Background: Buster Keaton was just coming off the debacle of The General, which was a critical and commercial failure for him, and would only be considered a classic much later.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Background: Buster Keaton was just coming off the debacle of The General, which was a critical and commercial failure for him, and would only be considered a classic much later.
And only 80 more years to go! I only saw 19 films for 1927, but I'll be aiming for a more ambitious schedule in 1928. There is an exciting mixture of films this year. The most acclaimed film of the year is The Passion of Joan of Arc. There are several early films from great directors including Hitchcock's The Lodger, John Ford's Hangman's House and Four Sons, and Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port, There are some interesting films by directors who would be considered veterans at this point, including Sergei Eisenstein's October, DW Griffith's Battle of the Sexes, Erich von Stroheim's The Wedding March, and Victor Sjostrom's The Wind. We also get entries from all three of the big time comedians with Chaplin's The Circus, Lloyd's Speedy, and Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman.
My experience going through the films from 1927 helped influence the films I chose to watch. Von Sternberg's Underworld was good enough to make me seek out and purchase copies of his two 1928 entries The Last Command and The Docks of New York. The Frank Borzage, Janet Gaynor, and Charles Farrell team worked so well in Seventh Heaven that I added their next collaboration Street Angel. Once again, there are movies that have an IMDB listing for 1928 but didn't make US release until later. Notable films from this year that will be pushed to later years include GW Pabst's Pandora's Box, Vseveolod Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia, and Fritz Lang's Spies.
There are quite a few unavailable films. Please email me if you have any idea how or where I can watch these:
Show People (King Vidor)
The Patsy (King Vidor)
Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh)
The Power of the Press (Frank Capra)
That Certain Thing (Frank Capra)
The Tournament (Jean Renoir)
White Shadow of the South Seas (WS Van Dyke)
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Dir. Alan Ball
Starring Summer Bishil, Peter MacDissi, Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Eugene Jones III, Toni Collette
Alan Ball is one of the most interesting writers in Hollywood today. If anyone doubts that, then they simply must not have seen American Beauty or Ball’s TV series Six Feet Under. He also directed several episodes of that show, and did a good enough job to win several awards. He makes his feature length directing debut with Towelhead, an adaptation of a novel of the same name written by Alicia Erian. Unfortunately, his well-intentioned screenplay and the mostly strong ensemble performances cannot survive the uneven direction that proves Ball maybe wasn’t ready to take on a feature length film.
Towelhead is set in the early 90s, just as the US was getting ready to fight the Gulf War. Summer Bishil stars as Jasira, an Arab-American girl whose flighty mother sends her to live with her strict father (Peter MacDissi), a Lebanese man with strict moral values, but who also happens to despise Saddam Hussein and is angry when people automatically assume the opposite. He’s not afraid to strike Jasira when he doesn’t like something she’s done and is completely unprepared for handling Jasira’s sexual awakening, which the story explores through two very different relationships.
The first is with her next door neighbor, known simply to us as Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart). He’s an Army reservist who is married and has a young son that likes to spout off racial epithets directed at Jasira (see the film’s title for an example). One day he catches Jasira reading one of his pornographic magazines and begins to take an unhealthy interest in her. Alan Ball is an expert at exploring humor in the darkest of situations, and this time he pushes it so far that he closes in on territory only previously covered by Todd Solondz in Happiness. However, he is successful because of the stellar performance of Aaron Eckhart, who walks a tightrope in exploring all the dimensions of this guy and comes away with a memorable character.
Ball is much less successful in exploring the relationship between Jasira and her teenage boyfriend Thomas (Eugene Jones III). The setup is atrociously handled. Thomas insults Jasira and the next scene he apologizes to her. The next thing we see, she’s been invited to dinner with his parents. It appears that Alan Ball is in such a rush to get through the book he’s adapting that he doesn’t have time to develop this relationship. There’s very little chemistry between the two actors, and there’s little reason for the audience to root for them to stay together, although the movie clearly wants us to do that. Ball says that the character is supposed to be 14 years old, but the actor that was cast isn’t convincing at all at that age, making it all the more awkward because Bishil is certainly convincing as a 13 year old.
