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by Marilyn Ferdinand
Blogathoners, the wait is over! It has been our privilege over the years to host For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon and raise money to help preserve our film heritage for future generations. With this fourth edition of the blogathon, we have a unique gem from cinema’s silent era in our sights, courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Our film is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak. Moving Picture Review said: “It is a good story, handled well by Miss Elinor Field… [whose] vivaciousness permeates the entire picture, filling it with life and action and a humor that is contagious.”
Following on the heels of successful repatriation projects with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and the New Zealand Film Archive—which brought back and preserved nearly 200 American silent-era films that no longer survived in U.S. archives—the National Film Preservation Foundation is now partnering with the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam to return and preserve more lost treasures. As part of the preservation process, the Dutch-language intertitles will be translated back into English. After work is completed, the American archives participating in the project—the Academy Film Archive, Library of Congress, National Museum of American History, and Oregon Historical Society—will take custody of the new digital scans, 35mm masters, prints, and access copies. EYE will also receive new prints and digital copies, thus ensuring that the titles are available for screening and research on both continents.
The amount we’re shooting for is $10,000, which will cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. Yes, just like our last blogathon project, The White Shadow, the fruits of our labor will be available free of charge to everyone online at the NFPF website.
In keeping with the science-based premise of the film, we have adopted science fiction as our overarching theme. OK, it’s a bit of a stretch, we admit, but think it will be a heck of a lot of fun. Of course, if you choose to write about film preservation, silent films, romance, or anything else related to our project, we certainly won’t object. Below are ads, which we encourage you to include on your blogs and social media to help promote this event; a full complement of ads, banners, and buttons can be found here. Feel free to like, read, and promote our Facebook page as well.
Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod will again be host blogs, and we have a new host blog joining us: Wonders in the Dark. Many of you are familiar with the long-running, prolific group blog tended to by Sam Juliano and Allan Fish, and we’re delighted to have them aboard for this iteration of the blogathon. Self Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme, who was our gracious cohost for all of the previous blogathons, has ceded her place to Wonders in the Dark, but will, of course, provide an intriguing post and much-appreciated support. She has also agreed to offer her outstanding novel Missing Reels as a premium to one lucky donor. Mike Smith from White City Cinema is also ponying up a hardcover copy of his new book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry as a premium, for which we are extremely grateful. We have some other goodies waiting in the wings, and if you would like to donate an item as a premium, please contact me.
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 about 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 are very lucky to have this opportunity to restore an irreplaceable part of our history. Please join us in having fun for a great cause!
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director: Cy Endfield
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“I didn’t know he was going to kill him!”
Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!
On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, is the powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.
From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.
When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.
One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.
After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.
Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.
Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.
Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.
What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers (1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.
Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.
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Director: Graham Cutts
Assistant Director/Screenwriter/Editor/Set Designer: Alfred Hitchcock
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Film fans, the day you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived! Just a few hours ago, the rediscovered “lost” film that marks the earliest surviving feature for which Alfred Hitchcock received screen credit debuted on the internet.
Although missing its last three reels, The White Shadow, a good-looking melodrama of uncommon richness, has come back to cast its white shadow upon audiences again through the good auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, with restoration work expertly rendered for the New Zealand Film Archive by Park Road Post Production, donated web hosting by Fandor, and a magnificent new score by Michael Mortilla with violinist Nicole Garcia funded by donors to this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon! For the next two months, anyone anywhere in the world can watch this treasure free of charge here, solving one of the biggest problems in film preservation: offering access to films that have long been out of circulation and are not likely to get wide distribution again.
Annette Melville, executive director of the NFPF and the best collaborator Farran, Rod, and I could have had in making the blogathon a success, says this was one of the most significant finds of recent years: “When the film was recovered last year, David Sterritt, who wrote a book on Hitchcock for Cambridge University Press, pointed out that it was quite a find. But a little more research suggests that it is more like ‘the missing link.’ It appears to be the first surviving feature on which he collaborated with his wife Alma as well as the film that established his connection with the Selznick family. Lewis J. Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, was the American distributor, and the film survives as a Selznick distribution print.”
So how does The White Shadow stand up as a film? Actually, very well. The screenplay, which chronicles the fates of identical twins—one good, one “without a soul”—shows that Hitchcock’s lifelong fascination with mistaken identity and personality splits began quite early and tracks with the style of melodrama favored in silent pictures. Betty Compson plays devil-may-care Nancy Brent and her demure twin Georgina, daughters of a wealthy and authoritarian drunk played by A. B. Imeson. Nancy meets American Robin Field (Clive Brook) onboard a ship returning to England from the mainland of Europe, a cutaway to the white cliffs of Dover signaling to Nancy that she is almost returned to her “beloved” Devon. Field is immediately smitten with the vivacious Nancy and turns up on her doorstep just as she is becoming bored and restless with life at home. Her romance with Robin is cut short when she impulsively runs away, followed by a father determined to bring her back. Both go missing and the failure of a final effort to find them kills Mrs. Brent (Daisy Campbell).
Georgina meets up with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor) by chance, and the romance is back on, with Georgina pretending to be Nancy to save her sister’s reputation. However, when Louis, a painter who has returned to his home in Paris, spies Nancy drinking and gambling in a bohemian nightspot called The Cat that Laughs, he rushes back to Robin to prevent him from marrying the woman who is not the person she appears to be.
I can’t pretend to know much about Graham Cutts and his directorial style, but I would venture to say that the depth of the portrayal Betty Compson gives to her twin characters may be down to his coaching. I would expect Hitchcock to direct the evil twin as more cold and duplicitous, even this early in his career. Compson acts like neither a cardboard goody-two-shoes nor a wildly amoral sensualist. In fact, I felt rather sorry for Nancy for having her character judged so harshly by the title cards. A woman who wants to travel, have the upper hand in romance, play poker, and smoke—in other words, have a man’s freedom—seems to have the kind of spirit Victorian women like Georgina were straining after; indeed, this tale of good and evil seems outdated even by 1920s standards, belonging more to the vamp era of the 1910s. Of course, Nancy wishing her father would break his neck while horseback riding and then showing up his poor “seat” on a horse is awfully wicked, but we are told Mr. Brent made his wife and family miserable. It’s no wonder Nancy ran away.
If a film has to end in the middle, the shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of the Paris nightclub, gaily unaware that she is about to have a vicious confrontation with Robin, is the perfect place to stop. The synopsis of the rest of the film shows that it veered into a kind of Victorian mysticism with the supernatural restoration of Nancy’s soul. I prefer to write my own scenario for a film that is filled with some interesting, full-bodied characters who deserved better than to have a moralizing fate determine their lives. Some truly suspenseful moments and occasionally murderous emotions leapt from the screen, perhaps revealing Hitchcock’s touch. A raft of interesting villians, from Uncle Charley and Norman Bates to the cruel death dance of Judy/Madeleine and Scottie, have some ancient echoes in this substantial blast from the past happily restored to the world again. Go watch it!
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Director/Screenwriter: Rania Stephan
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For the record: I don’t expect there to be a more exciting film at the Chicago International Film Festival this year than Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.
After viewing a number of ho-hum and near-miss films during my prefestival screenings, I literally bolted forward in my seat as I watched this fascinating experimental film—a rarity itself for this festival—that in the simplest terms could be called an interpretive biopic of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. However, Stephan’s assemblage of nothing but film clips from among the 82 feature films Hosni made from the 1960s through the 1990s offers more than a portrait of the artist. Hosni’s roles are arranged by Stephan to progress from the freshness of youth and ambition to stardom, through to adult pains and a dramatic death, thereby illustrating how the flickering images of our most cherished stars reflect back to us the archetypal dramas of our own lives. You’d have to watch Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart for anything close to a similar experience.
The popularity of Golden Age Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world made Soad Hosni a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East. With the decline of the Egyptian film industry, the loss of many films through decay and fire, and the 2001 death of Hosni herself from a suspicious fall from a balcony that was ruled a suicide, Stephan felt three distinct losses, or disappearances, that she wished to note in her film. She used images from available copies of Hosni’s films, without trying to restore, color-correct, or remove any of the faded subtitles (she simply superimposes new ones) from the VHS tapes that bear witness to these disappearances.
Soad Hosni, in looks, figure, career, and influence, reminds me very much of Elizabeth Taylor, the last great Hollywood goddess. Like a goddess who represents something immutable in all women, Hosni is shown being greeted by the many different names of the characters she assumed in quick cuts that enliven and add humor to the early part of the film, exemplifying the energy of youth. Stephan does not shy away from Hosni’s sensuality. She emphasizes through scenes of Hosni emerging from the sea in a wet bathing suit and provocatively dressed to sit for an artist the importance of the actress’ “attributes” in launching her career. It is through her own determination to become a star, signaled in a number of scenes in which her characters voice that ambition, that we learn it takes more than a gorgeous face and body to get to the top.
