blowing it up to epic proportions. It’s the 12th of 19 shorts that Keaton starred in and directed between 1920 and 1923. I already wrote about his first significant short, One Week, here.

Buster Keaton was the greatest pure filmmaker of all the silent comedians. In Cops, he uses geometry and perspective to make his gags work, and to play tricks on the viewer. Here’s he’s the oblivious young fool who creates havoc wherever he goes. In the opening shot, he’s behind bars – but he’s not in prison, he’s stuck outside the gates of his beloved’s grand home (she’s the mayor’s daughter). She won’t respond to the plighting of his troth unless he becomes "a big business man.”

In short order, he steals money from a cop, and is in turn defrauded by a sharpster who sells him furniture that’s not his to sell. He loads the goods into a wagon (the furniture’s real owner thinks Buster’s a moving man, and helps him load up, to Buster’s quiet amazement). He has some fun with the slow, old horse that pulls the wagon – he stops and gives the horse an injection from goat glands (the Viagra of its day). Rejuvenated, the frisky animal pulls Buster into the midst of a police parade.

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While stopped in front of the parade grandstand, Buster reaches for a cigarette but can’t find a match. Improvidentially, an anarchist tosses a bomb that lands right next to Buster (it’s the stereotypical round shape with a long, sputtering fuse). He calmly lights his cigarette from it, then tosses it away. The subsequent explosion, comically tattering the uniforms of the marching men, sparks the chase.

What’s funnier than one cop chasing a hero? Hundreds. As Buster dashes to and fro, he finds swarms of cops on his tail. He nimbly avoids being collared time and time again, and eventually traps all his pursuers in their precinct house. However, his girl spurns him again, and he sadly unlocks the doors and allows himself to be swallowed up by a sea of clutching hands. The grim final “The End” title card is shown on a gravestone topped by Buster’s porkpie hat.

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


Thursday, August 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Tol'able David'

Tol’able David

Dir: Henry King

Scr: Edmund Goulding, Henry King

Phot: Henry Cronjager

Ed: Duncan Mansfield

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1921

93 min.

Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) is a parable on film. It’s positively folkloric, the tale of a youngest child’s unexpected success and maturation, like an all-American Grimm’s tale. This easily relatable story was a great success, furthering a string of hits for its star, Richard Barthelmess.

Barthelmess was already popular and acclaimed for his work in movies such as D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). This was the first film that Barthelmess produced, for his new production company Inspiration Pictures. He was a star, and Tol’able David made him even more of one. He had the power to choose his material, and until he stopped playing leads in the early 1930s, he often played in controversial and challenging films such as The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933).

In the film he plays the merely “tol’able” teen of the title. He lives in rustic peace in rural Greenstream, a kind of sanitized and sentimental sanctification of the common country American experience. Viewers included many still on the farm, as well as those who sprang from and could remember the same.

David is first seen dreaming over an illustrated Bible containing the story of David and Goliath. He is the youngest in the family, living with his father and mother, and older brother and his wife and their newborn. The older brother drives the horse-drawn hack that delivers travelers and goods from the railroad to the general store in the middle of town. The most important duty of the driver is to carry the mail, seen almost as a sacred duty. David dreams of driving the hack himself, but is routinely put down on account of his age.

He is foolishly fond of the girl next door, Esther, but their story is interrupted when three bad men come to town. They are cousins of Esther’s father, three crooks on the lam from the law. Crude and bullying, they take over Esther’s house. The worst of them is played in a hulking fit of sheer menace by Ernest Torrence, who would later show off his comic talents playing Buster Keaton’s father in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

One could not ask for more of a melodrama. Torrence’s character wantonly kills David’s dog, and cripples his brother. David’s father dies as a result. David longs for revenge, but must abandon it when pled to by his mother. He takes care of the family by working at the general store.

The day comes when David must drive the hack, and he loses the mail on his way home. Torrence’s character grabs it, and David must confront all three bullies in order to meet his responsibility. The justifiable-vengeance trope, long a theme in Westerns, is played hard here.

Director King keeps things simple. The villains are subhuman, the hero is pure, the setting idyllic. This brand of Americana, as it came to me known, would make up a considerable part of studio output as the years passed. King would capture little moments perfectly -- a leering look from Torrence, or David shyly dancing with himself as we see the couples whirl inside the hall. King builds characters out of many small observations, providing a much richer feeling for the material.

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


Friday, July 10, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Manhatta'

Dir: Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand
Scr: N/A
Phot: Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand
Ed: unknown
Premiere: 1921

Just pictures. Pictures of buildings, bridges, trains, boats, and the people leaking out of and into them. That’s the premise of this 10-minute ribbon of reality, captured and preserved forever as a monument to the look and feel of a big city in the last century. Its largely static shots turn the urban landscape into a triumph of abstract line and form.

