I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997), and that comeback was enough to make many wish he’d stayed away. I recall enjoying the entirely superfluous sequel to his signal 1993 hit rather more than the original, but it was hard to deny it encapsulated many of his least-favourable traits. And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he released his moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.
Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s orgiastic reception. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.
I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.
Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.
Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.
The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.
David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.
Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.
Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.
Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.
That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.
Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.
This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.
The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.
Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.
As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.
I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.
Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.
Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.
Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.
The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express, with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it. l
When Farran Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) and I first started talking about doing a fundraising blogathon for film preservation, we didn’t know how much interest we would generate. Our choice of charity to support, the National Film Preservation Foundation, concentrates a great deal of its attention on rescuing the most endangered American films—silent films. And love for silent films is rabid, but not widespread.
Happily, when the blogathon was over, we’d found that a lot of people did indeed love silent films: we raised $30,000 in donations and matching funds and fielded 108 contributions from 81 bloggers. Furthermore, everyone who participated in the blogathon was so excited about our collective accomplishment and receiving credit for saving two important shorts from the 1910s, that we couldn’t not consider having another one.
We’re pleased to announce our second fundraiser, For the Love of Film (Noir), to benefit the Film Noir Foundation. If you’ve been as lucky as I have to attend the FNF’s Noir City, you know they present a terrific line-up, including lesser-known noir films that can’t be seen any other way. This summer, I was thrilled to see a film FNF president Eddie Muller wrote about for the first For the Love of Film blogathon, Cry Danger, as well as City That Never Sleeps, a noir shot in my own hometown, on the only 35mm print known to exist.
While silent films are most in danger, films from every era are being lost as prints disintegrate and disappear. You might be able to find some obscure noir films on an old VHS tape or recorded off TV, the print scratchy, missing scenes, or studded with commercials. That’s no way to treat a film. There is simply nothing like seeing these films the way they were meant to be seen. By helping the FNF, you will be supporting the important preservation and exhibition work they do, not only for American noir films, but also for those produced all over the world.
Last year, we didn’t know what films we would be helping to restore, but this year, we do! In 1950, United Artists released a searing drama called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.
I know everyone loves noir, and that noir crosses all borders of time and place. That gives everyone a large choice of topics, and we hope bloggers far and wide will join in what is bound to be a gigantic party. Once again, we’ll be offering helpful advice and taking suggestions from the film community on the For the Love of Film Facebook fan page, which we’ll be adding to regularly. Become a fan, and take a look around in the coming weeks for suggestions of topics, discussions about the blogathon, information about film preservation, and a lot more. And go to the For the Love of Film blog, where Cinema Styles’ Greg Ferrara has posted the banners he created for use on your own blog and Facebook page to promote participation and awareness.
We’ll have raffle prizes again this year, and perhaps a few more surprises. And seeing as the season of giving is upon us, think about making a donation to the FNF during this tax year. The more we all give, the more films they can preserve and exhibit.
For the love of film . . . please support The Film Preservation Blogathon.l
This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.
Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, fascinating, simultaneously sensual, and incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.
Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.
Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere.
When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself. When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.
Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.
The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.
“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.
Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.
One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.
It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.
In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”
All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.
UPDATE: Terrific interview with Brian Meacham, the AMPAS scholar who discovered the New Zealand cache.
By now, most of the film world knows about the partnership between the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 75 American motion pictures that no longer survive in the United States. The news broke in the New York Times yesterday and has been all over the media, Twitter, and Facebook. Frankly, Farran (The Self-Styled Siren) and I were a bit miffed. We were told we should not make the announcement until this afternoon, and here comes someone to steal our thunder! But scoops are what newspapers are about, and this was a big one.
Sworn to secrecy out of deference to the New Zealand government, Farran, Greg Ferrara (who did our ads and banners), and I have known since last fall that the New Zealand archive was the next big project for the NFPF, but we had no idea what the nitrate experts would find as they examined the existing footage. The news is amazing! About 70% of the nitrate prints are virtually complete, and more than two-thirds have color tinting. Included is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927), a backstage romance involving an aspiring Shakespearean actor and the daring target girl from a knife-throwing act, and a trailer for the director’s lost feature Strong Boy (1929), starring Victor McLaglen. Maytime (1923), an early feature with Clara Bow, was found, though afflicted with the “bloom” that signals nitrate deterioration. NFPF got to this film just in time!
We promised the blogathoners a good film, and initially, we were to fund Moonlight Nights, a short comedy featuring child star Gloria Joy. But Annette Melville, the wonderful executive director of NFPF who has been so helpful to us, found a real treasure that helped double our money. The Sergeant is a very important short western that will be included on the Treasures V collection, thus receiving matching funds from the federal government. Here’s why it’s so unique.
The Sergeant is one of the earliest surviving narratives shot on location in Yosemite Valley. The one-reeler shows the magnificent terrain prior to the creation of the National Park Service, when U.S. Army cavalry troops kept order, and it is the military presence that provides the backdrop for the story.
The western was one of many made by the Selig Polyscope Company, the early motion picture company renowned for its action pictures. Based in Chicago, Selig sent director Francis Boggs west in 1908 to find authentic locations for westerns. Shooting films across the Southwest, Boggs made his way to Los Angeles, where he set up the city’s first movie studio. Boggs hired Hobart Bosworth, one of the first trained Shakespearean actors to crossover to the then-less-respected art of film; Bosworth appears to play the sergeant in this one-reeler, which he probably also directed.
Very little survives from Selig Polyscope, aside from Col. Selig’s papers in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After the murder of Boggs on the set in 1911, the company continued on with its popular Tom Mix westerns, the early serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, and animal pictures (the Selig menagerie became part of the Los Angeles Zoo). However, the company failed to make the transition to features and ended production in 1918.
This remarkable film—part western, part travelogue—survives through the single copy shared by the New Zealand Film Archive. The original nitrate distribution print was shrunken but complete. Thanks to our funding, the print was painstakingly copied to modern black-and-white safety negative film. This transfer was made from the negative at 16 frames per second and the tints added digitally to reproduce the colors on the original print.
For the exhibition print, color film will be cut in for the red- and amber-tinted intertitles so that the film can be enjoyed today as it was originally seen by audiences in 1910. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is supervising the preservation and will house the nitrate source material, preservation masters, and access copies so that they will remain available for years to come.
We also raised enough funds to restore The Better Man, a 1912 film produced by the Vitagraph Company of America. It’s another western in which a Mexican-American outlaw proves himself the better man. The stills look intriguing.
The newly recovered films will be preserved over the next three years and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which are collaborating with the NFPF on this project. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the NFPF web site.
We extend many thanks to Jamie Lean, Division Director, the New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, who said, “Hundreds of American motion pictures from the silent era exist in archives outside the United States. We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded ‘lost’ American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community.”
Clips of The Sergeant are up on the NFPF website, and you can take a look at a list of some of the other films returning from their long hiatus here. You can also kick in some more money for the rest of the films that need preserving (not to mention shipping: Each reel has to be sent using precautions for hazardous materials!). As Gareth over at the Siren’s place said, “I’ve almost never had a sense of such concrete value coming from a donation.” Amen.
“Marilyn, in all the time that I’ve been reading and participating in the film blogosphere, this is the most valuable cause I’ve seen them take up. A display of solidarity that is extremely touching. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
The above quote is from Ryan Kelly, who offered a post to the blogathon on his estimable blog Medfly Quarantine. As I thought about what I wanted to say to wrap this amazing week up, it seemed that Ryan said it best.
It’s true that Farran Nehme, Greg Ferrara, and I set the wheels in motion, with the enthusiastic support of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s executive director Annette Melville and David Wells, who posted the great pictures and short films on the blogathon’s Facebook fan page. But the truth is as Ryan said: the entire film community embraced this cause. The blogathon ads Greg made were plastered all over the blogosphere, and we got shout-outs from James Wolcott at Vanity Fair, The Auteurs, Lou Lumenick at The New York Post, and Roger Ebert, among many others. We had film students, film bloggers of every stripe, preservationists like Eddie Muller, and scholars like David Bordwell write about preservation. Tinky Weisblat, a food blogger with an interest in film, showed up and turned in a great couple of posts. We had Dennis Nyback, who actually projected nitrate film, tell us about it. And we had people who were willing to open their wallets in these tough times to help. Farran and I were thinking we might raise $10,000. I’m happy to say we did, and a little more to spare.
The NFPF originally planned to use the money to restore a one-reeler; that’s when donations stood at $3,900. Now it’s likely that the blogathoners will be able to save a three-reeler. Details of the massively exciting project to which our funds will be applied will be announced in June. A master list of all the entries and participants will be permanently housed at http://moviepreservation.blogspot.com.
Like Ryan, I’m grateful to have been a part of it. It’s the end of the blogathon and, thanks to everyone who supported it, a new beginning for an old film that otherwise probably would have died. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for showing your love of film.
That’s my gal Colleen Moore in the film that made her one of the icons of the flapper era, Flaming Youth (1923). Moore tried all her life to find copies of the films she worked on, but so many had vanished into time, including all but one reel of Flaming Youth. It’s possible that the complete film did not physically survive, but it’s also possible that it is squirreled away with a private collector or part of an archive that hasn’t got the time or resources to identify it and get to work on saving it. That’s why the work of the National Film Preservation Foundation is so important. Last year, they helped repatriate from Australia a number of films that no longer existed in the United States and turned them over for restoration. To get the full story on the NFPF, I highly recommend a browse through their website. And for more on why The Self-Styled Siren’s Farran Nehme and I are doing this, read here.
Ivan Shreve over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear ponders the short film career of radio comic Fred Allen and the different versions of his best film It’s in the Bag!. I didn’t know Allen made movies!
Film studies student Meredith pays homage to the newly restored Powell/Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, which has been wowing audiences all year, at her blog Or Maybe Eisenstein Should Just Relax.
Film scholar Sarah Jane Baker of Flapper Jane tackles the legend and misperceptions of an actress famed in her time who was thought to have none of her works available for viewing: Olive Thomas.
On Home & Amateur, Dwight Swanson has presented our first preserved amateur movie, Think of Me as a Person First, a moving home documentary about a child with Down Syndrome.
Monday, February 15 (Happy Presidents Day, everyone)
Rob Gonsalves takes on Martin Scorsese’s Preservation 101 lesson The Race to Save 100 Years (1997) at Rob’s Movie Vault. Imagine Scorsese choosing to make Raging Bull in B&W because he didn’t want to have a color film fade!
Christopher Snowden at A Silent Movie Blog has some great stills of lost films starring the likes of Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino, and Louise Brooks and provides scavenger hunt clues on where to find them. Great fun and eye-popping images to boot!
Alterdestiny contributor Erik Loomis thanks the NFPF for making films available that help him teach history, specifically, cultural attitudes toward immigrant living conditions in urban areas in The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912).
Tuesday, February 16
Here’s a fun entry from Gordon Dymowski. He pays homage to one of my favorite things, movie serials, by writing about the restoration of the Green Hornet serial on his excellent site, Blog This, Pal!
Blogathon cohost Farran Nehme continues her Why We Fight for Film series with a look at newsreels and the remarkable, brief glimpse of Anne Frank at an window looking into the street in Amsterdam.
My friend Peter Nellhaus has contributed a review of an NFPF/Eastman House rescue, Lon Chaney’s The Penalty at his essential blog, Coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
Kendra Bean from Viv/Larry/Blog is back with her third ode to Criterion, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. A beautiful film.