Romance and marriage soon follow, with steamy kisses (some complete with censor cuts) and highly suggestive bedroom scenes that offer the kinds of fantasies both men and women long for at the movies. In a sly commentary on Hosni, some of her characters are shown getting married to the pictures’ leading men, suggesting the four marriages Hosni entered into herself. In a cliché of the serially married movie star, Hosni’s characters descend into unhappiness, with one ending her marriage by saying she no longer respects her husband. At the end, to show the complete degradation of the memory of a fabled movie goddess, Stephan cuts together several brutal rape sequences, all the more harrowing for their rapidity and the struggle Hosni puts up in each of them to maintain her honor.
Throughout the film, a character Hosni played is shown laying on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to remember events of her life. This clever device amounts to something like the voiceover narration given by Natalie Wood, Hosni’s contemporary in time, career, and mysterious death, as she chronicles her life in the rise-and-fall show biz picture Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Thus, whether or not one is familiar with Hosni and her body of work, moviegoers will have no trouble recognizing her story.
The shocking ending of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni packs an emotional punch that I would not dream of spoiling here. I will consider my reportage on this film festival successful if I induce any of my readers to seek out this original, finely crafted example of experimental film at its best.
An excellent article about the film and an interview with Rania Stephan can be found here.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni screens Sunday, October 21, at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 4 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was a happy day for this cinephile when I got on the radar screen of Mimi Brody. Mimi’s official title is Pick-Laudati Curator of Film at Northwestern University, which means that she is in charge of Northwestern’s film-related programming. While she can take the credit for the many and varied screening choices that occur throughout the year, it is with her approach to special events that she really shines. In 2011, she put together a three-day conference on, of all things, film criticism that brought me together with my cohort in film preservation, Farran Nehme, for the very first time (Farran was on the panels; I was an enthusiastic audience member). When there was some unfinished business from that conference, she booked an additional panel for this year that brought renowned film critic and scholar Adrian Martin to my neck of the woods. It’s rare that any university in the United States not only would take contemporary film criticism seriously enough to devote considerable time and resources to bringing together the best critics to talk about their endeavors, but also include panelists from academia, print journalism, and online blogs and digital magazines. The conference was named “Illuminating the Shadows,” and it did much to bring online criticism out of the shadow of perceived inferiority and put it on an equal footing with more traditional vehicles for film criticism.
Mimi made it a point to introduce herself to me at the conference, and has kept me up to date on other film doings that might interest me and this blog’s readers. I was very excited when she sent me an e-mail announcing “Rethinking Film Preservation: Implications and Inspirations for the 21st Century,” booked by the Preservation Department at the Northwestern University Library. Again, the approach to thinking about film looks to the future with open arms, and if there ever was a discipline in need of a gentle, but firm nudge into the future, it is film preservation and archiving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with film collectors and buffs about the Chapter 11 filing of Kodak and the demise of celluloid, with the hand wringers and outraged mixing with the genuinely nervous repertory programmers who wonder what will happen to their ability to get and show high-quality 16mm and 35mm prints. Greedy corporations are blamed for failing to understand the aesthetic quality and purity of celluloid, forcing independent exhibitors like Chicago’s 85-year-old Patio Theater to ask Kickstarter investors to help fund the purchase of a $70,000 digital projector just so they can stay in business.
Bringing a knowledgeable, practical, and forward-thinking preservationist and archivist like Dr. Caroline Frick to speak to a diverse audience was another brilliant stroke. Dr. Frick is an enthusiastic, intelligent, and funny individual who is the president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and founder and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI). Because I attended her presentation, I now have a clearer picture of where we are and where we might be going in our continuing efforts to save our audiovisual heritage.
Frick began with a fascinating fact about a list that even the most diehard film buff probably hasn’t heard of or voiced an opinion about (that might change right now!): the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The vision and mission of this program are below:
The vision of the Memory of the World Programme is that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance.
The mission of the Memory of the World Programme is:
* To facilitate preservation, by the most appropriate techniques, of the world’s documentary heritage.
* To assist universal access to documentary heritage.
* To increase awareness worldwide of the existence and significance of documentary heritage.
Of interest to film fans is the fact that the first of only two American films to be placed on the register (the second is an ethnographic study) is The Wizard of Oz. The film was promoted over several decades as an important representation of America’s cultural heritage, but was regarded with suspicion because it is the product of a commercial enterprise. It only made the list in 2007 because George Eastman House archives the print from which commercial products and exhibitions emanate, thus providing a link to a nonprofit organization that UNESCO seems to need to declare something in the public interest. Thus, Frick established that the peculiar public/private nature of U.S. film preservation and distribution is as American as apple pie.
David Woodley Packard; Wohelo Camp (10 minutes, 1919)
Frick set up the landscape of film preservation funding as well. David Woodley Packard, son of the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, is responsible for the lion’s share of grants for film preservation. Preservation of films like The Wizard of Oz (aka, Hollywood films) constitute the only projects his foundation will fund. The National Film Preservation Foundation, for which For the Love of Film blogathoners have raised funds in two separate years, does the heroic work of providing funds to archives like TAMI to restore and preserve everything else, from industrial films to vintage television commercials. One film Frick is especially excited about finding, and is working to restore and preserve now, is an interview with 96-year-old “Uncle” Jeff Hamilton, who was Sam Houston’s slave. The film was literally a solid brick that had to be put in a sauna to relax.
At the same time, a big challenge to the film preservation community, including funders, is to evolve the definition of what constitutes preservation. Frick was trained in the photochemical restoration of nitrate and other film-based materials, and celluloid has been fetishized by many parts of the film community. Until recently, even the great NFPF provided funds for restoration to film, not to DVD. Frick said AMIA members are struggling to come to terms with the digital present and future, but she doesn’t see this as an either/or process. “Many copies make films safe” is her mantra, and the digital revolution has made it possible to save thousands of audiovisual artifacts that otherwise would be languishing and possibly dying waiting for their turn in the few photochemical labs still in existence—or deemed not worth the trouble at all. I commented to her after the presentation that people might not be so unforgiving of digital projection if they’d had my experience of sitting through eight time-eating film breaks during a theatrical showing of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan that forced me to abandon the screening to make an appointment. Just last night at the 13th annual Silent Summer Film Festival, impresario/organist Jay Warren did something he has never done before—he asked for donations to the Silent Film Society of Chicago to defray the sky-rocketing costs of acquiring films for the festival. If a high-quality, high-definition digital transfer of last night’s Sherlock Holmes (1922) had been available, a lot of the money spent on the festival could have been diverted to more screenings throughout the year.
Farran’s recent post on Self-Styled Siren, “The Kid with the Citizen Kane Tape,” showcased the flagging interest in our film heritage. Perhaps ironically, Frick mentioned that YouTube has created a huge appetite among the college students she teaches for vintage home videos, commercials, and industrial films—the no-copyright audiovisual artifacts that are freely available on YouTube that we cinephiles generally pay little or no attention to. Imagine if we could get more of these kids to consume films like The Wizard of Oz (which, unbelievably, Frick says more and more of her students have never seen or even heard of) online or through their cable TV provider or some other way that hasn’t even been invented yet, but will be, and soon. I am happy to say that by emphasizing access, our fundraising blogathon this year was a small step into the future for the many feature films that have been lovingly restored, preserved, and locked away in an archive waiting for someone to pay all the fees associated with showing them.
Finally, Frick shared her enthusiasm for the hundreds of films shot by director Melton Barker, of which perhaps only six or seven are still in existence. Before you run off to your film encyclopedias to figure out why you’ve never heard of this prolific director, let me explain that Barker was an itinerant filmmaker/businessman who traveled from town to town from the late 1930s through the 1970s with one script only, Kidnappers’ Foil, and induced ordinary families to pay $10 a head (more if the child had lines) to have their children appear in it. Barker is the perfect icon of American films as a populist form. Vintage audiovisual artifacts will live on to inform, entertain, and enlighten us only when we can all see and hear them.
The Local Gang (Childress, Texas, 1936) in Kidnappers’ Foil
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Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.
Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.
The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.
A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.
The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.
A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.
Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.
The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.
A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.
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Happy Mother’s Day, blogosphere! After you pick out a nice bunch of flowers for your mom, we’d love to have you join us as we celebrate the biggest mother of a party the Internet has ever known: For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III.
The first Film Preservation Blogathon raised funds to help the National Film Preservation Foundation repatriate and restore The Sergeant and The Better Man, two of the more than 100 silent-era American films found in New Zealand Film Archive. Both films are available on the NFPF Treasures 5: The West box set, which will be among the prizes that will be raffled at random to 10 lucky donors. The second Blogathon raised funds to help the Film Noir Foundation restore blacklisted director Cy Endfield’s 1950 film The Sound of Fury. The restoration will begin in January 2013, and the film will repremiere at NOIR CITY 12 in San Francisco in 2014.
This year’s event has us working with the good people at NFPF again, and the theme this year is ACCESS. Among the trove of films found in New Zealand were three reels of the 1923 melodrama The White Shadow. Directed by Graham Cutts, it was also the first film Alfred Hitchcock had a major role in creating (assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, set decorator). The film was restored in New Zealand and repremiered by AMPAS last September at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. If you weren’t there, you’re probably sitting around hoping some repertory theater near you will book it so you can see it.
Silent film scorer extraordinaire Michael Mortilla
That’s where we come in. NFPF is committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the marvelous new score written for it by Michael Mortilla. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice.
