Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Gold Rush'

The Gold Rush

Dir: Charles Chaplin

Scr: Charles Chaplin

Phot: Roland Totheroh

Ed: Charles Chaplin

Premiere: June 26, 1925

88 min.

It’s a comedy on an epic scale, but one that was filmed almost entirely in the studio. The highest-grossing silent comedy of all time, it’s the film Chaplin said he was proudest of, but it’s one that he reissued 17 years later with 20 minutes of cuts. 

Chaplin’s masterpiece is his most perfect film. All of his subsequent films, from The Circus through Limelight,  have an acidic edge to them. The Gold Rush glows with sentimental light; the pathos of the Little Tramp would not be so pronounced in future.

Charles Chaplin’s personification of the Little Tramp makes him the best-known and most sympathetic clown of all time. His clever mixture of cunning and sentimentality, his cocky nonchalance in the face of threat, and his childlike inventiveness all endear him to us.

Chaplin’s greatest film is set against an epic background. It is the Klondike Gold Rush, and his Little Tramp character is cast as the Lone Prospector. He marches blithely across studio-manufactured snowscapes. He fetches up against a cabin in the middle of a blizzard and finds himself thrown together with a couple of tough guys – Black Larsen and Big Jim McKay. (The Tramp’s scramble to avoid the muzzle of the gun Larsen and McKay fight over is impressively athletic.)

The Tramp and Big Jim wind up stuck together in the cabin, starving to death. Their solution? To eat a shoe, of course, one of the Tramp’s, lovingly basted and served with shoelaces on the side, like spaghetti. A hungry Big Jim hallucinates the Tramp is a chicken, and attempts to kill him. The two are spared by the providential arrival of a bear. That Chaplin can make comic hay out of starvation and murder is testament to his powers.

The two comrades part ways, and the Tramp goes to the nearby boom town. There, you see his character in his habitual state – alienated from the general mass. He is forever on the outside of human society, on the margin, peering in. The pathos with which he stands, back turned to us, contemplating the happy, jostling crowd in a dance hall, is almost unendurable.

He falls for a young dance-hall girl, Georgia, who is blithely unaware of his existence. His pathetic devotion to her finally wins her attention, when he is dragged away by Big Jim to find the cabin and Big Jim’s big gold strike. After a long comic sequence involving the cabin breaking loose and fetching up at the edge of a precipice, the two find their mine. A providential fate then brings our hero and his beloved together.

The film is an implicit critique of capitalism – the Little Tramp succeeds, not through skill or hard work, but through sheer luck. His fate is always in the lap of the gods, and he stumbles forward fortuitously.

There are two versions of the film to choose from – the 1925 original, and the 1942 re-release, losing 20 minutes of running time, with a new score and Chapin’s narration instead of dialogue cards. It’s instructive to watch both, as it provides us with a glimpse of how Chaplin’s comic sensibility evolved over time. 

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



Tuesday, September 28, 2021

How to Write a Film History Book


I remember marching off with my class to our elementary school library for the first time. We were set free in a room full of books, one of which we could select and check out. It was wild. Any book we wanted? I scanned the shelves. I saw a book with my name embedded in it – Ray Bradbury’s S is for Space. I grabbed it. Through this happy act of juvenile self-regard, I was introduced to the legendary writer’s work. I was immediately hooked.

I think, after that, I always intended to write a book. I knew I wanted to see my name on the spine of one, just like my namesake.

Fast-forward through several decades of my work as anything but a writer. I dropped out of college and started doing stand-up. After 15 years of pursuing that dream, I restyled myself as a journalist. From that I evolved into a freelance writer, and finally found the time to work on a book. But what about? There are those who advocate writing to a specific market, and others who counsel following your instincts. Both are correct.

I looked at my writing output to date. It was chockful of discussion of horror film. At the same time, I searched for a book that was a comprehensive guide to horror films, from the beginning to today, something that included all countries’ contribution to the genre. I couldn’t find one. I put two and two together. I figured on writing something I was genuinely enthusiastic about, that could also sell. I wanted to write a book that would serve as a reference in libraries, that could be used as a guide in educational institutions, that the average reader would find entertaining and informing.

Even though I’m offering my experience here, I would say that if you really want to write a book for the first time, just jump right in and start. Ignorance is bliss. If you have no idea of the scope of your project, you can march forward with confidence, unaware of the incredible amount of expansion and rewriting to come. (All right, a few recommended guides are listed below.)

It doesn’t matter how bad you think you are doing, get it down on the page. It will eventually be improved so that it is unrecognizable. If you can’t find the right word, get as close as you can. It will come later to you. Just be kind to yourself and emit words no matter how.

