Sunday, November 26, 2023

The NFR Project: W.C. Fields in 'So's Your Old Man' (1926)

 So’s Your Old Man

Dir: Gregory La Cava

Scr: Howard Emmett Rogers, Tom J. Geraghty, J. Clarkson Miller, Julian Johnson

Pho: George Webber

Ed: George Block, Julian Johnson

Premiere: Oct. 26, 1926

67 min.

W.C. Fields is remembered today as the ultimate flim-flam man, the sly and cynical popper of pretension and dysfunction around him. However, the comedian had one other personality that he displayed in his films – that of the put-upon everyman.

This character is on display, front and center, in this film early in his career. Fields was already a respected juggler and comic artist on stage, but he longed to be in the movies as well. This, his first feature film, gives us the first hints of traits that would define Fields – his fondness for alcohol and his allergy to regular work.

Poor small-towner Sam Bisbee is a would-be inventor who is generally despised by his community for having little couth. His family, too, fails to respect him. He does invent shatter-proof automobile glass, but due to a car mix-up, he loses the chance to impress a bunch of automobile manufacturers. He ponders suicide on his way home, but rejects it . . . then he runs across a beautiful young woman who he suspects wants to end her life as well. She doesn’t, but his kindness makes her want to help him. Being a princess, she uses her influence to make Sam a respected citizen and family man again.

Naturally, Sam doesn’t believe the woman’s royal status, and he looks on her efforts to rehabilitate as part of a bigger scam. That he goes along willingly with the apparent deception speaks to his contempt for the shallow and judgmental society that has kept him down up to that point. Bisbee is happy to put one over on the town. He gets a happy ending, deserved or not.

Shoehorned into the film is the long golfing sketch that Fields had already perfected on stage. As such, it is a valuable documentation of his routine. His battle with recalcitrant objects is a textbook display of the art of slow-boil comedy.

All in all, an excellent initial outinggreat for the comedy . (Fun fact: the famous Roaring 20’s illustrator John Held Jr. did the title illustrations.) The premise was successful; so much so that the film was remade with Fields for sound as You’re Telling Me! In 1934.

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

Monday, October 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Mighty Like a Moose' (1926)

Mighty Like a Moose

Dir: Leo McCarey

Scr: Charley Chase, H.M. Walker

Pho: Len Powers

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: July 18, 1926

23 min.

Charley Chase never got his due, until now. The enterprising writer, director, and producer of and performer in comic movies never achieved the critical estimation that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd did. He did not sport an eccentric persona – in all his films he is a regular guy, caught up in humorous yet everyday dilemmas. He never graduated to feature films, save as a featured player. He never indulged in slapstick – his humor is that of character and situation.

Yet his humor is as crisp and clear and vital as ever. Mired in the everyday, it still translates well to the benefit of our modern sensibilities. Recently, his films have been collected and released in various packages, and a biography was written about him as well. Slowly, people are getting to know Charley Chase.

Born Charles Parrott, Chase started out in film in 1912, playing bit parts and juvenile leads for Christie, Keystone, and L-KO Kompany, gradually moving behind the camera as a writer and director. In 1920, he began working for the Hal Roach comedy studio. Soon, he was its director-general. After Harold Lloyd left the studio in 1923, he decided to step back in front of the camera again, in the persona of Charley Chase.

Mighty Like a Moose is a fine example of Chase’s work. (The title is a play on the title of the then-popular song, Mighty Lak’ a Rose, a problematic bit of American culture itself due to it being written in a stereotypical and supposed African-American dialect.) The short takes up with a married couple, the Mooses, the husband of which (Charley) has a clinical case of overbite, and a wife with a ship’s prow of a nose. Each secretly gets corrective surgery to surprise the other. Unfortunately, they run into each other immediately after the operations and don’t recognize each other – and they begin to flirt.

Complications ensue. Enlisting expert timing, the two prepare separately for their illicit date at their home, narrowly missing seeing each other, in an intricate comic dance. They go to a party together; the wife is quickly danced away with, so the husband is left to encounter (with a sly, slow pan to the right) a grotesque-looking woman who only knows how to dance the polka. We see their awkward dance three times . . . the third time shot just legs and feet, a witty and remarkable shorthand that the audience can easily understand and participate in, filling out the rest of the image with their imaginations.

The film ends, slightly improbably, with Mr. Moose testing his wife’s fidelity by alternating between the roles of husband and would-be lover, finally staging a drag-out fight for his wife’s benefit. The action is fast and inventive, and ends with a knock-down punch administered by Mrs. Moose.

The film is also a fine example of the early work of director Leo McCarey, who would go on to win three Oscars. McCarey credited Charley Chase as his mentor, stating that “whatever success I have had or may have, I owe to his help because he taught me all I know.” McCarey is noted for his creation of the team of Laurel and Hardy, and he also directed such comedic personalities as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Mae West. In the sound era, he crafted such classics as the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, Going My Way, and An Affair to Remember. Even this early, his style peeks out – the economy of motion, the clear underlining of character, and that unteachable comic skill, timing.

As for Chase, he continued to make comic shorts, into the Sound Era. In 1936, he stopped making his own films, moved to Columbia, and started supervising the short-subject comic output of that studio (yes, he directed the Three Stooges as well. Unfortunately, Chase was a depressive and a severe alcoholic. His heavy drinking led to his premature death in 1940, at the age of only 46.

It took six decades for his work to be reconsidered by the critical community, and now he is perceived properly – as one of the primary craftsmen of American comedy.

