Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ten Years

The end of this month (May 2015) marks ten years that I have been keeping this blog. I started it in May 2005 (May 25th, to be precise) as a way to record my thoughts on films I watched, and as a place to publish essays on various film-related topics. I've enjoyed having it as an outlet to share my thoughts on the movies I'm passionate about, and have greatly appreciated the many people who have read or commented on the blog over the years.

To celebrate this little milestone, I thought I would share my ten favorite posts that I've written here over the past decade. Here they are, in chronological order of their publication date:

1. Abel Gance's NAPOLEON  (March 26, 2006)
A review of Abel Gance's landmark 1927 silent film and its legacy.

2. HEARTS OF THE WORLD (April 8, 2008)
A review of D.W. Griffith's 1918 war epic.

3. The Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part 1 (April 21, 2008)
The first in a series of critical analyses of selected films made by Edwin S. Porter.

4. Dracula Re-visited (October 21, 2008)
A critical analysis of Tod Browning's iconic 1931 horror classic.

5. A New Approach to Narrative (February 22, 2010)
An essay on approaches to storytelling in the age of online video.

6.. The Dilemma of Harold Lloyd (May 6, 2010
A critical appreciation of the silent comedy genius, and his unique origins as a wholly-original film comedian.

7. Return to the Kingdom of Shadows (January 15, 2011)
A short essay on the continued power of the moving image to capture audiences' imagination.

8. The Next Step for Digital Filmmaking (December 14, 2013)
An essay on the state of digital independent filmmaking.

9. Five Easy Pieces (July 21, 2014)
A review of Bob Rafelson's landmark film of the New Hollywood movement. I began reviewing films regularly on my blog in January 2014, as a way to record my thoughts on everything I watched and to discover new films. Out of hundreds of these reviews I've written so far, this one is my favorite, because my reaction to the film reminded me that it's still possible to come across a movie I haven't seen before that has the power to affect me in ways I could never have imagined.

10. Baltimore City in Herman G. Weinberg's "Autumn Fire" (May 26, 2015)
An original research piece on my home city's role in an important early work of American avant garde filmmaking.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Time Piece (1965)

Jim Henson was such a versatile genius that it can be easy to take for granted the rich variety of work he created across different media and formats. This 1965 experimental short film -- which Henson wrote, directed and starred in -- is one such example. With its creative use of sound and editing, zany satirical humor, and densely layered ideas expressed through constant formal invention, it's one of the best things Henson ever did.

Hallelujah (1929)

This landmark early talkie -- a musical melodrama about a family of black sharecroppers in the American South -- is notable as one of the first all-black sound films made in Hollywood. It was a highly personal project for director King Vidor, who wanted to present an authentic portrayal of black life in the South, using a cast comprised entirely of African-American actors and filmed on location (in Tennessee and Arkansas). The film is notable too for its pioneering use of location sound recording and fluid cinematography, which Vidor achieved by shooting silent and dubbing the sound later.

The results are still quite powerful, though a bit quaint at times today, and possess a vibrant energy, thanks to Vidor's innovative direction, the standout performances of Daniel L. Haynes and Nina Mae McKinney, and the rich soundtrack consisting of Spiritual songs.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Baltimore City in Herman G. Weinberg's "Autumn Fire" (1931)

Of the figures who have contributed to Baltimore City's rich regional film culture, one who must be mentioned is Herman G. Weinberg (1908-1983). Weinberg -- a noted film historian, critic, translator, and instructor -- is probably best known by cinephiles today for his film column "Coffee, Brandy and Cigars" and for his numerous books which include Stroheim: A Pictorial Record, The Complete "Greed", and The Lubitsch Touch. Weinberg was also instrumental in the importing and exhibition of foreign-language films in the US, translating subtitles for more than 300 films in a variety of languages.