As a director, Ball’s pacing is off so bad that the story almost plays like a highlight reel. It’s as if Ball wanted to make sure to include all of his favorite moments from the book that he didn’t have time for little things like character development or natural story progression. The main problem is that scenes are awkwardly strung together and end at artificial points. For example, Jasira becomes friends with a girl from her school and they have a slumber party. The slumber party basically lasts barely a minute until Jasira’s friend tells her she should apologize to Thomas, and then we immediately cut to Jasira apologizing to Thomas. Most of the story is told in this format, and at times it feels as if you're playing connect the dots instead of watching a movie.
Ball also has some problems with the way he stages certain scenes. There’s a scene late in the film where Thomas walks into a room and starts talking, completely unaware that Jasira’s father is there. It’s not like the guy is hiding in a corner. He’s standing right at the door, yet we’re supposed to believe that Thomas doesn’t see him until he says something awkward. That’s when we get the “comic” payoff, sold to us when the actor turns his neck so stiffly that I looked for the puppet strings that Ball was holding from above.
Alan Ball is a man who likes to explore dark themes with comic underpinnings, and the way he deals with such themes is commendable. Towelhead certainly has the right ingredients to fit in with his best work, but it just doesn't come together. Somewhere along the way he forgot to let his story breathe and give his characters room to grow. Outside of the brilliant Aaron Eckhart portrayal of Mr. Vuoso and an appealing lead performance from newcomer Summer Bishil, this is a seriously flawed movie that could have been so much more.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother
Harold Lloyd is often forgotten when it comes to the great comedy stars of the silent film era. It usually boils down to a (sometimes pretty heated) debate between Buster Keaton fans and Charlie Chaplin fans, and Lloyd gets lost in the mix. Part of the reason is that he held on to the rights to his films, not rereleasing them as frequently as the best of Chaplin or Keaton, and many people just haven’t heard of most of his work. That’s a real shame, because Harold Lloyd was an incredibly gifted comedian and Safety Last is a splendid comedy that stands tall with the best work of Chaplin or Keaton.
As was often the case with silent comedies, the names aren’t important. Harold is billed here as “The Boy”, his girlfriend (Mildred Taylor) is billed as “The Girl”, and his roommate is billed as “The Pal” (Bill Strother). The story involves Harold moving from his small town to the big city, promising to bring his girlfriend along when he has become successful out there. Of course, things haven’t worked out as Harold planned. He’s stuck in what appears to be a dead end job at a department store, making a meager living and spending a great deal of energy avoiding the tyrannical floorwalker (Westcott Clarke). However, Harold write home to his girl that he’s a big success and sends her jewelry to prove it. When she decides to come to the city to visit, he must act quick to turn into the success that he’s been pretending to be all along.
This is a classic American story of an average guy trying to make it in the big city. With his big glasses, he looks like Clark Kent (and it’s been rumored that Kent’s look was based on Lloyd). Whereas Charlie Chaplin played a poor guy that inadvertently caused trouble and Buster Keaton played a range of characters with his stonefaced expression, Harold Lloyd represented the hardworking middle class. The villains are the oppressive managers that are trying to keep hard working people down, and the rich demanding customers who won’t give Harold a break. Most audiences will be able to identify with Harold’s plight. One of my favorite gags early on in the movie is when Harold and his friend are able to hide themselves inside two hanging coats when the landlord comes by looking for the rent.
Of course, Safety Last! is mostly memorable for the comedy sequence that dominates the last half of the picture. In his effort to make some money and prove his success to his girlfriend, Harold arranges for his friend (who had previously demonstrated climbing prowess) to climb the side of the high rise department store. If enough people come by to watch, Harold’s boss will give him $1000. Things don’t go as planned, because Harold’s friend is in trouble with a police officer, who has decided to show up and witness the climb. This means Harold must make the climb himself, dodging numerous obstacles along the way.
This sequence is mostly famous for the iconic image of Harold Lloyd hanging on to the hands of a clock high above the street. It’s a memorable shot, but what makes this scene so great is the real sense of danger involved. Modern audiences are so used to the cartoonish CGI effects and the work of expert stuntmen that most of the death defying action scenes we see today amount to nothing more than an impressive pyrotechnics show. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but watching Harold hang high above the building is far more exciting because the shots clearly aren’t done with a fake backdrop or by superimposing Harold Lloyd against a blue screen. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it was done, except to note that it is still an extremely dangerous stunt.
