Friday, August 11, 2017

Amateur Cinema

I'd say it's time for independent filmmakers to reclaim the word "amateur" and wear it as a badge of honor!


Herman G. Weinberg on Robert Florey, from "A Paradox in the Photoplay", in Movie Makers: the Magazine of the Amateur Cinema League, January 1929.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tales of Manhattan (1942)


I watched this film the other night. It's one of those omnibus films like IF I HAD A MILLION or O. HENRY'S FULL HOUSE -- with five stories involving a cursed tailcoat as it is transferred from one owner to the next and changes their fortunes in the process -- except this one is the work of a single director, Julien Duvivier, which accounts for the stylistic consistency between the individual segments here when compared with other films of this kind.

The five segments are all interesting if rather offbeat stories acted by major stars including Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, among many others. (the copy I saw is missing the W.C. Fields sequence that was restored in the '90s, which is often cited as a highlight and which I've seen elsewhere, but is far from being among The Great Man's best work).

It's too bad Hollywood doesn't make films like this anymore, outside of the odd example such as 1989's NEW YORK STORIES or 2008's NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU. The format offers a lot of potential to tell short stories and the best of them can operate like variations on a theme.

A side note, but there's a particular little moment in this film that I loved: Eugene Pallette delivers the tailcoat to Henry Fonda's manservant Roland Young, who is cleaning up balloons and other debris after a wild party the night before. Young lets go of the balloons, which float up to the ceiling. A moment later, one balloon bursts off-screen, presumably from coming into contact with the hot klieg lights at the top of the set, and the men react to it briefly, while continuing on with their dialogue. Likely it was all done in a single take and was left in. It's the kind of little moment that reminds you you're watching a movie, and it calls attention to the all the hardware just out of camera range above the actors on the soundstage.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Film Prints with Stories to Tell



Something I often find interesting in the older, pre-restoration versions of silent films that long circulated on 16mm are the listings of the archival sources through which the prints were acquired, or the program notes and the original year of release added on to the beginning of the film when they were shown as part of a larger program or series. I've seen a number of these older editions used as sources for public domain videotapes and DVD releases over the years, which I like to think of as carrying on the life of these prints...almost as if they have their own stories to tell.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Maltese Falcon (1941)


Great big-screen showing of THE MALTESE FALCON at the Charles tonight. The model of Classical Hollywood economic storytelling. It's a film that cries out to be seen on the big screen -- you become aware of the subtle but masterful technique Huston uses to keep things visually interesting even through pages of dialogue. Great performances all around -- everyone makes an impression and makes the most of their roles, especially Greenstreet, who comes in somewhat late in the picture but commands attention in every scene in which he appears. It's a watershed Hollywood film in some ways -- helping to usher in the era of the writer-director in the early '40s, and pushing the hardboiled detective genre film into new territory, with Spade's torn conscience about turning in the woman he has fallen for while remaining bound by honor and duty to his partner whom she killed. Spade's sarcastic kidding about Brigid O'Shaughnessy's compulsive lying masks an uncertainty and even insecurity about his feelings for her and whether she can be trusted, whether she will ultimately hurt him. His shield of cynicism toward her at the end betrays his vulnerability. A brilliant and even beautiful film...mysterious, evocative...the stuff that dreams are made of.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)


Preston Sturges' final classic was this farce comedy about a temperamental symphony conductor (Rex Harrison) who suspects his wife (Linda Darnell) has been unfaithful to him, and his overheated imagination gets the better of him as he concocts various schemes to exact revenge on his wife and her supposed lover.

An interesting blend of Sturges' characteristic comedy-of-manners laced with slapstick, and a strong dose of dark comedy, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is an uneven but highly interesting and often quite funny film. It is filled with Sturges' sharp observations about human behavior, offering a wry commentary on how the best laid plans often go awry.


Friday, July 14, 2017

German Buster Keaton

One of the great curiosities of the early sound film period are the foreign-language versions of Hollywood films made for overseas markets. Long unseen in the US, many of these were shot simultaneously, often with a different director and supporting cast, on the same sets as the domestic version. These multi-lingual versions were produced to fill the void left by the demise of Hollywood silent films that were highly popular in foreign markets.

