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)


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)



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)


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


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)


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


 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)


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.