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





Sunday, October 8, 2023

'She Came to Me': A movie for grown-ups

 She Came to Me

Dir: Rebecca Miller

Scr: Rebecca Miller yeah

Pho: Sam Levy

Ed: Sabine Hoffman

102 min.

These days, films are all too easily shoved into slots of genre, their edges beveled down smoothly. The formulaic blockbusters of today resemble nothing so much as well-oiled machines, without quirk or reflection. This is not a new development: there have always been less than challenging films out there, films designed by large crews of people to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Then there are the independent films. Films not adapted from another medium. Films made because they are works that can only be made as a film. Such a one is the rare treat from writer and director Rebecca Miller, She Came to Me. It’s a lovely throwback to the Silver Age of American cinema (1967-1977), when studios took chances on idiosyncratic, personal movies, without gimmicks, bells, or whistles, that actually found interested viewers.

It is doubtful this film will make a lot of money. It wasn’t advertised at all, as far as I can tell. Somehow Miller wielded some clout to get this made, and I’m glad she did. She has created a lively yet understated comic universe filled with interesting characters that travel through a completely unpredictable plot. In other words, a STORY. What a concept!

She attracted top-notch talent to the project. Peter Dinklage stands at the center of the film, in the hilarious role of a hang-dog opera composer who’s got a creative block. He is married to his former therapist (Anne Hathaway, who really gets a fun character to work with), and he miserably gets through each day with her therapeutic assistance.

Cajoled into taking a walk by his wife, the composer stops in a bar and runs into a female tugboat captain with attachment issues (Marissa Tomei, also great). What follows has little logic on the outside, but the film’s emotional logic is impeccable, as everyone caroms off each other, sending each other into entirely unfamiliar new trajectories.

There are no heroes or villains in the piece (OK, maybe Brian D’Arcy as a controlling husband and stepfather is the boogeyman the piece needs to propel its plot). There are no overwhelming moments of action-packed adventure, no fist-pumping affirmations. It’s simply an amusing and involving tale of real people in complex situations, and as such is a completely enjoyable experience.

I challenge you. If you can really digest grown-up fare, watch this movie. It will reward you deeply, not least through the fact that it proves that movies like this can still be made, and still can find appreciative audiences.

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Last Picture Show: Saying goodbye to the drive-in


I knew I was close when I could smell the diesel fumes.

The prosaically named 88 Drive In is the last existing drive-in movie theater in the Denver metropolitan area. It sits at 88th and Rosemary Streets, northeast of the city, lodged in an industrial pocket called Irondale, part of Commerce City. Its distance from the hum of gentrification in the region spared it for decades from decease.

Now, at last, with the explosion of growth in the city, even condemned and inconveniently placed parcels of land are being sold, for ridiculous prices, to the highest bidder. And the Kochevar family, which owns the drive-in, finally felt it was justifiable to sell the land. It has become economically unfeasible for them to run the business, which would also require substantial capital improvements in the off-season.

Relics at the concession stand.

So they sold. By this time next year, the theater’s lot will be crowded with warehouses.

So, this is the end of the line for the 88, and I just had to go one last time.

Fun facts: the theater opened in 1971, and was distinctly unprofitable. Therefore, the next season it started to show X-rated movies. This did not go over well with the neighbors, and they had to build a fence on top of a nearby school so that students couldn’t clamber up at night and watch porno.

On February 11,1973, someone set off a bomb in the concession stand. The city and the neighbors crusaded against the theater. Finally, it was sold to another party and the X-rated films stopped. After a few changes of owners, Bill Holshue, who also managed my beloved Lake Shore Drive In in Edgewater, bought the place – his daughter Susan still runs the 88.

The screen -- fighting light pollution.

The Kochevars have run it since 1976, which is when I finally got my driver’s license and started going with gangs of friends or on dates. I have kissed many girls at the 88 over the years. (Note to my wife: OK, really not that many.) Back then, cars were a passport to freedom, and drive-ins were among the very few places where we teenagers could go and do what wanted, without dreaded parental or institutional supervision. God knows how many children were conceived there.

I chose to go on the night of a triple horror feature, the best possible way to say goodbye to the old place. These movies weren’t completely current – the evening started with the kid-frienddly animation Monster House (2006), then drifted into the Marvel misfire Morbius (2022), and concluding in cheesy greatness with The Nun II (2023).

The entrance was still somewhat obscure to locate, but soon I found myself at the cinderblock hut that held the ticket-taker. He gave me a handy snack-bar menu and list of rules and instructions. “Park by any blue-striped pole,” he informed me, and off I went.

Unfortunately, I can’t see that well at night and I’m color blind. The main body of the lot is row upon row of hummocked spaces, dotted by posts that used to hold the theater’s speakers (now, you run your car’s battery down listening to the movie on 93.7 FM). You pick at post, you park next to it. I finally gave up and stayed in the back, among the trucks and SUVs.

Now, the visuals of the 88 have always been somewhat compromised. The backdrop of the screen is the well-lighted facades of warehouses, which tends to wash out the image in front of it. If a scene is exceptionally dark, and since this was horror there was, it becomes incredibly difficult to track it. Ironically, this leaves the viewer riveted to the action in front of them, if only to keep track of what the hell was going on.

There is a major highway and rail route next to the theater, so the rumble of vehicles and the bray of horns routinely punctures the night. You get used to it. But you can see how the site is aesthetically challenged.