Paula of Paula’s Movie Blog is back with look at another one of her favorite movies, Where Are My Children (1916), rescued by the NFPF.
Joe Thompson has started his history of nitrate, which includes some great newspaper clippings from the dawn of cinema, on his blog The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion, which focuses, among other things, on obsolete technology. Good stuff, Joe!
Wednesday, February 17
Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies reviews and tackles the difficulties for Kubrick completists in seeing the master’s Fear and Desire (1953).
David Cairns calls Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) “avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative or abstract,” which, had it not been for Criterion, would mean “endangered” in preservations terms.
Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder takes on the newly restored John Barrymore vehicle Sherlock Holmes (1922), which shows Barrymore to be a Holmes for the ages.
Blogathon “art director” and multiblog wizard Greg Ferrarra has a terrific post on C.B. De Mille’s last silent film, 1928’s The Godless Girl at Cinema Styles. This newly restored film shows off De Mille’s flare for the dramatic. Thanks, Greg!
Jeffrey Goodman, whose directing effort The Last Lullaby was a favorite of mine last year, pays homage to the premiere “preservationist” of the 20th century, Henri Langlois, at his blog The Last Lullaby (and) Peril. Thanks, Jeffrey.
Lou Lumenick joins the blogathon (after giving us a great plug in the The New York Post) discussing the limbo into which a 1933 Shirley Temple/Randolph Scott film called To the Last Man has fallen.
Brian Herrara of Stinky Lulu offers thoughts five thoughts on the “enthralling, often incoherent mix of cinematic high-style” of Who Killed Teddy Bear? that nearly fell down the rabbit hole of cultural memory. There’s a bonus for anyone who mails Brian proof of at least a $20 donation!
Buckey Grimm of Mindless Meanderings is back with part 2 of his preservation series. In this one, he tackles the longest-running film preservation project in film history, the Library of Congress Paper Print collection.
Kendra Bean’s latest entry in her Criterion love series is the classic David Lean melodrama Brief Encounter. This is a beautiful film, made more beautiful by the care of the Criterion label.
Dennis Nyback is back again talking about “two theaters that survived the nitrate era but couldn’t survive the changes in values that made them obsolete before the end of the century:” the Michigan Theater and the Grand Riviera, both in Detroit. See their former glory at Dennis Nyback Films.
Justin Muschong of Brilliant in Context does a very good job of expressing exactly why preservation is so important. Thanks, Justin!
Brent Walker talks about the distribution link in the preservation chain at his blog Mack Sennett. Good stuff!
David Bordwell discusses the intricacies of preserving avant garde films at Observations on Film Art.
Leo Lo, who blogs 365 Films a Year: A Librarian’s Film Journal has given us a wonderful prescription for what academic libraries can do to preserve film images.
Karie Bible of Film Radar tells a sad story of watching a Clara Bow film whose last moments were too degraded to show and then gives a list of the lost films by this charismatic star.
Thursday, February 18
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee, coffee, and more coffee is back with another entry, in his special area of interest of Asian cinema – Wu Yonggang’s debut film The Goddess (1934), saved through the efforts of one man.
Marc Edward Heuck at The Projector Has Been Drinking talks about his own film preservation efforts, particularly his work on 1973’s The Candy Snatchers. This is a really fascinating read!
My awesome blogathon cohost Farran Nehme at The Self-Styled Siren comes through with a fascinating interview with TCM’s Corporate Legal Manager Lee Tsiantis, who talks about how the legal rights tangle that keeps films from viewers.
Jon Marquispays tribute to film archivists over at Thoughts of Stream, particularly James Card, to whom we all owe thank for returned the fabulous Pandora’s Box.
Film collector John McElwee talks about his misadventures with nitrate and his gratitude for to collectors for being “unofficial” film preservationist in his photo-filled entry at Greenbriar Pictures Show.
We got a two-fer from Paula of Paula’s Movie Blog: Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’sLady Windemere’s Fan (1925) and Different from the Others (1919), a landmark film in the portrayal of homosexuality. More great commentary and screencaps!
Greg Ferrara said not to post these, but how can I not! On his wordless screencap blog, Unexplained Cinema, Greg has been posting fantastic screencaps from several rescued films, including The Godless Girl, about which he wrote on Cinema Styles. Go take a look and be awed.
Catherine Grant, the film scholar who provides film enthusiasts with suggestions for self-study on her essential blog Film Studies for Free, offers embedded videos on film preservation for your viewing pleasure.
Tinky Weisblat at In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens offers some great thoughts on pioneering film critic, preservationist, and Museum of Modern Art film curator Iris Barry and a darn good recipe for Film (and Fish) Lovers’ Tea Sandwiches.
Buckey Grimm is back with part 3 of his film preservation tour, this time talking about nitrate testing and storage. I have learned a lot from Buckey.
Our thanks to MovieMan for interrupting his regularly scheduled post on Rossellini’s Stomboli at The Dancing Image to offer it to the blogathon at his other blog The Sun Is Not Yellow.
Shahn at Sixmartinis and the Seventh Art offers some shockingly deteriorated frames from Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930) to show us just what is at stake.
Kendra Bean at Viv/Larry/Blog focuses her gaze away from that thrilled couple from Britain to cast her eyes adoringly at the Criterion Collection’s issue of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. The cave scenes were restored to the film a few years ago, and now we have the whole package as only Criterion can do it.
Phil Nugent has thrown his hat in the ring over at The Phil Nugent Experience with a post that appreciates the wide range and age of films that need preservation and pays homage to Henri Langlois.
Friday, February 19
Joe Thompson of The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion finishes his three-part history of nitrate with a look at the Pittsburgh Film Exchange Fire of 1909. This has been a great series, Joe. Thanks!
Sadie Menchen, Trisha Lendo, and Charles Edward Rogers, three members of the student chapter of the Association for Moving Image Archivists at UCLA, have contributed short, personal blogs on preservation on the student chapter site. The future of films past is in good hands!
University of Vermont environmental studies professor Adrian J. Ivakhiv gives us an in-depth look at a film that has been popular during the blogathon, Decasia, on his blog of ecocriticism Immanence.
Justin Muschong at Brilliant in Context has another contribution and it’s a doozy! A short story about film preservation. Bravo!
My own post here on Ferdy on Films, etc. is up. I talk about a big star with a very small body of surviving work: Theda Bara, and the film that made her The Vamp, A Fool There Was (1915).
Lou Lumenick gives us another plug at The New York Post and names two films he would really like to see: the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby (lost) and The Man from Blankley’s (1931) (lost soundtrack). Same here, Lou!
J. Cheever Loophole a history and humanities professor who blogs at The Shelf is bullish on preservation for many reasons, including that he uses film “as context, and to help students make a personal connection to the past.”
Stephen Morgan at Screen Addict has an interesting meditation on the difficulty of knowing how true a silent film is to the original intention, using Murnau’s masterpiece The Last Laugh as an example.
Sara Freeman at Today’s Chicago Woman has a terrific appreciation for women in the cinema, and focuses on how grateful she is to have seen Lillian Gish portray Hester Prynne in the 1926 version of The Scarlett Letter.
Over at Medfly Quarantine, my buddy Ryan Kelly gives his home town, Fort Lee, New Jersey, its props as the birthplace of the motion picture industry. Hollywood’s got nuthin’ on the Joisee Palisades!
Sunday, February 21
Over at The Dancing Image, Movie Man has a real feast for the eyes. He has screencaps and posters of films that other bloggers put on their “holy grail” list (including me and The Siren). Take a look and be reminded of why we have such a love for film.
Dennis Nyback has honored us one more time with a touching story of reuniting family members through film, reminding us ” everyone preserved in motion pictures was a real person with a real life.”
DeeDee at Noirish City recaps the importance of the National Film Preservation Foundation and what is at stake. Great job, DeeDee.
Buckey Grimm is back urging us all to keep sounding the call for preservation and praising those who do the hard work every day of rescuing our cultural heritage. Thanks, Buckey. You’re an inspiration.
Noel Vera, the premier blogger on Filipino cinema at Critic After Dark, review Bagong Hari a noirish political film from 1986(!) that is all but lost and laments the tragic state of film preservation in his country, reinforcing the need for a global defense of cinema.
Arthur S. is back with a post on Sam Fuller’s neglected 1957 western Run of the Arrow at his fine blog This Pig’s Alley.
Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns Sunday Intertitle is Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess, with promises of more Lubitsch all week. That sounds like a great week ahead. Thanks, David.
Joshua Range talks about the beauty and importance of the also-rans of moviedom, focusing particular attention on the biopic.
A Spanish-language post from Jaime Grijalba on Exodus 8:2discusses London after Midnight, the sadly lost Tod Browning experience.
Robert Humanick sits in The Projection Booth and shows a personal find of his, the 1910 Frankenstein.
Toby Roan has a fascinating blog called 50 Westerns of the 50s, where he talks of the rescue of a Joel McCrea film Stranger on Horseback. Good to see this, Toby.
Mary Hess, is using her very first post at her new blog, Laughing Willow Letters, to contribute to the blogathon. Make her feel welcome and go read and comment on her tribute to her mentor, preservationist James Card.
The Film Noir Foundation re-premiered its latest preservation project on January 23, 2010 at the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco. The unjustly rare 1951 noir Cry Danger, starring Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming, has been completely restored in 35-millimeter through the joint efforts of the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservationist Nancy Mysel, who last year managed the FNF-funded restoration of the 1951 classic The Prowler, once again supervised the restoration.
Although Cry Danger’s plot is fairly routine—a framed ex-con (Powell) seeks revenge on the crooks who set him up—William Bowers’s witty, well-honed script, Joseph Biroc’s atmospheric location shooting, and the sharply realized performances of the entire cast make Cry Danger a film deserving of more recognition than it has received.
“Cry Danger might be my best work on screen, and it is a personal favorite due to my close friendship with Robert Parrish,” said actor Richard Erdman, who plays Powell’s rummy buddy DeLong. “It was Bobby’s directorial debut, and I was in the first setup that was shot along with Jeanie Porter. Nothing happened for a moment, and then Dick Powell whispered to Parrish that he had to say ‘action’ in order for matters to commence! I am tickled to death that Cry Danger has been restored to its original 35-millimeter glory.”
Actress-philanthropist Rhonda Fleming, Cry Danger’s female lead, was also ecstatic about the news: “Cry Danger has become one of my very favorite films in spite of the pain and heartache I endured while filming it,” she told the Sentinel. “I had an emergency appendectomy, which held up filming for a week, and at the time of the opening in San Francisco, my father, who lived there, suddenly died. Obviously I did not attend the premiere. In fact, I couldn’t bear to look at the film for over a year, and when I was finally able—I loved it! I only wish my father, who would have loved it, too, could have been at the opening.”
Fleming, whose founding of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, among many other charitable works, has made her a philanthropic legend, generously made a financial contribution toward the restoration of Cry Danger.
She notes that Cry Danger, “was filmed in old Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, so it has a historical aspect, as well. Plus the story is strong and catches you off guard at the ending. It’s a perfect film noir.”
In my estimation, it’s also the best of many noirs made by leading man (and uncredited producer) Dick Powell. It was a good movie for first-time director Robert Parrish to cut his teeth on. His leading man doubled as a smart, savvy, and sympathetic producer who didn’t screw around. Powell knew that Bowers’s script was a dynamic balance of revenge drama and smart-ass humor, and he played it that way. But it’s also a pivotal film in certain ways: It shows the embittered noir antihero of the 1940s moving from the darkness into the light, figuratively and literally. It’s sunnier and funnier than most film noir, while still retaining its punch.
