Wednesday, July 24, 2024

NFR Project: Bessie Smith in 'St. Louis Blues' (1929)


St. Louis Blues

Dir: Dudley Murphy

Scr: Dudley Murphy

Pho: Walter Strenge

Ed: Russell G. Shields

Premiere: November 5, 1929

15 min.

This is another of the music-centric shorts Dudley Murphy made in 1929. We previously discussed his Black and Tan with Duke Ellington – you can read that here.

This was made before the Ellington short. Like that film, this film attempts to place the song to be performed in a narrative context. We are in another prejudiced white construct of Black life – which seems to consist of nothing but gambling, drinking, and unfaithfulness.

Bessie Smith’s man, Jimmy the Pimp (Jimmy Mordecai), is carrying on with another woman. Bessie finds the two together, chases the woman out, and confronts her boyfriend, who haughtily leaves her. Bessie goes to the saloon, and there at the bar with a beer in front of her sings the title song.

She is accompanied by several players from the great Fletcher Henderson’s band, and is backed by the Hall Johnson Choir, who sit in the saloon and sing along as they sit at the tables. Her man returns, glad-handing everyone and dancing a solo number. He then makes up to Bessie, takes her money from her, and leaves yet again.

None of this really matters, as Bessie Smith’s singing is the point and highlight of the film. Smith (1894-1937) was already known and celebrated as “The Empress of the Blues.” Her recording career began in 1923, and soon folks Black and white were buying her records and listening to her. She scored a big hit with this number in 1925, and its composer, the great W.C. Handy, asked Smith to star in this film.

Smith delivers the song in deadpan, but her voice fills the air with emotion. It’s strong, and rough. It scales up and down the melody with grit and gusto, blowing everything in its path away. Smith is volcanic. Her performance transcends its setting, displaying deep and complex emotion with a fine, virtuous technique.

We are lucky to have this, the only record of Bessie Smith on film, with us.

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


Monday, July 22, 2024

NFR Project: Burns and Allen in 'Lambchops' (1929)

Lambchops

Dir: Murray Roth

Scr: Al Boasberg, George Burns

Pho: N/A

Ed: N/A

Premiere: October 1929

8 min.

When sound came in, the major studios sought to capitalize on it as quickly as possible. This was much easier to do with short films than with features. And what better to make a short film with than a vaudeville team?

Vaudeville acts were self-contained, thoroughly rehearsed, and of a length friendly to the one-reel capacity of the movie camera. What could be easier than standing in front of a camera and under a microphone, giving a standard performance? Warner Brothers was eager to flood the market with “Vitaphone” sound shorts, so it snapped up all the top stage performers of the day and recorded their efforts.

Into this boom stepped, fortuitously, Burns and Allen. George Burns and Gracie Allen met in 1922, and began working together. They married four years later. During that time they worked their way up the ladder, becoming a solid “middle” act, not a headliner. Originally, George was the one who told the punch lines. However, when people began to laugh at Gracie’s straight lines, it was determined the two should switch personas. Gracie was now the “dumb Dora,” and George was her perpetually exasperated straight man.

They were known in the business as a “disappointment act,” one that could fill in at a moment’s notice for a missing performer. This reputation served them well, when they were approached by their agent with an offer. Comedian Fred Allen had been scheduled to record a routine but had the flu. Could they work in his place? They said yes.

The film is a valuable record of their routine. Gracie is blithely oblivious to logic, and George growls along, muttering ruefully to himself. Composed of silly answers, non sequitirs, puns, and the like, the two try to navigate the tricky channels of Gracie’s mind. The two face front and do their bit (George wears his hat because his toupee was still in his luggage), including a little soft-shoe and musical number.

The film did not make a big splash, but it got the duo interested in pursuing movie opportunities, which they did. They made more shorts and were featured in a few features. In 1934, they got their own long-running radio show. Soon the two were among the top comics in the country.

It was a team that would last into the television era. In 1958, Gracie retired. George would experience a career revival late in his life – many would know of him without Gracie, his inimitable life and career partner.

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

Sunday, July 21, 2024

NFR PRoject: The problems of 'Hallelujah!' (1929)

 



Hallelujah!

Dir: King Vidor

Scr: King Vidor, Wanda Tuchock, Richard Schayer, Ransom Rideout

Pho: Gordon Avil

Ed: Hugh Wynn, Anton Stevenson

Premiere: August 20, 1929

100 min.

To call this film problematic is an understatement.

It represents a dark era in American history (some would say things are not much better). What makes it doubly painful is that it was made with the best intentions.

King Vidor, who originated the project as his first sound film (after his successes with The Big Parade and The Crowd), actually deferred his salary to get the green light for the movie. It was a celebrated cause. It was one of the very first all-Black-cast Hollywood films. Vidor wanted to show “the Southern Negro as he is.”

The film is irredeemably racist, and states many of the misconceptions that plague the depiction of Black people in film in mainstream media. The mature works of pioneer Black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux were not seen outside of Black theaters at the time. There were regionally created “race” films, as there were “race” records. This film wasn’t shown south of the Mason-Dixon Line, presumably because the theater owners deemed it subversive as it depicted Black people as humans, with feelings.

So it played where it could, and was perceived as being what we would term today “woke.” Looking at it nearly 100 years later, the sense of paternalism it unwittingly displays is easy to perceive and make objection to. Black people are herein depicted as all dialect-slinging, hymn-singing, crap-shooting, eye-rolling slaves of their desires, on fire spiritually, quick to anger and prone to mayhem. The women are all earth mothers, or innocent ingenues, or sultry vixens. The men are affably foolish or sharp-dressed and evil. There are no complex characterizations here. Everyone is playing a sho’ nuff type.

The universe of the film is entirely Black; no white man protrudes upon the scene. God knows how they would have been portrayed – as ineffably superior perhaps? Here all the inhabitants are childish sharecroppers who grow cotton, and a man who goes through several identities on his way to the movie’s end.

Farmer Zeke (Daniel L. Haynes) loses his season’s profits at the gin joint, where Chick (Nina Mae McKinney) rules the dance floor and entices him to gamble. He gets in scuffle with her confederate, the villainous gambler Hot Shot (William Fountaine), and his brother is shot down. He gets religion, and become a traveling, showboating preacher.

He delivers a sermon that drives the populace into a frenzy, including the evil Chick. She seduces him and away they run, settling down with him working in a lumber mill. Hot Shot returns, plans a getaway with an eager Chick, and both are pursued by Zeke. Their carriage overturns and Chick is killed. Zeke then tracks Hot Shot through the swamp and strangles him to death.

We are shown Zeke doing his time in prison, but seemingly soon he is singing away on top of a freight car (did we mention this was kind of a musical?), on his way home. He finds everyone just as they were when he left, and he gratefully rejoins them.

You see? It’s literally hopeless. Everybody’s either redeemed or a sinner. The guy returns to his miserable beginnings, Candide-like, chastened after his adventures. It posits submission to fate and obedience as Christlike virtues.

It’s also a classic case of Hollywood screwing something “real” up. Most Hollywood takes on mundane reality distorted, and continue to distort, it. We want to hear when something is “based on a true story,” and we will put up with all manner of absurdities for that sake. Hallelujah! is an exercise in ignorant anthropology. In mainstream cinema, the act of observing alters the thing observed.