I cruised the concession stand one last time. (The long trough in the urinal was still there.) The family was grouped behind the counter, prepping food, making sales. I checked out the offerings, but since I pride myself on being cheap, I didn’t get anything. Then I broke down and got a commemorative T-shirt.

Having done my part to contribute to the welfare of the Kochevar family, I returned to my vehicle. Things were not going well onscreen. Monster House was surprisingly good, though definitely family fare. Morbius? He takes serum that cures his life-long physical disabilities, but also turns him into a vampire. Darn it.

I think that’s what it was. The action was getting darker and darker, and Jared Leto was bashing the hell out of Matt Smith (English, unnaturally large head, former Doctor Who). He kills him, I think. But his girlfriend gets killed, too. So he flies off all perturbed, surrounded by bats.

But oh! Dear Reader! The Nun II! Like The Nun (which I’ve not seen), only nunnier! It’s a classic B-movie, run-of-the-mill horror just the way you like it with jump scares and music that tips you off when to pay attention. It’s Saints versus Demons in a somewhat-scary showdown. This movie was made for the drive-in – simple enough to follow, blatantly entertaining, and easy to summarize for your parents so they won’t think you spent all your time there making out.

Demons defeated, the good restored to stability. I made it to the end. The full moon had arced long up into the sky. It was 1 a.m., time to go.

Friday, September 29, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Hands Up!' (1926)

Hands Up!

Dir: Clarence D. Badger

Scr: Monte Brice, Lloyd Corrigan

Pho: H. Kinley Martin

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Jan. 14, 1926

70 min.

There was a lot more to silent comedy than Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (thank goodness we are beginning to forget about poor Harry Langdon), though we are never exposed to it, much less educated about it. For every comic superstar of the period there was a multitude of lesser lights, each of some appeal in their own way.

First of all, I must direct you to the superlative explanatoryessay on this film by Steve Massa, on the National Film Registry website. (It rightly credits the writing of Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns as being responsible for reviving interest in him.) It covers the backgrounds of most of the principals involved in Hands Up!, and provides many new facts about the life of its lead player, Raymond Griffith.

An aspiring comic film performer, Griffith’s early lack of success was due to his lack of a comic persona. Quickly, he moved behind the camera and gained a reputation as a solid gagman. Finally, in 1922 he devised a comic character utterly unlike that of the sad, sentimental heroes of most comic features – Chaplin the winsome Tramp, Keaton the stolid buffoon, Lloyd the eager beaver.

Griffith styled himself as a calm, debonair, and quiet man about town – complete with white tie and tails, opera cape, top hat, and cane. His character was intelligent, and much faster on the draw than those around him. He is seldom surprised and never shamed, moving gracefully from one trajectory to another, as fortune whiplashes him, with effortless grace. In a world of crazy people, Griffith is the grown-up in the room.

This film, one of his few surviving creations, takes place in the same period as Buster Keaton’s The General, the Civil War. (Released the same year, Griffith’s film did surprisingly better business than Keaton.) Griffith is Jack, a Confederate spy whose mission is to thwart the shipment of Yankee gold from Nevada to President Lincoln.

Even in the wildest of wild wests, Griffith is at gentlemanly ease. Slapstick events may transpire, but Griffith is nonplussed. He never mugs for the camera – that would be far too unseemly. Instead, he relentlessly underplays his reactions, letting the jokes do the work. He befuddles a squad of men sent out to shoot him as a spy. He mistakes an Indian attack for that of a bee. He foils the plans of the tribe by shooting craps with its chief (played by the versatile Noble Johnson), and ends up teaching them the Charleston.

He deftly juggles the affections of two sisters while struggling with his Union counterpart (Montagu Love). His efforts backfire. His attempt to blow up the gold mine just reveals a bigger vein. He can’t get the wagon full of gold out onto the road. Eventually, he gets the horses out but nothing else. And so on.

Throughout, Griffith retains his sense of calm equanimity. In defeat, he is graceful. And he comes up with an unexpected solution to his dilemma of loving two women at the same time.

Griffith starred in 10 features. Unfortunately, he had a damaged voice that rendered him incapable of working in sound film. His last role was as the poignant, nonspeaking soldier who dies in a shell hole in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). After this, he turned his assured hand to producing, crafting a number of winning films. Now, we only have fragments of an output to mark his fascinating, short-lived silent comedy career.

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




Sunday, September 24, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Ella Cinders'


Ella Cinders

Dir: Alfred E. Green

Scr: Frank Griffin and Mervyn LeRoy, story; George Marion Jr., titles

Pho: Arthus Martinelli

Ed: Robert Kern

Premiere: June 6, 1926

75 min.

Ella Cinders was a syndicated cartoon that was launched in 1925. It began as a modernized version of the story of Cinderella, but later expanded into the continuing adventures of its title character.

Ella’s look could easily have been taken from Colleen Moore, who was already a movie star when the cartoon debuted. It is singularly appropriate then that Moore portrays Ella in this screen adventure. Pert, coy, with large expressive eyes and a banged, bobbed hairdo, Moore was a renowned incarnation of the flapper, the good-time girl of the period.

The film was produced by Moore’s husband, John McCormick, and released by First National Pictures. Ella is the put-upon domestic slave of her evil step-family, the Pills. When word of a contest comes to town, promising a trip to Hollywood and a film role for a lucky winner, Ella determines to enter. She submits her photo, unwittingly one with her eyes crossed. Surprisingly, the judging committee selects her as the winner due to her comic facility. She goes to Hollywood, but finds that the contest was a sham. She is determined to literally break into the studio, and after a few misadventures, she finds herself with a career in show business. In the meantime, it turns out that her iceman boyfriend back home is actually a rich young football hero; he seeks her out and weds her.

