Friday, April 30, 2021

The Divorcée (1930)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                           Writers: Nick Grinde & Zelda Sears
Music: Milton Ager                                         Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel and Robert Montgomery

In 1929 the production head at MGM was the boy wonder Irving Thalberg. He had purchased the film rights to the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, which had been published that year, and planned to cast in the starring role the studio’s resident sex symbol Joan Crawford. Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, had other plans, however, and was forced to lobby her husband for the part. His hesitance was based on the fact that he didn’t believe his wife had the kind of sex appeal necessary to carry off the role. Apparently Shearer went to the expense of hiring a private photographer to take some glamor shots of her and when Thalberg saw them he relented. Thalberg’s initial instinct, however, was right--as was his eventual decision, but for the wrong reason. Shearer never really had much sex appeal onscreen, and she doesn’t in this film either. But the thing is, that’s exactly what the part needed, someone who could be a convincing everywoman rather than a bombshell. Thalberg mistakenly believed that he was casting for the twenty minutes near the end of the film, when in reality he should have been casting for first three quarters of the production. In the end, he wound up backing into the right decision without even realizing it, and as a result Shearer took home the best actress Oscar that year for her work in The Divorcée.

The film opens on the huge lobby of an upstate rural hotel, Robert Montgomery dancing with Judith Wood, Tyler Brooke playing a ukulele along with a record, and Helene Millard playing cards with some friends. Though Conrad Nagel is anxiously waiting by the door for Norma Shearer, the object of his affection, she is busy kissing passionately with Chester Morris out by a stream. And when he proposes, she says yes. Nagel drowns his sorrows in booze, and when the party leaves that night to head back to the city, he insists on driving one of the cars even though he’s drunk. Predictably, the car crashes with Millard and her sister aboard and Wood is disfigured in the accident. Later, at the same time Morris and Shearer get married in a huge church, Nagel gets married to Wood in her hospital room. Three years later Morris and Shearer are still madly in love, but when their friends come over to celebrate they bring along Mary Doran, a divorcee that Morris knows . . . too well, in fact. It turns out they’ve been having an affair, and when Shearer confronts Morris he confesses. He tries to play it off as nothing, but it’s clearly something to her. So when Morris goes away that night on a business trip, and Montgomery makes a play for her, Shearer lets herself be seduced. When Morris finds out, of course he’s the one who’s shocked, and hypocritically angry.

At its core the story is a simplified version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with Morris playing the humiliated Angel Clare, utterly unjustified in his anger and believing himself the injured party. When he begins packing, Shearer warns Morris that if he leaves her he will never be allowed back because she’ll be too busy with other men, and she backs up her threat by divorcing him. In contemporary terms, the film is also a look at the various kinds of divorces people went through at the time, and the different reasons those marriages failed. And while it’s not a piece of high entertainment--the ending is fairly disappointing--it is still a very interesting look back in time. Norma Shearer does a terrific job as the ordinary woman whose world has been turned inside out and has to cope with it the best she can. Though her character was always an independent sort, holding down her own job, it’s still difficult to come to terms with the fact that her entire marriage was a lie. Chester Morris does an adequate job, but nothing many other actors of the time couldn’t have done. And Robert Montgomery acts as a sort of mild comic relief. The production is typical for it’s day, with no film score and actors fairly shouting to be heard over the microphones. The Divorcée isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at for it’s pre-code view of life and for the great Norma Shearer.

Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

Director: Archie Mayo                                   Writer: Harry Segall & Roland Kibbee
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                           Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: Paul Muni, Anne Baxter, Claude Rains and Onslow Stevens