It’ been tagged as the first avant-garde film made in America. It’s also the parent of later, similar films such as Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1926 Rien que les Heures (‘Nothing but Time’), Robert Flaherty’s 1927 Twenty-Four-Dollar Island, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (also 1927); and Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Sheeler was an artist who turned to photography early on in his career, who was consumed by a love of documenting technology, industry, and large-scale change. Strand, solely a photographer, weighed interests and themes markedly similar to Sheeler’s, making the natural collaborators.

The grand accomplishment of painter Sheeler and photographer Strand is to exit the need for narrative entirely. The film is what it is, a seemingly simple recording of everyday reality. But it is grander than that. It is an echo of the early cinema’s reliance on recording and screening travelogues, actual visits to far-off places such as the Holy Land.

This film focuses on New York City, treating it as an unknown quantity to be examined and considered almost from an archaeological perspective. Steam shovels gape, wrecking balls cavort. The city tears itself down, rebuilds itself, climbs higher and higher. The interpolated, laudatory quotes from Walt Whitman’s poetry reinforces the sense of wonder Manhatta is trying to convey. It’s the city as a poem in steel and brick.

In the end, the film shows us abstract mass against mass, a nearly alien, strictly geometric portrait. The only real creatures at large are large mechanical ones — trains, boats. People are ants, at best scrabbling along the edges of a graveyard (Trinity Church’s). New York City personified.

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

Friday, June 26, 2020

The NFR Project: Chaplin's 'The Kid'

The Kid
Dir: Charles Chaplin
Scr: Charles Chaplin
Phot: Roland Totheroth
Ed: Charles Chaplin
Premiere: Jan. 16, 1921
53 min.

Chaplin was eager to make his first feature film, and he planned a parent/child theme, half slapstick and half sentiment — what became The Kid.

At this point in his career, Chaplin was moving on past short subjects, as well as contracts with companies that pressed him for fresh material, ready or not. In January 1919 he formed United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. This move gave him and the others creative freedom and autonomy. He took his time making The Kid — nearly an entire year was spent shooting footage that boiled down to a little over an hour’s run time. (Chaplin recut the film later for posterity, whittling it down to 53 minutes.)

The best of the early child actors was Jackie Coogan (best known later as the original Uncle Fester, in TV’s The Addams Family). At the ripe young age of 5, he was chosen by Charlie Chaplin to co-star in Chaplin’s most successful film, and his first feature-length.

Now, I hate children in film. There is something fundamentally off-putting for me about the presence of the squeaky-voiced little ones on the big screen. Their cuteness is annoying as hell. They are usually included in a film as convenient plot points or for the manipulation of sentiment. Honest film work that depicts the complex, kaleidoscopic nature of childhood is rare. However, Coogan is spontaneous and engaging, and makes the movie work.

Chaplin nakedly depicts the catch-as-catch-can experience of the poor. Undoubtedly, he drew on his own memories of growing up poverty-stricken, practically homeless, without a stable parent or sufficient resources. He keeps the framing functional and on a human scale, maximizing the warmth the protagonists exude.

The story is simple, right out of Victorian-era melodrama. An abandoned mother of a newborn leaves her baby in a rich man’s car, which is stolen. The baby is left in an alley, where it is found by none other than Chaplin’s Tramp character. After a short spurt of trying to get rid of it, the Tramp relents and takes the child home to his squalid attic room.

Time passes, and now we see the Tramp and the Kid scraping a happy living together. The Kid breaks windows, and the Tramp comes along and repairs them. Only when the child becomes ill does the heedless claw of bureaucracy stretch into their lives. The authorities invade their garret and takes little Jackie away to the orphanage, spawning an epic pursuit and battle across and through the city. The Tramp may be laughable, but his fierce love for his adopted child is laudable. In the end, the child is reunited with the mother, and the Tramp is put together with both.

Ironically, Coogan would find himself let down by his real parents, who blew all his savings from his child-acting career, prompting the creation of the Coogan Act, which mandated the protection of child performers’ earnings.

In this film Chaplin successfully unites comedy and drama, laughter and pathos. His confident and mature craftsmanship would only get better.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The NFR Project: 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' and Valentino

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Dir: Rex Ingram
Scr: June Mathis
Phot: John F. Seitz
Ed: Grant Whytock
Premiere: March 6, 1921
150 min.

It is interesting to note how cultural artifacts age. Some stay front and center in the collective memory; a vastly greater number vanish or hide in plain sight. The latter is the case with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an anti-war epic that out-earned every other film at the 1921 box office. If it is remembered at all, it is for the fact that it made a star of Rudolph Valentino.