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



Friday, July 19, 2024

NFR Project: 'H2O' (1929)

H2O

Dir: Ralph Steiner

Scr: N/A

Pho: Ralph Steiner

Ed: Ralph Steiner

Premiere: 1929

13 min.

Ralph Steiner was a unique talent, honored as a photographer before becoming a filmmaker. H2O was his first film.

It’s a rare early example of a non-narrative film, and a beautiful one. Silent and in black and white, it starts with some easily recognizable shots of running water, in various forms. After Steiner establishes his theme, he moves into closer shots, static reflections, then shots that carry nothing but undulating waves of light and dark, drop-speckled and fragmenting into abstract patterns, spontaneous moments of natural beauty.

The gradations of the tones onscreen – from black through gray and silver to, finally, bursts of directly caught bolts of white light – are painterly. Steiner is showing how to see something we may see all the time, yet never really look at. It is its own category.

Steiner went on to serve as cinematographer for such famous documentaries as The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). He co-created The City (139) with Willard Van Dyke and a soundtrack by Aaron Copland, and it ran at the New York World’s Fair. He continued to make his own films, and photographic works, until his death at 87 in 1986.

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

 


Thursday, July 18, 2024

NFR Project: Duke Ellington in 'Black and Tan' (1929)


Black and Tan

Dir: Dudley Murphy

Scr: Dudley Murphy

Pho: Dal Clawson

Ed: Russell G. Shields

Premiere: December 8, 1929

18:28

This could be considered one of the first music videos. It was made by Dudley Murphy, who also made the musical short “St. Louis Blues” with Bessie Smith in June 1929. This film highlights, for the first time on screen, the genius of Duke Ellington.

By this time Duke was in the first flush of success. He began issuing recordings in 1924, but it was his booking as the house band at the Cotton Club in 1927 that made him wildly popular. He and his band also made it to Broadway, playing in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Show Girl.

At this initial point in making of films foregrounding musical performance, it was thought that the music needed a narrative context to succeed. Thus, Murphy composed a brief script that shows us the Duke playing piano in his rundown flat. Two men come to repossess his piano, but Duke’s sweetheart (Fredi Washington, in her film debut), a dancer, gives them gin to make them go away.

She has a bad heart, but insists on performing that night. We go to the club, where Duke and company thrash out “Black Beauty” and “The Duke Steps Out.” He and his band accompany her with his “Cotton Club Stomp,” but she collapses and is taken home to die. There, surrounding her bedside, the band plays “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Ellington, a master of making three-minute masterpieces that would fit on a 78 rpm record, started writing longer and larger pieces, expanding his abilities and sensibilities. This early film shows him as already an inventive and charismatic composer.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: H2O.

 


Tuesday, July 16, 2024

NFR Project: Laurel and Hardy in 'Big Business' (1929)


Big Business

Dir: James W. Horne, Leo McCarey

Scr: Stan Laurel, Leo McCarey

Pho: George Stevens

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: April 20, 1929

19 min.

Laurel and Hardy made many comedies, both silent and sound, but few have reached the peak of perfection we find in Big Business.

All the elements that defined them as a comedy team are here. Stan Laurel is the innocent, oblivious boob, and Oliver Hardy is his domineering partner who turns out to be just as dumb as his pal, and who often pays the biggest price in pain and humiliation. Together they find themselves in situations that expose their combined shortcomings, getting themselves in trouble deeper with every step. They can’t do anything right.

One of top collections of comedy minds worked to make this memorable film. Future Oscar winners George Stevens and Leo McCarey were behind the camera, and Laurel and McCarey crafted an exemplary plot. The camera work takes in only what is necessary to propel the story forward. This economical, streamlined kind of filmmaking foregrounds the priceless expressions that slowly make their way across the boys’ confused countenances.

Here the dazzing duo are peddling Christmas trees door to door. After alienating one potential customer, and receiving hammer blows from another, they make their way to the home of their usual nemesis, Jimmy Finlayson.

Finlayson was the perfect foil for the boys – short, balding, mustachioed, and perpetually irascible, possessing the best angry squint in the business. They try to sell him a tree – he declines. Slamming the door, he catches their tree in it. The two must ring the doorbell again to get it back. This they do, only now Stan’s coat is caught in the door . . .

What follows is a perfectly timed escalation of absurd, slapstick violence. The doorbell is rung, again and again. Finlayson cuts up their tree. Stan pries off the address numbers on the house. Finlayson retaliates. Slowly and deliberately, it’s a tit-for-tat that escalates until Finlayson is frantically dismantling their car and the boys are smashing his house to bits.

All this proceeds with a kind of cool, demented logic. An offense is perpetrated, everyone pauses for a moment to reflect, then the next and crazier act of violence takes place, as each side tries to outdo the other. The three draw a crowd, who follows them from house to car as the trio engage in an orgy of destruction. Finally, a cop comes by and stops the mayhem.

The officer tries to find out who started it, which reduces the trio, and the cop himself, to tears. Everyone makes up, and Stan gives Finlayson a cigar. The boys seem contrite, but when reveal that they’re not, the cop chases them down the street.

In comedy, underneath the veneer of adult life lie the raging emotions of children. Stan and Ollie’s antics soon manifest them in those around them, bringing everyone back to primitive stage of tantrums and foul play and exploding everyday reality into a kind of glorious chaos. We root for the duo, as we see ourselves in them. We laugh because we know their best efforts are doomed to failure, and we know that, despite themselves, these clowns will survive, only to get in trouble in a new adventure.

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

Sunday, July 14, 2024

NFR Project: 'Applause' (1929)


Applause

Dir: Rouben Mamoulian

Scr: Garrett Fort

Pho: George J. Folsey

Ed: John Bassler

Premiere: October 7, 1929

80 min.

Early sound-era movies were stagebound. After the freedom of movement of the silent camera, now came rigorous limitations. The camera had to be housed in a “blimp” or other smothering device to keep the sound of the machine off the soundtrack. Microphones had to be placed at the optimal location in a scene, and the actors and director had to work around it. Most of the time, dialogue in early sound film was delivered in static, motionless scenes.

Then came Rouben Mamoulian, who had never made a film before and did not care much for limitations. He worked intensely with his technicians to free up the camera and recording equipment so that movement could take place again.

Not only that, but Applause is a masterpiece of sound layering – there are plenty of off-camera effects, and inside the frame multiple and overlapping conversations take place without confusion (long before Robert Altman became famous for doing it).

These innovations make this trite tale about the sleazier aspects of show biz compelling. A burlesque star Kitty Darling (Helen Morgan) has a baby offstage. Later, she sends her child off to a convent school so that she might get a decent education, and grow up among virtuous people. When the daughter April (Joan Peers) turns 17, she returns to her mother, whose unscrupulous boyfriend (Fuller Mellish Jr.) aims to make her a performer as well. April does so to please her mother, but must constantly fend off come-ons from the boyfriend.