Though born in Manhattan and based in New York for many years, Weinberg's early career in film can be traced to Baltimore, where he managed The Little Theater, opened in 1927 and located at 523 North Howard Street (it has since been demolished, and is now a parking lot). Incidentally, several short biographical sketches of Weinberg that I've looked at online state that he was the manager of "a little theater" in Baltimore, apparently not realizing that "The Little" was actually the name of the theater. The Little was known as a venue for what would today be termed art house fare, including important foreign films and independent films (my grandfather, an avid moviegoer in Baltimore at the time, recalls seeing the Technicolor production of The Mikado there in 1939).

But Weinberg's contributions to Baltimore's film culture extended beyond his curatorial role as the manager of the Little Theater. In 1931, he wrote and directed an important film in the American avant garde movement, Autumn Fire. This 15-minute lyrical film poem follows two lovers who are separated by distance -- the man in the city, the woman in the country -- and are finally reunited in New York. The silent film tells its story entirely through images, aided occasionally by the text of written letters. The beauty of Weinberg's compositions demonstrate a real eye for setting and detail, making it a pity that this was the only film he completed. It borrows aspects of the "City Symphonies" of the 1920s, with its montages of a modern industrial metropolis, and contains elements of what P. Adams Sitney in Visionary Film calls the "trance film", in its dreamlike unfolding of narrative events and emphasis on the relationship between the characters and their respective environments.

According to Robert A. Haller's article on the film (originally published in Field of Vision, Nos. 9-10, Winter-Spring 1980, and reprinted in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1893-1947, ed. Bruce Posner), Autumn Fire grew out of an earlier film project that Weinberg began but never finished, called A City Symphony, and notes that Weinberg was influenced by filmmakers such as Eisenstein (Romances-Sentimentale), Dimitri Kirsanoff (Brumes d'Autome), and Walter Ruttman (Berlin). He also mentions a charming anecdote about the production, that it was intended as a kind of cinematic love letter to Erna Bergman, who played the girl in the film.

Knowing that Weinberg was based in Baltimore at the time he made Autumn Fire, I became interested in the possibility that he had filmed at least some of it there. As a native of Maryland as well as a filmmaker myself, I was intrigued by this previously-unexplored link between Autumn Fire and its possible connection to the city.

Having seen the film several times, I knew the final scenes were shot, or at least set, in New York, as indicated by an on-screen note that refers to the "Central Station". Haller notes that the Manhattan footage Weinberg shot for A City Symphony in the late '20s was cut up and edited into Autumn Fire, which would explain the later "city" scenes taken in New York.

However, it is the earlier "city" scenes that interested me, and I revisited those with an eye toward looking for any identifiable signs that they might have been shot in Baltimore. Although the sequences consisted mostly of brief glimpses of the ships, piers, harbor, etc., there were a couple of shots that contained a view of the city skyline. I realized upon closer inspection that the skyline was all wrong for it to be New York, due to the lack of towering skyscrapers and other recognizable landmarks that would have been present even in 1931.

Taking a closer look at Autumn Fire on DVD, freeze-framing the fragmentary shots, it suddenly became clear: Weinberg did indeed shoot these scenes in Baltimore. Again, it was the skyline that provided the clue. In the shot below, I recognized the unmistakable structure of the Baltimore Trust Company Building (at one time the tallest building in the city and today the Bank of America building, built in 1929 and located at 10 Light Street). Immediately to its left in this shot is another building that remains today, the First National Bank Building (formerly the Legg Mason Building, built in 1924).

The next question was determining which area of the city this shot was taken from. Based on the angle of the buildings, it appeared to be taken in the spot where the USS Constellation is currently docked, at Pier 1 in the Inner Harbor.