I may have made this sound like nothing more than a long thrill sequence, but that is far from the case. This is one of the funniest extended gags in any film I’ve seen. Harold has to dodge tons of obstacles during his climb, all while his friend is trying to dodge the cop. Each gag builds on the next in hilarious fashion. It’s really amazing how many ideas Lloyd and his filmmakers came up with here. Just when you think they’ve run out, they come up with another one to throw at you.
The film doesn’t ride completely on this sequence alone. There are numerous gags in the first half of the picture, including a clever trick with the opening shot and Harold’s attempts at pretending to be the store manager to impress his girlfriend. Harold is a very ingratiating performer and he is ably assisted by Bill Strother, who does a terrific job in the only film he would ever make. And behind it all we have a simple, but timeless story of a hardworking man (literally) climbing to the top.
I saw fewer films than expected for this year for a couple reasons. A few films just lost my interest for various reasons. I was convinced that De Mille's King of Kings and Fairbanks The Gaucho really were not going to make my top 10. Also, I declined to watch the 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, because the racial attitudes of the time (as evidenced in Siren of the Tropics and College) already made me uncomfortable and it didn't appear this film would change that feeling.
There were also a few films that I planned to see but later discovered they did not meet my criteria for 1927. Films are placed in the year that they debuted in the United States, as long as that is within 3 years of the international release. If it is later, or if it never got released in the US, then it counts for the international release year. That's why Bed and Sofa qualifies for 1927, but Hitchcock's The Lodger, Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg, Eisenstein's October, Gance's Napoleon, and Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City will be placed into later years.
And here is the 1927 Top 10 List:
10. Bed and Sofa (Abram Room)
This surprisignly mature film for 1927 really caught me by surprise. I figured it would be a serious melodrama, but it contains a breezy score, delicate performances, and a hilarious ending. Brilliant treatment of subject matter by Abram Room.
9. Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage)
Melodrama done right. Everything is over the top, but Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell know how to make it work. Gaynor was ahead of most other actresses of her time, in her ability to play dramatic scenes without going over the top.
8. The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni)
Every haunted house movie owes something to this one. Leni does a terrific job with the premise, creating suspense through some vivid atmosphere and utilizing early sound effects very well. Martha Mattox's brilliantly droll turn as Mammy Pleasant is a delight.
7. The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton)
This might not be the masterpeice that everyone claims, but it is still a very funny film. Contains some very impressive and hilarious stunts performed by Buster Keaton. If only he was a more likeable guy, it would be easier to root for him.
6. The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde)
Harold Lloyd doesn't quite have that problem. He's instantly likeable here, as usual playing an underdog that just wants his brothers to quit picking on him and for his dad to believe in him. Has a stronger story than most silent comedies, and some memorable comedy gags throughout.
5. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch)
This is the first of what will likely be very many appearances by Lubitsch on these lists. He takes a standard romance, puts his special touch on it, and makes it feel completely new. Novarro and Shearer are a great romantic pair, and Hersholt is memorable in a supporting role.
4. The Unknown (Tod Browning)
Tod Browning tells a fascinating story about outcasts in a travelling circus troupe. The story is filled with wonderful surprises and brilliantly realized dramatic moments. There is a reaction scene in here where Lon Chaney does some of the finest acting ever captured on film. Works as a great horror/suspense, but also works as genuine drama.
3. Underworld (Josef Von Sternberg)
It's a shame that this film is not currently available on DVD, because it's a wonderful example of classic silent cinema. Like The Unknown, it works on multiple levels. Here we have a classic gangster story with a memorable tough guy at the lead, but we also have a fantastic story of loyalty and redemption at the core. Outstanding performances by all three leads.
2. Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang was just operating at a level much higher than most other directors of his era. Here he gives us an amazing vision of a futuristic city and the divide between the privileged (who live in the clouds) and the workers that literally power the city. Lang manages to give us a story with in depth political themes, but also a very fast paced and exciting one.
1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau)
When I first saw it, I wasn't sure this would be my #1, mainly because I had some major questions about the ending. However, this is the film that has stayed with me the most. Murnau's style is very impressive, telling a story with very few title cards and trusting his actors to get the message across, and his beautiful shots of city life are memorable. Janet Gaynor is particularly impressive with her ability to play dramatic scenes without going over the top. The ending still haunts me, but if anything, that's a good thing.