And without further ado, that’s exactly what we plan to do for the next six days. I’ll be your host today and tomorrow, and then this floating fundraising festival moves to Farran Smith Nehme’s blog Self-Styled Siren. My esteemed blog partner, Rod Heath, will host the final two days at his solo blog This Island Rod.
Remember, this is a fundraising blogathon. Run around the Internet and read all the amazing posts from the knowledgable film blogathoners who will be participating and DONATE today! Several lucky donors will win some great prizes in our random drawing, including Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself!
The blogathon home page moves to This Island Rod on May 17.
Monday, May 14
Today’s winner of a DVD box set from NFPF is Catherine Grant, one of our blogathoners and biggest supporters. Thanks for your donation today, Catherine!
Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns is given the neglected director of our project film some attention. He reviews Graham Cutts’ musical comedy Car of Dreams.
Darren Mooney of The MOvie Blog is back again with another fascinating Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Breakdown.” The second episode he examines today is “Mrs. Bixby & the Colonel’s Coat.”
Film instructor Michael G. Smith joins the party with a review of the Blu-ray of the very popular Hitchcock film Notorious. It’s a great read over at White City Cinema.
Our great supporter Jacqueline T. Lynch of Another Old Movie Blog takes a deep dive into the train sequence in North by Northwest. You’ll want to take this ride, trust me.
The great Ed Howard is back with another of his masterful reviews, this time of Hitch’s The Manxman, at his essential blog Only the Cinema.
We’re thrilled Dave Enkosky has joined the blogathon with one of my favorite overlooked Hitchcock films Number 17. Read all about it at KL5-FILM.
The utterly fabulous Catherine Grant has posted her contributions over at Film Studies for Free: “Audiovisual Alfred Hitchcock Studies“, with new essays by Christian Keathley (on Strangers on a Train) and Catherine (on Rope) plus links to LOTS more viewing and Filmanalytical‘s somewhat more in-depth look at film criticism and issues of editing in Rope.
Lee Price continues his look at Hitch and Michael Powell over at 21 Essays with their new uses for old places. What a great idea, Lee!
Ben Alpers brings us a terrific essay on Hitch, Michael Powell (again!), and cinematic reputation at a truly stellar blog, U.S. Intellectual History. Glad to have you back, Ben!
The morning laugh from Hilary Barta at Limewrecks. He takes on Notorious today, and I’m still laughing. (OK, I like silly humor…) Here’s his second entry for the day, a poem to the Hitchcockian version of an all too common form of Hollywood harassment.
I’ve had my morning Coffee, coffee, and more coffee served by Peter Nellhaus as he takes a look at the Korean film M, which may have been inspired by a dream about Hitchcock.
Josh Zyber talks about a famous glass of milk and more at Hi Def Digest. Welcome to the blogathon, Josh. We look forward to reading your afternoon post!
Allan Fish, great champion of early cinema who blogs at Wonders in the Dark, has come up with a truly stellar post on lost films he’d most like to have back, focusing attention on the preservation mission of this blogathon. It’s an honor, Allan.
Sean Gilman has honored us with another post on The End of Cinema. Today, he takes a look at Hitch’s Stage Fright, with a story built on a lie.
The Hitchcock kiss is the subject of Hind Mezaina‘s second contribution. Take a look at her blog The Culturist and enjoy!
Casey Maddren has a very interesting post on the film preservation resources and results in Mexico’s film industry at her blog Reality Is Scary. A very unique and useful post, Casey. Thanks!
Cinema Sight‘s Wesley Lovell, Peter J. Patrick and Tripp Burton are counting down their 10 favorite Hitchcock films all week. Great insight into the tastes of three great film critics!
WB Kelso is back with more Hitch ads on Scenes from the Morgue. Up today are Saboteur and Frenzy, and then a drive-in double-feature of To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Wow!
WB Kelso also graces us with a thoughtful look at Saboteur at Micro-Brewed Reviews, a cool site with a great banner! Check it out.
Leticia at Critica Retro is our first foreign-language contributor. Her Brazil-based blog (with translator button) discusses the film lost-and-found business, including the amazing discovery of missing footage from Metropolis. Le is only 18 years old and interested in silent and classic film. Bravo e obrigado, Le!
Christianne Benedict of Krell Laboratories is back with another great post, this time on the Robert Bloch book that formed the basis for Psycho, and the movie’s own inventions. “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly!”
Danny Miller posts his inaugural contribution to the blogathon at MSN’s Hitlist with a profile of color film pioneer Natalie Kalmus.
Joe Thompson returns again this year with a post on the 1963 Film Daily Year Book of Motion Pictures and its references to Hitchcock. Go take a look at The Pneumatic Rolling-Machine Carrier Delusion.
Sunday, May 13
Today’s winner of a DVD box set from NFPF is Katherine Kehoe. Thanks for your donation today, Katherine!
Kicking off our blogathon right here on Ferdy on Films is Rod Heath with an amazing post on arguably the best film Alfred Hitchcock ever made: Vertigo.
John McElwee’s Greenbriar Picture Shows offers a great rundown of Hitch’s The 39 Steps, with fascinating ads, production styles, and a fabulous production history. Terrific post, John! Thanks!
Darren Mooney at The MOvie Blog goes into Hitch’s television vault to present a truly masterful account of an episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Revenge.” Great stuff, Darren. And in his second post of the day, Darren reviews another Alfred Hitchcock Presents program, “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Our good friend Peter Nellhaus has poured us a great cuppa at Coffee, Coffee, and More Coffee: a screencap that features a certain director making his usual cameo appearance. Thanks, Peter!
Bob Fergusson at Allure has provided one of my favorite kinds of posts: posters of a number of Hitchcock films in other languages. Check it out!
My favorite movie poet Hilary Barta has come up with a terrific limerick for Strangers on a Train to kick this day off over at Limewrecks. And here’s another one!
Rhett Bartlett of Dial M for Movies has made the best use of Tumblr since Cute Boys with Cats was started: the last frame of every surviving Hitchcock film. Way to be creative, Rhett!
Aurora from Once Upon a Screen has a dynamite entry on Hitchcock’s visual signature. A really meaty entry for your Sunday reading. Thanks, Aurora!
We’ve got a wonderful post from Rachel at The Girl with the White Parasol on one of my favorite actresses in one of her best performances: Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.
The marvelous Lee Price is contributing to the cause at his blog 21 Essays with a look at Hitch and another British director you might have heard of, Michael Powell, working on Blackmail.
The great David Cairns at one of my favorite blogs Shadowplay joins the fun with a little bit of Hitch, a little bit of Cutts, and one of silent-era heartthrobs, Ivor Novella. Go see his Sunday Intertitle feature and enjoy!
Ron Deutsch is the Chef du Cinema, and has he cooked up a feast for us. Not one, but three Hitchcocks, with recipes to match! DO try this at home, folks.
Actors responses to taking direction from Hitch. My illustrious blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme has all the amusing anecdotes at Self-Styled Siren.
Our buddy Larry Aydlette proves that a picture is worth 1,000 words, or that several pictures are worth several 1,000 words in his case, at a tumbler he created especially for the blogathon: Hitchcock: Dial S for Sensuality.
Sean Gilman is spending one week with Hitchcock and us at The End of Cinema. He starts with seven films considered lesser Hitchcock efforts.
Old movies aren’t the only things that need restoration. Hind Mezaina has posted a short video on her Dubai-based The Culturist about restoring old Hitchcock posters!
Hitchcock and Lorre: kind of goes together like ax and murderer. Over at Grand Old Movies is a thorough account of the fruitful collaboration of these two men. Don’t miss it!
John Weagley offers us an amusing vignette on the Hitchcock Blonde. Go enjoy over at Captain Spauling on Skull Island!
Our good friend Pat Perry has graced us with a fine post on Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Go check it out at Doodad Kind of Town!
Christianne Benedict of the wonderful blog Krell Laboratories has got two posts up: a reminiscence about her relationship with Hitchcock and a reevaluation of Under Capricorn. Guaranteed good reading!
The generous and talented fellow Valentino fan Donna Hill has graced us with a post on Hitchcock moms this Mother’s Day over at Strictly Vintage Hollywood. Thanks, Donna!
Kirk Jusko has offered us a front row seat at his blog Ancient Celluloid for his look at Rear Window. Welcome to the party, Kirk!
WB Kelso from Scenes from the Morgue (newspaper, that is) is back this year with vintage ads for Rear Window, North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps. Nice to see you again, WB!
Film critic Betty Jo Tucker reminds us that Hitch wasn’t an overnight sensation by discussing some of his early flops at Memosaic. Welcome aboard, Betty Jo!
Jason Hedrick of Ecstatic is thrilled to be a part of his first Film Preservation Blogathon. Show him we appreciate it by reading and commenting on his Instant 3 picks, which include Hitchcock’s early film The Manxman.
Andrew Davies has an intriguing post about the films that Vertigo spawned up at his wonderful blog Davies in the Dark. Go check it out.
Charissa Faire understand the stakes in this blogathon as she talks about her most-coveted lost film 4 Devils, directd by F.W. Murnau. Learn more about film preservation at her terrific blog devoted to silent film, The Loudest Voice.