With this evidence, I headed to Baltimore to take photos of the area today. Knowing how much the skyline has built up over the years, I doubted I would be able to get a picture of the buildings from the same angle. I was correct -- this particular view is no longer visible from the Inner Harbor, but I was able to find a view of the buildings from a similar angle, further up on Pratt Street:

Here is what the view from Pier 1 looks like today. The area has been built up considerably, between the skyscrapers and the construction of Harbor Place:

Many of the shots in the film appear to have been taken on or around piers that no longer exist. I have been unable to identify the precise locations of which piers might have been used. However, one shot shows a boat docking, clearly marked "Balto, MD", evidence that these scenes were at least taken in Baltimore's harbor:

There is one shot of the harbor taken from a high vantage point, which was possibly filmed from Federal Hill, located across from Harbor Place:

From atop Federal Hill, this was the only view I could get that resembled that in the film at all, though it is difficult to be certain, again, considering how much the area has been developed over the years. The only distinctive elements to go on were the height of the vantage point from which it was taken, which suggested Federal Hill, and the fact that the harbor veers off to the right at an angle:

Presumably, Weinberg shot these scenes in Baltimore due to the need to incorporate the character of "The Man" (played by non-professional actor Willy Hildebrand) into the story, and to supplement the Manhattan footage that he was recycling from A City Symphony (the majority of which seems to focus on the towering skyscrapers, trains, and bustling traffic). Haller notes that the scenes with Erna Bergman were shot first, which suggests that they were filmed somewhere in rural Maryland, though without further research, it is impossible to be sure.

This discovery of Baltimore's role in Autumn Fire establishes a link between the city and the early American avant garde film movement of the 1930s, and provides a starting point in continuing to examine Weinberg's contributions to Baltimore's film culture both as a filmmaker and exhibitor.

Herman G. Weinberg's papers are held in the collection of the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. I plan to continue my research using the materials held in his archive and to hopefully be able to shed new light onto Weinberg's time in Baltimore.

*Update: Read about the filming location in Preston Gardens Park here.

Freedman, Samuel G. "Herman G. Weinberg, Writer and Foreign Film Translator." The New York Times. 8 November, 1983. Web. Accessed 26 May, 2015. <>

Haller, Robert A. "Herman G. Weinberg, Autumn Fire (1930-1933)", originally published in Field of Vision, Nos. 9-10, Winter-Spring 1980, pp. 6-7, reprinted in Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1893-1947, ed. Bruce Posner. Filmmakers Showcase, 2001. pp. 137-138.

Herman G. Weinberg Collection, Biographical/Historical Information. The New York Public Library Archives and Manuscripts. Web. Accessed 20 May, 2015. <>

Levin, Michael. "The Little Theatre in Baltimore". Web. Accessed 20 May, 2015 <>

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Devil's Party (1938)

B-crime drama about a group of friends, who grew up on the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen and reunite once each year for old times' sake. One of the gang, Marty (Victor McLaglen), has a criminal past, but now runs a successful nightclub. However, the friendships are threatened when one of Marty's regular customers is murdered, and his two old buddies -- now cops -- become involved in the investigation.

A solid, quick-paced programmer running just over an hour, it's nothing special but nonetheless possesses a certain charm for its unpretentious entertainment value, benefiting from good production values and a fine performance by McLaglen.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The House on 92nd Street (1945)

Political espionage procedural about an undercover agent for the FBI, who infiltrates a group of Nazi spies operating out of a house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The premise is ultimately marred by the fact that it lacks any real suspense, as there isn't any doubt that the government agents will save the day, and the rather too convenient conclusion feels both contrived and anti-climactic. The picture is helped by strong location photography (with nice views of 1940s New York and Washington DC), and a solid cast including William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Signe Hasso, Leo G. Carroll and Gene Lockhart. Produced for 20th Century-Fox by documentary filmmaker Louis DeRochement, the film combines actual newsreel footage with the dramatic action to good effect, while Henry Hathaway's direction is characteristically straightforward.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorsese's sweeping, epic account of the Five Points section of New York during the 1860s, and the tensions between immigrant groups and the native-born Americans, stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first film for Scorsese) as an Irish priest's son who infiltrates the gang of crime boss Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, in a tour-de-force performance). Directed with a keen sense of period detail and atmosphere, this vivid re-creation of Civil War-era Manhattan (constructed on the massive stages at Cinecitta) is based on Herbert Asbury's account of the period in his book of the same name.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Freddy Got Fingered (2001)