As I was writing a non-fiction narrative, I had to construct a scheme, a plan of attack, a table of contents (all these documents are sought by potential publishers, as it turns out. They want to see if you have any sense whatsoever of being able to produce something that is intelligible, entertaining, and perhaps even popular and/or competitive). I did not start with a completely thought-out outline of the history of the horror film. I had clumps of films, and clumps of dates, and a skeleton filled itself out as my researches progressed. I even added three chapters towards the end of the project to make sure I covered all the bases.

I worked and reworked each chapter, over and over again. At the same time I was reading reams of books and watching tons of films, immersing myself in the subject. Gradually, it took shape. And about four years.

Eventually, I had completed enough of a book (an outline and two sample chapters) to send off to publishers and agents. I worked hard to create a thorough and well-considered package of the material, in the hopes that it would appeal. You will spend a significant amount of time figuring out how to market your book effectively. 

I sold the book myself to an academic publisher. It was my 100th and final submission.

Speaking of marketing, here's the link to my book, on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Dark-World-History-Horror/dp/149683321X

Some helpful texts:

Of course, the most current Writer’s Market you can get a hold of;

How to Write a Book Proposal, Michael Larsen

The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals, Moira Allen

How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book, Blythe Camenson

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Freshman' (1925)


The Freshman

Dir: Fred C Newmeyer, Sam Taylor

Scr: Sam Taylor, Ted Wilde, John Grey, Tim Whelan, Thomas J. Gray, Harold Lloyd

Phot: Walter Lundin

Ed: Allen McNeil

Premiere: Sept. 20, 1925

76 min.

Of the three great silent-era film comedians, Harold Lloyd was the friendliest. Chaplin played outsiders, and Keaton was a stone-faced magician. Lloyd was one of us, just someone who wanted to be successful and accepted.

The Freshman is Lloyd’s most successful and second-best-known film, after the iconic Safety Last! (1923). It inspired a spate of “college films,” and is an early example of a sports comedy as well.

Lloyd plays a naïve but energetic incoming university student. He dreams of being the college hero, and acts, foolishly, as his college-movie idol does. In fact he is quickly regarded as the college boob. His relentless optimism keeps him going, even when he endures humiliations such as a tuxedo that falls apart at a college dance, or serving as the football team’s tackling dummy. He makes it to the Big Game as a water boy, and when everyone is injured he takes his place on the field.

Lloyd’s character is right out of a Horatio Alger story – someone of god heart who, with luck and pluck, overcomes all obstacles and succeeds. His belief makes him a sap in the eyes of others, but it also elevates him to exactly the position of status he was after in the first place. It’s Lloyd’s innate goodness that keeps the audience on his side.

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Clash of the Wolves'


The Clash of the Wolves

Dir: Noel M. Smith

Scr: Charles Logue

Phot: Edwin B. DuPar, Allen Q. Thompson, Joeph Walker

Ed: Clarence Kolster

Premiere: Nov. 17, 1925

74 min.

The Clash of the Wolves represents the apex of the career of Hollywood canine star Rin-Tin-Tin. This remarkable animal became the leading player in doggie dramas for the silver screen, in the course of which he saved the Warner Brothers studio financially.

“Rinty” was found, newborn and hungry, on a World War I battlefield by Corporal Lee Duncan. Duncan brought Rin-Tin-Tin back to America with him after the war. When he learned how trainable Rinty was, he decided to get him into motion pictures. After much time spent trying to ballyhoo Rinty’s talents in Hollywood, Duncan got a break with Where the North Begins (1923), a film with the brave-hearted dog at the center of the narrative. Rin-tin-tin became a star.

Rinty, a German Shepherd, was often described in his films as being part-wolf, something he is pretty obviously not. Still, the primary plot of many a Rin-Tin-Tin film runs as follows: wild animal befriended by human, becomes loyal and tame, saves the protagonists. Such is the case with Clash of the Wolves.

In it, Rin-Tin-Tin is Lobo, the leader of a wolf pack who moves his charges down into the Mojave Desert after a forest fire destroyed their natural habitat. Lobo has plenty of executive skills and is by far the most together character in the film. It isn’t until after he gets a cactus thorn stuck in his paw that he is run across by Dave, the protagonist, an erstwhile borax miner. Dave removes the thorn and, “Even as, ages ago, the first wolf surrendered to man’s love, so Lobo forsook the wild and became Dave’s dog.”

Inevitably, a claim-jumper schemes to take over Dave’s rich borax strike. It’s up to Lobo to save the day! And he does, with the vivacity of a seasoned performer.