The film is an adaptation of the popular 1916 novel by Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibanez. It’s the story of two related families who find themselves on opposite sides during World War I. The movie starts in the pampas of Argentina, where a ruthless cattleman establishes an empire. He has two daughters. One marries a Frenchman, the other a German. After the paterfamilias dies, both families move to their husbands’ respective countries of origin, setting up a situation in which their sons destroy each other on the battlefield.

It was thought to be too difficult to turn into a film, but screenwriter June Mathis pulled off an engaging adaptation, which led her to spearhead the project. She selected both the director, Rex Ingram, and Valentino, a handsome young Italian dancer who had only played bit parts to date.

In this film, he plays Julio Desnoyers, a pampered playboy who thinks little beyond his own desires until he is shamed into serving in the military. Why was Valentino such an icon? He was conventionally handsome, but not extraordinary. The key to Valentino’s appeal was his vulnerability. In an age when the ideal man was strong and emotionally unavailable, Valentino' doe-eyed sensitivity appealed strongly to women and made him a screen idol. Soon he was labeled as the Latin Lover, and was stereotyped as such for the rest of his short career (he died at age 31).

Four Horsemen’s powerful anti-war message resonated with filmgoers. America had been most reluctant to get involved in the conflict, overcoming its isolationist sentiments with the help of massive amounts of government and media propaganda. The World War was cast as a messianic struggle for freedom and human decency — a “war to end all wars.” (D.W. Griffith’s 1918 Hearts of the World was the first to depict German troops as despoilers; Four Horsemen also demonizes them.) Despite America’s decisive intervention, many still fought the idea of such foreign entanglements, especially those that cost American lives.

The film’s 1993 restoration, complete with frame tinting and a new musical score by Carl Davis, is a delight. The film’s production design is lavish, and the action tends to overcome a plethora of long and complex explanatory intertitles. The bravo set piece of the film is a nightmarish fantasy of the unleashing of the Horsemen — Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. The reference crops up again and again, culminating in a final scene in which the survivors mourn Julio at the bottom of a steep ravine crowded with the graves of war dead. “Peace has come — but the Four Horsemen will still ravage humanity — stirring unrest in the world — until all hatred is dead and only love reigns in the heart of mankind.”

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Within Our Gates'

Within Our Gates
Dir: Oscar Micheaux
Scr: Oscar Micheaux
Phot: unknown
Ed: unknown
Premiere: January 12, 1920
79 min.
The wonder is not only how good it is, but the fact that it got made at all.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) was an African-American. As such, he was excluded from the mainstream culture, denied the means of production to make cultural products. So, he made them on his own. Within Our Gates is his earliest surviving feature film, and its intelligent boldness is worlds away from what Hollywood was cranking out at the time.

Micheaux began his creative career as a novelist while in his 30s. A producer’s interest in adapting his first book into a film led to Micheaux doing it himself, in 1919. Over the next 30 years, he made at least 42 films, providing what came to be termed “race films” — that is, films for black audiences.

Though only his second film, Within Our Gates demonstrates a maturity far greater than that of mainstream films of the day. He tackles prejudice, racial violence, and the dilemma of black people faced with innumerable obstacles to “uplifting” themselves, to be taken seriously and given respect. Micheaux’s characters are intelligent and complex, in sharp contrast to the usual depiction of subservient, unintelligent “darkies” in mainstream film.

In the film, young teacher Sylvia tries to raise money for a black school in the South — the key to empowerment is education. Her quest takes her to the North, where prejudice still exists under the niceties of polite society. In saving a young child from a speedy automobile, Sylvia is struck herself and taken to the hospital. Providentially, the car that struck her was owned by a wealthy philanthropist who give her ten times the money she needs.

Interspersed among Sylvia’s adventures are portraits of African-Americans from many classes and types, not shying away from negative portrayals. In particular, Micheaux gives us a black minister, Ned the preacher, who uses religion cynically to control the gullible. He tells his congregation that white affluence and political power condemns their souls, while the black folk, simple and pure in heart, will humbly go to heaven. He literally lets his white bosses kick him in the ass. Only when alone does he admit his complicity to himself. This kind of examination and criticism of organized religion was unprecedented in any film before or at the time, and in few films after.

The film ends with a flashback that shows us a double lynching, as well as a sexual assault. These white crimes are portrayed matter-of-factly, as though they would be familiar to the film’s viewers. Though the final moments of the movie are given over to optimism, it’s the mayhem of white violence that sticks in the memory. “And remember the white man makes the law in this country!” says one intertitle.