April falls in love with a sailor, and promptly decides to marry him. She returns home to tell her mother, but overhears the boyfriend derides her as being an old, unattractive has-been. April calls off the wedding. Kitty downs a handful of sleeping pills. April goes on for her mother, but then rejects the burlesque life, reuniting with her love. Unfortunately, Kitty is dead from the overdose.

Helen Morgan is a standout as Kitty. She was only 29 when she took this role, but she looks middle-aged in the film. This may have been due to Morgan’s excessive lifestyle. She was a torch singer who came up through the clubs in Chicago. She gave up a child to adoption in 1926, and moved on to New York, and was the first to play Julie in the groundbreaking musical Show Boat in 1927.

Her fame as a song interpreter continued, despite her severe alcoholism. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1941. Fortunately, we have this and a few other films that document her talent, most notably her reprise as Julie in James Whale’s 1936 film version of Show Boat.

As for Mamoulian, he went on to a checkered career as a director. He was able to make 16 more films, including the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, The Mark of Zorro, and Silk Stockings. His reputation for stubbornness and exactitude meant that he was let go from his last few directorial projects. He was ultimately unable to put his visions on film.

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

 


Friday, July 12, 2024

NFR Project: 'With Car and Camera Around the World' (1929)


With Car and Camera Around the World

Dir: Aloha Wanderwell

Scr: Aloha Wanderwell, Walter Wanderwell

Pho: Aloha Wanderwell, Walter Wanderwell

Ed: Aloha Wanderwell

Premiere: 1929

She called herself, poetically, Aloha Wanderwell. She was the first woman to drive around the world.

She was born Idris Welsh, in Manitoba, Canada in 1906. When she was sixteen, she hooked up with the 25-year-old Walter Wanderwell. Wanderwell was a promoter, born Valerian Johannes Pieczynski in Poland, who sought to take a 1917 Ford Model T on a trip around the world, visiting as many countries as possible. He put out an ad for an adventurous woman to come along on the expedition as part of the driving team. Idris applied, and got the job. In December of 1922, she set off around the world, to return triumphantly in January 1923.

Soon she was calling herself Aloha Wanderwell, although Walter was still married. The marital situation worked itself out as the two married on April 7, 1925. The couple would share two children and thousands and thousands of miles in their special automobile. Throughout the years of traveling, the two took silent footage of the many places, famous and otherwise, they reached.

Aloha became the face of the expedition. She gave lectures on her travels, illustrated with her films, for decades. She had much to tell. She served as driver, translator, mechanic, explorer; she was a writer, a flyer. (She was stranded in the Amazon in later years, and documented a lost tribe there.) The two made standalone travelogues of their journeys, screening them to acclaim and attention – of which 1929’s War Car and Camera Around the World is just a part.

Finally, the two settled down in Miami in 1929. They purchased a yacht, and planned to sail to the South Seas, recording their expedition on film. The day before they were to sail, Walter was murdered by an unknown assailant. No one was convicted of the crime.

Aloha continued to travel, to write, to lecture. She became a journalist. In later years, she donated her copious footage to the Academy Film Archive, where it can be accessed by scholars.

She visited 80 countries on six continents. She traveled over half a million miles. Altogether a remarkable tale about a remarkable person.

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

 


NFR Project: 'The Wind' (1928)


The Wind

Dir: Victor Sjostrom

Scr: Frances Marion

Pho: John Arnold

Ed: Conrad A. Nervig

Premiere: November 23, 1928

95 min./78 min.

The Wind is an amazing picture of a mind falling apart.

The great actress Lillian Gish selected the material to be filmed, calling upon the talents of Swedish director Victor Sjostrom and actor Lars Hanson, whom she had worked with before on The Scarlet Letter (1926). It was to be her last silent film, and one of her best.

In it, she plays Letty, a demure Virginia girl who is transplanted by necessity to the barren landscape of Texas, in a zone where the wind buffets the desert constantly. She is taken in by her cousin, but his jealous wife drives her out and into the arms of the willing Lige Hightower (Hanson). She marries him of necessity, but repels his advances. He promises not to touch her, and vows to earn enough money to send her back East.

Into the cabin comes the wounded Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love), a cad who earlier offered to make Letty his mistress. While the men of the region ride off during a brutal “norther” storm to herd wild horses, Roddy returns to Letty’s cabin and rapes her.

In the morning, he tries to make her leave with him, but she shoots him and kills him. The wind blows incessantly as she digs a shallow grave in the sand outside. She buries him . . . and the wind moves the sand away, exposing the corpse. And Letty slowly goes mad.

John Arnold’s photography is exemplary – this film’s universe is choked with dust and grit. Sjostrom makes the wide-open plains suffocating and smothering, boxing Letty in mentally until she loses it. And Gish, in her final silent film, shows why she was so accomplished an actress. She underplays her fluctuating mental state, when it would have been so easy to go over the top, and gives us a portrait of a personality under siege.

Now, in the source novel, Letty goes mad and wander off into the storm to die. The studio insisted on a happy ending, so one is more or less tacked on, in a fairly trite and obvious way. None of the people involved with the film were satisfied with this turn of events. Sjostrom went back to Sweden, and Gish prepared for a new career -- in sound film.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: With Car and Camera Around the World.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Wedding March' (1928)


The Wedding March

Dir: Erich von Storheim

Scr: Harry Carr

Pho: Roy H. Klaffki, Ray Rennahan, William C. McGann, Hal Mohr, Ben F. Reynolds, Harris Thorpe

Ed: Frank E. Hull, Josef von Sternberg

Premiere: October 6, 1928

113 min.

The stereotype of the movie director as dictatorial, extravagant, and egotistical is based on the life and career of Erich von Stroheim. He was an excellent director during the silent era, ranked with Griffith and de Mille. However, he was an exacting one. He obsessed over the details of every production he helmed, spending vast amounts of the studio’s money to get the effects he wanted just right. He brooked no interference from anyone.

Naturally, this did not make him beloved in Hollywood boardrooms. Though all his films are of excellent quality, when they started losing money at the box office, the studio started interfering. This is the case with The Wedding March, which was chopped and changed beyond recognition – and still it survives as the last Stroheim movie he would have at least some creative control over.

It's a romantic tragedy, set in Vienna before World War I. Stroheim himself plays Nicki, a good-hearted but impoverished Austrian cavalry officer whose grotesque parents want him to marry for money. By chance he meets a tender young musician, Mitzi (Fay Wray), and the two fall in love. However, Fate has other plans. Nicki proceeds to marry the rich cripple Cecilia (ZaSu Pitts), while Mitzi’s jealous brute of a butcher boyfriend Schani (Matthew Betz) threatens to murder him after the ceremony.

Stroheim spared no expense. He built huge sets, including an apple orchard with the blossoms fabricated and tied on individually to each branch. All of the period costumes w3ere correct in every detail. The budget was set down at $300,000; by the time Stroheim has spent $1,250,000, the project was shut down.

Wedding March was intended to be the first of two films on the same subject. However, Stroheim cut all the footage he took into a four-and-a-half-hour cut, and said he could cut no more. Paramount promptly hired director Josef von Sternberg to cut the film, which he did, down to its present length. It took a year. Stroheim was not happy.