Tod Browning, The Unknown
*Fritz Lang, Metropolis
Ernst Lubitsch, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
FW Murnau, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Josef Von Sternberg, Underworld
Best Lead Actor
George Bancroft, Underworld
*Lon Chaney, The Unknown
Harold Lloyd, The Kid Brother
Ramon Novarro, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
George O'Brien, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Best Lead Actress
Evelyn Brent, Underworld
Greta Garbo, Love
Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven
*Janet Gaynor, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Norma Shearer, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Best Supporting Actor
William Austin, It
Clive Brook, Underworld
*Jean Hersholt, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Metropolis
Warner Oland, The Jazz Singer
Best Supporting Actress
Eugenie Besserer, The Jazz Singer
Joan Crawford, The Unknown
Brigitte Helm, Metropolis
*Martha Mattox, The Cat and the Canary
Jobyna Ralston, The Kid Brother
The General (Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman)
*Metropolis (Thea von Harbou)
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Marian Ainslee, Ruth Cummings)
Underworld (Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman)
The Unknown (Tod Browning, Joseph Farnham)
Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, Viktor Shklovsky)
The Kid Brother (John Grey, Ted Wilde, Thomas J. Crizer)
*Sunrise (Carl Meyer, Katharine Hilliker, HH Caldwell)
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
Best Art Direction
The Cat and the Canary
Best Costume Design
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
The Cat and the Canary
Monday, August 25, 2008
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Brandon Hurst, Philippe De Lacey
Background: MGM was eager to recreate the success they had with Flesh and the Devil, a romance which had starred Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. They decided to film a scripted adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina with the two stars paired up once again. The studio settled with the title Love so they could have ads saying "Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in LOVE".
Story: Anna Karenina (Garbo) is a married woman who falls in love with military officer Captain count Vronsky (Gilbert). Despite initial reluctance to betray her vows, she starts spending more and more time with him. However, the lovers are forced to make a difficult decision when Vronsky's military career is put in serious jeopardy as a result of the affair.
Thoughts: Greta Garbo. That's really all you need to say. The camera really loves her, and she's filmed with incredibly soft lighting that actually does make her glow. It's definitely a challenge for anyone to be her leading man, but John Gilbert does as good a job as can be expected, and the chemistry between the two is strong enough to support the love story. Goulding is a sophisticated director, and moves things along nicely with plenty of style. Where the film runs into problems is when it departs from Tolstoy's novel at the end. There's nothing wrong with departing from your source material, but you better have a good reason to do so and the ending to this film is absurd. Give me a break, but also give me more Greta Garbo. (Note: There is an alternate ending in the international version that follows the ending of Tolstoy's novel, but I have not seen it.)
Postscript: Greta Garbo would of course go on to become one of the most famous actresses in history, with her most famous roles coming in 1932's Grand Hotel and 1939's Ninotchka. She even did another adaptation of Anna Karenina in 1935, this time paired up with Frederic March. Gilbert would reunite with Garbo a couple more times, but his career faltered during the sound era, although it is doubtful his voice had anything to do with it. Director Goulding had a successful directing career, which included the 1932 Best Picture winner Grand Hotel.
Director: Abram Room
Cast: Nikolai Batalov, Lyudmila Semyonova, Vladimir Fogel
Background: Director Abram Room had 4 films under his belt before Bed and Sofa, but none of them distinguished enough to be available today. Nikolai Batalov was just coming off a lead role in a classic Russian silent film called Mother. Vladimir Fogel also had a notable performance in the 1925 film Chess Fever (which is packaged with Bed and Sofa on DVD release).
Story: Kolia (Batalov) and Liuda (Semyonova) are a married couple living in a tiny Moscow apartment. When Kolia's unemployed friend Volodia (Fogel) comes to Moscow, the couple invite him to stay. Volodia sleeps on the sofa, while Kolia and his wife share the bed just a few feet away. However, when Kolia goes away on a business trip, Liuda and Volodia begin to fall for one another.
Thoughts: Well, this is certainly an interesting film. Who would've thought that in Communist Russia of all places would we have the 1927 version of Melrose Place? And I don't even mean that as an insult. This is a fun and totally surprising comedy that really takes you places you wouldn't expect from a silent film. I mean, just imagine the situation of a man who leaves his cheating wife, only to find no place to live and now forced to sleep on the sofa just a few feet from where his wife sleeps with his former best friend. That is just crazy and totally messed up, and I loved every minute of it. This definitely has some cleverly subtle political points, but I love that Room avoids the melodrama and plays this mostly for the humor. The three cast members have excellent chemistry together, creating an interesting dynamic. The final scene is one of the biggest laughs I've had outside of a Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd film. Well played, Mr. Room.