Moore’s winsome charm and spunky attitude drive the film. She shines as the symbol of a more carefree time.

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

Thursday, September 14, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Black Pirate'


The Black Pirate

Dir: Albert Parker

Scr: Jack Cunningham

Pho: Henry Sharp, Arthur Bell, George Cave

Ed: Bret Hampton, William Nolan

Premiere: March 8, 1926

94 min.

Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) was the first king of Hollywood. Starting out as a light comedian, he made a name for himself with his short but peppy, fast-moving dramedies, spiked with daring stunts. Eventually, he hit upon the perfect formula for him to celebrate his values of energy and optimism. Swashbuckling epics, starting with The Mark of Zorro in 1920 (see my review here) and including The Thief of Bagdad (see my review here), were his claim to fame.

The Black Pirate originated, supposedly, from a conversation Fairbanks had with a young Jackie Coogan, who expressed his affection for Howard Pyle’s 1921 Book of Pirates. Leafing through the book, Fairbanks was captivated by the illustrations and insisted on creating a pirate project himself. He supplied the film’s story, using the pseudonym of “Elton Thomas” (his middle names).

The film is shaped around the persona of its star, and is composed of all the standards elements of a Fairbanks action/adventure – stirring fight sequences, lavish detail and miniature work, a bit of (chaste) romance, a soupcon of comedy, and just the documentation of the kinetic energy generated by the whirlwind Fairbanks.

Additionally, the film had the distinction of being the first successful color feature film. It seems that Technicolor had been developed to the extent of being cost-effective. It was still crude, recording only reds and greens in a “two-strip” format. Lacking the blues and yellows of the spectrum, the result is a vaguely colored-in, dusky, burnished, Old Masterish kind of look that was surely impressive 100 years ago.

The story is a classic one. A young man (Fairbanks) and his dying father are stranded by pirates. The son swears revenge. Neatly, he comes upon the pirates and fights their chief, killing him and winning the crew’s allegiance. He cows his naysayers by next capturing a ship single-handled, with he does with grace and aplomb.

When a woman is discovered on the attacked ship, our hero adroitly keeps the others from molesting her as he fights for time and a chance to free her. Unfortunately, his plan is discovered and he is forced to walk the plank! Beyond this I will not go, but gentle viewer, feel sure that by film’s fade-out, justice and virtue triumph.

Actor/director Donald Crisp was slated to direct this film, but is supposed to have been in conflict early on with Fairbanks and taken off the directing job. If there was a conflict, it must have resolved itself, as here Crisp plays the prominent role of the hero’s one-armed sidekick MacTavish. Visible here too, in the last frames of the film, are Fairbanks’ real-life wife, Mary Pickford, dressed up like actress Billie Dove to take the closing smooch from her husband. Such were the mores of Hollywood at the time.

The Black Pirate is really the last of Fairbanks’s great swashbucklers. He would take a much more adult tone in his 1927 The Gaucho, and after that the talkies came along. Fairbanks was no longer young, and his brand of brash, go-go, idealistic Americanism was going out of style. He would die in 1939, at the young age of 56.

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Flying Ace' (1926)


The Flying Ace

Dir: Richard E. Norman

Scr: Richard E. Norman

Pho: Unknown

Ed: Unknown

Premiere: 1926

65 min.

In the early 20th century (not to mention today), Black people could not catch a break – neither legally, socially, nor culturally. Racial prejudice was the norm. The Jim Crow laws, which kept American society essentially segregated, were in full effect. On the mainstream stage and screen, Black people were portrayed as foolish, mentally challenged, or dangerous. Black artists played the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of Black-only nightclubs and theaters, under the control of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (also known as TOBA – Tough on Black Asses).

There were exceptions, such as the great Black independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. He and others made what were then called “race” films – movies intended solely for Black audiences. In Black movie houses, the same range of films played – adventures, romance, drama, even Westerns – but they were enacted and shot by Black artists.

Such was the case with the Norman Studios of Jacksonville, Florida. This white-owned film company made “race” films, and owner Richard Norman was dedicated to improving race relations, as well as making a profit. Norman wrote and directed the film, and a question develops – how truly can a white creator capture a Black experience?

But there is no evidence given of a colloquial Black culture that requires special representation and understanding. This film would play the same whether it was inhabited by Black or white actors – the script is strictly color-blind. The resulting effect is that we see a movie completely devoid of racial stereotyping, as it contains not a single white character. Simply put, there is no one there whose self-esteem needs bolstering by degrading someone of a different color.

The story revolves around a stolen railroad payroll, and the efforts of a resolute detective (formerly a WWI flyer, therefore the movie’s title) to recover it, as well as win the affections of the film’s heroine. The usual machinations take place, ending with the baddie kidnapping the girl and flying away with her, prompting the hero to chase and effect a death-defying mid-air rescue.

Such imaginative folderol was a staple of the films of the time. The big difference here is that, with this film, Black audiences got to experience a modicum of cultural respect.

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



Monday, June 19, 2023

'The Flash': Much ado about what was that again?


The Flash

Dir: Andy Muschietti

Scr: Christina Hodson

Pho: Henry Braham

Ed: Jason Ballantine, Paul Machliss

Premiere: June 16, 2023

144 min.