Eventually, the second film was made, but has been lost to time (the last known copy was destroyed in a fire in 1959). Evidently, in it Schani tries to kill Nicki yet again, but his wife Cecilia throws herself in front of him, dying by blocking the bullet. Schani becomes a fugitive. Mitzi goes into a convent. Nicki joins the war and is killed. Yep, nothing like some good old German gloominess to darken your day.

Stroheim’s tyrannical approach worked for a short time, but the studio system soon brought him to heel. He ended up as a character actor, playing Nazis and the like. Never again would he be allowed to pursue his visions on 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 Wind.

 


Tuesday, July 9, 2024

NFR Project: 'There It Is' (1928)


There It Is

Dir: Harold L. Muller, Charles R. Bowers

Scr: Charles R. Bowers, Harold L. Muller

Pho: Harold L. Muller

Ed: N/A

Premiere: January 1, 1928

19 min.

Charley Bowers was truly one of a kind. There is nothing in film, then or now, that can rival his ability to capture successfully the greatest absurdities imaginable.

There is no logic in Bowers’ universe; nothing is stable, all is in flux. Items which don’t belong together are juxtaposed. Completely unmotivated, bizarre behavior is the norm. It’s extremely bewildering and exciting at the same time, a toboggan ride through the inside of Charley’s visionary skull.

In fact, it’s subversive. However, it’s a comedy, so it passes in the guise of that. Utilizing a combination of live-action and stop-motion techniques, he confounds reason as he spits outs gags nonstop. In a way, he’s like another Melies. He plays with the camera just to see what it can do.

Bowers started out as an animator in 1916. After years of work, he opened his own studio and started making his unique sequence of movies, animated using the so-called “Bowers process”, which created effects unseen anywhere else for decades.

The story, such as it is: a mysterious little figure, bald with glass and an immemse beard and eyebrows, wafts from room to room in an old mansion, vanishing and appearing again through doors and secrets panels. A cracked egg grown into a chicken. An empty pair of pants dances on top of a bureau. The inhabitants are dismayed. Time to call Scotland Yard!

Scotland Yard, naturally, is a yard, nicely surrounded by a picket fence, full of Scotsmen. A detective, Charley, is dispatched; he takes with him a tiny, extremely well-animated companion who fits in a matchbox and answers to the name of MacGregor.

The rest of the movie is a madcap chase through the house, with the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” eluding his pursuers. He is unbeatable, inscrutable, all-powerful, and toys with Charley unmercifully. The very fabric of reality conspires against Charley’s best efforts. The film grinds to a halt as it deals out three succeeding endings, each daffier than the last.

Bowers made less than two dozen short films in total, only a few of which survive today. They are worth seeking out, just for the sense of wonder they exude.

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

Monday, July 8, 2024

NFR Project: 'Steamboat Willie' (1928)


Steamboat Willie

Dir: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks

Scr: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks

Pho: N/A

Ed: N/A

Premiere: November 18, 1928

7:47

 Well, here it is. The beginning of the entertainment empire that would come to dominate the world.

If this seems like a hostile opening, please remember that I was traumatized by Disney at a young age. Bambi’s mom. Old Yeller. I even cried during “Feed the Birds” in Mary Poppins. So I have to factor my distaste for everything Disney into my thoughts on the subject.

Disney was certainly a visionary. His remarkable insight that a sound cartoon would be a smash would not be his first. It must have seemed like a miracle to those who first watched it.

The plot is spare, but Disney and Iwerks wrote a script that takes full advantage of synchronized sound. Mickey Mouse makes his real debut here, and he is a happy-go-lucky steamboat pilot under the thumb of a mean boss, much larger than he. The sound plot is quite complex, and technically accomplished; nearly every action generates its own sound effect.

Mickey hooks Minnie Mouse aboard using a small crane. Her sheet music and ukulele are eaten by a goat; the two then transform the goat into an organ, its tail cranked to release the notes. Soon everything around the two on a boat turns into a musical instrument of some kind. The goings-on are all very family-friendly and wholesome (OK, Mickey does swing a cat by the tail). Finally, Mickey is sentenced to peeling potatoes.

Disney catered perfectly to the needs and mood of the audience of the day, a trend that would continue with all his projects until Pinocchio in 1940.

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

 


NFR Project: 'Show People' (1928)

 

Show People

Dir: King Vidor

Scr: Agnes Christine Johnston, Laurence Stallings, Wanda Tuchock, Ralph Spence

Pho: John Arnold

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: November 20, 1928

79 min.

Marion Davies is best known for the career she didn’t quite have.

At the age of 17, the up-and-coming young actress was working as a chorus girl in the Ziegfield Follies when she met 51-year-old newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. They became involved, and stayed together until Hearst’s death in 1951.

This association meant that her film career was ably publicized. By 1924, she was listed as the number-one actress in Hollywood. However, despite her talent as a comic actress, Hearst insisted on her playing dramatic roles, which she did unsuccessfully. Finally, in 1937, frustrated, she retired from the screen.

So her filmography is a bit spotty, with her comic performances being her best-remembered. Show People is one of her best. Surprisingly, the story mirrors her movie-making experience. Young Peggy Pepper comes from Georgia with her father to break into the big time in Hollywood. She gets her start, but it’s not the kind she hoped for. Instead of being launched as a big dramatic star, she gets work with a comedy studio, and soon she is taking seltzer in the face and running away from comic policemen. (The story is said to be based on Gloria Swanson’s early movie work.)

When she does get her big dramatic break (at “High Art Studios”), she soon forgets her former life, including the comic actor who loves her, Billy Boone. Aloof and haughty, she gets involved with a phony count who also acts the Latin lover onscreen. It takes Billy’s interference in her coming wedding to snap her out of it and realize where her true feelings lie.

The movie is filled with cameos. Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, and William S. Hart all make an appearance. Peggy meets Chaplin, and does not recognize him until he’s left the scene, after which she faints. She even meets herself! With clever editing, she can be seen on the same screen as “Marion Davies,” to whom she reacts scornfully.

Davies is an adept comic actress, able to inspire laughter despite her obvious good looks. The pace of the film is light and breezy, giving us a relatable heroine who’s not afraid to make fun of herself. If she had been allowed to fully express her comic skills, her reputation might be quite different today.

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


Friday, July 5, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Sex Life of the Polyp' (1928)


The Sex Life of the Polyp

Dir: Thomas Chalmers

Scr: Robert Benchley

Pho: N/A

Ed: N/A

Premiere: July 25, 1928

11 min.

“Great literature must spring from an upheaval in the writer’s soul. If that upheaval is not present then it must come from the works of any other author which happens to be handy and easily adapted.”

It would be difficult to find someone funnier than Robert Benchley (1889–1945). He is one of America’s great comic voices, which he let loose in numerous essays and critical pieces (one of his books is titled David Copperfield; or, Twenty-thousand Leagues under the Sea). In the course of doing so, he established a comic persona for himself – a bumbling, self-conscious, timid, and nervous middle-class Everyman, who just wanted things to run smoothly, but who had to deal with reality with patience and many subtle wisecracks.

Benchley’s talents began to be exercised at Harvard, where he performed early versions of his routines and wrote for the Lampoon. Released into the wilds of New York, he worked steadily until he was contributing to publications such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. He knocked around as a totally overqualified theater critic, whose reviews are still hilarious. Despite his repute as a wit, he couldn’t get regular employment, and lived the precarious life of a freelancer.