Postscript: Abram Room would continue directing until 1971, but none of his movies got much notice. The same can be said for the actors, none of whom had a substantial career after this film was released.
Director: William Wellman
Cast: Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Jobyna Ralston, Gary Cooper
Background: Paramount granted director William Wellman an unheard of budget of $2 million for a story about heroism in World War 1. Wellman had not yet distinguished himself with any film work, but he was given the gift of Clara Bow in a major role, which back then meant almost guaranteed success.
Story: Jack (Rogers) and David (Arlen) are two young men from the same hometown that go off to fight in World War 1. They're both in love with the same woman (Ralston), although Jack's next door neighor Mary (Bow) is the one in love with him. Jack and David become friends while training to be fighter pilots, and put aside their differences to take on the enemy.
Thoughts: If Michael Bay was alive in 1927, this is the film he would've made. Wings has battle sequences that were certainly advanced for the time period, but it features a brainless story and some particularly awful acting. As much as I liked Clara Bow in the flawed It, she is incredibly annoying here. She goes way overboard in making her character perky and is practically hopping up and down after every line. The story takes a major detour from the action in the 2nd act for an excessively long and annoying sequence where Jack is drunk and doesn't recognize Mary, who is trying to inform him that leave has been cancelled. The scene would be stupid no matter what, but it is seriously derailed by the awful performance from Buddy Rogers, who is even worse here than he was in My Best Girl. Then there's a major event that happens in the 3rd act that has some interesting psychological implications, and the right director could've done something interesting with it. William Wellman is apparently not that director. This is just really, really bad storytelling and the fact that the Academy chose to honor this film with the first Best Picture Oscar just shows they were just as stupid in the 20s as they are today. (Note: They did get No Country For Old Men right, but I'm still pissed about Crash.)
Postscript: This not only won the first Best Picture Oscar, but it was one of the most succesful movies of the silent era. The formula would be aped countless times over the years. Wellman would have a long and distinguished career, directing some very notable films, including Public Enemy and The Ox-Bow Incident. Richard Arlen would continue acting through the 70s, mostly in supporting roles. Wings also marked one of the first film appearances of Gary Cooper. Nothing notable here, but we will run into him again shortly.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Director: Sidney Franklin
Cast: Marion Davies, Conrad Nagel, Helen Jerome Eddy, Flora Finch, Margaret Seddon
Background: Marion Davies was probably most notable for being the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, and this caused some negative press for her, especially since he would end up financing her films. She was said to have strong comedic skills, but Hearst preferred her to star in expensive costume dramas and this hampered her career a bit. Quality Street was an adaptation of a play by JM Barrie.
Story: Phoebe Throssel (Davies) is ecstatic to be engaged to Dr. Valentine Brown (Nagel). Unfortunately, he goes off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars before their marriage. When he returns 10 years later, he is shocked at how much she has aged. She decides to pose as her younger niece Livvy to try and entice him.
Thoughts: Hearst liked her in the expensive costume dramas, and this fits that bill despite a premise that seems ripe for comedy. Part of the problem is director Sidney Franklin, who just doesn't have the light touch of a Lubitsch. The film takes forever on a rather dull courtship between Phoebe and Valentine, when this really should have been the first act. Of course, they may just have followed the play, but if you've got weak source material, you pay the price for sticking to it. The film is surprisingly humorless and does not take advantage of Marion Davies obvious comedic skills, which are hinted at in a few scenes when the director decides to lighten up. Nagel is a listless leading man, but there are some nice supporting performances, especially from Helen Jerome Eddy as Phoebe's best friend. It's a shame that this is one of the very few Marion Davies films available on DVD, because it is not representative of her best work at all.
Postscript: Davies would be very successful the next year with two King Vidor pictures, The Patsy and Show People. She was able to successfully transition to the sound era with performances in musicals like Marianne and Peg O' My Heart, but would retire in 1937 to spend more time with Hearst. There was a remake of Quality Street in 1937 with Katherine Hepburn in the Davies role, but it flopped badly at the box office.