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



Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Big Parade'

The Big Parade

Dir: King Vidor, George W. Hill

Scr: Laurence Stallings, Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham, King Vidor

Phot: John Arnold, Charles Van Enger

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: Nov. 5, 1925

151 min.

America’s entry into World War I was a super-patriotic affair. After nearly four years of declared neutrality, the nation’s push to war in early 1917 was aided and abetted by a vast propaganda campaign. Participation in the war was cast as a crusade for democracy against the savage “Hun”.

Films that treated the subject were either gung-ho (“Yankee Doodle in Berlin,” 1919), comedic (Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms,” 1918), or full of pathos (D.W. Griffith’s “Hearts of the World,” 1918). An early critical look at the conflict came in “The Big Parade.”

Director King Vidor went to MGM head Irving Thalberg with the request to make a realistic war film. Thalberg turned to scenarist Laurence Stallings, a veteran who lost a leg in the Battle of Belleau Wood. (He was famed due to his co-creation of the hit anti-war play “What Price Glory?” in 1924.) Stallings produced a script that closely matched his own experience in the war.

The film that resulted was the most profitable one made before “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. It tells the story of a carefree young man Jim (John Gilbert) who joins the Army in a fit of patriotic passion. He is sent to France, where he bonds with two buddies and falls in love with a French girl (Renee Adoree). Their relationship was cemented with a now-famous scene in which he introduces her to the joys of chewing gum.

Jim’s unit’s progression into the front lines is a horrifying one, moving from sunlit fields through woods infested with German snipers to the churned-up mud and trenches of the battlefield. 

The sequence is filmed with metronymic precision – Vidor beat a drum to which the actors moved in unison. In a harrowing night battle scene, the hero loses both his friends and is wounded in the leg. Jim loses it, but does not let it deter him from returning to France and reuniting with his sweetheart.

“The Big Parade” played for over a year in some movie houses, instead of the usual week most films experienced at the time. Its success inspired a spate of films about the war, including “Wings,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Lost Patrol,” and “Journey’s End”.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Clash of the Wolves’ and the phenomenon of Rin Tin Tin..



Monday, June 28, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Ben-Hur' (1925)


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Dir: Fred Niblo, Charles Brabin, Christy Cabanne, J.J. Cohn, Rex Ingram

Scr: June Mathis, Carey Wilson, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell

Phot: Clyde De Vinna, Rene Guisssart, Percy Hilbrun, Karl Struss, Paul Kerschner

Ed: Lloyd Nosler

Premiere: Dec. 30, 1925

151 min.

Ben-Hur was always a big deal. (Hey, the life of Christ is a subplot.) The 1880 novel by Lew Wallace from which this film was adapted became one of the most popular books of all time. From 1895 through 1920, the book’s lavish theatrical version commanded massive attendance. Though we remember the Oscar-winning 1959 film adaptation the best, it behooves us to remember this earlier production, one of Hollywood’s first attempts at creating an epic.

No expense was spared to bring this project to life. The film’s budget totaled out to $3.9 million, the largest of the silent era. A million feet of film was shot; thousands of extras animated the big scenes. The religious sequences were shot in two-strip Technicolor. The production started out in Italy, but was moved back to California for completion. The director’s role went through many hands. Despite obstacles and setbacks, the undertaking was completed, and with it MGM had a blockbuster.

For those not in the know, Ben-Hur is the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is unjustly betrayed by his former Roman friend Messala, who sends him to the galleys and his mother and sister to imprisonment. Through luck and perseverance, Judah achieves his revenge, then converts to Christianity.

It is remarkable now to see the inventiveness of this production. The grand sea battle and the iconic chariot race are just as compelling as in the 1959 version – in fact, much of the chariot race is duplicated shot for shot. (1959 director William Wyler was one of many assistant directors on this production). Ramon Navarro is fine in the title role, and Francis X. Bushman hams it up magnificently as Messala. Bushman was loath to take the role until William S. Hart, who played Messala in the original stage version, told him it was the meatiest part in the drama.

Despite its massive success, the movie did not turn a profit until its 1931 re-release. It would be over 30 years until Hollywood attempted its like again.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Body and Soul' (1925)


Body and Soul

Dir: Oscar Micheaux

Scr: Oscar Micheaux

Phot: unknown

Ed: Oscar Micheaux

Premiere: Nov. 9, 1925

93 min.

We first encountered Oscar Micheaux with the appearance of Within Our Gates (1920) on the National Film Registry list. The self-taught filmmaker made movies for an African American audience, cranking out at least 42 films over a 30-year period, working well outside the mainstream. Body and Soul continues his examination of the Black experience.