Finally, in 1922 he performed a monologue called The Treasurer’s Report, which became a smash hit in a Broadway review. In it, he plays a befuddled financial officer, who has nothing but bad news to share with his constituents. His career as a performer was born.

When sound film came in, naturally movie people looked for acts that could easily translate to the talking screen, and Benchley fill the bill. This film is his second, after a highly successful rendition of The Treasurer’s Report for the cameras.

In it, Benchley plays a doctor who seeks to explain the sexual habits of the aforementioned paramecium to a group of ladies. His delivery, at once nervous and self-satisfied, perfectly sells the ridiculous content of his lecture. In this, Benchley can be seen as a prototype of the stand-up comic.

Benchley made 46 shorts in all, one of which, How to Sleep, won an Oscar in 1935. Additionally, he played supporting roles in many Hollywood films, and produced a large body of work that’s still a treat to read and watch.

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

 


Wednesday, July 3, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Power of the Press' (1928)

 


The Power of the Press

Dir: Frank Capra

Scr: Sonya Levien, Frederick A. Thompson

Pho: Chester A. Lyons, Ted Tetzlaff

Ed: Arthur Roberts

Premiere: October 31, 1928

62 min.

This picture demonstrates the developing talent of director Frank Capra, still six years away from his breakthrough comedy masterpiece It Happened One Night. This is Capra’s last silent film, and as such it displays some of the hallmarks of a mature Capra production.

Capra is a polarizing figure in American cinema. By his detractors, he’s condemned as a sentimentalist, and as one who thinks too simplistically. But his style is strong and his subjects are engaging, leading to a widespread use of the phrase “Capraesque” to describe his unique combination of idealism, wit, and sincerity.

Capra started out as a gag writer, and laboriously worked his way up to the director’s chair. He was first noted for his writing and direction of several successful Harry Langdon vehicles. These comedies cemented his reputation as a reliable talent.

Here Capra gives us an engaging newspaper drama. An arrogant young cub reporter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is sent out on assignment to cover the murder of the city’s district attorney, days before a mayoral election. He tags the young daughter of one of the candidates as the murderer, then learns that he is wrong. He then sets out, through subterfuge, to find and name the real killer.

Capra gives us a familiar Capra hero – a young, idealistic, and somewhat deluded young man who is cut down to size when he realizes his error. The hero then overcomes adversity due to his grit, determination, and cleverness, saving the day.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. makes for a cocky protagonist. Raised from the age of nine solely by his mother, Fairbanks got the acting bug and was soon working in the same profession as his world-famous father. Handsome, compact, and dapper, Fairbanks Jr. would forge a decent career in action and comedy films.

The illustration of the inner life of a daily newspaper is quite apt; the controlled chaos of the newsroom is accurately outlined. In particular, Capra gives us a whole sequence of the recasting of the paper’s front page, from editorial down to the linotype operators and finally the mechanics setting the printing plates into forms on the huge mechanical printing press. It’s an impressive sight, one that reinforces the title of the film. The press is powerful indeed.

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

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

NFR Project: 'Pass the Gravy' (1928)


Pass the Gravy

Dir: Fred Guiol

Scr: Fred Guiol

Pho: George Stevens

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: January 1928

25 min.

Jewish comedy in America rose from two sources. First, the tradition of Yiddish theater on the Eastern seaboard in the 19th century meant that iconic comic performances were perpetuated there. Secondly, in vaudeville Jewish comedians were included under the heading of "German" or “Dutch” comics. With the onset of World War I, all things German were discouraged, so all the German comics became Jewish comics overnight.

One of the beneficiaries of this trend was Max Davidson. He was the go-to Jewish comedian of the screen for years, in short-subject vehicles turned out by the Hal Roach studios. While his performances included stereotypical grimaces, shrugs, eye rolls, and oy-vey hands to the face, it can not be said that these films were overtly anti-Semitic. There was no casting of aspersions that Jews were avaricious or craven; no, the Davidson films give us the usual hijinks associated with domestic comedy.

Here Max is an urban farmer whose neighbor has a prize rooster that keeps getting into Max’s yard. The neighbor’s son is engaged to Max’s daughter. Max invites the neighbors over for a chicken dinner. He tells his mischievous son to go buy a chicken for the dinner; the boy pockets the money and grabs the prize rooster by mistake.

Now the families are gathered to eat, and the cooked bird, complete with a “1st Prize” tag still stuck to its leg, is served. Gradually everyone but the neighbor realizes the problem, and soon and frantically everyone is fighting to get that piece of chicken served to the neighbor away from him.

Fred Guiol directs his own script here. The comedy has many fine filmmakers attached to it – comedy genius Leo McCary supervised it, and future Oscar-winning director George Stevens photographed it. The typical Roach comic structure is in place here. As the attempts to hide the chicken continue, they multiple absurdly, becoming more and more extreme, to the point where everyone is wrestling around the living room floor, reduced to slapstick.

Ultimately, the truth is found out, and Max does the only thing left to him – he runs. A nice little gag rounds out the film, as Max, far in the distance, is struck down by a thrown stone.

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


Monday, July 1, 2024

NFR Project: 'Lonesome' (1928)


Lonesome

Dir: Paul Fejos

Scr: Tom Reed, Edward T. Lowe Jr.

Pho: Gilbert Warrenton

Ed: Frank Atkinson

Premiere: June 20, 1928/September 30, 1928

69 min./75 min.

Every once in a while, I connect back to why I started this series: to get to see and learn about movies I never would have heard of otherwise. Such is the case with Lonesome, a beautiful, sweet movie about two people falling in love.

Who knew this existed? The director is completely obscure – he went from being a physician to being a director, and wound up as an anthropologist – but his work, the few examples that have survived, is lyrical and assured.

The film is set in New York, with Venice and Long Beach standing in for Coney Island. A young man and a young woman, each alone, lonely, and bored, decide to go to the beach on Saturday. Their eyes meet on the subway ride there, and young Jim (Glenn Tryon) pursues Mary (Barbara Kent) once they reach the park. They connect, and fall for each other hard.

All is well until an accident at the park separates them, followed by a torrential rainstorm that prevents them from finding each other. They return to their lonely rooms, alone. Mary strikes the wall in frustration, keenly aware of her loss. But who should hear the knocking? It’s Jim, who unbeknownst to either of them lives next door. The two fall into each other’s arms.

Fejos’ camera is constantly on the move, picking the principals out of the crowd, carried along in wave after wave of humanity. At the same time, he gives the lead characters plenty of time for expositions of feeling that flow through their faces. The result is a charming romantic melodrama, with an ending that reads like a modern fable.

The reason for the film’s two premiere dates relates to the transition from silent to sound. The movie was first released with a synchronized soundtrack of music and effects; when sound came out, it was decided to throw in a few sound sequences to entice attendance, and so the film was premiered twice.

The result is three sound sequences that do little to advance to the plot. In contrast to the mobile, flowing and eleoquent camera work of the silent version (there is even some two-strip Technicolor in the amusement park sequences), the sound sequences are shot with a still camera, in front of still figures reciting their dialogue somewhat convincingly.