It is also, unfortunately, one of the most difficult noirs to see—especially in its original 35-millimeter format. We’ve shown it twice at NOIR CITY festivals, and both times we’ve had to resort to 16-millimeter prints—one of them Dick Powell’s own personal copy, which was deposited long ago at UCLA.
A Twisty History
Tracking the work’s convoluted rights history explains why some films—even ones with great reputations—are at risk of slipping through America’s cultural and commercial cracks.
Powell, operating independently of any studio, originally secured financing for Cry Danger from a pair of Midwestern investors, Sam Wiesenthal and W. R. Frank, whose Olympic Productions company has no screen credits beyond this film. Powell set them up with a distribution deal at RKO Radio Pictures; its boss, Howard Hughes, put up the completion guarantee. After the RKO pact ran its course, the film’s reissue rights were sold to Republic Pictures. The studio’s entire library was, in turn, purchased in 1957 by National Telefilm Associates, an independent distribution company that dealt in theatrical re-releases and television syndication packages. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cry Danger could be seen with some regularity, bearing the NTA logo, on daytime and late-night television.
In 1984, NTA formed a home-video division, which it eventually renamed Republic Pictures. It was under this banner that, 19 years ago, a VHS version of Cry Danger was released. (It’s now out of print, with used copies fetching top dollar on the Internet.)
After that, things got complicated. NTA/Republic was bought by Viacom, and all the theatrical rights for its film library were shifted to its subsidiary, Paramount Pictures. However, no 35-millimeter prints, or even preprint elements (negatives, duplicate negatives, soundtracks), survived the three-decade Republic-to-Paramount sojourn, though low-contrast, 16-millimeter, made-for-television prints occasionally surface in the collectors’ market. The only surviving 35-millimeter elements resided with the film’s original distributor, RKO. That entire film library was purchased in 1986 by Turner Broadcasting, and when Turner merged with Time Warner in 1996, the latter corporation’s Warner Bros. subsidiary assumed control of the RKO archive.
Although no 35-millimeter prints of Cry Danger remain in the Warner Bros. archive, the preprint material, fortuitously, was retained. Now noir fans will understand why Cry Danger was never included in Warner Home Video DVD collections, and why it’s not available from Paramount Home Entertainment: one studio (Paramount) claims rights to Cry Danger, and another (Warner Bros.) possesses the only existing physical elements.
That’s where the Film Noir Foundation came in. It fostered a campaign on the film’s behalf that resulted in Warner Bros. agreeing to let the UCLA Film & Television Archive borrow the surviving elements for the project.
“We couldn’t be more thankful to Warner Bros. for its enthusiastic cooperation and access,” added UCLA motion picture archivist Todd Wiener, who spearheaded the transfer process. I heartily concur. The Film Noir Foundation fully funded this restoration, and we can now return Cry Danger to the big screen as part of our NOIR CITY festivals in 2010 and beyond. l
Eddie Muller is a versatile, award-winning author whose works include the well-regarded mystery novel The Distance and Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which he cowrote with the actor. He produces and hosts NOIR CITY: The San Francisco Film Noir Festival, the largest noir retrospective in the world, which now has satellite festivals in four other U.S. cities. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, he has been instrumental in rescuing America’s noir heritage. In 2011, he will present a month-long series of rare film noir at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.
There are a lot of legendary eyes in the history of film: the impossibly beautiful lines of Greta Garbo’s, the bedroom eyes that won Rudolph Valentino millions of adoring fans, the fathomless blue of Paul Newman’s, and Elizabeth Taylor’s musgravite eyes.
Chicago has only one set of famous movie eyes: the kohl-rimmed orbs of Theda Bara, the cinematic world’s first break-out femme fatale. Her eyes have been the symbol of the Chicago International Film Festival since its inception, looking back at the audiences that view the latest Ken Nordine CIFF trailer before each screening. The logo, in fact, is ubiquitous, appearing on programs, posters, street banners, and souvenir tee shirts. Would that we had as many frames of the rest of Theda Bara as we do of her eyes. Bara made 44 films, but only six have survived in full or in part, one of the lowest survival rates of any major star. Were it not for the fortunate survival of the film that launched her persona of The Vampire, A Fool There Was—with a crisp DVD transfer from the Killiam Collection print by Kino—we might never have truly understood what she meant to an entire generation of women, or why.
The turn of the 20th century was the vampire’s first crucible moment. Bram Stoker had just published his Dracula, the template for vampire films largely centered on a male vampire for most of the 20th century. Yet, it was a painting Philip Burne-Jones exhibited in 1897 that actually created a rage for female vampires. The painting, The Vampire, shows a rapacious woman in a flowing nightgown leaning over a handsome man sleeping in bed. The raw sexuality of the painting stirred the primal current running beneath Victorian propriety. A play about a vampirish woman called A Fool There Was hit the stage in 1909 and was adapted for the screen. Unknown actress Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati—soon to be redubbed Theda Bara—was chosen to play The Vampire.
Burne-Jones’ painting inspired Rudyard Kipling to write a poem, “The Vampire,” that is recited episodically in title cards throughout the film:
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair
(Even as you and I!)
Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand.
A fool there was and his goods he spent
(Even as you and I!)
Honor and faith and a sure intent
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(And it wasn’t the least what the lady meant),
(Even as you and I!)
Oh the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned,
Belong to the woman who didn’t know why
(And now we know she never knew why)
And did not understand.
The fool we stripped to his foolish hide
(Even as you and I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside—
(But it isn’t on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died—
(Even as you and I!)
And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame
That stings like a white hot brand.
It’s coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing at last she could never know why)
And never could understand.
The film illustrates this poem by presenting us with the downfall of one John Schuyler (Edward José), a prominent diplomat shown at the beginning of the film literally enjoying the dawn of a new day with his good wife Kate (Mabel Frenyear) and young daughter (Runa Hodges). Their paths cross briefly with The Vampire (Bara) and her current amour, Reginal Parmalee (Victor Benoit), whom she has just about used up. A fleeting glance passes between John and The Vampire. When we see the sun set on the day, a title card tells us it is also the end of happiness. Reading in the paper that John is about to set sail for Europe on the “Gigantic,” The Vampire decides to sink her fangs into him, a task made all the easier because Kate will be tending to her injured sister (May Allison) instead of sailing with him.
The historical details in this film are fascinating. For example, in one scene, Kate is seen being driven through the streets to John, automobiles intermingling with horse-drawn vehicles. In another, The Vampire begins her seduction by arranging to have John’s deck chair positioned next to hers. Yes, the deck chairs actually had name tags on them, something I did not know before seeing this film. When she flirts with him on deck, she drops a flower that he is obliged to retrieve for her. As he bends down, she raises her skirt just enough for him to see her ankle!
Despite this outward timidity, the film reeks of sex. John, having abandoned his work and family to live with The Vampire in Italy, considers returning. Powell juxtaposes scenes of John’s daughter being tucked into bed after saying her prayers with The Vampire, her long hair reminiscent of the ubiquitous long hair of ghost women in Japanese horror films, sliding down John’s body to lay prone at his feet, her whole body beckoning him to pounce. The longer their affair continues—he returns with her to New York and moves her into his townhouse with him—the more dissipated he becomes. He drinks heavily, his eyes become as kohl-black as hers, and his form becomes stooped and feeble; he really seems to be losing his life essence to her as though she were draining his blood like a proper vampire. Men are powerless to resist her, even when they receive warnings, as Parmalee did from a beggar whom The Vampire had ruined financially, or when offered the comforting arms of wife and child.
The wanton cruelty of The Vampire, shown in the very first image of her picking up two roses and laughingly crushing one blossom in her hand, must have thrilled the Victorian-trained women who first saw it. To be so bad, so sexual, so assertive and domineering over men must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to these disenfranchised, proper ladies. We are meant to sympathize, of course, with the destroyed family and heed the message that Kate readily consented to when contemplating divorce, “Stick, Kate, stick.” But for a whole generation of women confined to domesticity, The Vampire’s parties, lavish wardrobe, and power over men proved irresistible as well. Bara became a star overnight, fetishized by women who wanted to wear what she wore, say what she said, and do what she did. Her run of fame lasted 10 years, until a more modern version of the emancipated woman—the flapper—supplanted the vamp.
Although the vamp seems hopelessly outdated, young women seem to have retreated from the sexual hunger Bara so effectively portrayed. Although clothing styles seem to be hooker-lite these days, the most popular vampire myth for girls today is Twilight, with its utterly chaste and good heroine and her chivalrous vampire lover. Women are consumed, not consuming, on the big screen. Yet, the vamp endures. Turn on a daytime soap opera and feast your eyes on the scheming females through which today’s domestic women fantasize a more exciting, free life.
Well, after all the phone calls, e-mails, planning, and pre-event publicity, For the Love of Film is only two days away. Farran, the folks at the National Film Preservation Foundation, and I have been excited and amazed by the widespread support this event has generated. If you don’t know much about film preservation, this blogathon will fill that gap in your cinematic knowledge pronto!
We’ve got a very full plate of at least 40 bloggers who are going to contribute, including a great contribution by Eddie Muller, prolific author and president of the Film Noir Foundation, “Rescuing Cry Danger: The Story of One Film’s Restoration,” and one from a type of voice many cinephiles don’t hear from too often—Buckey Grimm, a content expert who researched a 1915 U.S. Navy documentary preserved by the NFPF, one of the “orphan” films that few people might think is worth saving. This is our heritage, too, and we are grateful that the NFPF cares about it.
Participants should post the links to their posts in the comments section of the home page for the blogathon at The Self-Styled Siren and here. The home pages will be posted early Sunday morning and remain up until the end of the blogathon. Farran and I will post the links into the main body of the post. We encourage everyone to read the entries and honor each blogger who took the time to post with your comments and appreciation.
Participating bloggers should include the “Donate Link” and may include the below information in your post:
Anyone who knows me knows what a sucker I am for a good cause. I’ve tried to help save the environment, the Uptown Theatre, the mountain gorillas, the medfly (ok, not that one. . . I think). But now it’s my turn to hold my hand out and ask you all to help save something that means something to all us: film.
According to estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1951 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 85-90 percent. The nitrate film on which nondigital movies are recorded is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. All or parts of thousands of films have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster.
We can’t do anything to recover those films, but we can all help ensure that not another frame is lost by supporting the work of film preservationists, restorers, and archivists. To that end, Farran Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren) and I dreamed up a fun way to do it. We’re holding a blogathon to shine a light on film preservation and raise funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Here is a little information from the NFPF:
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. Growing from a national planning effort led by the Library of Congress, the NFPF began operations in 1997. We work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.
The NFPF raises money, awards grants, and organizes cooperative projects that enable archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, and universities to work together to save American films. Since opening our doors, we have helped preserve more than 1,560 films and assisted organizations in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In 2009, we partnered with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to preserve and make available on the Internet several American silent films that no longer survived in the United States; another such project will be announced later in 2010.
Here’s a brief description of the films NFPF works to save:
A two-year study prepared by the Library’s National Film Preservation Board documented that American films are disintegrating faster than archives can save them. The types of motion pictures most at-risk are documentaries, silent-era films, avant-garde works, ethnic films, newsreels, home movies, and independent works. These are not Hollywood sound features belonging to the film studios, but ‘orphans’ that fall outside the scope of commercial preservation programs and exist as one-of-a-kind copies in archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies.