Micheaux’s film pulls no punches. If white people of the time thought about its subjects at all, they would have judged the film as deeply subversive, as it was and still is.

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

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Formative Film 20 : Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast'

Beauty and the Beast
Dir: Jean Cocteau, Rene Clement (uncred.)
Prod: Andre Paulve
Scr: Jean Cocteau
Pho: Henri Alekan
Premiered Sept. 25, 1946
Seen at the Flick, Denver, 1977

I was first pulled effortlessly into the dream world of cinema when my mother plonked me down in front of our dingy old black-and-white television and tuned in to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast.

Mom was intellectually precocious, culturally aware, and lonely, moored in suburbia. I think she was trying to raise three little friends rather than three children. She was a voracious reader, and we made regular pit stops to the local library. Music, books, movies, all were available in our home, with very little filtering — and no subject was off the table.

She was a fan of the “great films” series that ran on public television during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and as we only had the one set, we kids all ended up watching Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 and Grand Illusion and Seven Samurai and stuff like that. This had the effect of turning into de facto film critics, and scarred us for life to boot. Gratis. Hey, if you’re 10 and you watch Fires on the Plain, something in you breaks way too early.

It’s tough for me to overstate how influential this film was. It has an emotive power that drew me in, made me forget about anything else. Even via that dinky set, I was sucked into the movie.

It’s a fairy tale of course, but it’s a fairy tale full of fire and meaning, enacted so convincingly that even the most fantastic moments seem natural, the logical outcome of what has gone before. Cocteau and his creative team trapped magic inside the camera.

It is derived from the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780). The story is the traditional one, containing two vain and spiteful older sisters (the hilarious Mila Parely and Nane Germon) and Belle (Josette Day), guileless and kind. When their father, an unfortunate merchant (Marcel Andre), is forced to cross a forest dark with night, he stumbles on an enchanted castle. In plucking a rose, he summons the wrath of the Beast (Jean Marais), who demands that he forfeit his life or that of one of his daughters.

Cocteau uses all the cinematic trickery at his disposal. A double row of candelabras, held by disembodied arms, light themselves and point the way. Decorative sculptures observe, blow smoke. A disembodied hand serves wine. The rich scenic design of Christian Berard and Lucien Carre was modeled on the engravings of Gustav Dore and the paintings of Jan Vermeer, and it delineates the story with unerring accuracy.

Belle, of course, takes her father’s place. In the Beast’s domain, he is a loving servant to her, though he’s compelled to stalk and kill game in the night. (His fingers smoke with the blood of his victims.) Belle pities him, but steadfastly refuses his nightly request to marry him.

The Beast is a classic romantic anti-hero – possessed of power, but cursed and stricken with melancholy. He is by far better than Belle’s wastrel brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and his pal and Belle’s would-be lover, the “good-for-nothing” Avenant (Marais again, out of Beast mode and staggeringly handsome). Gradually, Belle sees through the Beast’s appearance and grows fond of him. When she is given leave to visit her family, the Beast wastes away in unhappy isolation. Can she return in time to save him?

The second time I saw the film, I was at The Flick. This was a tiny but delightful, ritzy two-screen art house at the corner of 15th and Larimer in Denver. Besides a couple of other repertory houses, the Flick was the only place where obscure, foreign, and avant-garde cinema was shown at the time. (It seems like Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet was always playing there.) It’s the only movie theater I can think of that I dressed up to attend. Films there were events, to be mulled over and debated later at the nearby all-night coffee shop.

The Flick’s tiny lobby was punctuated by a steep, narrow stair that led to the auditoriums, if that’s what you would call them. Each held a few dozen comfortable seats, and the décor was Empire style. It was the perfect place to watch a film — cozy and relaxing.

I made the mistake of taking a high-school date there to see Beauty and the Beast. It was someone I was interested in who did not reciprocate. (Then why did she go out with me?) At this stage in my love life, I was needy and intense, the worst possible combination. “Let’s just be friends,” she said as I tried to hold her hand before the show. Ironically, it’s a statement Belle would later make as we watched the film. I felt rejected and beastly myself.

You can tell whether a relationship is going somewhere by how easy it is to talk movies after the show. The film failed to impress her, and I took her home as fast as I could. There was nothing to discuss.

But the movie resounded in my mind. I was more convinced than ever of its primacy. I was also certain that I would never ask out a non-film buff to a movie ever again. And I didn’t.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Guilty pleasures: films I love that you hate

It’s bad enough to begin with. I’m a film historian. I always seem to be in the middle of watching a movie. Usually it’s something in black and white, in a foreign language, and strange. This makes it tough on people who live with me. Too often they have to wrassle the remote away and put on something comprehensible.