A truly inspired piece of surrealist humor, certainly one of the most original and genuinely funny comedies to come out of Hollywood in the past couple decades. The story, such as it is, involves Tom Green's efforts to become a successful animator and move out of his parents' house, but any plot is just a pretense on which to build a series of outrageous, surreal visual gags -- such as Green scooping out and wearing a dead deer carcass, dressing in a backwards suit as "Backwards Man", showering in full SCUBA gear, and playing a piano with dozens of sausages attached to strings on his fingers -- that recall the works of Bunuel and Dali, or Buster Keaton (to whom Green pays homage with a reference to STEAMBOAT BILL JR. late in the film). Green is fearless in his use of extreme, gross-out humor, and remains committed to the material, never breaking character or winking at the audience to re-assure them that it's just a joke. It is on this strength that the film succeeds so well.

Special mention should be made of Rip Torn as Green's long-suffering father, an inspired bit of casting. Julie Hagerty, Harland Williams, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Anthony Michael Hall are all effective in supporting parts. It's fortunate that Green was able to get studio financing for this project while having full creative control by co-writing and directing as well as starring in it. It's hard to imagine it being made today, but he certainly made the most of all the resources at his disposal and created something truly original and funny. It's not for all tastes, to be sure, but it's a welcome change of pace for anyone bored with run-of-the-mill, uninspired Hollywood comedies.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The House of Rothschild (1934)

Stirring historical drama, lavishly produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, tracing the rise of the Rothschild banking family and their struggle against anti-Semitism in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. George Arliss stars in a dual role as Nathan Rothschild and his father, Mayer. Arliss's sensitive portrayal of Nathan, the central figure in the family, is the film's greatest asset, as Nunnally Johnson's script (adapted from the George Hembert Westley play) necessarily covers many events in a short amount of time, resulting in subplots (the romance between Loretta Young and Robert Young) and characters (especially Boris Karloff's Count Ledrantz) that feel underdeveloped, not helped any by Alfred Werker's slick and impersonal direction. Still, it's a powerful and handsomely-mounted production, and contains one of Arliss's finest performances (in a career filled with fine performances).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

A first-rate adaptation of the Edmond Rostand play, about a romantic poet-soldier whose exceptional bravery and wit mask a deep insecurity toward women because of his unusually large nose. Unable to express his love for his beautiful cousin, Roxane, Cyrano is instead forced to speak through the handsome young soldier whom she loves, providing him with impossibly eloquent romantic sentiments with which to woo her.

The pitch-perfect balance of humor and tragedy is beautifully achieved by Carl Foreman's script, Michael Gordon's understated but effective direction, and Jose Ferrer's truly magnificent performance in the title role, ably supported by Mala Powers, William Prince, Ralph Clanton, Morris Carnovsky and Lloyd Corrigan. Produced independently by Stanley Kramer, the superb qualities of the writing and Ferrer's performance overcome the limitations imposed by the obviously low budget.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: "King of Comedy" by Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett's autobiography (as told to Cameron Shipp and originally published in 1954) is a highly entertaining read, capturing the spirit of its author and subject with humor, energy and vitality. However, its accuracy with regards to facts has to be taken with an extremely large grain of salt. Sennett peppers his life story with tall-tales and exaggerations, which are in keeping with the larger-than-life qualities of the personalities and experiences of the early days of the comedy picture business that he portrays so vividly.

Sennett takes a predictably skeptical view of the perceptive critics who saw his frantic comedies as a new art form and offered analyses of his filmic style, though Sennett is sure to acknowledge that his freewheeling and zany pictures were the result of much hard work and planning, and that comedy was a very serious business indeed to the men and women involved in their creation.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the early chapters dealing with Sennett's entry into show business, through a letter of introduction from Calvin Coolidge, of all people, to stage star Marie Dressler, who in turn recommended Sennett to producer David Belasco in New York. Sennett's account of the New York show business world at the turn of the century is vivid and colorful, especially in discussing the many personalities who were just beginning to flourish at that time. The account of his arrival at Biograph and subsequent tutelage under D.W. Griffith is particularly interesting in describing the relatively casual and carefree way in which these films were made, and the sense of discovery and potential that they saw in the medium. Of all the future collaborators Sennett met in his days at Biograph's studio on east 14th Street, perhaps the most significant for him, both personally and professionally, was Mabel Normand.