There have been fundraising blogathons before, but as far as I know, there has never been one held among film bloggers. The NFPF gets its operating funds entirely through donations and grants, so whatever funds we raise through the blogathon will make a real difference.
We’ll be offering helpful advice and taking suggestions from the film community on our very own Facebook Fan Page, which we’ll be adding to regularly. Become a fan, and take a look around in the coming weeks for suggestions of topics, discussions about the blogathon, information about film preservation, and a lot more. And go to the For the Love of Film blog, where Cinema Styles’ Greg Ferrara has posted banners and commercials you can use on your own blog and Facebook page to promote participation and awareness.
For the love of film . . . please support The Film Preservation Blogathon.l
When Greg at Cinema Styles decided to throw a Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, I had to do a lot of thinking. I tried to distill the essence of Wood in my mind to try to find a kindred spirit out there who displays those characteristics that make Ed Wood Ed Wood, who might even have been an inspiration to the indomitable Eddie. You know what I’m talking about—production values that are so dazzlingly bad they’re good, a script only a mother could love, and a dogged determination to look at the whole sow’s ear and proclaim it the finest, pearl-beaded silk purse ever to have been Made in Japan. And, although I admit that he doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I finally resolved that were Ed Wood alive today, he’d have evolved his movie-making to emulate perhaps the greatest purveyor of fantasmagoria ever to haunt a sound stage, Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley is best known today for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers of gargantuan proportions, true mutants that push the movie musical into the scifi country where Ed Wood hung his hat. When Berkeley worked his impossible-dream magic, his penchant for cheesy-looking floating heads, bubble-blowing mermaids, and deconstructed musical instruments swelled to accommodate a recital by King Kong made for a bit of hair-raising suspense. Was the Big Monkey going to show up and pull a few bananas out of Carmen Miranda’s 40-foot-wide fruit tiara?
The Berkeley film that screams Ed Wood to me is Babes in Arms, a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical that captures all the enthusiasm of those crazy kids—Berkeley and Wood—who just wanted to make good in show business. I think Henry Hill as a Broadway producer named Maddox and Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint, said it best:
Moran: We’re going to make good for him, too. Maddox: Yes, and you’re going to make good for a lot of other people. Moran: Who? Maddox: For the millions of kids who never had a chance. For the millions of kids without a wiseacre who’s telling them there’s no such thing as an American dream. Well, those kids have got their eyes on you because you’re being given your chance. And, by the Bones of Bacchus, you’d better make good. Moran: Gee, it’s bigger than just a show. Say, it’s everybody in the country.
And everybody in the country was looking forward to beating up Hitler and Mussolini for destroying the economy, which “God’s Country,” the closing number of this musical, reveals to be Berkeley’s purpose all along.
At first, the film looks like the usual younger vs. older generation story, pitting established vaudevillians against the swinging new guard who just happen to be their children. Mickey and Patsy Barton (Garland) are sweethearts who are trying to break into show biz to help their parents, whose prosperity in vaudeville has vanished with the defection of their audiences to talking pictures. While the old timers, led by Mickey’s pop Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), try to revive vaudeville with a tour, Mickey decides to write and produce his kind of show. He fires up all the other vaudeville kids who live in his town—a haven for show people thanks to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee), who fends off Elmira Gulch, I mean, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) from placing the kids in a home—and they march around the crummy-looking set to the rocket-launching “Babes in Arms,” gather wood, and build a bonfire.
Rehearsals hit a snag when Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) and Moran’s sister Molly (Betty Jaynes, McPhail’s wife) don’t put enough feeling into their love duet “Where or When.” Brice blames the suspended canoe Mickey’s put them in, but when they get out of it, it’s plain that this operatic duo can’t loosen up. It’s actually painful to watch Jaynes form her tones with a mouth so tight she looks about ready to pop. Berkeley, in his wisdom, sees no reason to do anything but shoot her close-up, full face—no flattering angles for him, no sir. A pint-sized orchestra provides scratchy-toned comedy for this touching scene.
Patsy and Mickey’s love is tested when an angel for the show comes to the rescue—on condition she gets to play the lead reserved for Patsy. Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) is looking for a comeback project and thinks this is it. Preisser is really quite funny as a Shirley Temple knockoff, pampered but not spoiled the way the script seems to suggest she should be. Mickey’s all business, but a stage kiss he gives Baby sends Patsy packing to see her mother on the road; at least, we get to hear Garland sing the beautiful “I Cried for You” in compensation for this lame lover’s quarrel.
Mickey’s show goes on as scheduled (with an adult orchestra; I guess the munchkins had a shooting conflict on The Wizard of Oz set) and a Broadway producer shows up to see what the young turks of entertainment have to offer. He gets a minstrel show. I simply have no comment about that, but then, I don’t need one. The script offers up a hurricane to stop the show. I can see Berkeley putting on his angora sweater and spinning the over-the-top opera La Gioconda in his trailer right about now.
After his reverie, Berkeley remembers he has to tie up the loose ends. Of course, the Broadway producer wants to put the show on, and Patsy gets to play the lead after all. The vaudevillians give up the ghost to the future and everyone feels good about America. The end.
I think Berkeley was watching Oz being filmed while he tinkered with the script. Garland has that same scream of concern (“oOH! oOH!”) when Mickey faints that she has numerous times when her companions on the Yellow Brick Road run into difficulties. She picks flowers just like Dorothy Gale picked poppies. There are munchkins, a wicked “witch” played by Margaret Hamilton, and a hurricane in place of a twister. And all the money that was poured into Oz meant there was nothing left for Berkeley. This is the cheapest-looking MGM musical I’ve ever seen, making it impossible for Berkeley to fully realize his dreams, which I’m sure included making the bonfire outshine the burning of Atlanta and a minstrel show that would have had 1,000 pickaninnies in a vast field of cotton and Judy Garland singing atop a cotton gin.
But in the true spirit of Ed Wood, Berkeley works with what he has (including deadly lyrics by Arthur Freed) and creates something so offensively bad, it’s compulsively watchable. Hi dee ho!
This review is part of Ten Days’ Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.
What do Claude Chabrol and the Coen Brothers have in common? They’ve both sought inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey. While the Coens provided an impeccably turned-out riot of music and over-the-top adventures with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Chabrol turned out a delicious mess of a revenge story, both films treat their respective social strata—rural America and the nouveau bourgeois—with a certain condescending humor. While This Man Must Die’s tone changes may have more to do with Chabrol trying to develop Nicholas Blake’s pulp mystery The Beast Must Die into a sophisticated French thriller, there’s no question that Chabrol takes full advantage of the melodramatic aspects of genre to make his cast look ridiculous.
This Man Must Die opens with the central crisis that will set the plot in motion. An American sports car—a Mustang—is speeding down a curvy, single-lane road. A boy is fishing from the ocean shore. He climbs an access road with his catch proudly displayed in his net and heads toward the center of town, smiling. The boy and car collide. The woman passenger screams, but the man bellows at her and drives off. A high, overhead shot shows the boy, a small body sprawled in a large, empty, gray square. In the next scene, a close upward shot captures the faces of curious onlookers until a man, mostly hidden from view, parts them, stoops below camera level, and rises with the boy in his arms. A cry of despair escapes him.
In the first genre touch of the film, a chalk outline of the boy with a red splotch of blood emerging from the tracing of the boy’s head gives us our only relatively close view of the crime. Was the outline drawn before the body was moved? Probably not, but we’re not concerned with police procedure here. Chabrol wants to shock us into caring about his protagonist in the same way he plucks at our heartstrings through his manipulations of the boy’s father, Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy). He shows Charles returning home after a three-month stay in a hospital—shock and depression—warning his maid not to speak of the boy, crying into a teddy bear left in his son’s room, and playing a home movie of his son from infancy to the end of his life. The absent mother (dead? divorced?) is seen only in these films; if she still existed, she would only slow the plot down.
With no witnesses or physical evidence, the police investigation goes nowhere. Charles, however, has dedicated his life to tracking down and slaying the man responsible for his son’s death. He scours the car repair shops and junk yards looking for the telltale dent without success. In another genre convention, chance moves him closer to his target. Charles’ car gets stuck in the mud, and he learns from the man who will tow it out that the same thing happened on the same day as the fatal accident. The car held a television star named Hélène Lanson (Caroline Cellier) and an unpleasant man.
Charles keeps a notebook in which he writes his angry, murderous thoughts in red. He writes, “I hadn’t considered it might be a woman. But I will show no mercy.” He locates the television station where she works and hangs out at a bar she frequents until she shows up. Under the assumed name of Marc Matthieu (coscreenwriter Paul Gégauff’s pen name was Martial Matthieu), Charles courts her and slowly extracts details that convince him her brother-in-law Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne) was behind the fatal wheel. When he is at last invited to Decourt’s estate in Brittany for a weekend, he savors the thought of his coming revenge.
A mansion near a seaside cliff, a well-to-do family, an indulgent mother of a monster hated not only by Charles, but also by his wife, son, and probably his business partner—how did we suddenly enter an Agatha Christie novel? Chabrol, by focusing on Charles, skews the standard mystery story, but also, perhaps inadvertently turns the film into a comedy of sorts. His characters are typically shallow bourgeois and totally mockworthy. Charles starts by laughing at the perfectly dreadful taste of the room to which he is shown. Paul is a caricature of evil, a Snidely Whiplash twirling his metaphorical mustache with malice and greed. Paul’s doormat wife Jeanne (Anouk Ferjac), in an endless attempt to find something to do with her life, writes poetry so bad that I actually don’t blame her husband for reading it aloud to mock her. Hélène, who, when confronted by Charles as someone who not only had an affair with Paul but also was in the car that killed his son, talks about her own suffering. Even Paul’s son Philippe (Marc Di Napoli), on two days’ acquaintance, tells Charles he’d rather have him for a father; perhaps we can forgive a needy boy for such an instant attachment, but would he really confess to killing his father to save a near stranger, even if he feels his life is over already for having defective Decourt genes? The situations and motivations are so ridiculous, that it’s hard not to laugh.
The biggest laugh of all is that Charles, spouting some bullshit philosophy in a letter to Hélène, sails away to “find my own punishment.” Yup, and I have some farm land in Death Valley I want to sell you. Chabrol has taken us from an affecting tragedy, to a paint-by-numbers revenge story, to a drawing-room murder mystery, and finally to Homer. His lying, sneaking Odysseus, having completed his mission, sets sail—perhaps to return to his home-movie version of Penelope? That this might be his “punishment” is just another twist of the knife to the bourgeois sensibilities Chabrol has been murdering all along.
Richard Schickel reports in his book, James Cagney: A Celebration, that he was lolling around the set of Ragtime helping Pat O’Brien and Cagney pass the time between calls. Idly, Schickel asked them what they thought was the best of the nine pictures they did together. “O’Brien unhesitatingly named Angels with Dirty Faces, a logical choice, given the intensity and range of emotions it offered them, and the brooding quality of director Michael Curtiz’s striking mise en scène. Cagney, surprisingly, named Ceiling Zero, which I have always thought of as one of Howard Hawks’ lesser works, stagebound and talky. But, as it turned out, that is precisely what Cagney liked about it.”