Everyone would like to go back and fix the past. That’s just what Barry Allen (the reputationally beleaguered Ezra Miller) does in his first and presumably his last stand-alone feature as the speedy superhero in The Flash.

It’s also something that’s occurred in the DC superhero-movie universe, time and time again – a second-guessing, a reconsideration of the final product through expanded “Ultimate Edition”s and directors’ cuts in an attempt to please fans, and gain additional revenue on the way.

The Flash is the next-to-last entry in the now-abandoned DC Extended Universe model of interrelated films (coming up later this year: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom), which commenced with Man of Steel in 2013, and is popularly referred to as “the Snyderverse,” after director/producer Zach Snyder, whose vision had led the way with entries such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. Now James Gunn, director of the successful Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy for Marvel, and DC’s funny, gory The Suicide Squad, is in charge of things at DC studios and is planning a new series of films even as we speak.

But enough exposition. How’s the film? It’s fairly entertaining, though as is the case with many DC films, it is too long and the CGI has its weak moments. That’s too bad, because this movie really leans on incorporating (spoiler alert!) all manner of alternate time-line Batmans and Supermans into the climax, unleashing a torrent of visual effects that feels like someone trying to push all the keys and pedals of a massive pipe organ.

In the film, the Flash discovers that he can run so fast that he can travel through time (stay with me). His father is imprisoned for his mother’s death, and he wants to go back in time and prevent her murder, or at least exonerate his dad. He succeeds, but in doing so changes reality, past and present, and leaves the Earth open to destruction. He must quickly (of course) round up his own version of the Justice League to try to deal with General Zod, Superman’s Kryptonian opponent on Man of Steel, who was killed trying to conquer Earth in that film.

The movie lives or dies on the effectiveness of its central character, and Ezra Miller does a decent job in his role as the Scarlet Speedster. He handles goofy and confused quite well, but has his problems with darker emotions such as anger and sadness (beware: there is copious weeping in this movie). His work is interesting, but ultimately too lightweight for the more serious underpinnings of the story.

Ben Affleck is back at Batman. But wait! Other Batmans lurk here too, and Michael Keaton kinds of dials it in as alternative-timeline Caped Crusader, one that’s retired into a life of eccentric reclusiveness. Will Flash shake him out of his stupor? What do you think?

Michael Shannon reemerges as Zod, and is given little to do save look menacing and make pronouncements. Jeremy Irons is there in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful servant.

In the end, The Flash is a moderately interesting superhero flick, a standard-gauge genre film that fills in all the blanks in the schematic of how a superhero movie is made. It tries to have fun but bogs down in its self-indulgent conclusion. For those of us who love or study superhero films, there are more questions. Will DC ever stop messing up and redoing their increasingly unsuccessful releases? Can James Gunn right the ship? Will the audience put up with it?



Monday, April 17, 2023

The NFR Project: Gus Viser and his Singing Duck


Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck

Made May 12, 1925


The most enjoyable Registry entry so far is absolutely ridiculous. A duck sits in front of the camera on a pedestal. A man enters and picks up the duck. His face is whitened, his hair is parted in the middle and slicked down – he looks like the embodiment of an R. Crumb cartoon. While holding it in the crook of his arm, he begins to sing the popular tune “Ma! (He’s Making Eyes at Me).” Every time he gets to the word “Ma” in the song, he manipulates the duck so that it quacks.

That’s it. That’s the bit.

It’s hilarious and strange, and probably constitutes animal abuse. This act would be lost in the mists of time were it not for the efforts of the unsung chemist and inventor Theodore Case, who pioneered research into the development of synchronized sound for movies.

Case collaborated with the better-known Lee de Forest on techniques for capturing and reproducing sound on film, but split away from him after not being credited properly for his contributions. At his lab in back of his mansion in Auburn, New York, Caase filmed hundreds of experimental sound shorts. A fire destroyed most of them, but a few dozen still exist.

They are all vaudeville acts. Perhaps Case chose them in part because of their static nature, making it easier for a carefully placed microphone to pick up the sonic nuances of each performer. The otherwise-unknown Visser’s act prompts a host of questions. How did he come up with this idea? Was he a big hit? What did the duck think of all this? Did he have one special duck, or would he just pick one up in whatever town he was in? Where do Gus Visser and his singing duck stand in the grand pantheon of entertainment?

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

Monday, March 27, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925): Chaney's finest hour


The Phantom of the Opera

Dir: Rupert Julian; (Uncred: Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick)

Scr: (Uncred: Walter Anthony, Elliott J. Clawson, Bernard McConville, Frank M. McCormack, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock, Jasper Spearing, Richard Wallace)

Pho: Charles van Enger; (Uncred: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller)

Ed: Edward Curtiss, Maurice Pivar, Gilmore Walker, Lois Weber

Premiere: Nov. 15, 1925

93 min.

Lon Chaney was the chameleon of silent film, the master performer known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” His incredible make-up work and acting versatility made him a legend, and his work in this, the first film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, represents the pinnacle of his career.

Chaney’s adept transformations made him a favorite for horror-movie parts. His first big hit, as Quasimodo The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), made him a household word, and a fortune for Universal Studios.

When studio head Carl Laemmle went to Paris on vacation, he ran across the French author Gaston Leroux, who gave him a copy of his 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle immediately optioned it as a vehicle for Chaney.