Examples include a German-language version of ANNA CHRISTIE (1930), directed by Jacques Feyder and starring Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel; a German-language MOBY DICK (1930), directed by Michael Curtiz and William Dieterle (who also replaced John Barrymore as the star); and perhaps most famously, the Spanish-language version of DRACULA (1931), directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarias, which some critics consider to be superior to the Bela Lugosi version for its comparatively fluid camera movement. 

Especially popular in foreign markets were the comedians. Hal Roach produced foreign-language versions of short comedies starring Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang, often with the stars reading their lines phonetically off a blackboard. In the case of Laurel and Hardy, who enjoyed great popularity in Spain and South America, the team not only made Spanish-language versions of their two-reel comedies, they were even sometimes expanded to four or five reels in length (often by combining the plots of two or more shorts) in order to market them as features and charge higher rental fees in those markets. These foreign language versions are thus not simply carbon copies of the domestic version, but often differ significantly.

 At MGM, Buster Keaton -- the studio's star comedian in the early days of sound -- was struggling to adapt not only to the new medium of sound film, but the constraints imposed on him by the corporate hierarchy of the studio system. Accustomed to the creative freedom that he'd enjoyed working for Joseph M. Schenck during the 1920s, Keaton found himself increasingly reined in after his expensive comedy epic THE GENERAL under-performed at the box office in 1927, and the subsequent combined factors of his signing with MGM and the end of the silent film form in which he had perfected his art marked a massive change in his working methods and the kind of comedies that he could make.

Keaton's struggles at MGM are well-documented, but they are worth reiterating here when one
considers that not only was he forced to make these films not just once, but often multiple times, each in different languages. Following a non-speaking appearance in MGM's THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, a variety-show style film in which most of the studio's major talent performed musical numbers and sketches to show off their voices, Keaton appeared in the musical comedy FREE AND EASY (1930), in which he was required to sing and dance as well as engage in uncharacteristically labored verbal humor. To top it off, the film was simultaneously shot in a Spanish-language version titled ESTRELLADOS.

Subsequent foreign-language versions of Keaton's early MGM talkies include De Frente, Marchen (a Spanish version of DOUGHBOYS [1930]), Buster se Marie and Casanova wider Willen (French and German versions, respectively, of PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH [1931]), and Le plombier amoureux (a French version of THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER [1932]). The advent of dubbing and subtitling helped bring an end to the practice of shooting separate foreign-language versions of Hollywood films around 1932.

Distinctive from the other foreign-language versions that Keaton appeared in, however, is WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD (1931, We Switch to Hollywood, a reference to the radio broadcast report from Hollywood that serves as the set-up for the movie). Sometimes described as a German-language version of THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD is instead an entirely unique film. This is where WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD differs from the typical foreign-language version of the period, rather than simply re-creating the domestic version shot-for-shot but in a different language.

The main draw of THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 was in being able to hear many of MGM's biggest stars talk on-screen for the first time. But WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD was released a full two years later, in 1931, by which time these same stars had already been talking on the screen for quite a while, so the novelty of hearing their voices had presumably worn off. Whereas HOLLYWOOD REVUE was a standard variety-style presentation of the studio's top talent, similar to Warners' SHOW OF SHOWS or PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD takes an entirely different approach.

Paul Morgan in 1906
Subtitled "Eine reportage revue" ("a reportage revue"), the premise finds a German reporter (played by Austrian cabaret performer Paul Morgan) coming to Hollywood with a wireless hand-held radio transmitter to give audiences back home a report of his experiences in Tinseltown. He arrives at MGM, and meets a deposed German nobleman, now working as an extra at the studio, and together, the two tour the lot, interviewing stars along the way and culminating with attending a red carpet movie premiere. Sprinkled throughout are musical numbers lifted from THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, as well as the unfinished 1930 musical revue THE MARCH OF TIME (sequences shot for this never-completed production were used in a number of MGM films of the period, and the All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! blog features a thorough history of the production and a breakdown of its recycled music numbers)