It was based on a hit Broadway play penned by Frank “Spig” Wead, a crippled flyer who became a beloved writer of authentically detailed aviation screenplays in Hollywood. Cagney admired the writer, the play’s success, and Osgood Perkins, the actor who originated the part he was to play in the film. It was Howard Hawks’ idea for Cosmopolitan/Warner Bros to acquire the script for Cagney. As a story of the friendship between two pilots whose lives are heading in divergent paths, it was a natural for Hawks and for the team of Cagney and O’Brien. It would form something of a template for the acting pair’s future collaborations that would cast O’Brien as the angel and Cagney as the angel with a dirty face. Ceiling Zero also proved to be a warm-up for Hawks’ similarly plotted triumph, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Indeed, Hawks learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and could identify with his leading characters, Dizzy Davis (Cagney), Jake Lee (O’Brien), and Texas Clark (Stuart Erwin)—three war veterans who flew together, by the seat of their pants, when flying was still relatively new.
Jake is the head of the Newark branch of Federal Airlines. Dizzy and Texas work for him as pilots, forming a sort of Three Musketeers, as does Mike Owens (Garry Owen), another war buddy who has been mentally disabled by a plane crash and who works as a janitor around the airport offices. Aside from Davis, all three men are married, though we never meet Mike’s wife. Jake’s wife Mary (Martha Tibbetts) was in love with Dizzy before he threw her over. Texas’ wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) henpecks her husband in part to domesticate him and also out of worry for his safety.
The district manager of Federal is constantly on Jake’s back to play by corporate rules. One rule Jake refuses to heed is to keep Dizzy Davis off the Federal Airlines payroll. Despite Dizzy’s lack of discipline, his lies, his inveterate womanizing, and his risky flying, friendship and history count more for Jake than anything the front office has to say. Dizzy makes his entrance into the film in his usual fashion—stunt flying upside down.
Impressed by Dizzy is Tommy Thomas (June Travis) a 19-year-old novice flyer who has just completed her first solo flight. Although she is seeing a young pilot, Tay Lawson (Henry Wadsworth), she is bowled over by the 34-year-old Dizzy, who dodges a call from one of his seemingly endless stream of women to be free to put the moves on Tommy.
The pair goes out for drinks, and the following day, Dizzy decides to spend some quality time with Tommy by taking her out for a private flying lesson. To ditch his mail run to Cleveland he feigns heart trouble to Texas, who volunteers to take his place. On his way back to Newark, a ceiling zero fog and a faulty radio make it impossible for Texas to see the runway to land or use his instruments to navigate using instructions from the ground crew. He flies into electric wires and crashes into a hangar in a burning ball of steel. Dizzy not only has to deal with the guilt he feels, but also has his license to fly revoked because of repeated complaints.
Although he and Tommy have fallen for each other, Dizzy feels he has little to offer her, having lost his identity as a pilot and feeling “over the hill.” The weather worsens, but Lawson is scheduled to fly a mail run to Cleveland and plans to check out a new deicing system on the plane. Dizzy punches his lights out and takes over the run, a suicide mission if the deicer fails to work. He radios back to a furious Jake how the deicer is functioning—not well—takes on an inch of ice and crashes. In symbolic fashion, the disembodied voice of radio operator in Cleveland says that the weather is improving, and signs off with his standard, “That is all.”
Ceiling Zero is as typical a Hawks film as any he ever made—a buddy film with unusual depth. Despite its studio sets, intercut briefly with stock footage of stunt flying, that make the film feel stagy, the performances of Cagney and O’Brien are the most personal and natural I have ever seen them turn in as a team. Hawks manages to tame O’Brien’s blustery shouting about 80 percent of the time, allowing Jake’s thoughtfulness and quiet affection for his comrades, especially Dizzy, to balance with his more rigid, duty-bound, mature self.
Stuart Erwin is winning as a drawling man who fears his wife but is in complete command when he’s in the air. The lengthy middle of the film in which we experience every stage of Texas’ plight is a real nail biter, hearing the Newark ground crew trying desperately to get through to Texas, marshalling airports along his route to track his progress and make their own attempts to contact him. Dramatically, though somewhat implausibly, Texas’ radio messages start to come through even as Newark ground remains mute. Texas’ final moments in the air are sadly reminiscent of many final moments to come with the advent of cellphones.
Cagney’s performance as Dizzy is nothing less than amazing. His silly pencil moustache makes him look like a kid trying to play dashing flying ace. He rambles through the world picking up nothing that would weigh him down, knowing he will always be able to go back to Jake, who will enable his failure to launch, and throw a mischievous monkey wrench into Texas’ domestic life in Dizzy’s attempts to lure him back into their men-only club. In a scene that could have come from the Andy Hardy series, Jake says that although he knows Dizzy lies to other, he always thought Dizzy would be on the level with him. He asks Dizzy point blank if there was anything serious between Dizzy and Mary. Like a son, Dizzy lies to Jake, embellishing the lie with a half-truth, “I’d cut my heart out for you” and finishing it with a child’s plea, “Please don’t be mad at me.” Dizzy is not exactly sparing Jake’s feelings, or even Mary’s, but rather is making an attempt to stay in his “father’s” good graces.
There’s another telling scene that shows Dizzy just doesn’t quite get it. At the hospital where Texas has been rushed, Lou confronts Dizzy. Lou understands that Dizzy didn’t mean any harm—his deception to get out of the Cleveland run having been confessed—but that “you’re no good. You’ll never be any good.” Cagney assumes a sheepish look, but he seems not to hear the words completely. He’s basically a narcissist who can see what havoc he wrecks, but generally delights in it. Even though he does the noble thing by giving Tommy up—much as John Barrymore’s Larry Renault sends Madge Evan’s Paula Jordan away in Dinner at Eight, and with much the same results—we get the sense that he is still acting in his own self-interest so that his suicide will be seen heroically by Tommy, instead of cowardly.
Like many of Hawks’ films, Ceiling Zero romanticizes the rebel, the elemental man. The business of flying is shown to be corrupt and petty—how could the government and Federal Airlines ground a daring and skilled flyer like Dizzy; how could a businessman try to sell Jake some second-rate airplanes? It is the experience of really being alive—being the flyer instead of the front man—that has Hawks’ sympathy, even though the impulse can cause so much unhappiness for other people just trying to live the way they want or know how.
The character of Tommy is an interesting one. I remember telling my ex that a cycling buddy of his would fall for a female cyclist who was starting to ride with his club. Of course, I was right. Rather than having to join her world and compromise his male pursuits, he found a woman whom he could consider an honorary man. Tommy, in becoming a flyer, in espousing the joy she feels in flying (being alive by being free), has earned her male nickname. Like Wendy, she has been invited to join Dizzy’s Neverland as the only kind of woman he could really fall for—an honorary man. Lou, by contrast, is almost a copy of Tom Powers’ mother in The Public Enemy, her “you’re no good” as scornful as Ma Powers’ “Murderer!” Dizzy is not as willfully malevolent nor as unrepentant as Tom, but he’s just as self-centered and looking to his “family” time and again to bail him out.
In the end, Jake gives Lawson a dressing down to remember the guy who made flying safer for him and enters, once and for all, the adult world. The film aims for a sense of loss over the innocence of youth and adventure, which Jake will have to endure alone.
This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler.
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s Election Day in the United States, a day that has been hyped across the country and around the world as either the beginning of Hope and Change or the continuation of Bad Old Bushism. If Barack Obama is elected president, it will certainly be an historic moment for the African-American community, but will it really make the kind of difference the true believers think it will?
Having your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground is always the prudent thing to do, especially in a representative democracy, and especially in one as large and diverse as the United States. An object lesson in the wisdom of this advice can be found in Secret Ballot, a film that premiered just a year after the Election Dysfunction of 2000 that shows us the beauty and limitations of democracy in a gently satiric way.
The film opens on a visually stunning image of an airplane flying during the rising of the sun. A box emerges from the plane’s open cargo doors, its white parachute flapping and then filling with air, making perhaps a very intentional parallel with the “miracle” from which cargo cults arose. The box floats like an angel down to a barren land on the edge of an ocean, touching exactly where it was intended to land—at an army patrol site. In this remote island location, the site contains little more than the two infantrymen who work in shifts, taking turns sleeping in the bottom half of a bunk bed and sharing one gun to use as they patrol for smugglers working among the islands.
The night-shift soldier pries open the box and reads an enclosed letter. He then wakes his comrade (Cyrus Abidi) and tells him that it is Election Day in Iran and that he will be escorting an agent around the island collecting votes from its inhabitants. Then, the night-shift soldier prepares for a good day’s sleep. The idea that anyone could sleep out in the open in a desert during the day is only the first absurdity of life on the island. We’ll encounter more as the day goes on.
About half an hour later, a boat pulls up to the small dock at the soldiers’ post, and a woman alights. In contrast to the pillowy white parachute that delivered the box, she is a whirlwind wrapped in a black chador that billows in the strong ocean breeze and the wake of her own energetic movement. She is the election agent (Nassim Abdi), and the soldier refuses to escort a woman around. “I’m in charge here,” retorts the agent as she eagerly goes through the contents of the box. She shows the soldier the written orders he has to follow and then spreads out the map of the areas they need to reach. Off they go, the soldier grumbling all the way.
The first person they see is a man who is running along the road. The soldier is sure he’s a smuggler and is quick to put his hand to his rifle. The agent says he’s a voter and must feel free from intimidation. She orders the soldier to catch up with him. When they pull in front of him, the soldier demands to know why he was running. “Is running a crime?” the man asks defensively. Of course not, the agent says and goes into her election day rap; the man wishes to vote, but not with the soldier hanging around. “I want my vote to be secret,” which the agent assures him is his right. The absurdity of chasing a voter has a familiar ring to any voter who has ever been pandered to or identified as part of a crucial voting block.
The rather menacing next scene shows a large truck chasing after the agent and soldier. The truck stops, and a man emerges; he has brought voters from another island to cast their ballots. One by one, women in colorful but very severe chadors, some with masks that hide their faces from prying male eyes, climb out of the back of the truck. The truck driver orders the soldier away, saying their husbands would not like them “consorting” with a strange man. “What about you?” the soldier retorts. “They know me.” The women swarm the agent as she explains the process. When one of the women produces her ID, the agent rejects her for being under the legal voting age of 16. One of the other women says “She can marry at 12. Why can’t she vote?” Stumped, the agent pauses and then just repeats, “I’m sorry. It’s not allowed.”
So far, voting is going smoothly. The soldier still can’t see the importance of voting, thinking that you can get much more done with a gun than a ballot box. Unswayed, the agent confidently answers all of the soldier’s objections, saying that when people vote, it helps their government improve things. She’ll be singing a different tune when she starts running into roadblocks.
The agent’s quest for votes takes her to the beach, where fishermen are mending their nets. Although they come from another country, they tell the soldier that there are Iranians on the boat from which they came. The next hilarious scene shows the soldier rowing the agent out to the boat. From a distance, we see the men on board line up and a power boat buzz by.
Cut to the agent and soldier back on the road. They have a passenger, a young woman who was trying to run off with a foreigner who was arrested as a smuggler. The soldier, his Iranian manhood offended, says, “Maybe they can make a law so our women can’t go off and marry foreigners!” The agent counters, “Maybe they’ll make a law that lets a woman marry whom she likes.” In a small gesture I didn’t see coming, the young woman tries to give the agent her ID while they are driving so she can vote. “Not here,” the agent says. “We’ll do it when we get you home.” “They won’t let me vote there,” the young woman says. Sure enough, the women in the compound will not vote without the consent of their men, who are at a funeral in a cemetery that no women—not even the widow—can enter. These feminist concerns are laced throughout the film, though it isn’t heavy-handed and is usually emphasized unpolemically through actions.