The now-familiar story is that of a disfigured, psychotically wounded man who dwells beneath the Paris Opera House, a would-be composer who fixates on a young soprano, Christine. Lurking in the background, he mentors her and blackmails the opera’s management into letting her perform. When his instructions are defied, he drops n immense chandelier onto the listening audience.

Christine finds a secret passage and confronts the masked Phantom, who takes her to his underground lair. He instructs her never to take off his mask, which she promptly does – exposing the iconic and still truly terrifying visage of the Phantom, a skull-like face with hollow eyes, distended cheeks, and a nose seemingly eaten away.

This look consumed all of Chaney’s attention and skill. He kept the make-up a secret from the cast and crew, forbid press photographs, and kept pictures of the Phantom out of promotional materials. The result was a shock that still resonates. The girl creeps up behind the Phantom, absorbed in playing his organ in the depths of the theater. He gasps – he gapes – he whirls around – she screams.

Chaney’s Phantom is pitiable, but clearly and diabolically mad. Eventually, Christine’s lover Raoul explores the hidden corridors and arrives to save her in the nick of time, while the Phantom is torn to pieces by an angry mob.

No expense was spared to recreate the Palais Garnier, with a massive set of steel girders and concrete built to hold the weight of hundreds of extras. (This set stood for nearly a century, so strongly was it constructed.) Early “two-strip” Technicolor was used in the masked ball sequence in the film. It was a prestige production all round.

All this added up to a huge investment of time and money, and the producers got nervous. The titular director, Rupert Julian, feuded with everyone and eventually left the production. A quick check of the credits above show that the film was scrapped and remounted multiple times, shown over and over to test audiences to try to find a salable product.

Screenwriters came and went. Endings were changed. Sixty per cent of the original footage was reshot, after which much of it was edited back into the final film. Finally, it was released and proved to be a big hit.

The combination of rich and lavish detail, and Chaney’s horror at the heart of it, make this still a compelling film. Notably, it sparked two remakes, one in 1943 and one in1962. Most memorably, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 theatrical adaptation has dominated Broadway and world theater for decades.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck.



Tuesday, February 28, 2023

'The Lost World' (1925): Silent sci-fi


The Lost World

Dir: Harry O. Hoyt

Scr: Marion Fairfax

Pho: Arthur Edeson

Ed: George McGuire

Premiere: Feb. 2, 1925

92 min.

The fantasy film took a while to develop. Initial technological limitations meant that not everything that the imagination could conceive could be placed convincingly on film (except for, seemingly, Georges Melies). The fantasy film took a major step forward with this outing, which married innovative animation techniques to a successful adaptation of an early science fiction novel.

Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but he was a writer of catholic tastes and surprisingly broad range, who created work in multiple genres. His most prominent work of science fiction, inspired by writers such as Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard, is the novel The Lost World. In it, he postulates an isolated escarpment that holds dinosaurs, and other ancient flora and fauna, in abundance. There an expedition led by the irascible and vigorous Professor Challenger meets up with, thanks to stop-motion miniatures and a split screen, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and more.

As in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), the mission is to save a previous explorer lost there. The film adds a love interest; appropriately Bessie Love, a popular actress of the day. A couple of comic servant are shown, one unfortunately in blackface. The travelers manage to escape the plateau, and capture a live Brontosaurus as well. They bring it back to London, where it breaks free and causes a bit of havoc (a narrative strategy to be pursued in King Kong eight years later).

The stop-motion photography is a bit clunky, but no one had tried to execute the painstaking craft of moving small models frame by advancing frame to create the illusion of life before, and everyone who saw the film was astonished. This was the work of pioneer Willis O’Brien, who began by working with clay models, and moved onto rubber figures crafted over metal armatures. In its day, this kind of movie magic was as mind-bending as certain CGI accomplishments a century later.

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



Thursday, February 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Lady Windermere's Fan' - the Lubitsch touch


Lady Windermere’s Fan

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Scr: Julien Josephson, Maude Fulton

Pho: Charles van Enger

Ed: Ernst Lubitsch

Premiere: Dec. 26, 1925

89 min.

Ernst Lubitsch was famous long before he came to America. The legendary king of film’s sophisticated comedies of manners got his start in movies in Berlin as an actor in 1913. He was drawn to working behind the camera, and by 1920 had transitioned to directing duties alone. Varying his output between frothy comedies and weighty historical dramas, Lubitsch soon found his work noticed by Hollywood. By 1922, he had relocated to America.

Soon he was churning out romantic comedies based on popular stage plays. Lady Windermere’s Fan comes between two other stellar Lubitsch features, The Marriage Circle and So This Is Paris, and is of a piece with them – a tale of middle-to-upper-class relationship angst, rife with mistaken identities and false assumptions, a blend of farce and melodrama.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s successful and well-made 1892 play. In it, the lady of the title suspects her husband of having an affair with a Mrs. Erlynne, to whom he has given large sums of money. In fact, it turns out that Mrs. Erlynne is the disgraced mother of Lady Windermere, long thought dead.

Lady’s Windermere’s suspicions drive her into the arms of Lord Darlington, who seeks an assignation with her. It is up to Mrs. Erlynne to protect her unknowing daughter from scandal, without revealing her true identity.

Lubitsch’s directing style is elegant and smooth, light and witty, deliberately paced. He doesn’t do any flashy camera moves – his focus is on the human face and gesture. As social niceties play out on the surface, the turmoil of emotions roils beneath. In a time of melodramatic action and overstated acting in film, Lubitsch’s restraint, wit, and careful and compassionate powers of observation make for an urbane and humanistic kind of filmmaking that has yet to be equaled.