Sean Axmaker has provided us with a valuable post at MSN/Videodrone on the silent films of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney that, fortunately, have been preserved and are available for viewing. That’s what we hope will happen with more films. Thanks, Sean!
It’s always great to have Buckey Grimm, a man who really knows his film preservation, participating. Take a look at his Mindless Meanderings for more on what preservationists do.
We are absolutely thrilled to have a student film archivist blogging for the blogathon. Kimberlee at the AMIA Student Chapter at UCLA has posted an intriguing essay on fashion designer Carolina Herrara and her work’s connection to Vertigo. This is a unique and fantastic essay you won’t want to miss!
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sorry, Alicia, we can’t help ourselves. We just have to hold another film preservation blogathon. And this may be our best blogathon yet!
Farran Nehme, the erudite hostess with the mostest at Self-Styled Siren, and I agree that raising funds for film preservation is as addictive as the 7% solution and a much longer-lasting high. From May 13-18, we’re pulling out all the stops to take on our most high-profile project yet: director Graham Cutts’ The White Shadow (1923)!
Uh, ok. Let me rephrase that.
Maybe I should have mentioned that not only will Cutts fans be thrilled with our project, but so will the rare and discerning aficionados of a portly guy who dabbled in film a bit—Alfred Hitchcock. Talented chap, deserves to be remembered.
The first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon raised funds to help the National Film Preservation Foundation repatriate and restore The Sergeant and The Better Man, two of the 85 silent-era American films found moldering in the New Zealand Film Archive. (For inquiring minds who want to know, we raised funds last year to help the Film Noir Foundation restore blacklisted director Cy Endfield’s 1950 film The Sound of Fury.) At the time, the biggest name found among the trove of treasures was John Ford, whose Upstream returned to thrilled audiences wherever it was shown. Only later was it learned that three reels of the first film Alfred Hitchcock had a major role in creating (assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, set decorator) were among the cache. The film was restored in New Zealand and repremiered by AMPAS last September at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. If you weren’t there, you’re probably sitting around hoping some repertory theater near you will book it so you can see it and hear the marvelous new score written for it by Michael Mortilla.
That’s where we come in. The good people at NFPF are committed to making many of the films they have rescued available for cost-free viewing by streaming them on their website. But online hosting ain’t cheap. NFPF estimates that it will cost $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months and record the score. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice.
This year’s blogathon will be bigger and better as Farran and I pick up a Hitcher, and by that I mean a real Hitchcock maven, to help us host the blogathon and spread the word. My esteemed friend and blog partner Rod Heath will open his solo blog, This Island Rod, to your links. He has also created a wide assortment of banners for you to use to show your pride as a blogathoner and help publicize the event to your readers.
For the first time, we will also be offering sponsor opportunities to businesses interested in supporting NFPF and The White Shadow. We have two levels of support, with benefits that will get your message out to our base of movie-mad readers. So you’ll not only do good, but you’ll also do well by supporting the blogathon. You can find out more by e-mailing me at ferdyonfilms (at) comcast (dot) net.
Once again, we’ll be offering raffle prizes to donors courtesy of NFPF. If anyone else would like to donate a raffle prize, give me a holler. And if you’ve got an itch to spend some money right now, forget the shopping malls and just click here. Operators are standing by to take your tax-deductible donation.
Finally, NFPF web czar David Wells will be posting photos and film clips on our Facebook fan page. If you want to keep up to date on blogathon developments and enjoy some of the information and surprises, be sure to become a fan by clicking here. You will actually help us raise money if you become a fan, so click that little button and ask your friends to join us as well. If you don’t know what a blogathon is, become a fan and read the explanation in the notes section of the fan page.
Let us know if you plan to blog by leaving a note in the comments section of our blogs. You’d be psycho not to! (Couldn’t resist…)
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Director: Douglas Sirk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I had a Top 10 best time at the movies last night as the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society treated film buffs to another rare morsel—Douglas Sirk’s Old West confection Take Me to Town—something this classic film program has done for 40 years. When it lost its home after the last of a series of bank owners sold the Portage Park bank building where the cinema was housed, young film buffs Julian Antos and Becca Hall struck a deal with the nearby Portage Theater to join their revival programming. When the NCFS had to move from its previous Saturday-night slot to Wednesday night, many of us were worried that audience numbers would dwindle and that the program would gasp its last. Happily, audiences have been enthusiastic, and NFCS will be back in September for another season.
Antos and Hall seem to be stuck on Sirk, inaugurating their new home with Written on the Wind and securing the very rare The First Legion at the previous venue. Hall explained that the 35mm archival print of Take Me to Town they secured from Universal is rarely screened because it was made with a transitional soundtrack that most projectors are not equipped to read. However, a simple change of a red LED bulb to a white bulb made the sound, if not perfect, quite acceptable, and the Technicolor print was visually vibrant. By showing Take Me to Town, Antos and Hall have championed yet another film in the Sirk canon that deserves to be better known.
Take Me to Town is a Western with music and dancing girls, cops and robbers, preachers and pious townspeople—the whole nine yards. It is not a musical, but rather another one of Sirk’s brilliant realizations of a milieu that seems familiar from a hundred different films, but that takes the time to be individual and confound our expectations with careful observations of how people really live and act.
The film opens on a train. A vendor is hawking apples, magazines, cigars, and other sundries as he walks the aisle of the two-car train. Isolated in one of the cars is a “fancy” woman—Mae Madison (Ann Sheridan)—sitting with two men. She asks the vendor for something to keep her cool, pulls a magazine out of his basket, and hands the vendor a quarter, though he says the stories are not likely to cool her off. She begs to differ, as she fans herself with her purchase. When Mae learns they are an hour from their destination, she announces she needs to use the facilities. Only then do we see that she is handcuffed to the man sitting next to her. The man sitting opposite her unlocks her cuff, locks his own wrist to the man, and Mae steps into the ladies room.
Mae breaks out the window and jumps to freedom. The man she was cuffed to, Newton Cole (Phillip Reed), is dragged out of his seat by the U.S. Marshall, Ed Daggett (Larry Gates), as he investigates the noise. Cole takes the opportunity to brain Daggett with a vase and grab the key to unlock the cuffs. He dumps the unconscious Daggett off the train. Mae makes her way to a train station where she buys a ticket north to the logging community of Timberline. She assumes the name Vermillion O’Toole and stars in the dance-hall show at the Elite Opera House, which is owned by her friend Rose (Lee Patrick).
In a neighboring town, folks aren’t too happy that the Elite Opera House exists. Most of the residents are pious and prudish, particularly Edna Stoffer (Phyllis Stanley), who has her eye on handsome widower Will Hall (Sterling Hayden). She offers to look after his three young sons, Corny (Lee Aaker), Petey (Harvey Grant), and Bucket (Dusty Henley), while he takes off for a few days’ work at a nearby logging camp. The adorable, blond boys don’t like her (“I hate her,” Bucket says, which, with “I like her (it),” is the only sentence he utters.) and decide to look for a more agreeable woman to be their new mother. The three boys ride together on one horse to the opera house, dismount with the help of a convenient tree stump, and are instantly smitten with Vermillion. They invite her to stay with them, and when both Cole and Daggett show up in town after having seen her picture in the Pictorial Gazette, she agrees. While cooling her heels away from Timberline, she and Will meet, fall in love, and confound the prejudices of the community by making their “housekeeping” relationship permanent.
With a plotline as old as the West, what makes this film so different from so many others? Without question, it’s the film’s honesty, sincerity, and willingness to engage with reality. In a film of the same era and ilk, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the lumberjacks swing their axes in time to the music and fall in love with the first women they see. In Take Me to Town, Sirk allows his actors to do real tree-felling work, like putting their shoulders into cross-sawing, and he seamlessly inserts footage of tree-topping, which is as dangerous as it is awe-inspiring to watch. Will repeatedly rejects Edna, while declaring her a good woman nonetheless, and knows how to respect his own space when Vermillion must spend a night in his cabin. We also hear about Daggett’s determination to get Cole and Vermillion because he was nearly killed when he was thrown from the train—this isn’t a cartoon fall, where a character punches a 10-foot hole in the ground and crawls out of it. A final fight scene that occurs is uniquely staged, as Cole scrambles up a steep incline, with Daggett and Will chasing after him and holding onto vegetation to keep from sliding down. A steep drop into a pool of water fed by a waterfall looms in the background, but instead of ending the scene with Cole’s death, he merely rolls toward the edge and stops, knocked cold from the fall.
Will turns out to be a part-time preacher who is trying to build a church. He forces his congregation to live their ideals when he welcomes Vermillion to stay on and pushes her into community affairs. When a congregant openly challenges him on letting a woman of Vermillion’s type sit in their church—an open-air affair until funds can be raised to build a proper one—Will points out that they are outside where the church wall would have stood and belts him for his unchristian insolence. It’s also the first substantial clue we have that Will has fallen for Vermillion.