In the film, a criminal masquerades as a preacher in order to exploit the faithful. He defrauds a widow, rapes her daughter, and escapes. The End. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well with film censors. Micheaux was forced to tack on an “it was only a dream” sequence at the end to counteract the darkness of the story. Micheaux was extremely wary of the exploitative possibilities of religion.

This film marks the screen debut of the great Paul Robeson, who played both the fake preacher and his good twin brother. Later in his career, Robeson chose not to recognize this and two other small acting jobs in front of the camera as his first work on film, preferring to cite his leading role in The Emperor Jones in 1933.

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Thief of Bagdad'


The Thief of Bagdad

Dir: Raoul Walsh

Scr: Lotta Woods, Douglas Fairbanks

Phot: Arthur Edeson

Ed: William Nolan

Premiere: March 18, 1924

155 min.

Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) was at the top of his game. The movie star, America’s most popular, had worked his way up in the film world, first as the character of the archetypical gung-ho, grinning all-American (as in Wild and Wooly, reviewed here) and then at the center of costume dramas, starting with The Mark of Zorro, reviewed here.

 After Zorro (1920) came the large-scale adventures of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922). Tasked with topping himself, Fairbanks did so by creating this epic fantasy derived from the tales of The Arabian Nights. The film’s production design and special effects, combined with Fairbanks’ magnetic performance, carry the day.

 Fairbanks is Ahmed, the carefree and rebellious character of the title. Fairbanks is in incredibly good shape for the film, wearing a costume that practically bares all. Brown from the sun and lithe as a dancer, Fairbanks pantomimes his role expertly. His irrepressible energy comes through even when he’s at rest. He is ever-comfortable in the role of hero.

 In the film, the thief falls for a beautiful princess and, seeking to win her hand, goes on a quest for a magical treasure. Production designer William Cameron Menzies created a fantastic world for Fairbanks to inhabit. The immense sets, towering upwards, dwarf the action below (and, some critics say, overpower it). The Art Nouveau style is in use here, featuring organic shapes and asymmetry. Rich costumes complete the picture.

 The special effects were cutting-edge for the day, and are still impressive. (No CGI – all practical effects.) Fairbanks got ideas for them from the more ambitious German films of the day, especially Fritz Lang’s Destiny, which he bought the rights to distribution in America for and then held from release, so as not to be upstaged.

 And how did they make that magic carpet fly? It turns out they rigged up a ¾ inch steel plate, five by eight feet, and suspended it from a crane with piano wire. Movie magic.

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Sherlock, Jr.'

 Sherlock, Jr.

Dir: Buster Keaton

Scr: Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman

Phot: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley

Ed: Roy B. Yokelson, Buster Keaton

Premiere: April 17, 1924

49 min.

Sherlock Jr. is Buster Keaton at his most fanciful. It’s one of his string of great, hit films from the period 1920-1928, and in it he goes the closest to pure absurdity he would ever come. It’s a virtuoso technical marvel, complete with a famous sequence that has been identified by some as inducting Keaton into the pantheon of surrealists.

The story is simple. Buster is a movie projectionist who dreams of becoming a great detective. He’s sweet on a girl, but a romantic rival steals and pawns her father’s watch, and plants the evidence on Buster. Disgraced and rejected, he returns to work and starts the film within a film. He falls asleep.

Then the magic happens. His dream self rises out of his sleeping self, thanks to the use of double exposure. (He even lifts his dream porkpie hat from the peg the real one hangs on, and puts it on.) He wanders into the auditorium. The villain and the heroine of the film are locked in conflict. Incensed, Buster leaps up through the screen and into the film. The villain promptly pitches him out again.

Buster leaps in again – but the scene changes, to a fancy doorfront, then to a garden at night, to a busy street, to the edge of a cliff, to a lion-filled jungle, and on and on. Keaton retains his position on the screen, but the background keeps slipping under from him. Each time, he’s thrown into peril. (The sequence idea was borrowed by Chuck Jones for his Daffy Duck vevicle, Duck Amuck, in 1953.) The cuts and positioning are precise and the result is hilarious. The surrealists clutched Keaton to their bosom when they saw this as an articulation of conscious absurdity, a daring questioning of the nature of reality. It could be seen as that, but it is first and foremost funny.

The montage segues into the film within a film we’ve been seeing. Buster’s rival becomes the villain, his girl the girl. Buster is the suave and accomplished Sherlock Jr., “the world’s greatest detective,” chasing down a stolen necklace instead of a watch. Of course, as his alter ego he is successful, confounding the criminals and the audience with his visual trickery.