It’s indicative of a problem early sound posed to directors. The camera was no longer free to move and do all sorts of tricks; sound recording meant every speaker had to be nailed to the spot. For a time, a reversal of film technique took place, until the sound-era directors could figure out how to free their cameras once again.

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


Friday, June 28, 2024

NFR Project: Fox Movietone News --Jenkins Orphanage Band (1928)

 

Fox Movietone News: Jenkins Orphanage Band

Premiere: 1928

3 min.

I could not possibly do a better job of explaining this early sound short than Julie Hubbert does on the Library of Congress website. I urge you to read her essay here.

She explains the origin of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, SC, and how its founder, the Reverend Daniel Jenkins, thought of starting a band to perform and raise money for the institution. (The Fisk Jubilee Singers led the way with this practice, beginning their performances in 1866.) She outlines the band’s development, brings up a few of the noted jazz musicians who got their start with Jenkins, and reveals how prestigious participation in the ensemble became. The band is even said to have been the original inspiration for the famous dance of the 1920s, the Charleston.

Here we have a simple, straight-on take of the entire band, standing on a sidewalk and blaring out “Shoutin’ Eliza.” The band seems composed primarily of brass and drums, and they swing through their rendition with a lively swagger.

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


NFR Project: 'The Last Command' (1928)


The Last Command

Dir: Josef von Sternberg

Scr: Lajos Biro, John F. Goodrich, Herman J. Mankiewicz

Pho: Bert Glennon

Ed: William Shea

Premiere: January 22, 1928

85 min.

“Based on a true story” is usually a lame trick to try and get the audience to buy into an absurd story premise. However, this is absolutely the case with one of the most accomplished of silent films.

The story goes: before the Russian Revolution, director Ernst Lubitsch met in Russia a general named Theodore A. Lodijensky. The general escaped Russia during the Communist takeover, migated to New York, and opened a restaurant, where Lubitsch met him again. Still later, in Hollywood he met the general (now named Thedore Lodi), he was dressed in his old uniform, working as a movie extra for $7.50 a day.

Screenwriter Biro heard the story from Lubitsch, and it set his wheels turning. A success has many fathers: Biro got the original story credit, John S. Goodrich is listed as the scenarist, and Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the titles. Sternberg himself, an egotist if there ever was one, credits himself with the excellence of the film. Perhaps all these things are true.

In contemporary Hollywood (and a sad, rundown kind of place it is), a pathetic old man (Emil Jannings, in an Oscar-winning performance) ekes out a living as a lowly extra. In the fine studio offices, the studio head, Leo Andreyev (William Powell) OKs a production that will require many Russian Army extras. Amid the crush of the crowd milling into the studio, he is assigned a general’s role, and he is mocked by those around him. As he looks into the makeup mirror . . .

The film goes back to the eve of the Russian Revolution. The old man we saw is, in former times, the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, the czar’s top military man. In his prime, the energetic and charismatic Sergius snaps out orders and runs the war (Russia was engaged in WWI at the time). Two revolutionary suspects (Powell! and Evelyn Brent) are brought before him. He lashes out at Powell, but keeps Brent near him. Despite her revolutionary fervor, he falls for the dashing general.

When the Revolution breaks out, the general and his lady are on a troop train to the front. Stripped of his rank and his dignity, he is forced to shovel coal for the locomotive. Brent hands him a necklace he gave her, to pawn and make his escape. He leaps from the train, landing in the snow beside the tracks. He and we follow the progress of the train as it chuffs on, only to fall victim to a bridge that collapses, sending everyone into the dark, cold water.

Back to reality. The general, and the rest of the soldiers, are ready for their scene. Producer Powell tells the general to rally the troops. His pride, his love of his country, his essential nobility, pours out of him. It kills him.

Obviously, this is a great role for an actor, and Jannings was a great actor. (Unfortunately, he wound up being a Nazi as well.) His enormous range allows him to play the general in all his modes: confident, then pathetic, then passionate. He and Sternberg got along well, which led to their work together next in The Blue Angel (1930). This was meant to be a vehicle for Jannings, but it wound up making Marlene Dietrich a star.

Sternberg’s beautiful compositions elevate the story at all times, and his pacing is perfect. The story is affecting without being maudlin. Surprisingly, this was another critical favorite that failed at the box office.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Fox Movietone News: Jenkins Orphanage Band.


Wednesday, June 26, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928)


The Fall of the House of Usher

Dir: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber

Scr: Melville Webber

Pho: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber

Ed: N/A

Premiere: 1928

13 min.

Avant-garde filmmaking was sparse in America, at least to begin with. A lot of experimental cinema was created in Europe, almost from the birth of the movies. The United States, however, stuck on the idea of providing entertainment for profit, largely colored inside the lines.

Still there were Americans who knew what was going on in Europe and wanted to replicate those efforts. Watson and Webber were two of these. Together, they created a unique visual poem on the theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

A traveler comes to an isolated mansion in the middle of a lake. He meets the brother and sister who live there together. The sister dies and is entombed; she rises again and confronts her brother, killing him with shock. The house disintegrates and falls into the black waters around it.

This is by no means a faithful explication of the plot of the original story. Rather it is a visual meditation on the story’s themes; much of it would be incomprehensible to those not familiar with its source. Using an Expressionistic set, makeup, and acting style, indulging in double exposures, work with prisms, skewed camera angles, and shadow play, the filmmakers ape the efforts of their European colleagues. The result is a moody, surreal journey through layers of darkness and light.

(Please note: this film is not to be confused with a French feature film on exactly the same topic, made in the same year, by Jean Epstein.)

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


Tuesday, June 25, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Docks of New York' (1928)

The Docks of New York

Dir: Josef von Sternberg

Scr: Jules Furthman

Pho: Harold Rosson

Ed: Helen Lewis

Premiere: September 16, 1928

76 min.

A chronicle of the lower depths of society, The Docks of New York was created entirely on a movie set in Hollywood. Despite this limitation, director Josef von Sternberg, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and screenwriter Jules Furthman created an authentic, gritty mise en scene that grounds this tale of love and redemption.

The director was on a roll, already lauded for films such as Underworld (1927), considered the first gangster film, and The Last Command (1928), which won lead actor Emil Jannings an Oscar. Here he stages the abrupt romance between Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker on a ship, and suicidal prostitute Mae (Betty Compson). Bill saves Mae from drowning after she throws herself into the sea. He takes care of her, falls for her, and proposes marriage to her, all in one night.

The wedding is conducted in the raucous atmosphere of The Sandbar, a waterfront dive. Mae gets her wedding ring from the hand of the cynical Lou (Olga Baclanova), another tart who’s sick of her long-absent husband Andy. Bill leaves to rejoin his ship in the morning, but reconsiders, dives off the ship, and swims to shore. He finds his wife in Night Court, charged with stealing the clothes he stole for her from a locked-up shop. Bill steps up and takes the blame, earning him 60 days in jail. Mae promises to wait for him.