Vermillion herself is a little too good to be true, perhaps a sign of the repressed times in which the film came out. She’s been convicted of being an accessory to Cole’s illegal operations at his Denver dance hall, but she asserts she didn’t know what was going on—in other words, it’s o.k. with the Hays Code for her to go free. She clearly is a good-time girl, but she knows how to cook, sew, and clean house, and she falls instantly for Will’s three boys. In other words, she’s actually a good mother and homemaker trapped inside a vavoom body and eager to clean up her act and serve as the town’s schoolteacher, as her theme song “The Tale of Vermillion O’Toole” tells us she becomes.
However, this is Ann Sheridan we’re talking about. Sheridan is one of the most talented actresses to come from mid-century America, infusing clichéd scripts with nuance and showing a willingness to play against the grain of the story. She’s given exceptionally good dialogue in the smart, full script by Richard Morris (who rather specialized in good-time girls, with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie to his credit). And she makes the most of it, treating the boys’ declaration that they are “looking for a woman” with a little surprise, but a lot of understanding and dignity. She’s a hard taskmaster to the townspeople as she rehearses them like the pro she is for a fundraising theatrical she has organized. When Edna quits, taking her piano with her, Vermillion is venomous to her. While we might understand Vermillion’s emotional outburst based on how she’s been high-hatted and put down by Edna, there’s an edge to Sheridan’s attack that makes it clear she’s got a strong streak of nasty in her that is pushing some good people too far. She’s also a sensualist who dances uninhibitedly and displays her sexual attraction to Will openly. Thus, Sheridan risks alienating our good will toward her character for the sake of a more truthful performance.
This is also Douglas Sirk we’re talking about. He was a religious man who explored faith in quite a few of his films. This film is no different, as Will’s congregation voices sincere and convincing belief that sin is real, and that Vermillion and the Elite Opera House are bringing it unwillingly into their lives. Their view is intolerant, and Will confronts them on it, but the debate is serious and not offered up for laughs the way other aspects of the film are. Hayden is a sexy, believable lumberjack, but he’s also a very convincing man of God, a departure from his more numerous tough-guy roles.
Sirk is also well known for racy innuendo in his famous melodramas, and he indulges the double entendres in the script with relish, allowing that Will likes Vermillion’s “meat pies,” a line put into little Corny’s mouth for a little extra kick of perversity. He ends the film happily, but leaves a question dangling in the air about whether the rather boring life of a preacher’s wife in a backwoods town will be enough for a worldly woman like Vermillion. As long as the sex with Will is good, I think it will be.
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Director: John Ford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It has been a few months shy of two years since I first learned about the cache of American films from the silent era found in the New Zealand Archive, and almost as long since I learned that a long-lost film by John Ford called Upstream was among them. Preparing for the first For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, I was let in on the secret by the organization for which we chose to raise money, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). A lot has happened since those first organizing discussions: we’ve held another blogathon, one of the films whose restoration we funded (The Sergeant, 1912) is soon to be released on DVD by NFPF as part of a collection of Westerns, and Upstream made its repremiere in Los Angeles last September. The film has only shown in a handful of venues since then, none of them near Chicago.
That changed two weeks ago. A friend of mine told me Upstream was to screen at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque in Madison in a few days’ time. How had this amazing information escaped my notice?! I was so excited I could barely contain myself. At last, a chance to see what I’ve known about and worked for for so long. And what a show it was! The UW Cinematheque is a wonderful venue for free screenings of a wide range of films during the school year. Jim Healy, the new director of programming, came to UW after 10 years at George Eastman House, so not only are his taste and pedigree impeccable, but he also has a direct line to film sources throughout the world. Upstream was to have played at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema during their “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” symposium (which brought my blogathon partner Farran Smith Nehme to town to sit on two panels), but an equipment problem caused the detour to the Cinematheque. Thus, with apologies to Farran for leaving her and the symposium behind, the hubby and I set off for our favorite neighboring state.
The evening Healy had planned was a tribute to the Fords, Francis and John, beginning with a screening of a short film, When Lincoln Paid (1913), directed by Francis (that’s him as Lincoln, too). The nitrate film had been found moldering in a New Hampshire barn and was taken on by Eastman House for restoration; Healy informed us that after the discovery, additional scenes were found elsewhere, so restoration of the title is ongoing. I look forward to seeing the film in its nearly complete form when the “new” scenes are edited in—it’s an extraordinarily gripping story of how Abraham Lincoln pays an I.O.U. to the owner of a boarding house years later, after he becomes president and is conducting the War between the States that caused the unfortunate woman to lose her son, a Union soldier, to a Confederate firing squad. (This film and brother John’s were both given brilliant piano accompaniment by David Drazin, a musician who has quite spoiled silent film lovers in Chicago with his witty, appropriate soundtracks improvised right on the spot.)
John Ford’s recovered film is a much different sort of film—a show biz story brimming with comedy and a lighthearted love triangle. Most of the action takes place in a boarding house for vaudeville performers run by Miss Hattie Breckenridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus), a former vaudevillian whose several posted signs let “resting” performers know that they must pay in advance. Raymond Hitchcock, in one of his last film performances before his death in 1929, plays the big star staying at Hattie’s with a wonderful shabby gentility. Hitchcock, a true star of the theatre whom audiences of the time were so sure to know that he wasn’t even given a character’s name, uses his reputation and liberal amounts of flattery to get Miss Hattie to overlook his outstanding debt to her. A knife-throwing act made up of the knife tosser Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), his target, Gertie Ryan (Nancy Nash), and their assistant, Eric Brashingham (Earle Foxe), aren’t booked up either. Worse for Jack, Gertie is carrying on a flirtation with Brashingham, the last in the line of an acting dynasty, and like the last in line for anything, he was shortchanged in the talent department.
All of the boarders, even Miss Hattie, hope for a big break when Gus Hoffman (Harry A. Bailey), a booking agent, shows up during their communal dinner. Everyone runs to greet him except Brashingham, who is far too busy slaking his appetite to bother; naturally, Hoffman is there to see him. The Brits want a Brashingham to play in a new production of Hamlet, and talent is no object. Dramatic actor Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard), who reveres Shakespeare, offers to coach Brashingham. The pair stays up all night rehearsing, and Brashingham makes a breakthrough. He sets sail for London, makes an enormous triumph, and grows a head the size of the Titanic. He returns to New York and visits the boarding house as a publicity stunt on the day Gertie and Jack are married. Will Gertie, who carried a torch for the ham for some time, regret her marriage? Will Jack throw a knife at his former colleague’s fat head to deflate it? Will Brashingham be able to fit his head through the front door at all? It’s for the viewer to see and enjoy.
The performances in the film are uniformly wonderful. Chautard does Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” scene that, regardless of the lack of sound, is magnetic and full of feeling. We see the difference between his rendition and Brashingham’s over-the-top recitation not only in the lack of obvious gesticulation, but also through lighting that offers a dramatic counterpoint to Chautard’s emotive face. The comedy dance team of Callahan and Callahan is wonderful as an odd-couple pairing. Ted McNamara’s face is the map of Ireland, while Sammy Cohen’s is kosher for Passover. They couldn’t be brothers if they tried, but their differences land them a print ad for cosmetic surgery, with Cohen offering a side view of his angular proboscis in the “before” picture, and McNamara showing a diminutive nose in the “after” photo. The partners also dance quite well, and offer an early comic scene as their rehearsal in their room above the dining room sends plaques of thin, loose plaster crashing down from the boards that form both their floor and the diners’ ceiling.
I thought Earle Foxe was a little overstated during his snob phase, though the groundwork was laid very nicely by his half-hearted romancing of Gertie that was more mercenary than marriage-minded. His humanity comes out best when all of his lines go out of his head just before curtain in London, and he’s in a very believable panic. Ford offers a ghostly image of Mandare appearing in a dramatic special effect to bolster Brashingham’s courage. Nancy Nash looked adorable, (I covet her three-piece suit), and Grant Withers didn’t overdo the jealousy. I really felt for him when Brashingham crashed his wedding, sending Gertie into hiding upstairs.
I’ve seen a number of film critics tying themselves into knots trying to “auteurize” Upstream. The truth is that Upstream is a wonderful comedy that wouldn’t be recognized as a John Ford film if you didn’t know he directed it. But it does reveal that he was always great at directing ensembles that could accommodate stars without selling them the deed to the farm and that comedy was in his blood. I could never understand the strange mixed tone of his film Pilgrimage (1933), a rather serious World War I film that unaccountably goes slapstick in its middle act. Now I think I get it.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
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
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Director: John H. Auer
By Marilyn Ferdinand
An event that only a lucky few in a handful of cities get to enjoy is Noir City. Held by the Film Noir Foundation—and a major source of funds for the work they do to restore noir films and make them available in 35mm format—Noir City began life eight years ago in San Francisco, the home of the FNF. Last year, FNF President Eddie Muller and noir film scholar Foster Hirsch brought Noir City to Chicago for the first time. It was a huge thrill to listen to them, especially Foster Hirsch, whose book Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen holds a proud place in my home library, as they introduced the only film I was able to see last year, the superlative The Prowler. Noir City returned to Chicago this past weekend, and I had the great pleasure of listening to FNF cofounder Alan Rode introduce the double bill of Cry Danger and City that Never Sleeps.