When he awakens, a happy solution presents itself (his girl is a better detective than he is), and Buster ends up alone with his girl in the projection booth. He takes his cues from a romantic scene in the film, gets his girl back, and then scratches his head in befuddlement when the scene dissolves to one of the couple onscreen with a brace of babies.

This tour de force contained more special effects than Keaton would ever attempt again in one film.

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


Monday, April 12, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Peter Pan' (1924)


Peter Pan

Dir: Herbert Brenon

Scr: Willis Goldbeck

Phot: James Wong Howe

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Dec. 29, 1924

105 min.

The first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play is a perfectly charming piece of work. The story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up became an instant children’s classic, but the primary engine of its fame was the lauded theatrical version, which played to packed houses for years.

For the uninitiated, the story takes place in Edwardian London, where three young children encounter the bluff, brave Peter, stuck willingly in eternal boyhood and looking for adventures with his companion the fairy Tinker Bell. Using a combination of fairy dust and “wonderful, lovely thoughts,” Peter teaches them to fly and takes them off to Never Never Land, where there are pirates, Indians, and mermaids to encounter.

This film wisely follows the playscript closely. From the pantomime dog Nana to the wire flying effects and on to miniatures and double exposures, all the fantastic elements in the film are played out to great effect. Character actor Ernest Torrance plays Peter’s foe Captain Hook to comic-villain perfection (he is best remembered as Buster Keaton’s irascible father in Steamboat Bill, Jr.). Betty Bronson plays Peter, continuing the tradition of casting a mature woman in the role. There is something to read there about the androgynous nature of childhood.

Of note is the contribution of cinematographer James Wong Howe, here still early in his lauded, Oscar-winning career. This is only the tenth of his 130-plus films, but his uncanny eye melds the footage into a coherent whole.

In a cynical time, you could do worse than watch this bit of whimsy.

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 ‘Sherlock, Jr.’


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Iron Horse'


The Iron Horse

Dir: John Ford

Scr: Charles Kenyon, John Russell, Charles Darnton

Phot: George Schneiderman

Ed: Hettie Gray Baker

Premiere: Aug. 28, 1924

150 min.

John Ford was one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and a favorite of mine. He already had a mastery of the Western, having directed more than 50 films, mostly Westerns, before his assignment to The Iron Horse. The success of the film version of The Covered Wagon a year before prompted the creation of another big-budget film about the taming of the West. This was Ford’s first large-scale production – an epic of Manifest Destiny in which he perpetuated myths about the “Empire of the West” that remained lodged in films for decades.

The movie leans heavily on the assertion of authenticity. A title card proclaims that “Accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere is this pictorial history”. However, this is a reality in which good guys beat the bad guys, young love triumphs, and Indians are merely pesky plot devices.

The overarching subject is the creation of America’s transcontinental railroad, seen as a visionary project initiated by Lincoln, and semi-sacrosanct as a result.. It is seen as a boon and a necessity for the white pioneers who were eager to be gobbling up the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific grew towards each other, and the film outlines the adversities the railroad workers faced. Fighting climate, geography, and Indian attack, the workers are cast as heroic men who were agents of an irrepressible desire for “progress.”

The narrative deals only cursorily with the Chinese railroad workers of the Central Pacific, focusing on the Union Pacific’s amalgamation of Civil War veterans, Irish, and Italian workers. The story progresses on several levels, foregrounded by the romance of our hero Davy (George O’Brien -- this film would typecast him as a Western star) and Miriam (Madge Bellamy). Davy enters the story as a Pony Express rider who takes refuge on the Union Pacific train, the crew of which he joins readily. There is a villain – a maimed white man who masquerades as a renegade Cheyenne (the Pawnee, who save the day at film’s end, are allies).

What makes Ford such an extraordinary filmmaker? He seems to know exactly what to put on film and how to frame it. He keeps his cuts and pans to a minimum, focusing on the human figures in the frame. He keeps the characters’ relationships clear, and knows just how long a sequence needs to be to convey its meaning. His editing is unobtrusive, drawing no attention to itself. Ford serves the story with uncanny ability. At a Ford film, you are never confused and always entertained.

The Iron Horse was the top money-maker for 1924. Ford went on create the greatest Westerns on film – Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, Wagonmaster, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. As his career progressed, he began to question and deconstruct the concept of Manifest Destiny and white superiority in films such as Fort Apache, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn.

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


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Greed'



Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Joseph Farnham

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Joseph Farnum/1999 reconstruction Glenn Morgan

Premiere: Dec. 4, 1924

244 min.