Furthman was a master of the screen scenario – he would later be noted for scripts such as those for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and The Big Sleep (1946). He contrasts the budding affection of Bill and Mae with the dead-end disgust of the relationship between Mae and Andy. Everyone treats Bill and Mae’s wedding as a joke; everyone, that is, except Bill and Mae. Even the two of them can only express their feelings roughly, without sentiment. They are linked together by fate, but they are not star-crossed lovers.

Harold Rosson’s cinematography makes the film. He and Sternberg went on an expedition to New York to pick up design ideas, and the result is marvelously conceived and shot settings, from a grimy, hellish stoke-hold to the foggy alleys of the port. Every visual is carefully composed for maximum effect. There are no preachments or messages in the film; the characters simply are what they are – they live out their choices without editorial comment.

In the end, The Docks of New York is a proletarian drama that focuses on fundamental needs and desires in a compelling manner.

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


Monday, June 24, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Crowd' (1928)


The Crowd

Dir: King Vidor

Scr: King Vidor, John V.A. Weaver, Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham

Pho: Henry Sharp

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: February 28, 1928

98 min.

Ordinary people. A radical idea.

Movies were vehicles of escape and fantasy, in the 1920s just as much as today. The concept of documenting the everyday existence of nobody special was a non-starter in Hollywood. Fortunately, for director King Vidor, he had directed enough successful films (most notably The Big Parade [1925]) for the studio (MGM) to allow him to be given the benefit of the doubt. The result was a successful film that has endured as a critical favorite.

The movie is a oblisque indictment of capitalism in the guise of a domestic drama. The focus is on John, born on the Fourth of July in 1900. As a child, he dreams of making it big. As a young adult, his innocent belief that his “ship will come in,” giving him wealth and status, persists. He starts work as a lowly functionary in a large insurance company.

The athletic camera travels up the outside of a skyscraper, zooms in on a window and enters, revealing acres of desks occupied with men working at figures, with John one of the crowd. He goes on a double date and falls for fellow worker Mary (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor's wife). They wed and travel to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, settling afterwards into a cramped two-room apartment next to the subway lines.

John keeps plugging away at his job, dreaming of catching his big break. Meanwhile, they have two children, and barely keep ahead of the bills. A family tragedy derails John’s sensibilities, leading him to quit his job. Months of unsuccessful applications for work follow. Mary considers leaving him. In the end, he finds a job, the two are reconciled, and the last we see of them they are laughing at a vaudeville show with their son, as the camera pulls back, leaving them subsumed into the crowd.

Although John is the protagonist, he is a weak and conflicted character. He is uncharitable to his wife until he finds out she is pregnant. Again and again, he claims he is on the brink of success, only to find his opportunities dried up and those around him unsympathetic. Mary is the strong one – sustaining her husband and putting up with his persistent delusions. It’s she whose common sense brings him back down to earth.

The rejection of the cliché that a good attitude and hard work will lead to wealth and fame underpins the film. John will not acknowledge his limitations, and does not reduce his expectations until he has been humiliated and humbled by financial realities. In the end, it is enough that Mary believes in him, and that this family will make the most of the simple pleasures to be had in this world.

Although production head Irving Thalberg OK’d the picture, studio boss Louis B. Mayer hated its bleak outlook and lack of a “happy ending.” The release of the picture was delayed a year. Seven different endings were filmed, all scaled to different degrees of happiness. In the end, the film was released with two different endings – Vidor’s original and a Christmas-themed joyful one. Exhibitors were given a choice as to what to show.

The film has unfortunate parallels with real life. James Murray, the actor who was plucked out of obscurity to play John, never had a productive career, slipping into alcoholism and poverty. Vidor ran into him on the street and offered him a role in his film, Our Daily Bread (1934). Murray rejected him angrily; his body was found in the Hudson River two years 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 Docks of New York.



Sunday, June 23, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Cameraman' (1928)


The Cameraman

Dir: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton

Scr: Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Joseph W. Farnham

Pho: Reggie Lanning, Elgin Lessley

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: September 22, 1928

76 min.

Sad to say, this is the first film in this series that I have run across that I do not feel merits inclusion. While it is an accomplished comedy, in comparison to Buster Keaton's previous features, it is unimaginative and rote.

In 1928, Keaton joined MGM. Unfortunately, he was hired as a performer, not as a writer or director. MGM’s assembly-line approach to making a film was in direct conflict with his previous method of creation, in which he had the ability to alter the movie or improvise as he went along, as he saw fit. He was locked into the studio’s way of doing things.

Fortunately, his director, Sedgwick, could not get the results that he was after onscreen, and he finally ceded some responsibility to Keaton, who quickly got the project back on track. It would be the last film project he had even nominal control over.

In this film, Keaton plays a street photographer, who falls for a pretty girl. He follows her to her workplace, the MGM newsreel department. Seeking to impress her, he becomes an aspiring newsreel cameraman. There are the usual jokes concerning double exposures and the like – Buster’s work is worthless.

The girl gives him a tip and he races to capture a riot on film. He gets the footage, which is then misplaced. Seemingly a failure, he prepares to walk away from the profession until the lost footage is screened and he is lauded for his ability (and he gets the girl as well).

Although it is decently scripted, it does not have the thrill of Keaton’s earlier films. While in them he indulged in epic feats of surrealism, full of camera tricks and outstanding physical stunts, here he is simply a clown, clumsy and impotent. The direction of the film is uninspiring and conventional. The movie is simply too safe.

This was Keaton’s last silent feature. He and Sedgwick would make six more films; slowly Keaton descended into alcoholism and mediocrity. Decades later, Keaton would recover and become a lauded legend, but this film marks the oncoming of his lowest period.

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


Friday, June 21, 2024

NFR Project: 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928)


Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Dir: Charles Reisner

Scr: Carl Harbaugh, Buster Keaton

Pho: Dev Jennings, Bert Haines

Ed: Sherman Kell

Premiere: May 12, 1928

70 min.

Keaton’s last great independent project is one of his best films. The master craftsman’s gags are more challenging and grand than ever, the humor underplayed magnificently. One last time, he was able to work on an epic scale, harnessing physics and geometery to fuel his jokes. In the world of silent comedy, Keaton was the master craftsman.

Plotwise, the story is much the same as other of his feature films such as Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1926) – Buster is a sad sack, an underachiever who is inspired to great feats through his desire to win the hand of a beautiful girl. Here, he is a mollycoddle from Back East who must make his peace with his macho, exasperated Mississippi riverboat captain father (a great performance Ernest Torrence). He loves the daughter of a rival steamboat owner, and must prove himself to overcome his father’s contempt, his nemesis the girl’s father, and the forces of nature themselves.

Steamboat Bill Canfield runs the paddle steamer Stonewall Jackson, and J.J. King is his rich rival. Bill’s son (Buster) comes home on the train after four years in college in Boston. He sports a beret, a moustache, and a ukulele. Father soon dispenses with all these items. Trying to teach him the business of running a boat leads to disaster upon disaster.

Soon Bill’s boat is condemned as unsafe. He blames King, assaults him and is thrown in jail. Buster’s attempt to spring him goes sadly awry. Then a cyclone hits the town, pushing and pounding at Buster as the town disintegrates around him. It’s an apt metaphor for Keaton’s persona – one buffeted and borne along by the tide of an indifferent if not hostile universe, who learns to ride the wave and triumph at last.

