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.’