Eddie Muller wrote about the rescue of Cry Danger for the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon that I cohosted with Farran Nehme, The Self-Styled Siren. So, it was a particular thrill to see that fantastic noir and to have the chance to announce to the audience that not only are we holding another fundraising blogathon next February, but that the proceeds will benefit the FNF. I’m happy to say that the announcement garnered resounding applause from the noir enthusiasts who filled the historic Music Box Theatre, their appreciation stoked by having just watched City That Never Sleeps. Viewing this rare noir filmed on location in Chicago and at Republic Pictures’ studios was even more special because we saw the only known 35mm print of the film, lent to Noir City by Martin Scorsese from his personal collection. The Chicago audience got a chance to see our city as it was in 1953 and hear a well-rendered script whose authentic recreation of the mental and physical geography of Chicago was itself a rarity to us.
City That Never Sleeps is an unusual picture. Chronicling one night on the mean streets of Chicago, it combines noir with a police procedural like The Naked City, with a voiceover introduction very similiar to the one used in that film. The big difference, however, is that the voice purports to be the Voice of Chicago, and it is played by Chill Wills, an actor better known for playing hicks (was that an intentional jab at our Midwest metropolis?). After introducing us to the streets of Chicago and the main players in our story, Wills shows up as a Clarence-like guardian angel named Joe who rides as the temporary partner of our main character, John Kelly, Jr. (Gig Young). Kelly is a burned-out, married cop who wants to run away to California with Sally (Mala Powers), a beautiful burlesque dancer he has been carrying on with, and find a better-paying line of work that will get him as far from the seedy side of life as possible.
Sally, an innocent who came to the city to be a ballerina, also wants to wash away the grime of her reduced circumstances, but shows Johnny the door when he makes yet another excuse to avoid leaving his wife. Johnny, feeling trapped and desperate to win Sally back, rings Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold), to say he has reconsidered Biddel’s offer. Biddel, a powerful attorney who has coopted both the high and low elements of society, has offered Johnny $5,000 to take care of a little problem he has—Biddel’s protégé Hayes Stewart (William Talman) has grown too big for his britches and needs to cool his heels in jail for a year or two to think about it. Johnny is to pick up Stewart at Biddel’s office, where Biddel has planted bait that the light-fingered Stewart won’t be able to resist, and drive him to Indiana, where he is wanted on an outstanding warrant.
City That Never Sleeps gives us a lot of action in the long night of Johnny’s soul. The cast of characters that complicate the plot includes Johnny’s cop father, John “Pops” Kelly, Sr. (the engaging Otto Hulett), who pushed Johnny to become a cop; Johnny’s kid brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy), who idolizes Stewart; Lydia Biddel (the magnificent Marie Windsor), the resentful former hash slinger Penrod married and turned into a society lady; and Greg Warren (Wally Cassell), an actor with a crush on Sally who has been reduced to playing a mechanical man in the display window outside of the nightclub where Sally works. Each of these characters is put in danger by Stewart as he tries to evade capture.
Windsor and Talman are mesmerizing as lovers and coconspirators against the smug molder of souls, Edward Arnold. The confrontation scene between the three of them positively crackles, with Windsor getting the best line after Arnold says he met her when he had an hour to kill at her diner: “Yes, and you used it to murder years of my life!”
Gig Young does bitter quite well, but it is hard to identify with his character; since Johnny is supposed to be more moved by others than self-motivated, he makes a rather pallid hero. Even his determination to sell out to Penrod is pushed by Sally, who threatens to run off with the sweet, dreamy Greg if Johnny doesn’t grow a pair. Nonetheless, the film builds to a thrilling climax that sees Johnny chase Stewart down the middle of the El tracks, with the electrified third rail rather melodramatically inserted before fearful reaction shots by Stewart to emphasize the danger. Despite this exciting chase and the ensuing fist fight—Talman and Young look exhausted and they really were suffering from the location shooting on the tracks in the middle of winter—the cheap looping of the same footage of police cars racing out from lower Wacker Drive to the scene of the fight almost ruins it.
Other continuity mistakes, such as when Pops is supposed to be going to the Continental Hotel and the building clearly says The Angeles above the doorway, reflect the low budget and made me admire even more how much director Auer and the crack cast were able to make this convoluted and gimmicky script—albeit with some great lines—come to life. For example, Johnny answers a call about a pregnant woman about to give birth in a taxi. He leads her carefully behind a wall as a group of passers-by stand near the cab in stony silence. When the baby’s cries are heard, all their faces soften, showing that the hardened city we’ve been watching through most of the picture actually has a heart. Auer’s camera angles in the scene between Stewart, Lydia, and Penrod telegraph the triangle—Lydia is seen in a mirror as Penrod enters the room, and their images switch places as the scene progresses.
One image that my blog partner Rod remembers—and it is indeed memorable—is when Greg sheds a tear as Sally tries to talk him out of the window, where he is a sitting duck for Stewart. As the tears roll down his silver cheeks, his humanity is revealed to the drunken couple who are leering at him from the street. Again, although its beating is weak, the heart of Chicago is glimpsed subtly in this tale of murder and corruption. Perhaps screenwriter Steve Fisher had these words from Nelson Algren’s epic poem Chicago: City on the Make in mind when he wrote this literate script:
Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.
Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.
Yet knowing it never can love you. l
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among film collectors, archivists, and preservationists, Rick Prelinger has the status of movie legend. Prelinger, an archivist, writer, and filmmaker, amassed a collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that became the Prelinger Archives. In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the collection, which has made a portion of it available free online to those who wish to view, download, or reuse the material. He is cofounder of the Prelinger Library (with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), an appropriation-friendly reference library located in San Francisco.
He wrote The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007) which “describes 452 historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation. From 2005 to 2007, Prelinger worked at the Internet Archive on a large-scale texts digitization project and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance. His feature-length film Panorama Ephemera, depicting the conflicted landscapes of 20th-century America, opened in the summer of 2004.
On the heels of the NFPF announcement of its partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to repatriate 75 American films, I thought a conversation with the founder of another important film archive was in order. Here are the results of our e-mail Q&A.
Rick, you’ve done just about as much as anyone to ensure that sponsored films remain a part of our cultural heritage. How did you get interested in this area of film making?
I was working in 1982 as a researcher on Heavy Petting, a documentary film about sexuality and romance in the years after World War II. As part of the job, I did extensive research about educational, advertising and industrial films, becoming fascinated with this rich world that no one knew much about at the time.
How did you build your collection?
When I started collecting, we were in a time of transition from film to video, just as we are now in a transition from physical to digital media. The U.S. is an incredibly media-rich nation—we throw away more media than most countries ever produce. I began approaching schools and colleges with media collections, libraries, production companies that had gone or were going out of business, and people who’d worked in the industry who had collected material. There was a great deal to choose from and my collection grew rapidly. In 1984-85, I realized that I needed to think in an archival way rather than just collecting, and began to collect original and preprint material instead of simply copies of release prints made for projection. Since there was obviously never going to be money to preserve all of these films, it seemed important to try and save these films in the best possible state.
Where is the collection now?
In 2002-03, the film collection to date went to the Library of Congress, where it is now being unpacked and processed. There will be public access to the materials sometime in the next few years, but it may take some time—they are dealing with some 200,000 cans: 60,000 completed productions plus a whale of a lot of unedited footage. Since that time, we have also continued to collect, and I mainly concentrate on home movies, amateur film, and a few commercially sponsored films. I don’t really collect educational films any more.
I’m a fan of these films, particularly “civil defense” films. The House in the Middle is a curious film that posits the unlikely idea that a fresh coat of paint will protect a house from a nuclear explosion. What are your personal impressions of this film?
The House in the Middle, to me, is a film that relies on a gimmick to get its point across. The government-run civil defense campaign was systemic and reached into many areas of life—there were films for householders, for farmers, for industrialists. In my opinion, this was simply another angle to repeat the line that preparedness would guarantee survival. In addition, the film links cleanliness and fresh paint with morality and survival. While this looks pretty ridiculous today, America’s marketers have often resorted to weird twists in order to sell their products. Compare this film to the many post-9/11 ads that use patriotic words and images to pitch specific goods and services.
Was this film an official part of the Defense Department’s informational effort?
I think it was made with the consent and collaboration of the government, who provided footage for the project, but I’ve seen no evidence that it was an official film.
Do we know anything about the people who wrote and filmed The House in the Middle?
Not really. It appears to have been made by a Washington PR film that may have contracted out production, but I haven’t done deep research yet.
Can you tell me about the physical state of extant copies of this film? What exists? How good are the YouTube and DVD copies of the film?
We have a 16mm Kodachrome print, as does the Library of Congress. Our print is not bad, though a little dark. We made a fairly decent video transfer and put it online for free at the Internet Archive. I think the YouTube version, like most YouTube archival videos, is a poorly derived, poor-quality dupe of what we offer online for free, and the DVDs are also copies of our online copy. I don’t know whether the original film materials still exist but hope to find them some day.
This film is on the National Film Registry as worthy of saving. What exactly does it mean to be on this registry and how will it affect The House in the Middle?