Another stop for the moving polling place is a compound run by Granny Baghoo. The agent’s knocks on doors remain unanswered, perhaps on Granny Baghoo’s orders. A peddler sitting outside the compound agrees to show the agent his ID if she buys something; so dedicated is she that she agrees, essentially, to buy his vote. When she chooses a doll, he produces his ID. “You’re not Iranian. You can’t vote,” she complains. “All I said is that I would show you my ID.” Things continue on this way in the compound until she finally finds a man and starts her rap on the importance of voting. He keeps shaking his head at all her arguments. Finally, he spits out, “I don’t speak Farsi.” The agent returns to the jeep. “They don’t need to vote,” the agent says, much to the soldier’s surprise. “Granny Baghoo has a government all her own.”
The soldier and the agent finally come to a real and metaphorical crossroads when he stops the jeep as her deadline for returning to the post to catch her boat approaches. “Why have you stopped?” the agent asks impatiently. “The light is red,” he says and points to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. This scene, I learned, is a lampoon on Imam Khomeni’s edict forbidding drivers from blowing through stoplights, an action taken to curb the horrible driving habits of Iranians. Obviously, this order makes no sense in a place with maybe a dozen cars all told, yet the soldier obeys the law the agent has been singing the praises of all during their journey. In her panic to see that the votes she collected are not invalidated because she missed the boat, the agent gets out of the car and screams that the law doesn’t matter in a place like this, in a desert with no real streets or traffic. The absurdity of the light even being there and the contradictory concerns of the agent are comments on how out of touch the central government can be with the needs of all its citizens, a fact that has been voiced over and over again by the voters the agent tries unsuccessfully to persuade to exercise their franchise. In the end, both the agent and the soldier will understand more than they did when the day began.
It would be easy to see the soldier and the agent—both unnamed—as props in a political system the director uses to make his points. But the script is so smart in weaving its messages into believable encounters, conversations, and wry situations that it never feels forced. It is such a pleasure to learn something valuable while being extremely entertained.
It’s rather interesting how many male Iranian filmmakers have made or collaborated on films sympathetic to the plight of women in their country, for example, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Pahani, Kambuzia Partovi, and Babak Payami in this, his directing debut. Even more startling is the fact that Iranian women, such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Rakhshān Bani E’temād, have come to prominence as directors working today. Payami mines the rich vein of contradiction in Iranian society, observing the repressiveness of religious dogma contrasted against the promise of a democratic voting process promoted, not surprisingly, by a female election agent. Nonetheless, the failures of the feminist movement, the most prominent example of a social issue this film addresses, serve to remind the agent and others who believe the government will solve all their problems that they need to take action on diverse fronts.
To keep this moment in American history in perspective, the delightful and wise Secret Ballot is must-viewing after the election.
Marion Davies means different things to different people. To those unfamiliar with silent films, which comprise the bulk of her filmography, she may mean nothing at all. To others, she is the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart and the model for no-talent singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. Finally, to those who love silents, she is one of the silver screen’s first and best comic actresses.
Davies, born Marion Douras, began her career in show business on stage, where she made a great success in a variety of comedies, musicals, and as a chorine in The Ziegfeld Follies. She made her first film in 1917 and three more in 1918, two with backing from Hearst. She worked steady and successfully, promoted prominently by the Hearst newspaper chain. By 1928, she was a major star able to secure the services of the best talents available. MGM’s Show People was produced by “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, directed by the great King Vidor, and features cameos and short scenes by such big stars as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin playing themselves—a true insider look at Hollywood. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that this film is lit from within by the comic gifts and down-to-earth charm of its star Marion Davies.
Show People, a quintessential movie about the movies, tells the story of Peggy Pepper (Davies) a southern belle from Savannah, Georgia, driven cross-country by her daddy, General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson), to become a big star in Hollywood. Bumping along the uneven roads in their open-top jalopy, the General and Peggy, looking all the world like Col. Sanders and Little Bo Peep, finally find their groove in the streetcar rails that run past the major film studios of the day—Fox, First National, Universal. The Peppers pull up at the gate of Comet Studios, where Peggy tells the guard that she wants to speak to the president. “What about?” he asks. “I want to be in the movies!” “Casting office,” he replies, pointing to his left.
Full of enthusiasm, Peggy and the General walk past the other wannabes to the receptionist’s window. “I want to be in the movies,” she declares. The receptionist calls one of the casting directors (Tenen Holtz) over. “Can you act?” Oh yes, the Peppers assure him, and the General hands Peggy his handkerchief. She raises it in front of her face. When her father calls out an emotion, “Sad…Angry…Yearning,” Peggy lowers the scarf to reveal her interpretation of each feeling. They’re laughingly bad. Peggy is so sincere, however, the assistant gives her a card to fill out.
Weeks go by, and Peggy’s big break still hasn’t come. She’s not even getting extra work. At the studio canteen, she and the General try to make their 20 cents go as far as possible. They sit down near a pleasant young man who recognizes a starving artist when he sees one. He introduces himself as Billy Boone (William Haines), a working actor at the studio. Peggy says she has hopes of becoming a dramatic actress. Billy shares his meal with them. Overjoyed, the Peppers befriend Billy. He later delivers on his promise to get Peggy work on one of his pictures.
Peggy’s first day on the job has her weaving her way through various sets to find the one where she belongs. She ruins a take by tiptoeing across a set as a torrid love scene ensues in the foreground, and narrowly escapes a drenching as bathing beauties splash in a pool. Finally, she locates Billy, who introduces her to the director (Harry Gribbon). He gives her her direction—come through the door and look surprised. She goes to the other side of the door as the other actors practice various pratfalls, with one of them getting knocked to the ground several times. Finally, the director calls action and cues Peggy to come in. When she steps through the door, she is hit from across the set with a stream of seltzer water. Her surprise is genuine, as her gape-mouthed drenching has the cast and crew in stitches. Peggy, however, is humiliated and runs off in tears. She wails to Billy that she wants to be a dramatic actress. He tells her everyone has to pay their dues and encourages her to be a trouper and go through with the film. Summoning all her strength, she prepares to come through the door again for some close-ups of her “big moment.”
When the film premieres, Billy takes Peggy to see it. She watches the audience laugh hysterically, and gains a bit of pleasure from it, even as she winces painfully to see herself hit with pies and being chased by Keystone Kops. After the screening, as Billy and Peggy stand in the vestibule of the theatre, a producer and a little fellow named Charlie Chaplin converse. “She’s really got something,” the producer exclaims. Chaplin spies her and Billy, and goes over to them. He pulls out his autograph book and asks them to sign: “I’m just crazy about signatures!” Peggy is annoyed by the intrusion, but Billy gladly signs and hands the book back. “Who is that little fellow?” Peggy asks as she watches him get into a limo. “Charlie Chaplin!” Billy exclaims. Peggy faints into his arms.
Peggy continues to churn out comedy shorts, but eventually the call comes from High Arts Studio. She and Billy enter the studio grounds. A car pulls up, and a man and woman get out. “Who is that?” she asks Billy. “Marion Davies,” he answers, and Davies as herself looks around. In an endearing bit of self-deprecation, Peggy shows that she doesn’t think Davies is all that much. The pair forgets about Davies, and goes to the office. Trying to calm Peggy’s nerves, Billy says he won’t sign if they don’t take her, too. Alas, when the receptionist calls for Miss Pepper, they both get up. “Miss Pepper only,” says the receptionist. Peggy says she won’t sign if they don’t take Billy, but the crestfallen Billy encourages her to go on.
On her last day with her old gang in the comedy unit at Comet, Peggy becomes tearful and promises not to forget them. Billy, however, is not at the farewell party. She finds him waiting outside the soundstage door so he can speak to her privately. He says his good-byes and seals them with a kiss. Tearfully, Peggy goes off to become a star. And boy does she ever! At the advice of her leading man Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli), a phony count who used to be Tony the pizza slinger, she changes her name to Patricia Pepoire (a reminder of Marion’s own change to the Anglicized “Davies” on beginning her stage career) and transforms into a diva. She rarely sees Billy or her father (who, strangely, has been MIA until the scene below), so Billy calls her up to invite her over for dinner. Her pretentious buffoon of a maid (Fanny Brice lookalike Polly Moran) answers the phone:
One day, Peggy is shooting in the same location as Billy’s film unit. He sees her and stands out of sight to watch her play. After the director yells cut, he approaches her and starts kidding her about the old days, pushing at her until she snaps. She’s humiliated by the sight of him and never wants to see him again. Billy, hurt and thoroughly chastised, slinks off to become a part of “Patricia’s” buried past. Trying to put her beginnings completely behind her, Peggy is set to marry Andre. But as her attendants put the finishing touches on her wedding attire, she flashes back to all the good times she had with Billy. She calls off the wedding.
In the end, Peggy, her swollen head shrunk down to size, asks King Vidor to cast Billy in her next picture. When he reports for work, Peggy hides and instructs King not to say that she is in the picture, too. When Billy comes to the door of a cottage on the set, Peggy walks through it. The lovers are reunited, both having learned valuable lessons—Peggy, about humility, and Billy, that keeping audiences laughing is a safe career path but one he has outgrown.
This fictional film within the real world of Hollywood, dotted with its biggest stars playing themselves, is both a lampoon of what happens to star-struck, naïve kids when faced with fame and fortune and a flattering gaze at Hollywood’s elite. The film certainly touches on the broken dreams that are the lot of most of Hollywood’s hopefuls, but sticks within the Jazz Age ethos of glorifying high society. We completely believe Marion as a goodhearted soul who lets her image get the better of her—in fact, Marion Davies was said to be just as good-natured despite being surrounded by the rich and riches associated with Hearst. Nonetheless, the film is obviously an inside job, one that probably thrilled audiences of stargazers while promoting MGM’s human “product.”
My favorite scenes are between Haines and Davies. Great friends in real life, they are able to be emotionally open to each other. When Billy comforts Peggy, the scene is longer than I would have expected, giving the pair ample room to talk through her trauma in a very realistic way. In addition, when Peggy banishes Billy from her life, her anger and cruelty come vividly off the screen. Haines deftly plays Billy’s bewilderment and incomprehension and brings his sad resignation slowly and painfully to the surface. It’s a devastating scene that might provoke a few tears.
Beyond these stellar attributes, it’s a genuine thrill to see the real facades of the great Hollywood studios, particularly since some of them are gone or merged with other studios. Watching Peggy tiptoe through set after set shows exactly how active the studios were churning out every variety of entertainment. And when Billy’s troupe comes upon Peggy’s High Arts production, we get a feel for the location shooting that was the norm in the silent era.
Show People is a truly fine film that showcases the enormous talent of Marion Davies, a talent that would fade from movie screens in only a few short years. I think of it as both a love letter to Hollywood and to one of the greatest funny women it ever produced. l
In 1995, I was a few months separated from my first husband, living with my mother in my childhood home, sleeping in my childhood room, and completely broken and lost. I had already quit my job, unable to carry the responsibilities my boss had in mind—publishing two magazines instead of our current one without adding staff to our two-person operation—and freelancing a bit and working a part-time job at a local YMCA. I needed to be around children, think about life renewing itself, instead of feeling less than dead. I wasn’t yet a film buff, I wasn’t blogging. Hell, I’m not sure there were blogs yet. I wasn’t sure of anything. I was turned inward, wondering if I’d ever return.