The most memorable moment comes when the façade of a house comes crashing down in the wind, missing Buster by inches by way of a small upper-story window. As Buster stands scratching his head, the front of the building behind him falls around him. Supposedly the wall weighed two tons, to keep it from warping as it fell. A nail marked the spot where Buster would stand. Half the crew walked away rather than film the scene. It is said that Keaton was in a negative frame of mind at the time, facing up to a failing marriage and an increased dependence on alcohol. It may have been a death wish recorded on film.

Once again, Keaton constructs a detailed universe in which he tries to fit, only to tear it all asunder at the end, giving him the space to assume a heroic role.

The movie was a box-office failure. After this film, Keaton’s independent production company was dissolved, and he signed up with MGM. This was to prove disastrous to his resources and freedom to create, dragging him down into mediocrity, which he overcame eventually due to hard work as a live performer and by quitting the booze.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. gives us Keaton at his best.

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


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

NFR Project: Shaw and Lee - 'The Beau Brummels' (1928)

 

The Beau Brummels

Dir: Unknown

Scr: Shaw and Lee

Pho: Unknown

Ed: Unknown

Premiere: September 22, 1928

8:31

One of the most bizarre selections from the Film Registry is this gem from 1928, which captures the absurd comedy of vaudeville act Shaw and Lee, here referred to as “the Beau Brummels” (a reference to natty dressing, which these two men definitely don’t indulge in).

The film is one of many Vitaphone shorts. Between 1926 and 1931, Vitaphone was a sound-on-disc recording system that played a record synchronized with the film. When optical soundtracks were incorporated into the celluloid of films, the Vitaphone method was abandoned. Many acts of all kinds were recorded with this system, initially in New York but late on the West Coast as well.

Shaw (Albert Schutzman) and Lee (Sam Levy) worked together for decades. This film was made relatively early in their career. In the film, the two stand side by side. Both engage in complete deadpan, facing the camera and not cracking even a smile. They tell their horrible jokes, sometimes reacting to the other’s punch line with a grimace. Periodically, they begin to speak at the same time, and then turn to each other with a “Huh?”. They flip through some songs selections, and even dance a little. All this they do straight-faced.

Perhaps their deadpan was their solution to recording a routine without an audience – later film of them shows them hamming it up much as other comics do. At any rate, their low-key imperturbable style makes watching the two of them an oddly satisfying experience.

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


Monday, June 17, 2024

NFR Project: 'Wings'

 

Wings

Dir: William Wellman, Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Scr: John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton, Julian Johnson, Byron Morgan

Pho: Harry Perry

Ed: E. Lloyd Sheldon, Lucien Hubbard

Premiere: January 15, 1928

144 min.

Wings is an extraordinary achievement. Tasked with bringing the air war of World War I to life on screen, the relatively young and inexperienced director William Wellman overcame massive logistic and technical problems to accurately portray the experience. It led to the film being given the very first Oscar for Best Picture.

War movies were not uncommon at the time, but few attempted the epic scope attained by Wings. Perhaps the closest comparison to it could be King Vidor’s infantry saga, The Big Parade (1925). The story of Wings gives us two young men, at first rivals then bosom buddies, who volunteer to join the air corps together. After rigorous training, the two are off to Europe, where dogfights and bombing raids clutter the skies above the trenches.

Young flyer Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) is in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), who prefers his friend David (Richard Arlen). Sylvia and David decide not to let Jack down and tell him the truth until after the war. Meanwhile, the plucky girl next door, Mary (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack. She volunteers to join the ambulance corps, and is soon off to France herself.

The machinations of who loves who gives a little impetus to the plot, which otherwise hangs on the armed conflict in the film. Clara Bow, then the reigning queen of Hollywood, was put into the film to broaden its appeal, but the real stars of the movie are the fight sequences.

It helped immensely that Wellman was a World War I flyer, giving him the experience and connections to make Wings happen. He took his film crew to airfields in San Antonio, Texas to serve as a staging ground for his aerial sequences. He gathered more than 300 pilots, and used 3,500 extras on the ground. One of his advisers engineered an automatic camera system, running on a motor, that could be mounted on a plane and allow shots of the pilots in flight.

Special effects artist Roy Pomeroy won an Oscar for Best Engineering Effects. Filming was excruciatingly slow – whereas it normally took a month to shoot a feature film, this one took nine. After hundreds of hours in the air, and thousands of feet of film, the end result was lauded.

The film was essentially released twice – first as a silent, and then with a synchronized score and sound effects. Sound technology was rapidly catching on, making this one of the last silent epics.

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


Thursday, June 13, 2024

NFR Project: 'Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans'

 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Dir: F.W. Murnau

Scr: Carl Mayer

Pho: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Ed: Harold Schuster

Premiere: September 23, 1927

95 min.

This would not be the last time that critics acclaimed a film that the public ignored. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is self-consciously arty – it won the only Oscar for Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929. It won Best Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. The lead actress Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress award for this (and for her work in Street Angel [1928]).

However, it did not earn back its rather extravagant budget. It was the first American project of the famed German director F.W. Murnau, who up to this time had created classics such as Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), The Last Laugh (1924), and Faust (1926) in his native country. He was brought to Hollywood with a reputation that gave him great leeway in the production of the film.

Murnau made the most of his opportunity. Often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, it sweeps the viewer into a penetratingly compelling story that needs no words to make itself understood.

It tells of a farmer (George O’Brien) and his wife (Gaynor). A “city woman” (Margaret Livingston) seduces him. We begin with the principals in mid-misery, one from guilt and the other from sorrow. The city woman urges the farmer to kill his wife, sell his farm, and come to the city with her.

Double exposures reveal the farmer’s thoughts, contrasting with his anguished features. The filmmakers track down complex paths through the studio-created marshes, embodying the meandering, wavering walk of the guilty husband. The two embark on an ominous journey via boat to the city. The farmer stands over his wife, ready to kill, then abruptly relents.

What happens next is the entire play of two personalities, running through the emotions of despair, fear, shame, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all in the context of a visit to a vivid, Expressionistic cityscape. Murnau moves the story on with economy and precision, mirroring camera setups, gestures, postures, using all the resources of the pictorial field and the actors’ skill to convey a true love story.

Murnau slows down the pace and lets the camera linger n the face of his actors. He allows them to move through multiple states of thought; patiently, he records their reactions and realizations. The story is a simple melodrama, but Murnau and his collaborators find the truth and beauty in the tale and bring it to life.

Not only are the visuals beautiful, moody, and expressive, but the film is graced with the addition of sound, of a kind. While not a talking picture, a soundtrack of music and effects was married to the print and played in the early sound-film houses. Hugo Riesenfeld’s score carefully reinforces the images and feelings onscreen.

The picture’s unexpectedly melodramatic ending could easily be seen as far-fetched (the farmer considered drowning his wife, and then loses her in a storm on the water on their way home), but the film is so involving that it allows the suspension of disbelief to continue.

Sunrise is a revelation of feeling couched in a familiar story of universal appeal. It does what silent film did best – it transcends cultural barriers, making itself intelligible to everyone.

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