Greed is a grim, glorious, mutilated masterpiece. It’s the prime example of the story of the visionary director in conflict with his studio. Its stark realism and dry cynicism had never been seen before in film. Now, even in its truncated and restored version, it’s possible to grasp the greatness of von Stroheim’s seamy epic.

The movie is based on the 1899 novel McTeague by Frank Norris. In it, a young miner becomes an apprentice to a dentist, learns the trade, and sets himself up in practice in San Francisco. He falls for Trina, the shy girlfriend of his best buddy Marcus. Marcus gives her up, McTeague and Trina marry, and all is well until Trina suddenly wins a $5,000 lottery. Now Marcus is jealous. He blows the whistle on the unlicensed McTeague, who must give up dentistry. He and Trina slide into poverty, but she refuses to part with the $5,000 in gold coins. Finally, McTeague beats her to death and takes it.

McTeague goes on the run, and Marcus joins the posse tracking him down. In Death Valley Marcus catches up to McTeague. They fight, and McTeague kills Marcus. But wait – Marcus has handcuffed himself to McTeague who is now trapped, waterless, lashed to a dead man.

Stroheim thought of Norris’s novel as akin to a Greek tragedy. Stroheim gives us his low-down on the squalid lives of the lower classes of America. The principal characters, despite some evidence of the good in them, are all dragged down by their basest impulses. The result is a stark and depressing film, the opposite of the escapist fare most movies of the day provided.

Stroheim was a well-respected and profitable director, but was already notorious for his condescending unpleasantness, as well as his perfectionist obsession with every detail (the film was shot entirely on location, a rarity for the time), and his tendency to blow his budgets and shooting schedule. Eventually, his defiant and dictatorial ways lost him work as a director, though he would continue with a healthy career as a character actor.

When he was finished with filming, he had 85 hours of footage. He cut it down to a 7-hour film. When told by the studio to cut further, he got it down to 4 hours. The studio took the film away from him, and cut it down to an hour and a half. The unused footage was recycled. The studio version is all that survived. Unsurprisingly, the studio cut was a flop.

Fortunately, in 1999 Rick Schmidlin produced a reconstructed version of Stroheim’s original, filling many gaps with production stills. It’s the closest we will ever come to understanding Stroheim’s original vision.

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Chechahcos'


The Chechahcos

Dir: Lewis H. Moomaw

Scr: Lewis H. Moomaw, Harvey Gates

Phot: Hobart H. Brownell, Raymond K. Johnson

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Dec. 11, 1923

87 min.

Historically, regional filmmaking has been rare in American cinema. Film production by and large has issued from Los Angeles or New York. It’s refreshing to see a well-made film that was put together thousands of miles from Hollywood.

The Chechahcos was the creation of the Alaska Moving Picture Corp., itself the creation of George Edward Lewis and wealthy Anchorage entrepreneur Austin E. Lathrop. The idea was to exploit the breathtaking and authentic landscapes of the territory by setting stories in and among them. This film is the outfit’s only production.

“Chechahcos” is Inuit for newcomer, and this story is a standard melodrama about just such folk. A child and her mother are separated in a boat mishap and each think the other dead. Two prospectors adopt and raise the girl while the mother goes off with the villain of the piece, a disreputable gambler who’s handy with a knife. All are thrust back together again years later, and relationships are revealed and old scores settled.

What’s remarkable is how well this film holds up compared to the mainstream product of the time. The performances, writing, directing, lighting – all are executed professionally. They even pull off an effective restaging of the arduous ascent to Chilikoot Pass. The film’s biggest card to play is of course its exterior scenes, which play out against magnificent, snowy backdrops. In this film, the landscape is a character. (The villain expires, at the mercy of a calving glacier.)

Chechahcos stands alone as example of early independent filmmaking.

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The NFR Project: The Solomon Sir Jones films


The Solomon Sir Jones films

Filmed 1924-1928

355 min.

It’s good to have a hobby. It might get you into the National Film Registry.

Solomon Sir Jones was a prominent and successful minister and businessman in Oklahoma, where he moved in 1889 after a youth spent growing up in the South. He was also an amateur filmmaker. He took pictures of his family, the community, the church, and all the everyday events and locales: funerals, parades, businesses, picnics, playgrounds. He documented his extensive travels as well. Almost six hours of footage were preserved.

The films are home movies, in essence, possessing both the virtues and the flaws of that type of filmmaking. Lines of people walk past the camera, getting their likenesses recorded. The camera pans here and there, picking up faces and other details. It’s not profound or inspired filmmaking, but it provides extensive insight into the lives of ordinary people of the time, a sense of the landscape of the day.