At the time, the Morton Grove Theatre, a small movie house literally yards away from my mother’s home, was still in operation. It had gone from the first-run house I frequented in the early 70s, to a second-run, cut-rate house. The day I went to see Restoration wasn’t much different from others; I’d spent an extremely undemanding day at the Y and then gone for my usual mega-lap swim. Exercise was my main release back then, which was a great relief to my mother, who feared I’d turn to the bottle for escape.
It felt good to sit alone in the dark. It was something I used to do a lot as a kid. I used to lose myself in my dreams. Now, I’d lose myself in someone else’s dream. Seemed appropriate, because I’d just done that for the past seven years, trying to be someone I wasn’t to please my mate. I didn’t know who I was. Maybe Restoration could tell me.
The story takes place in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II of England, a restoration of the monarchy after the overthrow of Oliver Cromwell. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Robert Merivel, a gifted physician who comes to the notice of the king when he is observed reaching into the chest of a man who walks around with a metal plate covering a hole and holds the man’s beating heart in his hand. Merivel’s lack of superstition about the human heart fits perfectly with Charles’ (Sam Neill) Enlightenment attitudes. The king summons Merivel to his castle, shows him his models and contraptions, and then engages him as a royal physician—for his dogs. Robert, though loathing the assignment, feels he cannot say no. Soon, he becomes another one of the court wastrels, indulging in the decadence that has come back with a vengeance after the previous 11 years of Puritan severity under Cromwell.
Charles has a beautiful mistress at court, Celia Clemence (Polly Walker), which is beginning to vex the queen. He decides to marry her off to Robert to make her seem safe, and then carry on his affair in a less conspicuous manner. Robert does the unthinkable—he falls in love with Celia. In a poignant scene, the newly married couple repairs to their marriage bed, with Robert clumsily clad only in a feather-festooned cap covering his genitals. Robert blindly hopes they are to consummate their marriage, only to watch Charles take his place beside Celia, thank Robert for his service to the crown, and laughingly embrace the bride. Robert’s sad, humiliated face tells all.
Robert leaves the king’s service and wanders in a daze. He eventually meets a woman named Catharine (Meg Ryan) at an insane asylum where he finds employment and takes her as a lover. She has a peculiar habit of walking in a circle in the courtyard using wide, heavy steps. She calls it the “leaving step.” “Every man on earth has his leaving step. If my husband had been a small man, he would not have been able to leave me. But he was a large man, and stepped over me as I slept, one great stride,” she explains. Catharine becomes pregnant and listens to hear Robert’s leaving step. But he doesn’t go. He takes her to London where he intends for them to become a family. Unfortunately, when Catharine’s time comes, her baby is breech. Robert must perform a C-section to save the baby, but he tells Catharine that she will die. She accepts her fate and asks only that Robert care for the baby and name it Margaret if it is a girl.
Robert mourns Catharine, but becomes a restored man in fathering Margaret. The 1666 Great Fire of London engulfs Robert’s home, and he risks everything to save Margaret. He can’t lose himself again, now that he has rediscovered his gift as a doctor and removed the steel plate from before his own heart and felt what it is to love.
I had no real idea what Restoration was about when I went to see it. I only knew that Robert Downey, Jr. was in it and that I felt a kinship with his troubled soul. I cried as though I would never cry again, feeling so much the hurt of thinking I loved someone who ended up only using me, of giving up on my own being and gifts to rest in an institution to which I rushed in panic at being 30 and unwed. I cried because I tried to please someone who never would have been pleased with me, and experienced his leaving step. I hadn’t yet been restored to myself—that would take 10 years of hard work—and was terrified that once I got there, I would lose it all again. But I saw that there was a road ahead, that I might not always feel empty and bereft, and that my gift—writing—might yet pull me through.
I walked home, went up to my small, safe, childhood room, wiped my eyes, and put on some audiotapes a kind soul had given me to help me understand divorce and recovery. I can honestly say that this heartfelt, well-crafted, visually stunning movie with sincere performances all around changed my life by giving me a mirror onto my own experience and, along with it, hope.
The only thing bizarro about my contribution to the Bizarro Blog-A-Thon, hosted by Lazy Eye Theatre, is that I’m here to sing the praises of the greatest love story ever filmed that, for some reason, other people dismiss—Love Story. Says it all, doesn’t it. Simple, direct, generic. You know what it means. So different from, say, Enemies: A Love Story. Who gets that?! Is it about love, or is it about hate? Bad title.
Of course, love is a strong emotion, a trip to the moon on gossamer wings, a temporary insanity, a moment that lasts forever. Love Story seems to last forever—just like love—so that’s one sign that it’s great. Love Story taught me a lot about love and relationships, especially that wonderful scene where Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV yells at his new wife, Jennie Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw, coincidentally, the soon-to-be wife of Love Story greenlighter Bob Evans), and she runs out of the house. Ollie runs all over town looking for her. He opens every practice room door in the music department (and to put up with that opera, oy!, that’s love), scours the library—all day and into the night. Then he goes home. She’s sitting on their front porch, her pert, flaring nose red and snotty from crying: “I forgot my key.” “I’m sorry,” says Oliver. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Wow! That sounds so profound, so right. When I first heard it, I adopted it as my new love mantra.
I gave away my first husband’s Colnago bike frame to a scrap metal collector and didn’t say I was sorry. He threw me out of the bedroom for a week. I forgot Mother’s Day and didn’t say I was sorry. Mom refused to take my calls for a month. I stepped on my cat’s tail and she yowled. I found I liked the sound and did it again and again, and never said I was sorry. She bit me to the point of drawing blood and ran under the bed, but cats are dumb; she came out as soon as I shook her bag of dry cat food. So, yes Love Story taught me how confusing love is.
Love Story was the first movie that showed me how much fun it can be to play football in the snow, make snow angels, and eat snow with your life mate. When the first hubby and I were going to the Alps, I brought along a football. We went to frolick in the snow. After we got good and wet falling backward in the snow, I pulled out the football and told him to go deep. OK, so I didn’t expect him to go THAT deep, but the ski patrol was able to dig him out in under an hour, and the pneumonia didn’t last long. But I really feel like we bonded, and this time he wouldn’t let me say “I’m sorry,” just like Jenny! He saw me trying to form the words, and said “Shut up, shut up, and stay shut up!”
I learned that you can feel and look just fine and still be dying, so I schedule a check-up every time I feel great. It’s made me financially poorer, but I know that money can’t buy happiness. Jenny and Oliver taught me that, and that if I really, really need money, I can always hit up some rich guy for it.
Most of all, Love Story taught me the words I hope to say to my beloved second hubby on the day I die: “You goddamn, stupid preppie, it’s not your fault.” Where do I begin…
We at Ferdy on Films, etc., are awed by the volcanic explosion of creative dance movie posts over this past week. Rod and I never dreamed this would be as successful as it has been. We want to thank all the wonderful film and dance bloggers who joined in the fun:
Jonathan Lapper, Cinema Styles
Joe Valdez, This Distracted Globe
Glenn Kenny, Premiere.com
Rick Olson, Coosa Creek Mambo
J.D., Radiator Heaven
Bob Turnbull, Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind
Bob Westal, Foward to Yesterday
Peter Nellhaus, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee
Pat, Doodad Kind of Town
Danielle Gordon, Lady Wakasa’s Journal
Arbogast, Arbogast on Film
Pat Piper, Lazy Eye Theatre
Jim, The Moviezzz Blog
David Cairns, Shadowplay
Richard Harland Smith, MovieMorlocks.com
Wayne Howard, Reel Whore
Henrik Eriksson, Swing, Jazz, and Blues – Dance to the Music
Kirby Holt, Movie Dearest
Anna Brady Nurse, Move the Frame
Kimberly Lindbergs, Cinebeats
Editor A, Cahiers2Cinema
Bob Glickstein, Gee Bobg
Whitney Borup, Dear Jesus
Jason Bellamy, The Cooler
Noel Vera, Critic After Dark
Gautam Valluri, Broken Projector
Carl Nelson, Carl’s Jazz Dance Blog
Campaspe, Self-Styled Siren
Rod is cooling his jets at home, while I’m heating mine on the edge of the Kilauea Crater on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ferdy on Films, etc. is going to take a break for vacation. We’ll be back soon with all new reviews and reports from the world of offroad cinema. Mahalo! l
Grab a partner because it’s time to hit the dance floor as bloggers everywhere get ready to dazzle you with their style, grace, and amazing feats of blogging about dance movies. Whether dance is used as a pure study in form, an element that is integral to the plot, or pure wow-’em entertainment, participants of Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon will give you unique ways to understand and enjoy these wonderful moments in film.
Bob Turnbull gives us so many transcendent dance moments over at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, all I can say is “Go! See!”
Bob Westal at Forward to Yesterday offers a whole slew of posts he did for his own Fossethon late in 2007. I’m linking to Part I of a three-part post. I suggest you start here and then wend your way through the entire collection.
Danielle Gordon grapples with the definition of a dance movie at Lady Wakasa’s Journal and promises a week of posts that try to answer that question in the broadest way possible. Must reading, if you ask me!
Monday, May 5
Peter Nellhaus from Coffee Coffee and More Coffee offers some sexy screen caps and commentary on the Coyote Ugly of Mexico, Mesa que Mas Aplauda.
Pat at Doodad Kind of Town offers a thoughtful review of Robert Altman’s The Company.
David Cairns at Shadowplay took the weirdest Busby Berkeley film I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying a lot!), The Gang’s All Here (review on this blog somewhere), and gave a brilliant exposition on the disembodied heads in polka dots that end the film. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this “dancing heads” number.
Ah, Astaire! Adele, that is. Jonathan Lapper at Cinema Styles produces a photo of the more famous Astaire and his earliest dance partner—his sister—and tells us a little about where she got off to while Fred was becoming a star.
Wayne Howard at Reel Whore shows us more Angry Young Dancer and a whole lot of amazing moves in what he declares a masterpiece of impromptu dance as a source of comedy, Hot Rod. I’m not about to argue.
Peter Nellhaus of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee gives us a second post in his area of great interest—Asian films. The Japanese film Carmen comes Home explores cultural shifts in part by asking whether stripping is an art form. Great reading!
Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Mambo is back with a new post on the wonderfully archetypal dances in the films of Fellini. Sometimes you do have to be Fellini to figure it out!
Henrik Eriksson of Swing, Jazz, and Blues – Dance to the Music provides a treasure trove of films and performances that link music and dance. Have fun rifling through his wonderful closet of posts.
Kirby Holt at Movie Dearest shows the history of men dancing with men in the movies is extremely long, varied, and well worth your attention.
Anna Brady Nurse of Move the Frame, our first dance blogger(!), schools us on the Madison through the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Hartley, and John Waters. This you gotta see!
Bob Turnbull of Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind checks in again with an older post, Blood Wedding, by my favorite filmmaker currently working in dance films, Carlos Saura. Bravo!
In case you had any doubt, Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats reminds you that zombies don’t like bad dancing in her post about Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City.
Editor A, Cahiers2Cinéma, “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, Ha ha ha ha ha.” It’s all here.