I have a contrarian sense of quality. I like the bizarre, the obscure, the overlooked. If it’s popular, I will often reflexively and stupidly line up against it. Some part of me I am sure is always spoiling for a fight with the larger culture (too many years as a critic).

You can see where this is headed. We’ve all been there — you see a movie you love, you praise it to the skies. You lobby for it. You get people to sit down and watch it with you. And there is silence.

And they start looking at you like you’re something the cat coughed up.

This has happened to me so many times that I started keeping track of these guilty pleasures. I just checked the list, and there are more than 300 of these bad boys on it. I can guarantee, if you stay away from these, you will be a happier person.

I’m not claiming that these are neglected masterpieces. I know they are problematic, to say the least. Now, once in a while the critical consensus will change about a film, so that a stinker I like becomes generally acceptable. However, to date this has only happened to me in regard to the original The In-Laws (1979).

A lot of them are films in a series. I was raised on old movies, and have a sneaking affection for Flash Gordon, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule. I followed the adventures of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Karloff’s Mr. Wong and Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto, and all the incarnations of Charlie Chan.

The “oriental” detective is just one of the many politically incorrect figures of that period. Many more classic films are ruined by sequences of blatant racism. In Babes in Arms (1939), Holiday Inn (1942), and James Whale’s Show Boat (1936), blackface numbers stand out, deeply disturbing to watch now. Hauling them into the light does good, but films like this do not constitute fodder for a fun watch party.

Some of the films on the list of the forbidden are so-bad-it’s-good — It Conquered the World (1954), The Tingler (1959), Attack from Space (1964), and some are cheesy Technicolor fantasies — Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Crack in the World (1965), and Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which Donald Pleasence is eaten by a white corpuscle.

New entries swell the list on a regular basis. John Carter (2012) is there, as is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). It’s a sickness.

So here are 13 of the most traumatic film experiences you should avoid. If by chance you like any of these selections, then know that you are a weirdo, and my very dear friend.

Where Eagles Dare (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1968)

Do you like Nazi kill counts? Then you are gonna love this one. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood (a match not made in heaven) and company go on a secret WWII mission deep behind enemy lines to rescue an American general. That’s it. They do that and a bunch of other stuff, to at a level not seen until the casual bloodshed that permeates The Matrix. They just kill and kill and kill. This film is adapted from the work of formulaic adventure novelist Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, etc.), for whom I have a weakness as well. It’s chaff, but it’s GOOD chaff.

Vampire Circus (dir. Robert Young, 1972)

It’s the only horror movie I know of that starts with what is a softcore porn scene. Oh, do I have your attention now? Yeah, it’s a hippy-drippy-trippy kind of horror film, in which a village suffers the vengeance of — a vampire, in the form of — a circus. There is a chuckling dwarf, a naked panther-lady, YOU know.

It will make you stop taking drugs.

Day of the Dolphin (dir. Mike Nichols, 1973)

“Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States.” ‘Nuff said. It’s what I consider to be a neat little sci-fi thriller. There’s one problem. The dolphins have learned to speak through their blowholes. In tiny little squeaky voices. This is evidently a barrier to the suspension of disbelief, as any normal person watching will start laughing at this point and won’t stop until all the credits have rolled. And who will address you in said “dolphin voice” for weeks afterward. Even though this project was helmed by the great Mike Nichols and starring George C. Scott, it has is disappointed many. I still watch it.

Murder by Death (dir. Robert Moore, 1976)

First, you have to know who Truman Capote was. And to find that amusing. Now we’ve lost 95 percent of the potential audience. Then you have to understand a gallery of movie-detective stereotypes and their mannerisms. I’m thinking this whodunit was made because Neil Simon wrote it; oh yes you also need to know who Neil Simon was. If none of these cues spark your interest . . . oh well. This was a prestige project; many honored actors appear in the film including, bizarrely, Alec Guinness as a blind butler. Biggest laugh: “I want my Dickie!”

Movie Movie (dir. Stanley Donen, 1978)

The great director Stanley Donen got together with the great comedy writer Larry Gelbart and crafted this gem. It’s a parody of Golden Age Hollywood — a double feature! “Dynamite Hands” is a gritty black-and-white boxing drama and “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933” is a gaudy Technicolor backstage musical. The ensemble, which includes George C. Scott, Eli Wallach, Art Carney, and many other old hands, are drop-dead funny. If you get the references. “That’s the second time you’ve made me drop my panties today!” This is the level of humor at which I dwell.

The Stunt Man (dir. Richard Rush, 1980)

I love movies about the making of movies, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and Day for Night. I love this movie ever since I saw it as a rough cut. From my perspective it’s funny, wry, and profound. To those who’ve endured it, it’s pointless, meandering, and pompous. Take your pick. With Peter O’Toole as director as Prospero.