Films that make it onto the Registry are “artistically, culturally or historically” significant. I hope that this means the film will be preserved for posterity, but I believe we should hold off until we are as certain as we can be that original materials no longer exist. Going back to original materials would result in a film that much more closely resembles the original version. Beyond that, the Registry is a wonderful way of calling attention to films that may not be extremely well known but have the potential to enrich public understanding of cultural, social and cinema history.
Sponsored films are obvious precursors to the infomercial and the sponsored news spots that look like newsroom-produced stories. How do you compare these earlier efforts with today’s sponsored films?
Sponsored films are an ancient genre of cinema, going back to the first advertising films projected on New York City walls in 1896. While they are still being made by the hundreds of thousands, companies tend to focus more on the Web as a medium for their messages. The big difference to me between the film era and today is that the large and small production companies and studios that made sponsored films mostly no longer exist. But there’s more in common between video and Web production today and the glory days of industrial and advertising film than most of us might realize. Many of the messages and storytelling strategies are still the same.
What can people do if they want to see these films?
The best resource is the collection we’ve put online, and it’s absolutely free to download and use the films. Check out the Prelinger Collection at the Internet Archive. There are also other great collections at the Archive, including the Academic Film Archive of North America and AV Geeks. Click around!
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“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.
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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.
But now, I even more heartily recommend you start this blogathon by reading and commenting on the contributions of these wonderful bloggers. And don’t forget, this is a fundraising blogathon. For the Love of Film, please donate as generously as you can to the NFPF. Remember, four lucky donors chosen at random with receive one of two box sets of films preserved by the NFPF: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986
And we’re off:
Sunday, February 14 (Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone)
Betty Jo Tucker of Reel Movie Talks has treated us to a look at the most famous film preservationist around, Martin Scorsese, and the great work he’s done to save our heritage.
Over at Buttermilk Sky, a new blog find for me, is a new look at the Marx Brothers and Monkey Business.
David Cairns of the wonderful blog Shadowplay has a charming entry on Rin Tin Tin.
Kendra Bean at the Leigh-Olivier specialty blog, Viv/Larry/Blog, reminds us again why we all love Criterion!
Ray Young of the ever-popular Flickhead has a great review of a book all film lovers should get their hands on, The Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film.
Bob Fergusson at Allure has a fascinating list of Photoplay films from 1931 and their status as lost, available, or something in between.
Blogathon cohost Farran Nehme has started her series on why we fight for films at her essential blog The Self-Styled Siren.
Anne Richardson of Oregon Movies, A to Z has a fascinating interview with Oregon projectionist Dennis Nyback on what it was like to project nitrate film. The tech geek in me is swooning!
Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller, guest-blogging here on Ferdy on Films, etc., celebrates the return of Cry Danger , which is perhaps Dick Powell’s best noir.
David Ehrenstein of Ehrensteinland: David E’s Fablog (and it is) offers his tribute to nitrate, including some fab film clips. Check it out!
DeeDee at Noirish City has produced a round-up article of our activities that injects her own dedication to film preservation. Thanks, DeeDee!
Arthur S. at This Pig’s Alley discusses the special gifts of the great Raoul Walsh, showcasing two films from 1932-1933 he’d like to see restored and made available: The Bowery and Me and My Gal.
Vince at the Carole Lombard specialty blog Carole & Co. has a fascinating post on Lombard’s lost silent films and scarce sound films.
Now here’s a post after my own heart: A tribute to three lost films starring Rudolph Valentino by Donna over at Strictly Vintage Hollywood.
Buckey Grimm at Mindless Meanderings has posted Part 1 of three parts on the history of film preservation, which he cites as beginning as early as 1906! Fantastic stuff, Buckey!
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!
Jacqueline Lynch celebrates the glorious restoration of the badly faded Vertigo at her lovely (and musical) site Another Old Movie Blog.
Paula writes on Paula’s Movie Page about Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star and posts some terrific, captioned screencaps. Thanks, Paula!
College student Maggie Larkin sees value in saving both The Awful Truth and From Justin to Kelly because of what each says about culture. Read more of her thoughts at Silver Screen Dream.
Catherine Krummey at Speaking of Cinema honors Martin Scorsese and provides a link to his Cecil B. De Mille acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in which he talks about preservation.
Kendra Bean at Viv/Larry/Blog continues her Criterion love with a second post, on The Hamilton Woman.
The interview subject of Anne Richardson’s post on Day 1 of the blogathon, Dennis Nyback, has contributed a post himself, on the conventional, but erroneous wisdom on the dangers of nitrate and the loss to cinematic beauty by its obsolescence, at Dennis Nyback Films.
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.
Coming to us from Barcelona, Gloria Porta presents a fantastic post about Charles Laughton’s lost scenes from Spartacus at her blog Rooting for Laughton.
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.
Joe Thompson brings us part 2 of his brief history of nitrate at The Pneumatic Rolling-Sphere Carrier Delusion.
Jon Marquis pays 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.
A great friend and a great blogger Ed Howard knows how to get this girl what she wants: an entry on the preservation of two avant garde short films. Go to his fabulous blog Only the Cinema for all the details.
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.
The incredible Doug Bonner discusses on his wonder blog Postmodern Joan a film stock whose time has come and gone, perfect for the Golden Age of Porn”: Eastman Commercial Original 7252 16mm film.
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.
DeeDee at Noirish City is back with another entry: Writer Andrew Katsis reviews the Georges Méliès film Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage, 1904).
Tim Brayton at Antagony & Ecstasy discusses the restoration stories of three classics of the vampire genre. It’s really great stuff!
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!
Hind Mezaina of The Culturist has been offline for a few days. She has made up for lost time by posting several film clips from the British Film Institute Archive, including a cinematic postcard of London in the 1920s. Enjoy!
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).
Another cool post from Donna at Strictly Vintage Hollywood: still and posters from lost films, including some starring Theda Bara and Colleen Moore.
Cinema OCD’s Jenny the Nipper asks the $64 question: bootleggers or preservationists? See what she has to answer.
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!
Garth from Gareth’s Movie Diary ranges through the diversity of film culture and the uses of preserved films. Thanks, Gareth!
Saturday, February 20 (Happy Birthday, Dad, Wherever You Are)
David Cairns at Shadowplay graces us with another very entertaining post, a clip of a novelty act filmed by the Spanish Méliès, Segundo de Chomon.
Tinky Weisblat of In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens is back with an appreciation of three film preservationists in her life and with another item to preserve: peaches! Thanks, Tinky!
Paula of Paula’s Movie Page is back with a write-up and screencaps of John Ford’s The Shamrock Handicap, saved by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Sounds charming.
Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr gives an impassioned plea for film preservation that is inspiring even me to give more! Awesome, Andreas.
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.
Tom at Motion Picture Gems reviews the history of movies as seen by a director who is besotted with them: Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976).
Hind Mezaina of The Culturist returns with a post dedicated to the all the wonderfully creative, fun-loving, athletic women of days gone by. What a wonderful post, Hind!
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.
James Wolcott writes on Vanity Fair’s blog about a film the NFPF is preserving that he wants to see: Norman Mailer’s first film, [untitled].
C. Jerry Kutner celebrates with words and screencaps the restored Maurice Tourneur film Victory (1919).
David Cairns returns with one last post that has me enchanted: trailers of lost films from 1923-1928 (and one little extra).
Kenji Fujishima squeaks in a blogathon entry, a strong plea for all to support preservation, at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second.
Brian Darr, while plugging the blogathon at his marvelous Hell on Frisco Bay, adds some interesting details about the full circle of preservation. Take a look at his great post.
Michael Guillen at The Evening Class is a day late with his post, but it is such a good one, on the restored Lola Montes, we had to include it.
Vanwall Green, in another late but worthwhile post, laments the loss of the children’s show that engendered a love of film in him at Vanwall Land.
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For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon
By Eddie Muller
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.
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Director: Frank Powell
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
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.
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Director: Douglas Sirk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This evening, I exchanged opinions about the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man with Kevin Olson, of the estimable Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies. He had joined the chorus of praise for this film, while I sat shaking my head in near incomprehension. Yes, when the Coens first came on the scene, I was captivated by their droll, sideways vision of the American Dream. As the years have gone by, I have found less and less to entertain and challenge me in their works, and with A Serious Man, I found myself confronted with what seemed like one, long “up yours” at Judaism. The protagonist they created as the screenwriters for the film is a stereotype of the passive, sexually uptight, intellectual Jewish man. And the Coens seem to take such delight in treating him as their personal Job and, in the process, making a mockery of the personal relationship Jews have with their object of worship that allows them to question religious teachings in each successive generation. If I believed in a divine power and felt comfortable with the position of women in the Jewish faith, I certainly would find this centuries-long dialog an attractive and salutary feature of the religion.
It is with this online conversation with Kevin fresh in my mind that I approach a film I saw last night that treats Roman Catholicism with a seriousness of purpose that does not shy away from the religion’s faults, but, unlike the Coens’ film, offers genuine thanks for the miracle of life and our ability to appreciate it through religion or other means. One of the low-budget, independent films Douglas Sirk produced and directed himself, The First Legion deals with his familiar theme of the sometimes stultifying constraints of belonging to a social group; instead of suburbia, we find ourselves in a Jesuit seminary. But the importance of being honest and true to oneself, which Sirk surveys in such great 50s melodramas as Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows, remains the dominant theme of The First Legion.