Directed by German actor Frank Reicher (best remembered by audiences today as the Skipper in KING KONG), the cast includes the famous Austrian cabaret star Paul Morgan (who also wrote the screenplay and dialogue), Buster Keaton (who receives second billing among the all-star cast, an indicator of his box office clout abroad at the time), Ramon Novarro, Nora Gregor, Oscar Straus, Adolphe Menjou, Heinrich George, the Dodge Sisters, John Gilbert, Egon von Jordan, and the Albertina Rasch Ballet. Uncredited appearances include Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Gustav Froehlich, Hoot Gibson, Anita Page, Dita Parlo, Norma Shearer and, perhaps most unexpectedly, Russian filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein (who was in Hollywood at the time).

Also worth noting is that the film was photographed by special effects cameraman Ray Binger (though the cinematography throughout is visually unremarkable), and is the earliest known film to have been edited by Adrienne Fazan, who would become one of MGM's most highly-valued and long-time cutters, working on such productions as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and SOME CAME RUNNING, among many others.

Buster Keaton appears in two scenes in the film, totaling just under five minutes of screentime. In the first, he is spotted in a restaurant by Paul Morgan, who tries to interview him, but Buster is unresponsive to him (with the exception of borrowing the wireless radio transmitter to crack some walnuts). Buster only shows attention when he spots a pretty waitress, and follows her out of the restaurant. At this point he is able to engage in some characteristic physical humor. He is first seen reclining in a doorframe, holding himself up by pressing his feet on the opposite side of the frame (re-creating a pose he had used in a publicity still for his 1922 short THE ELECTRIC HOUSE). Next, he steps out of the doorway, which we now see is quite high off the ground, and onto the roof of his car underneath. He nonchalantly jumps off the roof of his car, gets in, and tools off, much to the amusement of Morgan and his companion. Keaton's appearance here is almost completely nonverbal, with only a single line spoken in German.

Keaton's second scene occurs at the very end of the film. Following the movie premiere, Paul Morgan sends his farewell address over the radio. Buster emerges from an alley next to the theater, dressed in caveman attire and carrying a club, which he uses to knock Morgan over the head before delivering the film's final line (in stilted German) at the fade-out. His random appearance (and costume) here suggest that perhaps he appeared at another point in the film, but that it was cut. Some filmographies state that Keaton appeared as a caveman in THE MARCH OF TIME (Marion Meade in Cut to the Chase says he "had two days shooting as a caveman"), which could explain the costume here. It is possible that his footage from that earlier film could have originally been included here, but later cut, or does not survive in extant prints of the film. These two scenes give Keaton an opportunity to perform material entirely different from his scenes in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929.

Although it serves a similar purpose as THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 in giving audiences glimpses of some of MGM's biggest stars, it is inaccurate to describe WIR SCHALTEN UM AUF HOLLYWOOD as merely a German-language version of that earlier film. It is instead an entirely original creation. It is of interest to film historians today not just as an example of a unique early Hollywood foreign-language talkie, but also for the personalities it showcases, its behind-the-scenes glimpses of the MGM studio, and its inclusion of scenes from the unfinished MARCH OF TIME. It is also of great historical value as a filmed record of Paul Morgan, one of the most celebrated cabaret stars of Weimar-era Berlin before his arrest and subsequent tragic and brutal death in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1938 at the hands of the Nazis.

And, as valuable filmed records go, it gives us a chance to see fresh Keaton material, however minimal, which is always a welcome and wonderful thing.


Sunday, July 09, 2017

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)


One of Truffaut's lightest (and most enjoyable) films, a clever homage to Hollywood crime films. A brilliant concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) who has fallen on hard times and is playing in a small-time club runs afoul of a pair of gangsters who are after his brother, while pursuing a romance with the club's waitress (Marie Dubois). Truffaut deftly creates a film that works both as a crime thriller on its own and as a playful riff on the genre at the same time, expertly balancing suspense and comedy from one moment to the next, enlivened by the director's stylistic flourishes, especially his use of cutaways.