Red Dawn (dir. John Milius, 1984)

“WOLVERINES!” If there ever was a conglomeration of teens from Pueblo that could kick the Russian army’s ass, this is it. There’s Patrick Swayze again! Charlie Sheen! C. THOMAS HOWELL! Jennifer Grey! And they even throw in Harry Dean Stanton, and Ben Johnson, and Powers Boothe. All are called on to fight the Commies who invade our homeland, and everybody gets a character beat. Many industrial barrels of whoop-ass are opened.

Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984)

It’s wasn’t his fault! He did the best with what he had, and later extended cuts demonstrate to me at least that Lynch had a grasp on the material, however bizarrely that played out from a design standpoint. It’s a space epic that’s tough to pull off — we’ll have to see if a new adaptation does any better with this “cursed” material. “Mua’dib! The Spice is life!”

Road House (dir. Rowdy Herrington, 1986)

First of all, the director has the best name in film history. I want to make a film with him just so I could say I did. Then: it’s terminally earnest Patrick Swayze as the mythical Dalton, the Ultimate Bouncer. (Yes, those people who maintain order in nightclubs.) He slides into a rural town in Missouri, a specialist hired to reform a bar with a bad reputation. In doing so, he piques the ire of Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara), a picayune Capone whose mob-boss ways are a sharp contrast to the backwoods atmosphere in which we find ourselves.

Dalton is a peaceful warrior with a degree in philosophy from NYU. As such, he is called to knock the snot out of ruffians on a regular basis. He’s like a Zen monk with feathered hair. He romances the only professional woman in the county, a doctor he meets in the E.R. when he comes in for some stitchery. He famously remarks, in a display of good old mind over matter, “Pain don’t hurt.” The ridiculously over-the-top fight scenes are alone worth the price of admission, but tarry to revel in what passes for dialogue and characterization.

Joe Versus the Volcano (dir. John Patrick Shanley, 1990)

This comic fable is one of my favorite films of all time. They let John Patrick Shanley make it just like he wanted, and it’s wonderful. I swear to you it is. I watch it and I get all goopy and break down and cry and think about what a precious wonderful thing life is. In stark contrast to those around me.

Hudson Hawk (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1991)

What can I say.

Cannibal! The Musical (dir. Trey Parker, 1993)

OK, to supplement my non-existent comedy income I was waiting tables in Boulder. There, one of my fellow waitrons, who could score the best acid, mentioned that he was shooting a movie on the weekends with people from CU. It was a musical about Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer. I will ever regret not jumping at the chance to get involved. It was the first big project of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame. And it is hilarious. Those of this film’s cult and I can recite it verbatim. “Weep-wah, weep-wah, suro no hapo.”

Timecop (dir. Peter Hyams, 1994)

It’s Jean Claude Van Damme! He’s a cop! Wait — not just a cop but a TIME cop. A cop that travels though time. To catch bad guys to want to abuse time travel for fun and profit. So the statute of limitations goes out the window. Time-travel movies usually fall apart in terms of internal logic and this is no different. But it does give it a game try. Just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream . . .

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Formative Film 19: 'Star Wars'

Star Wars
Dir: George Lucas
Prod: Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Rick McCallum
Scr: George Lucas
Phot: Gilbert Taylor
Ed: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas

Cooper Theatre
960 S. Colorado Blvd.
May, 1977

It was a harmonic convergence of factors — a great film seen in a great venue at precisely the right time of life.

The first time I saw Star Wars, I hated it.

Now wait, let me explain. How could I have been such a bonehead? Well, first and foremost, as a lifelong snob I have always looked askance at the mainstream and popular. My taste serves as an inverse barometer — if I don’t like it, it will be a big success. I have a great long list of popular movies that make me screech, and another of guilty pleasures that I love but that baffle the rest of mankind.

Star Wars became a blockbuster entirely by word of mouth. Critical reaction at the time was largely positive, but not ecstatic enough to justify what was happening, which was that people were seeing once, then again. And again. It was movie as thrill ride, and we were thrilled.

And if you were within striking distance of Denver, you had to see it at the Cooper.

The Cooper Theatre was a magnificent modernist temple of cinema. It opened in 1961, and was designed to show immense Cinerama and 70-millimeter masterpieces such as How the West Was Won and Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus. It sat 800 comfortably in a spacious burnt-orange auditorium; such was the culture in those days that smoking lounges — segregated, but significantly not sealed off spaces in the back of the house and even a “crying child” room to which parents with unruly young ones could retreat and still see and hear the film via glass partition and remote speakers.