St. Gregory’s Novitiate, in a small community near San Diego, is troubled. The head of the seminary, Father Rector (Leo G. Carroll), is concerned about Father Fulton (Wesley Addy), who is late to teach a class for a third time because he has attended a classical concert in town and missed his train. This preoccupation with music, which Fulton studied seriously before he entered the priesthood, indicates to Father Rector that the priest might be thinking about leaving the order. He orders a reluctant Father Arnoux (Charles Boyer), a friend of Fulton’s, to speak with him. Obeying, Arnoux learns that Fulton and another priest, Father Rawleigh (John McGuire), have indeed decided to resign; Fulton intends to leave that very night. In the midst of this problem, however, the priests are welcoming a special guest, Father Quarterman (Walter Hampden), who is passing through after completing a mission in India and who has brought a film of his work to show them. The problem of the disaffected priests will have to wait.
Walking down a corridor, Arnoux is greeted by a young doctor, Peter Morrell (Lyle Bettger), who had been Arnoux’s student at Fordham University. Morrell has been in to treat Father Sierra (H. B. Warner), an elderly priest who has been unable to walk for three years and who may be developing pneumonia as a result. Morrell, a religious skeptic, wishes Sierra would believe more in his legs than in Blessed Joseph Martin, the founder of St. Gregory’s, whose name Sierra invokes repeatedly; it is Morrell’s belief that Sierra suffers from hysterical paralysis.
Father Fulton, having written his letter of resignation, looks in on Father Sierra before his departure. He goes into a common room where several priests have gathered to watch Father Quarterman’s film. The room goes dark as the projector throws images of India onto a screen. In the shadowy staircase behind the screen, a dark figure moves. It is Father Sierra, walking at last. He says he that when Fulton came to him, he realized the younger priest was troubled. He prayed to Blessed Joseph to help Fulton, and Blessed Joseph appeared to him and spoke. Father Sierra declares that at that moment his legs came back to life, a miracle. Father Rector, who has long campaigned to have Blessed Joseph declared a saint, asks Morrell for an explanation of Father Sierra’s cure. Morrell merely answers that he has no explanation. Fulton, St. Gregory’s, the town, and Catholics across the country are energized by the apparent miracle, and in short order, pilgrims start beating at the seminary gates. Only Father Arnoux, a lawyer before he became a priest, has doubts, and he probes to either prove or disprove the miracle.
Emmet Lavery, a playwright who tackled religious subjects frequently for the stage and later for the movies, wrote the screenplay for this film from his own 1934 play. His apparent familiarity with religious life works to the film’s advantage and plays to Sirk’s strength; the personal trials and clashing personalities of the men of the order are brought vividly to life and illuminate the details of a largely sequestered world that spells meaning to some and entrapment for others. Father Fulton’s frustration at being part of a teaching order in which he can have no direct influence on the lives of the laity contrasts with that of the Monsignor (William Demarest), a frequent visitor to St. Gregory’s from the world of the parish priest.
A script that treats entrances and exits randomly and theatrically rather than purposefully and cinematically, and a jaggedly edited film pull the viewer off the track of the serious questions Lavery and Sirk are trying to address. Bettger is barely serviceable, and Demarest’s Irish accent floats in and out like the tide, though he creates a likable character out of a cliché. Some good-natured sparring between the Monsignor and the Jesuits—and frequent gags involving the Monsignor’s dog—distract as often as they amuse.
It is Charles Boyer who brings this film into strong focus. He brings a sharp intelligence to the meaty role of Father Arnoux, his dedication to truth preventing him from seizing on this singular event to save St. Gregory’s, or indeed religious faith itself. Boyer speaks with conviction of the miracle of each day, of every flower or ray of sunshine, and how prayer and obedience have allowed him to find meaning in his life through these unappreciated miracles. The plight of the blindly faithful, clearly seen by Father Arnoux, plays out through one of Morrell’s patients, Terry Gilmartin (Barbara Rush), a young woman whose spine was severed in a riding accident. She has tried to accept the loss of her legs, but her buried anger and hope resurface on news of the miracle. Morrell, who confesses that he pretended to be Blessed Joseph in a successful experiment to free Father Sierra of his hysterical paralysis, now must contend with the desperation of the desperately ill pilgrims and the deadly serious Terry, who will either walk or end her life. Arnoux pushes Morrell to confess the joke he was playing on the faithful and confronts Father Rector to push his ambitions for Blessed Joseph’s sainthood aside in favor of the truth; Arnoux is prepared to resign rather than blaspheme if the petition moves forward based on this baseless miracle.
The cinematic aspects of the film are serviceable, though Sirk uses shadow to great effect, particularly in the image of an upright Father Sierra moving from darkness into light. It is Sirk’s close-ups, particularly of Father Rector and Terry during their moments of truth, that are beatific themselves. The sincere emotion they were able to access and Sirk’s dead-on choices for capturing them are extremely moving. Just as Father Sierra’s prayer for Father Fulton freed him of his self-inflicted paralysis, each finds his and her own miracle in letting go of vanity and thinking of others. A genuine miracle puts a cap on Sirk’s offer of this answer to the pain of the world.
I was very lucky to see The First Legion at a revival house. The print, which had more than a few splices and which broke at one point, came from a local collector. This film, which can only be seen as I did or by spending way too much for an old VHS copy recorded off TV, is badly in need of restoration and reissue. Returning this interesting entry in the Douglas Sirk catalog to its original glory and making it available to film fans again should be a priority.
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Director: Joseph Cornell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever since I first laid eyes on them, I’ve been enamored of the boxes of Joseph Cornell. These assemblages of found objects, neatly arranged in glass-fronted or interactive boxes, create a wonderful feeling of nostalgia, fun, and creative surprise in me the way an absurd joke can make any of us break out in a laugh of recognition. Cornell extended his assemblages to film, buying boxes of films that were languishing in New Jersey warehouses, cutting and cataloging them according to his interests, and eventually splicing them into a number of short films.
The most famous of these films is Rose Hobart, a 19-minute assemblage of footage taken from the 1931 Universal Pictures film East of Borneo and what looks like a motion study that depicts the circular ripples of water after a large rock is thrown into a pond. On the rare occasions when he exhibited the silent film, he accompanied it with a recording of Holiday in Brazil (1957) by Brazilian composer Nestor Amaral, who contributed a couple of uncredited songs to The Gang’s All Here costarring fellow Brazilian Carmen Miranda. Cornell would project the film at a slowed-down speed through a blue filter, though in later years, he took to using a rose filter.
For those familiar with silent films and their use of color tints to suggest lighting, blue is the color of night, a perfect complement to the dreamscape Cornell conjures from the remnants of East of Borneo and an evocation of the feminine. Together with images of an eclipse blotting out the masculine sun and an erupting volcano, evoking the feminine Pele, he pays homage to the Goddess. Here the Goddess is given form by the star of East of Borneo, Rose Hobart. Cornell’s editing allows for intense observation of the Goddess, who, like the eclipse suggests, is sensed, even desired, but never really known. Our world, he suggests, may be the conjuring of Her own dreams, as She is shown in the beginning of the film reclining behind a mist of mosquito netting.
The Goddess inhabits an exotic land of palm trees, servants in sarongs, and luxurious surroundings. Sitting females praise her with clapping and singing. She is entreated by two men, one of the East and one of the West, but neither finds favor. Her most meaningful interaction is with a wild creature—a monkey delivered to Her by a servant that She talks to and pets until it, too, lays down to slumber.
Alone, She is most Herself, gathering together Her bag of tricks that includes both a lace handkerchief and a pistol, a reminder that the Goddess responds as often with natural violence as with delicate beauty. The image of the concentric rings of displaced water fascinate Her—the pool of the unconscious and its perfect, circular form. Cornell invites us to enter this pool several times in the film; only the most hard-headed observer will resist.
It’s interesting to consider Cornell’s reluctance to share his film creations, the perhaps apocryphal story of Salvador Dali’s anger that Cornell had stolen his dreams, the rather corny music Cornell used to suggest a tropical setting. We are dealing here with the deep and vulnerable unconscious of a single man, the collective unconscious for which Dali spoke, and the simple tunes that keep observers anchored in a homey familiarity (this is very reminiscent of the silly tune that recurs in Bruno Dumont’s nightmare film Twentynine Palms). Cornell doesn’t dwell in the lasciviousness of many dream films, for example, those of Luis Buñuel, declaring as he once did that he did not identify with the dark magic of the surrealists. He preferred the white magic, and that is very plain in his gentle art and films, and the care with which he treated his found objects and reassembled them into works of wonder and delight.
Cornell was a pioneer who worked with and influenced such avant-garde filmmakers as Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt. His films and those of his colleagues in the avant garde are among those most in danger of being lost. Get your hands on this jewel of a film and think about the delights this rich and under-explored corner of cinema offers.
Anthology Film Archives preserved the only print of Rose Hobart, which was personally given to them by Joseph Cornell. The film is also a part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s first Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set.
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