A significant aspect of the collection of films is that Reverend Jones was Black, and that we see through his films African-American society, obviously just as complex and mundane as white society. That makes there films inherently subversive, especially when considering the attitudes of white people toward Blacks in that place and time. They assert the dignity of their subjects.

Fortunately, all the films are available online via the handy site set up by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and can be seen here.

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




Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The NFR Project 'He Who Gets Slapped'

 He Who Gets Slapped

Dir: Victor Sjostrom

Scr: Carey Wilson, Victor Sjostrom

Phot: Milton Moore

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: Dec. 22, 1924

71 min.

The Swedish actor Victor Sjostrom is best remembered today for his last piece of film work, playing the lead in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). But Sjostrom was a powerful pioneer in silent film, who heeded the call of Hollywood and created several brilliant movies there before abandoning directing, and America, for a career in acting back in Sweden.

Between 1912 and 1923, Sjostrom made 41 films in his native land, most remarkably the dark fantasy The Phantom Carriage (1921). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer recruited him, and the director headed west and anglicized his name to Seastrom. He Who Gets Slapped is his first important American film.

Slapped  is a melodrama that pairs him with the amazing Lon Chaney, who was fresh from his success as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). It’s the story of “HE,” once a brilliant scientist whose work and wife are stolen by his aristocratic “benefactor,” Baron Regnard. “Fool! Clown!” his wife calls him. Humiliated and discredited, HE abandons his calling and becomes a clown in the circus – one whose claim to fame is a masochistic comic routine in which he is slapped over and over again.

Chaney’s tragic clown is disturbingly grotesque, in contrast to the lovers in the picture (a very young Norma Shearer and John Gilbert – both were to become great film stars). The Baron reappears, having dumped HE’s wife, and wants to possess the young girl, scheming with her greedy father to arrange their marriage. The stage is set for Chaney, also in love with the girl, to take revenge against the Baron and the girl’s father.

This is the kind of role Chaney would essay again and again – a heartsick outcast, harboring a guilty secret, desperate for vengeance. His whitefaced clown makeup amplifies the torments his face expresses. For his part, Sjostrom brings a steady hand to the proceedings, making the implausible plot palatable and focusing on the emotions of the piece. The result is an acutely observed psychological thriller.

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




Sunday, February 14, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Navigator'


The Navigator

Dir: Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton

Scr: Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell, Jean C. Havez

Phot: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley

Ed: Buster Keaton

Premiere: Sept. 28, 1924

59 min.

Buster Keaton was at his best when he worked on an epic scale. Chaplin charmed at the level of the human. The other great silent comedian, Harold Lloyd, like Keaton, faced dangers and overcame obstacles. But Keaton the clown pitted himself against the laws of physics and the whims of fate, succeeding when he rose to the challenge these mighty universal forces, learning to harness them . . . or at least to ride them out.

In this case, the immensity in Keaton’s way is a ship at sea. Here Keaton plays the oblivious and foppish Rollo Treadway. His idea of a long walk is one across the street between his sweetheart’s mansion and his own. One morning he spies a happily married couple and decides he’s going to get married himself. That day. His girl doesn’t see it that way.

Through a suitably complex set of circumstances, boy and girl end up, unbeknownst to each other, stranded on the immense and adrift steamship of the title. Keaton milks the locale for gags, starting with the comic ballet of the two of them just missing finding each other over and over again on the enormous vessel. Once united, the two prove themselves not up to the simple tasks of eating and sleeping, dwarfed by the ship and its outsized equipment. They are two innocents marooned in a grown-up world.

Eventually, they come up with creative workarounds to their problems. In the meantime they go aground and spring a leak near a cannibal-infested island. Repair work is needed. Buster must go over the side in a deep-sea diving suit, bringing his lunch pail and a DANGER – MEN WORKING sign . . . and a gun, just in case. The underwater gags are plentiful.

Finally, Keaton overcomes an unruly octopus, frightens the natives away, and rescues his girl. Still, the two are pursued until they abandon ship. Faced with an all-out cannibal attack, they sink beneath the waves together. And rise as suddenly on the convenient tower of a passing submarine.

Despite the brilliance of the big set-pieces, Keaton is great in the little moments, too – like the dirty look he gives his girl after gulping some of her sea-water coffee, or the cheerful wave he gives as he goes over the side. He becomes a hero by virtue of his calm imperturbability. In future films, he would match his wits against ever-more complex and seemingly whimsical entities – a locomotive, a steamboat, even a tornado.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped (1924).




Friday, February 5, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Salome'



Dir: Charles Bryant, Alla Nazimova (uncred.)