It was the perfect space in which to experience Star Wars, fast-paced and full of special-effects wonders. The broad curvature of the screen encompassed our fields of vision, so much so that viewers in the front were engulfed and overwhelmed by the experience.

We didn’t go opening weekend. The friends that went came back astonished to the point of catalepsis, and determined to get us in the theater as well. So we all piled in whoever’s car and grafted ourselves to the end of the long line of ticket buyers.

We made it at last and sat down front. The initial viewing experience was overwhelming. Remember, animation and special effects hadn’t really improved since 2001: A Space Odyssey; the look of most of 1970s sci-fi was very cheesy, unconvincing, and frankly dystopian. Outer space in Star Wars looked great — Industrial Light & Magic, using newly minted computer-assisted and digital techniques, helped to craft an extremely dynamic and detailed imaginary universe. The elements weren’t there to push the plot forward — the plot was there to push the elements forward. Star Wars was intoxicated with its own vision.

Once the show was over the complaining began. I recognized a paste-up job when I saw one, what Pauline Kael referred to as “an assemblage of spare parts.” It’s a compendium of B-movie film clichés, right down to the Saturday-matinee wipe transitions from scene to scene. Here were moments of swordplay right out of a swashbuckler, and dogfights shot and edited to mimic the aerial combat of WWII films. There was the feisty heroine and comic sidekicks (hello, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress), the rakish ne’er-do-well along the lines of Gable, Flynn, or Holden, the men-on-a-mission ending. It was old-fashioned, a return to popular, escapist film entertainment.

I went back a week later, this time on a date, and this time I let go and just let myself get swept up in it. (It helped that we sat in the back this time.) This time, I dug it — the fantasy and adventure elements working together, the earnest energy, the bold-faced silliness, the video-game editing, all crowned with an essential optimism and a surfer-dude philosophy (“May the Force be with you”). Even the plainly derivative sequences were fascinating, a game of referential hide and seek to be played by the viewer. It was a nerd’s paradise.

We loved it, we saw it again and again. We memorized it. In fact, we wrote and performed an hour-long radio parody of it when we supposed to be doing our homework. Forty-some years later, we’re still watching.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The NFR Project: Buster Keaton's 'One Week'

Dir: Eddie Cline, Buster Keaton
Scr: Eddie Kline, Buster Keaton
Phot: Elgin Lessley
Premiere: Aug. 29, 1920
25 min.

Buster Keaton is not only my favorite silent-era comic, but he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, period. What puts him head and shoulders above more popular contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd is his unique and comprehensive eye. They perform in front of the camera; Keaton performs with the camera. Chaplin and Lloyd make faces, trade in sentiments; Keaton maintains a stoic impassivity, and inadvertently implements a philosophy.

Keaton was a natural clown. He was born to vaudevillians in 1895 and joined the act when he was 3 years old. The roughhouse comedic acrobatics he learned from his father were the foundation of his unique slapstick style. At the age of 21, he struck out on his own and decided to give the fledgling movies a try.

He apprenticed under, served as sidekick to, and became lifelong friends with, prominent film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Through the production of 14 short movie comedies with him over the course of two years, Keaton mastered the basics. By January of 1920, he got an offer from producer Joseph M. Schenk. His own studio, $1,000 a week, 25 percent of the net profits, and creative control. The Keaton Studio was open for business.

His first solo effort, The High Sign, displeased him and was held by him from release for some time. After completing an outside feature-performance project for Metro, The Saphead, Keaton got back to work. The result is his first released, completely original production — One Week.

Keaton was known as “The Great Stone Face,” a persona he developed that stood in stark contrast to the mobile features of Chaplin or the determined grin of Lloyd. Keaton’s frozen-featured equanimity makes him his films’ straight man. With never a raised eyebrow and only rarely a blink, his character absorbs the blows of random fate with a peaceful patience that begins to resemble optimism. Still waters run deep.

Certainly he personally could cope with, and overcome, the vagaries of chaos. He was a gifted mechanic and designer, who knew how to construct big gags and pull them off. Even in this first “real” film of his, it’s evident how developed his visual-spatial sense is. He knows what the camera can see and what it can’t see, and he decides to play with that, which means he ends up playing with the ideas underpinning cinema itself. His aim is purely practical. He wants to make up laugh. But his craftsmanship reveals a profoundly thoughtful sense of humor.

His outlook is cynical; everything that can go wrong will, hilariously, and the humor doesn’t always overcome the downbeat in his films. The world is not hostile to Keaton; it just doesn’t factor him in, and he must get along as best he can on his own. Life rewards and punishes in abundance and at random; social acceptance is arbitrary and fleeting. No wonder Keaton’s wry gloom attracted the attention of “serious” writers of the period from Federico Garcia Lorca to Samuel Beckett.

