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.’