It is of particular note that none of Wilde’s famous quips or aphorisms are referred to here. Fortunately, the skeleton of the play’s plot is strong, and Lubitsch and his scenarist Julien Josephson wisely lean into the familiar mechanics of the story’s melodramatic underpinnings, relieving them of the obligation to drop in Wilde’s bon mots.

Lubitsch had an extraordinary amount of creative control over his output, leading to his admirers referring to his unique sensibility as “the Lubitsch touch.” Billy Wilder famously had a sign on his office wall that said, “What would Lubitsch have done?”

Lubitsch would be remembered for his silent films of this period if for nothing else. Yet he had much more to come – the codifying of the movie musical, for one, and his increasingly wily and wise meditations on human frailties, including Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

New book, 'Horror Unmasked,' comes out in September!


Howdy! I just wanted to let you know that my new book, Horror Unmasked: A History of Terror from ‘Nosferatu’ to ‘Nope’, will be published on Sept. 5.You can pre-order it here. It’s derived from my earlier Lost in the Dark: A World History of Horror Film, but it is revised, expanded, and richly illustrated. It was a treat to get to update the text and make it current for a new set of readers.

First, I had the great pleasure of publishing Lost in the Dark through the University of Mississippi Press. In matters of getting published, I can only state that persistence is everything. It took 100 queries on my part, 100 individual and detailed pitches, before I succeeded. Since then, it’s been markedly easier.

The nice folks at Quarto Group read my book, and proposed a revision/expansion, and the addition of dozens of photographs and illustrations. Sold! I got to work on it right away, and the the result you see here. My thanks to the editors and proofreaders – they caught a number of tiny details, imperfections that our now expunged and will provide as definitive a text as is possible.

Here’s their very excellent summation of the work: “From the silent-film era to the blockbusters of today, Horror Unmasked is a fun-filled, highly illustrated dive into the past influences and present popularity of the horror film genre.

“The horror film’s pop-culture importance is undeniable, from its early influences to today’s most significant and exciting developments in the genre. Since 1990, the production of horror films has risen exponentially worldwide, and in 2021, horror films earned an estimated $580 million in ticket sales, not to mention how the genre has expanded into books, fashion, music, and other media throughout the world.

“Horror has long been the most popular film genre, and more horror movies have been made than any other kind. We need them. We need to be scared, to test ourselves, laugh inappropriately, scream, and flinch. We need to get through them and come out, blinking, still in one piece.

“This comprehensive guide features:

·         A thorough discussion on monster movies and B-movies (The Thing; It Came from Outer Space; The Blob)

·         The destruction of the American censorship system (Blood Feast; The Night of the Living Dead; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

·         International horror, zombies, horror comedies, and horror in the new millennium (Matango; Suspiria; Ghostbusters)

·         A dissection of the critical reception of modern horror (Neon Demon; Pan’s Labyrinth; Funny Games)

·         Stunning movie posters and film stills, plus fan-made tributes to some of the most lauded horror franchises in the world (Aliens; The Evil Dead; The Hills Have Eyes; Scream)

“A perfect reference and informational book for horror fans and those interested in its cultural influence worldwide, Horror Unmasked provides a general introduction to the genre, serves as a guidebook to its film highlights, and celebrates its practitioners, trends, and stories.”


Wednesday, February 1, 2023

'M3gan': Devil doll



Dir: Gerard Johnstone

Scr: Akela Cooper, James Wan

Pho: Peter McCaffrey, Simon Raby

Ed: Jeff McEvoy

Premiere: Jan. 6, 2023

102 min.

In the movies, dolls are inherently creepy, and robots are usually threatening. How much fun it is to slap the two film memes together and see what happens!

In this “post-horror” age, when the genre is plagued with slow places and myriad ambiguities, it’s refreshing to find a good old-fashioned horror movie that’s brisk, focused, and to the point, with a relishable villain. M3gan is a darkly comic disquisition on the dangers of technology that’s immensely entertaining.

The story: little Cady (Violet McGraw) loses both her parents in an auto accident, and goes to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), an eccentric inventor. Gemma creates interactive, robotic toys, and is tasked by her abusive, pushy boss to create the Next Big Thing. The result is M3gan, a robotic doll that is self-aware and can evolve on its own.

She is created as a companion for Cady, and tasked with protecting her from physical and emotional harm. Gemma is pretty hopeless as a parent, and M3gan fills in as a companion and support system. Unfortunately for everyone, M3gan takes her duties very seriously. She has the mind of a supercomputer, and very little tolerance for moral parameters.

To tell more is to spoil the fun, but be assured that M3gan’s responses to threat rachet slowly higher and higher to and past the point of absurdity. The film’s premise comes in part from horror maven James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), and his sure horror hand is in evidence here. Director Johnstone tells the story with a minimum of fuss, and keeps the humor understated and steady throughout. The action is toned down to PG-13 level, with no graphic shocks and only the occasional jump scare.

The real appeal is watching M3gan become self-aware, and the bad choices that follow. In moviedom, M3gan has laready become an icon of sorts, perfect on the outside and completely messed up within. She’s not only a killer, she’s a killer app.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life'

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life

Dir: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack

Scr: Terry Ramsaye

Pho: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison

Ed: Terry Ramsaye, Richard P. Carver

Premiere: March 20, 1925

71 min.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is one of the most extraordinary records ever put on film. It captures a way of life thousands of years old, before modern technology eliminated it. The second important ethnographic documentary to be released, after Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, it vividly illustrates film’s ability to bring us sights we might otherwise have never seen, lost to history forever.