Scr: Alla Nazimova, Natacha Rambova

Phot: Charles Van Enger

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1922

72 min.

 Read Martin Turnbull’s excellent explanatory essay here.

 Salome is an odd duck, a hothouse flower among the more vigorous films of its time.

 It was the independent project of its star, Alla Nazimova, who was a widely admired theatrical performer in the early years of the 20th century. Nazimova was renowned for her truthful, naturalistic acting style, learned from the great Constatin Stanislavski himself in Russia. In 1905, she moved to America where she ruled the New York stage in plays by Ibsen and Chekov. She was a latecomer to film, not going to Hollywood until 1917. Once there, she commanded prime roles and a high salary, but she soon went her own way as an independent producer and filmmaker.

 Unfortunately, her artistic vision did not bring commercial success. Salome is based on the play by Oscar Wilde, concerning the beheading of John the Baptist. In the story, King Herod and his spiteful wife Herodias hold sway at a feast. The prophet John the Baptist, who rails against the decadence and sinfulness of Herod’s court, is imprisoned in a well nearby. The young princess Salome is intrigued by the man of God and seeks to seduce him, but is repulsed. Finally she dances for her lustful stepfather Herod in return for anything she pleases. She chooses the head of the prophet, triggering her own doom.

The film’s setting is not realistic. It is stylized in the manner of Art Nouveau, specifically the art of Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated Wilde’s play before his untimely death in 1898. The costumes and art design were by fellow Russian émigré Natacha Rambova. The result is a film that looks like a slice of avant-garde theater.

 Despite its visual innovation, the movie fails to involve. The acting is overwrought. Nazimova, 43 at the time of filming, plays off as more of an imperious middle-aged women than a precocious nymphet of 14. Salome remains an interesting failure.

 The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Navigator (1924).


Thursday, January 14, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Safety Last!'


Safety Last!

Dir: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Scr: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, H.M. Walker, Jean C. Havez, Harold Lloyd

Phot: Walter Lundin

Ed: Thomas J. Crizer

Premiere: April 1, 1923

73 min.

You can find Richard W. Bann’s excellent explanatory essay here.

Safety Last! Is Harold Lloyd’s most emblematic film, his best remembered work. The film’s resonant image of a dangling man clinging frantically to the hands of an outsized clock is still burned into the memories of filmgoers.

Lloyd is always listed third in the pantheon of great silent-film comics, after Chaplin and Keaton. But Lloyd was more prolific than either of the other two, and arguably more popular at the time. He started out an aspiring comic actor in roles that were notably imitative of other more successful comic personalities. For some time, Lloyd sought out a unique and popular character he could play.

Finally his comic persona cemented itself around 1918, when the simple expedient of wearing glasses gave him the look of a soft-hearted underdog. Under this bespectacled veneer he crafted a peppy, optimistic character who, film after film, overcame all manner of absurd obstacles in order to achieve success.

Safety Last! uses that template, and adds the thrill of watching our hero climb the side of a tall building. This kind of “thrill comedy,” a potent mixture of stunts and laughs, proved to be the winning formula for Lloyd.

In Safety Last! Harold is a small-town guy going to the big city, promising to send for his girl once he’s made it big there. He tells her he’s become the general manager of a big department store, when in fact he is only a lowly clerk there. When she surprises him with a visit, he concocts a scheme to get rich quick with his friend, a “human fly,” asking him to climb the store’s building. Unfortunately, the friend is chased by the police, leaving Harold to climb the building himself.

The final sequence is gripping. Adroitly edited, it plays the efforts of Lloyd and his stunt double to maximum effect. The filmmakers also worked with tricks of perspective, building a skyscraper set that only looked like it towered over the street below. Overcoming the absurd obstacles in his way (pigeons, a mouse, netting), Harold reaches the top, his love, and success. Not a bad formula for the filmgoing public to fall for.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Salome (1923).




Thursday, January 7, 2021

The NFR Project: Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III


Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III

Premiere: 1922

5:41 min.

This interesting snippet of film chronicles just a part of the effort to produce movies in color. James Layton’s comprehensive essay on the footage can be found here.

The quest to make films in color took many years to succeed. Here, Kodak laboratories created an early “two-strip” color film using red and green filters. Merging the two separate filters into one, something like color resulted (although it required intense, hot lighting and could not capture the cooler parts of the spectrum). Pictured in the test footage are various models and actresses, posing to test the new medium.

This early “Kodachrome” did not catch on. It was the Technicolor process that eventually won out, and it was not until 1935’s Becky Sharp that a feature-length color film was made with it.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Safety Last! (1923).