He devotes a great deal of the book to Normand, whom he clearly had a great deal of affection and fondness for years after her passing, and even given the tensions that arose between them following their broken engagement in 1915 (though Sennett is rather coy and inconsistent about the details in his account here). What is clear is that he thought the world of Normand and, as he states at the end of the book, one of his goals in writing it was for readers to be able to get to know her. Sennett has kind words, too, about other fellow clowns and collaborators, especially Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, and Hank Mann, delights in telling how he discovered Charlie Chaplin, and laments having lost Harold Lloyd before realizing his full potential.

The chapters on the William Desmond Taylor murder are interesting for Sennett's perspective on Normand's involvement in the case, though they perhaps attempt to move through the details in too small an amount of space, leaving the reader wanting more information about the mysterious scandal that rocked the Hollywood film industry. After brief discussions of his discovery of both Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields for the movies, Sennett tells of the terrible loss of his personal fortune in 1935 following the financial collapse of Paramount (through whom he was distributing his films at that point), but concludes the book on a happy note, mentioning the honorary Oscar he was presented with by his old gagman Frank Capra, and his surprise appearance on Ralph Edwards' "This is Your Life", where he was reunited with a number of familiar faces from his past.

Like many show business autobiographies, "King of Comedy" is more successful at evoking a time and place than it is with a meticulous record of the facts. Taken in that way, the book is an enjoyable personal account of Sennett's life in pictures that captures the spirit of the man and his own legend, and provides a window into the creation of an exciting art form.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Man's Genesis (1912)

A "psychological comedy founded on Darwin's theory of the Genesis of Man," as the film's subtitle puts it, about a scrawny but intelligent caveman called Weak Hands (Robert Harron), whose romance with the beautiful Lily White (Mae Marsh) is threatened by the big, burly Brute Force (Wilfred Lucas). Setting out to win back his lost love, Weak Hands conceives of the first weapon to defeat his opponent, attaching a sharp rock to a stick which he uses as a club to bludgeon Brute Force to death. Brains win out over brawn. The whole "caveman" gimmick is framed as a flashback device, bookended by modern day segments in which a grandfather preaches the importance of non-violence to his grandson after he catches the boy antagonizing his sister with a stick (his message of non-violence would seem to be contradicted by the outcome of his story, but no matter).

As the description indicates, it's very heavy-handed and blunt in its storytelling and characterizations, and contains none of the technical innovations that mark Griffith's most interesting work from this period. It seems that by 1912, he was clearly reaching the limitations of narrative filmmaking within the one- and two-reel format. Griffith was quoted as comparing the production methods at Biograph to "grinding out sausages", a furious rate of production which of course allowed him to learn much and make great strides in a short period of time, but which has its inevitable drawbacks that become clear in an uninspired effort like this. His "pet project" during his last days at Biograph was the four-reel JUDITH OF BETHULIA, which pointed the way to the large-scale epics on which he'd soon embark. MAN'S GENESIS feels like Griffith going through the motions.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mickey (1918)

Produced by Mack Sennett as a feature-length starring vehicle for Mabel Normand, this is less a typical Sennett slapstick comedy, and more a genteel drama with elements of humor. The plot is fairly complicated: a struggling old California miner (George Nichols) is raising the orphaned daughter (Normand) of his old mining partner, and sends her to live with her aunt (Laura Lavarnie) on Long Island in order to make a lady out of her. Her romance with a handsome young miner (Wheeler Oakman) is threatened by the advances of a slimy playboy (Lew Cody) who is only interested in her newfound fortune earned from the mine.