One Week moves in circles. Wheels within wheels. Buster’s cinematic universe has three ever-larger, intermeshing gears: the individual, the social, and the universal. The natural world stands over all. It is unfathomably complex, but it does operate in accordance with its own (mostly) immutable laws. Buster’s own plans and desires usually succeed, but only when he submits to and works with the larger, natural world. In between, fouling everything up, is the complicating human world — imperfect, blind to subtlety, averse to truth, wrong-headed.

In his later feature films, Buster arrives as a misfit and exits as a hero. He doesn’t change — he’s simply fallen into phase with what’s going on around him, and, like some white-faced Zen monk, manipulates the universe so that it sets him neatly down, unharmed, at the finish line. One Week doesn’t take this tack. It’s a catalog film, a situation dreamed up to provide a (here literal) framework for a series of gags, growing in scope and complexity to a culminating payoff.

The inspiration for One Week came from a 1919 Ford Motor Company documentary short, Home Made: A Story of Ready-Made House Building. The possibilities for what David Robinson called “an accelerating merry-go-round of catastrophes” suggested themselves easily. The title is a play on the structure of the film and refers to Three Weeks, a 1907 libidinous romance novel by Elinor Glyn that was the 50 Shades of Gray of its time.

The film opens with Buster and his new bride (Sybil Seeley) leaving the church. Guests pelt hem with rice and old shoes; Buster stops, stoops, considers a pair, and tucks it practically under his arm.

A car ride sets the plot in motion and serves as a little circular gag. Buster’s rival suitor unaccountably serves as their post-nuptial chauffeur — Keaton refers to him as “the villain” in remembrance, and probably needed to shoehorn him in as his film needed an antagonist. He hands them an envelope telling them they are being given a house and a lot on which to build it. The three characters then execute a jump from car to taxicab to motorcycle and back again, during which Buster gets his rival in Dutch with the cops.

They arrive on site. Someone is dumping crates off a truck. “Here’s your house!” he says. It’s a do-it-yourself house kit! The directions read, “To give your house a snappy appearance put it up according to the numbers on the boxes.” The rival obtains revenge by changing the crate numbers, and the fun begins.

The gags pile up. Buster saws off the beam he’s perched on, taking a tumble. Whole sections of the house are misplaced, or swing dangerously to and fro. When we step back to see the house in its entirety, it is indeed a surrealistic nightmare of misshapen windows, a canted roofline, and mismatching walls. A big, strong mover crushes Buster under the weight of a delivered piano (he later glances back at Buster, who hops in fright).

The trick house, though all “wrong,” is malleable (a porch railing becomes in an instant a ladder). Buster can heave the piano into the house through an easily removed piece of wall, but his attempt to raise it with a block and tackle simply “pulls” the floor above stretchily down, provoking a boomerang effect that catapults his hapless rival in the room above through the roof.

As the dates are torn off the calendar, we move through more mishaps. Buster falls through the roof into the bathroom. (Earlier, his bride drops the soap, and leans out of the tub to retrieve it — the cameraman politely puts his hand over the lens.) He opens a door and steps out into thin air, executing a two-story fall. Keaton was an enthusiastic if untrained stuntman — the fall

Finally, the day of the housewarming comes — Friday the 13th. A storm comes, and it turns out that house is so unstable that strong winds spin it like a top. As the guests are flung around the inside of the house, Buster tries over and over to get back over the threshold. Timing his jump, he leaps into the pirouetting building — and is flung out just as neatly.

The scale of jokes grows bigger and bigger. When the dawn comes, it also turns out that they built their home on the wrong lot and need to move it across the railroad tracks. Of course, the towing job breaks down just as they move into harm’s way. A whistle blows — smoke appears — a train approaches in the background! The two clutch each other and brace for impact — and the camera pans slyly right, showing us the train missing its mark, on an adjacent track. They sigh with relief when BAM! A train barreling the other way smashes the house to flinders.

Now we’ve come full circle, and the house is just a pile of lumber again. Buster hangs a For Sale sign on the debris, and the couple walks away, hand in hand. Keaton would make 16 more shorts and nine feature films. In One Week, he is already on top of his game.

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


Eagan, Daniel. “One Week,” National Film Registry.

My Wonderful World of Slapstick
Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels
Da Capo Press

Rudi Blesh
New York: The Macmillan Company

Buster Keaton
David Robinson
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

The Silent Clowns
Walter Kerr
New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase
Marion Meade
New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter
Gabriella Oldham
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press

The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton
Robert Knopf
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat
Edward McPherson
New York: Newmarket Press