Thursday, May 8
This is a reminder that I am going to be spending most of the day on an airplane. I will check in as soon as I can in Honolulu and post all the new entries. Please be patient and please tell me about your new entries in the comments section of this post. Comcast is acting very weird lately.
Roderick Heath from right here on Ferdy on Films, etc. gives us the dance that keeps on giving with his take on John Travolta’s famous disco dance in Saturday Night Fever and its numerous offshoots.
Haven’t had your daily fix of psychokiller dancing. Hop over to Gee Bobg where Bob Glickstein has a bunch of “killer” video clips to share.
Whitney Borup at Dear Jesus brings us the good news about Newsies.
Friday, May 9
Sorry to be gone so long, but the famous wifi hotel wasn’t after all. I’m working from the business center right now and hope to find an internet cafe somewhere today. Waikiki is kind of shock right now–so built up and my favorite hotel to stay here demolished to make way for some kind of gated village for vacationers. Ah me, nothing stays the same… But back to the blogathon.
Thought there was nothing to like about Heaven’s Gate? Jason Bellamy of The Coolerbegs to differ.
After her great post on The CompanyPat from Doodad Kind of Town returns with another on East Side Story. Yes, East Side.
Installment 5 of Danielle Gordon’s fascinating series on Lady Wakasa’s Journal is Hurray for Bollywood! I know there are a lot of Bollywood fans out there, so go read what Danielle’s got to say.
Let’s help bbrown launch his new site, Screenshottery by viewing his sexy series of screenshots from Mean Streets.
I’m absolutely thrilled Peter Nellhaus of Coffee Coffee and More Coffee is back with his third and final entry into the blogathon—an appreciation of Nancy Kwan in Flower Drum Song. I may be in the minority in loving this film, but Peter tells you why it’s worth your time.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
Happy 109th Birthday, Fred Astaire
Here we are at the last day of the blogathon. We’ve got a last few posts from the diehard participants, but I want to thank all my participants and readers for making this such a fun party.
Does Your Heart Beat Faster?. It will after your read Critic After DarkNoel Vera’s excellent review of “the subtlest, wittiest, and arguably most demented” film from his home country, The Philippines. Thanks, Noel!
A fever dream double feature from David Cairns at Shadowplay: The Great Gabbo and The Great Flamarian. Erich von Stroheim dances!
My good buddy Gautam Valluri at Broken Projector breaks from his usual fare to join the blogathon with a tribute to the birthday boy, Fred Astaire, in Three Little Words. Your timing is impeccable, Gautam.
Danielle Gordon from Lady Wakasa’s Journal finishes up her outstanding series with a very informative post on Fred Astaire. Thanks, Danielle, for your wonderful insights all week.
Kimberly Lindbergs at Cinebeats checks in with one more wonderful entry, Ted V. Mikels’ B-movie bonanza Girl in Gold Boots.
Carl Nelson at Carl’s Jazz Dance Blog, our lindy hop specialist, checks in with great words and clips from Stormy Weather.
I realised, after devoting not too much time thinking about it, that three of my favorite dance scenes are all variations on the same moment, springing from Saturday Night Fever. It’s a film remembered as the flashpoint of Disco culture, a polyester-swathed celebration of those days of gritty glamour, chest hair, nose powder, and mirror balls. The soundtrack sold by the billion, and John Travolta was catapulted to the kind of stardom that consumes itself. But SNF is far more than just the ’70s equivalent of one of those lame ’50s rock films like Rock, Rock, Rock or Let’s Twist Again, where the latest big thing is trotted out in a dimly plotted vehicle. Saturday Night Fever was a ballsy, intelligent movie with telling things to say about (then) modern urban youth culture, a bridging point between the American New Wave cinema and the oncoming world of blockbusters.
Saturday Night Fever (1977) Director: John Badham Choreographer: Lester Wilson
Cunning producer Robert Stigwood found an even more cunning director in John Badham. What Badham did with the ailing dance movie formula was to take it back to its roots—a close ancestor is Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street (1933)—and contrast the high of cutting loose on the dance floor with the downer of surviving everyday life. Our hero is Tony Manero (John Travolta), a 19-year-old working-class Italian kid living at home with his nagging, neurotic parents in Brooklyn, working in a paint store and going nowhere fast,. Like so many people of his age and class, he only becomes what he truly is at night, when he transforms into an Achilles of the dance floor, desired, admired, and revered by all. He embodies a contemporary male fantasy, delighted in his own body and prowess as a dancer. He’s a love totem for females. So much pussy comes his way he’s become contemptuous of it.
His first journey to the 2001: Odyssey club begins momentously as he enters with his friends to the grandiose strains of “A Fifth of Beethoven.” He cuts through this crowd like a messiah of cool. But Badham delays our true appreciation of Tony’s prowess. Tony dances here with two women who worship him, but he hardly burns up the floor. The DJ compounds his irritation by putting on a salsa-flavoured piece, the music of the despised Puerto Ricans; “You can’t dance to this shit!” But this is where he first glimpses Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who temporarily dominates the floor in the same way he’s used to. Right from the start, Stephanie challenges Tony’s prejudices and self-love. And he digs it. But still he does not cut loose. Instead he is absorbed into the crowd line-dancing to “Night Fever.” The link between the song, the film’s title, and Tony becoming absorbed, reinforces his place in a community, a lifestyle. His tale as just another in this semi-naked city.
Badham, having cultivated a Scorsese-esque verisimilitude in the rest of the film, presents the inside of the club as a candy-coloured dreamland filled with hot ladies, slick movers, strippers and hip tunes. The camera drinks up the flashy, sexy show on the floor; one shot of a woman’s swiveling dress and legs lasts about 20 seconds. Tony’s great dance number arrives halfway through the film. Tony is on a high, expecting Stephanie to come and in the company of his brother Frank (Martin Shakar), whose own decision to leave the priesthood mirrors Tony’s increasing discomfort. His frustrations, his inability to get in the groove, have then been mirrored by the audience’s own desire to see him let rip. With irritation and hope in his soul, and weighed down by a sluggish partner Connie (Fran Drescher, who would later gain horrible revenge for her slight in this scene), Tony hears the opening chords of “You Should Be Dancing” and declares, ‘Forget this!’ He sets about brushing away all the other dancers, and cuts loose.
Badham shoots the sequence with élan, but also visual economy. As Tony begins, he struts up the centre of the stage, pretending to roll up his sleeves and tighten his belt like a pugilist or gunfighter awaiting action. Badham cuts in for a low shot of Travolta’s beaming, aquiline face as he swings his arm about in a lordly survey that both embraces the audience in his coolness and makes them bow down to it. Travolta sleekly stakes out each of the four corners of the stage, his flared pants and platform shoes acting like knifes that slice the floor into rippling, patterned pieces. Each move gains in a technical and athletic virtuosity, building to herky-jerky robotic flourishes.
The centrepiece of the act sees him stake out the front of the stage, rapidly stabbing the air with alternating index fingers, slapping the soles of his shoes, before cocking his left leg out, leaning away to the right, thrusting his pelvis as his arm jabs the air like a musketeer’s sword before tossing in another play-act vignette of wiping off his own seat. Badham cuts in to a low-angle, front-on shot that emphasises the architecture of the move. It’s the most iconic image of the film, a perfect fusion of muscle, music and fashion. Tony retreats down stage, spins, throws himself into a splay-legged crouch, slides across the four quarters of the stage, and regains his feet in a kung-fu forward flip. He has established his indifference to gravity. He folds his arms, and begins dropping to his knees and leaping up in the Cossack style, crowned in the moment when he throws himself into the sky, legs wide out to his hands.
This is the dancer as action hero, as urban cultural warrior. The sequence is a celebration of his masculinity, a new brand of masculinity that likes to display itself in a fashion previously reserved for women. Tony caresses his ass and humps both air and stage. There is a recognisable progress from the prancing precision of Fred Astaire to the rough-and-tumble of Gene Kelly to this martial dance-artist, but the celebration of male sexual prowess is new. It’s fitting for the pansexual philosophy of the era, Disco having been friendly both to multiculturalism and to gay life—one of the many reasons it was as loathed as loved. The film has bent over backwards to reassure us of Tony’s heterosexuality, however, and his postures have placed him in context with a long tradition of screen heroes. He’s a riposte to Taxi Driver’s thesis that Travis Bickle was the NYC heir to Western heroes; no, Tony is, at least for these minutes on the dance floor.
Airplane! (1980) Directors: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams Choreographer: Tom Mahoney
Burlesques on Saturday Night Fever were endless. None matched that found in Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams [“ZAZ"], 1980), a send-up of cheesy disaster movies that is actually a scurrilous satire on the cultural mores of the ’70s. The scene in the Mogumbo Bar presents the film’s approach in miniature, beginning as a caricature of the seedy movie dens that screen heroes like Humphrey Bogart would hang about in. A fist fight breaks out between a pair in uniform—not sailors or soldiers, as per usual, but rather two girl scouts—who beat the crap out of each other. One is sent sliding down the bar and collides with the jukebox, which immediately starts emitting a speeded-up version of “Stayin’ Alive.” The grizzled bar whores head for the floor. When one is stabbed in the back, his partner Elaine (Julie Hagerty) can’t tell the difference between his dying contortions and the epileptic chic of Disco moves. Ted (Robert Hays), entranced by the sight of Elaine, heads onto the floor and confronts her. Both are dazzled. Ted strips off his Navy tunic to reveal a white vest and black shirt, and tosses his jacket with élan into the crowd before striking the finger-in-the-air pose—only to have the jacket thrown back in his face.
Unfazed, Ted and Elaine begin to dance, Ted throwing Elaine into the air and waiting many seconds for her to land again in his arms. He allows her to swing him by the ankles, until she accidentally sends him flying. Horror! Ted cartwheels through the air and falls to ground behind a crowd with a huge crash. But our hero is unharmed; he bursts out from the crowd and again strikes the air-stabbing pose, this time with such undeniable cool that his finger stabs in the air sound like bullets. Abrahams and the Zuckers prove how hip they are to the stylisation of SNF, as Ted’s heroic strut plays on Tony’s posing is an extension of the classic American movie hero. As well as being one of the funniest scenes ever committed to celluloid, it’s a true bookend to its model. In their late concerts, The Bee Gees took to showing both scenes on a big screen whenever they played “Stayin’ Alive.”
Pulp Fiction (1994) Director: Quentin Tarantino
For Travolta, the film eventually proved to be a millstone. A decade and a half later, he was a living joke (and it wouldn’t be the last time), having made enough money from the Look Who’s Talking series to retire, but having flushed the last of his cred down the toilet. Then, Quentin Tarantino cast him in his hipster-noir epic Pulp Fiction and had him dance.
The sequence alludes to Travolta’s early role, but it also, in its deliberately stilted sinuosity, refers to the dance of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part (1964). The moves of Travolta and partner Uma Thurman are drawn from oddball models—Thurman’s from the Duchess of The Aristocats (1970) and Travolta tossing in Adam West’s Batusi, all set to Chuck Berry’s unique Cajun-rockabilly tune “You Never Can Tell.” All this on top of the pair that we are supposed to be watching—a beatnik hitman and a coke-snorting ex-actress gangster’s moll falling in lust—builds into a scene that’s giddily hilarious, pointedly sexy, and subtly weird. It, in itself, became a vastly more ironic but equally pertinent pop culture icon to match the SNF scene, and remade Travolta’s career by both subverting and paying tribute to his time as the king of the dance floor. l