Normand shines in this otherwise stock melodrama plot, bringing just the right mix of humor and charm to the title role, and proving herself equally adept at scenes of broad physical comedy and intimate, tender romance.  Her performance here -- under the expert direction of comedy veteran F. Richard Jones -- is a fine demonstration of her exceptional gifts as a comedienne and the qualities that made her one of the most popular stars of the period. In his autobiography, "King of Comedy", Sennett is quite proud of the film, which he conceived as a showcase for Normand (with whom he had been romantically involved, and was clearly still quite fond of), and was made just at the time that their association -- both personal and professional -- was coming to an end.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Children in the Surf, Coney Island (1904)

One of the numerous actualitie subjects taken by G.W. "Billy" Bitzer for the Biograph company during the early years of the 20th century, demonstrating Bitzer's eye for spatiality and depth in his compositions, with the children splashing about in the foreground and the rolling waves crashing toward them.

There is a remarkable moment that occurs toward the end of this subject, after the other children have exited the frame. One small boy appears with a toy boat that gets tossed about in the surf, while in the background a tall ship passes by. It's really quite a striking composition, with the contrast between the small toy ship and the actual, full-sized one in the distance. The sudden appearance of this marvelous shot at the end of the film suggests that it was a spontaneous addition to an otherwise routine subject depicting children at play.

The film is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Silent Film Editing in The Big Parade (1925)

The battle of Belleau Wood sequence from King Vidor's THE BIG PARADE:

The oppressive rhythm of the action -- with even death in combat reduced to a mechanical beat -- creates a powerful visual representation of the dehumanizing effects of war, and a perfect synergy between form and content.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Big Parade (1925)

The first, and quite possibly the greatest, of the WWI epics made during the 1920s -- soon followed by such films as WHAT PRICE GLORY? and WINGS -- and produced on an incredible scale by the fledgling MGM as one of its first blockbuster hits (it was, in fact, the highest-grossing film of the silent era). Even with its massive scale battle scenes and epic scope, what is most remarkable is the sensitive and intimate focus on the character relationships, masterfully handled by director King Vidor. He allows the pacing to proceed at a leisurely pace, never feeling rushed or hurried to get to the war scenes, which make the climactic scenes on the nocturnal battlefields all the more effective, since we have spent so much time with these characters and really care about their fates.

John Gilbert gives perhaps his finest performance as the idle, rich young man who enlists in the army on a whim and undergoes a real transformation after falling in love with a French farm girl (Renee Adoree) and experiencing combat alongside his fellow soldiers. Silent screen veterans Claire McDowell and Hobart Bosworth appear as Gilbert's parents, and that fine character actor Karl Dane is memorable as the gawky but courageous riveter-turned-corporal, Slim.

Special mention should be made of Vidor's expert handling of the march through Belleau Wood. He shot the scene with the actors marching in time to a metronome, precisely edited to the beats, creating an eerily unnatural and stylized rhythm that remains unbroken even as the men stoically step over the bodies of fallen soldiers or shoot snipers out of the trees while marching into enemy fire. It is an excellent visual metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of war.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, New Jersey (1964)

The history of early filmmaking in Fort Lee, NJ has never quite received the attention that it would seem to warrant. Historians such as Theodore Huff and, more recently, Richard Koszarski, combined of course with the fine work of the Fort Lee Film Commission, have done an admirable job in shedding light on the American film industry's east coast origins. An important effort in documenting this still largely neglected area of film history is this 1964 documentary by historian Thomas Hanlon. Running a brisk 45 minutes, it presents a solid overview of the beginnings of the film industry in New Jersey, as well as key figures who worked there. Told largely through the use of still photographs, as well as home movie footage (taken in 1935 by Theodore Huff) of the remains of studio buildings in Fort Lee, there are also generous excerpts from such films as RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE'S NEST (1908, directed by Edwin S. Porter and starring D.W. Griffith), THE CURTAIN POLE (1909, a rare slapstick comedy directed by Griffith and starring Mack Sennett, whose comic fingerprints are definitely on the construction of the film's chase scenes), and THE LONELY VILLA (1909, an important melodrama directed by Griffith, noted for its effective use of parallel editing), which serve as a good example of the rich and varied work that was being produced in Fort Lee during cinema's early years.