Merian C. Cooper was a journalist and explorer. Ernest Schoedsack was an adventurous cameraman. Marguerite Harrison was a journalist and part-time spy for the U.S. Together, they conceived of making a documentary about Kurdish tribes in Turkey, but when they got there they found the prospect wasn’t as photogenic as they had hoped. Casting about for a subject, they came upon word of the Bakhtiari people of southeastern Iran. After an interminable journey across Turkey and Arabia, and after much negotiation, the three were allowed to accompany the Baba Ahmedi tribe on their yearly migration.

The tribe, consisting of 50,000 members, and trailing half a million horses, cattle, goats, and sheep, made the trip from the withered grasslessness of valley summer to the high plains of the mountains every year – a 48-day journey that involved crossing a half-mile-wide river and ascending a 12,000-foot mountain range. The grueling migration kept the flocks and herds in fodder year-round.

The film traces this journey. The sights becoming more and more impressive as the film goes on. To cross the River Karun, the tribesmen must create rafts held up by inflated goat skins, and ferry their livestock and all their possessions from one bank to another, a process taking six full days. The extreme peril undergone by all involved is astonishing. After this comes a climb over the mountains, through thick snow, to mountain pasturage. The Bakhtiari hack a path through the snow with picks and shovels; the tribe makes its way over the crest in bare feet.

All the camerawork is incredible – night shots, early in the film, are Rembrandtian, and the rest is carefully framed and observed. (The intertitles are jokey and condescending.) One particular shot, of thousands on the march from the mountain pass to the plains below, stretching away for miles, would not be equaled until the revelation of Wadi Rum in Lawrence of Arabia.

The incredible hardiness of the nomads is on clear display here; it is difficult to conceive of a life lived so close to nature. Undoubtedly, they would not be pastoralists unless necessity made them so. Cooper and Shoedsack later considered a sequel to this film, but by that time rail lines and roads had come into existence, making the Bakhtiaris’ travels much easier. By and by, their migrations have lessened, become more streamlined. With the amount of connection and advances, it is difficult to conceive of a nomadic lifestyle persisting as recently as 100 years ago. Cooper and Schoedsack preserved it for us. It is still compulsively watchable.

What did they do for an encore? They made King Kong.

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




Sunday, January 15, 2023

What's up with DC Studios?

Superhero movies are still the rage, despite growing genre fatigue on the part of audiences and critics worldwide. These films are incredibly popular, and profitable. So talk of their success or failure is relative. They are not doing poorly, and they have created an immense and crowded industry to craft them.

By superhero movies, I mean Marvel superhero movies. The grand plan that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to reveal itself with sets of Phases that advance character and plot in a neat, tidy fashion. Marvel superhero movies have a base line of quality and high spirits that enliven even its misfire fare -- I’m looking at you, Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Morbius

Not so with DC Studios. Those responsible for the cinematic careers of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest have a much shakier record. A greater percentage of their films has done poorly. More than once, a corrective recut of a flawed film has been reissued. In fits and starts, actors have been shuffled in and out of iconic roles. Entire films, basically completed, have been scrapped (OK, a bit of a familiar story in Hollywood). Why are its superhero movies so problematic for DC?

It wasn’t always so. In the pre-CGI era, DC led the way, and produced iconic superhero films -- the original Richard Donner Superman and Tim Burton’s two Batman films, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But then there was Superman Returns, an aborted attempt to reboot the series that was later recasr as an homage sequel to the original two Superman movies. By that time, computer-generated imagery developed, allowing filmmakers to create visuals that could match the most extravagantly imagined superhero stories. 

We dwelt in a singular narrative DC timeline from 2013’s Man of Steel through the recent, disappointing Black Adam -- the so-called Snyderverse, named for DC director Zack Snyder (some of the groundwork can be credited to Nolan and his frequent collaborator, David S. Goyer). Now, the Snyderverse is dead. James Gunn and Peter Safran are in charge now, and are developing a new slate of DC films, rebooting the narrative yet again. 

A few films are nearly complete and scheduled to be screened in the near future -- a Flash film, and sequels to Aquaman and Todd Phillips’ dark Joker. But the new direction or directions the studio may move in are unclear. There’s plenty of speculation on the part of fans and people in the industry as to what will come next and in what form. Why is there so much confusion?

I get the feeling that the enormity of the responsibility for bringing in a successful superhero film has intimidated rather than empowered the creative powers that be at DC. In contrast with Marvel’s lighter touch, DC’s films seem grim and grandiose. There is an odor of sanctity about the intellectual property involved, as though the reputations of Superman, Batman and the rest were too weighty to be trifled with. (Admittedly, DC has skewed darker over the decades.) Despite the astounding visuals, the plots stagger, the characters are flat (something Marvel struggles with as well), and the action leaks out through the seams. There are sweat stains on DC films.

There is something lacking in creative work that rises from trepidation instead of enthusiasm. 

It remains to be seen in what direction DC will head off this time. Interestingly, the silliest and most relatable of the DC heroes, Shazam! (aka the old Captain Marvel) returns in Fury of the Gods on March 17. In it, young Billy Batson, like us, is astounded by his transformation into the aforementioned, lightning-emblazoned superhero. Can DC astound rather than stupefy? We shall see.