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’.