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 √©migr√© 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).