After scoring a hit with Claude Rains playing an angel in Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941, it was natural that screenwriter Harry Segall--who had penned the original--would seek to replicate the formula a few years later, this time with Rains playing a devil. But apparently Columbia wasn’t interested and so Angel on My Shoulder became an independent production by Charles R. Rogers, who had produced films at the end of the silent era and then made half a dozen more in the mid 1940s. That the film works at all is primarily due to Rains reprising, sort of, his role from the first film, and the powerful presence of Paul Muni revising the Robert Montgomery role. Unlike a lot of independent productions where one or two stars are hired and the rest of the cast is pretty bad, this picture boast a supporting cast that, while certainly second-tier, are still very good. In addition to the actors, Rogers was also able to acquire the services of composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who would go on that same year to score It’s a Wonderful Life for Frank Capra. Director Archie Mayo does a solid job helming the project, and the special effects by Harry Redmond Jr. are seamlessly done. It’s a quality film and a great story, something that isn’t typical for independent productions that usually invest a tiny amount of cash in order to exploit a trend or copy a popular film.

The story begins with mob boss Paul Muni being released from prison, where his second in command Hardie Albright picks him up. As the two are driving though the countryside Muni asks for a gun, and when Albright shoots him to death he naturally winds up in hell. The place is run like a prison, and Muni wants to bust out, which comes to the attention to head man, Claude Rains. The devil wants to ruin a judge who looks just like Muni, and so he pretends to be a trustee and offers him a deal. Rains will help him “break out” if Muni will pose as the judge and take his revenge on Albright. Meanwhile Onslow Stevens, the judge’s psychiatrist, is convinced that he’s working too hard, and suggests that his secretary and fiancé, Anne Baxter, do what she can to make his schedule a little lighter, especially since he’s in the middle of a campaign for governor. But of course since Muni the criminal is now in the judge’s body, his strange behavior is even more troubling to those who know him. Stevens, however, thinks he’s mentally unbalanced, and so urges everyone to humor him. The biggest problem for Muni is that Rains won’t let him kill Albright until he’s impersonated and ruined the judge first, but that’s the wonderful irony the story is built around. The judge’s opponent for governor is backed by the mob, and in attempting to ruin the judge Muni instinctively resists them, and inadvertently winds up being even more beloved by the people of the state, as well as Baxter. And the result is that Muni begins to seem him self differently because of it--and is therefore less inclined to kill Albright because of it.

Muni is wonderful as the mobster with a heart of gold, a role he’d been playing for over a decade by this point. Unlike the first film, in which Edward Everett Horton was the angel in charge and Rains only occasionally interceded, Claude Rains has a much larger role here and his frustration as circumstances intercede and Muni begins to change is fun to watch. Anne Baxter wasn’t yet the household name she would become in the fifties, beginning with All About Eve and peaking with The Ten Commandments. But she was a hard working actress who had already appeared in a dozen films at this point, including Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. And she’s terrific in this role as well. Onslow Stevens’ singular claim to fame was his appearance as the mad doctor in Universal’s last monster rally, House of Dracula, while in this film he plays the sort of ancillary role that Tom Conway tended to play over at RKO. But the real genius of the film is Harry Segall’s unique story and the twist he puts on the original film rather than attempting a straightforward remake. And he has some clever moments, like making the judge a non-smoker and teetotaler, so that when Muni tries to drink and smoke he nearly chokes to death. Though the religious assumptions are a bit heavy handed, Angel on My Shoulder is still a fun picture, well worth seeking out, and certainly a must see for those who enjoyed the original.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Chicago (2002)

Director: Rob Marshall                                    Writer: Bill Condon
Film Score: Danny Elfman                              Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly

As much as I love films about music, people playing and recording and listening, I’ve never been a fan of the musical. That’s probably one of the reasons that I like the musicals from the 1930s so much, because most of them are backstage stories that take place in a theater, and the musical numbers are just that: performances at a show. But the modern “Broadway” musical as such, where characters break out into song in the middle of the story--the kind of thing Saturday Night Live pokes fun at--leaves me unmoved at best, and irritated at worst. Chicago, the 2002 Academy Award winner for best picture, definitely falls into the later camp for me. As with so many of these stage-to-film adaptations, what works in a darkened theater with live musicians and live actors, doesn’t necessarily translate to film. The film has an impressive pedigree, based on a 1926 Broadway play by Maurine Dallas Watkins that was turned into film a year later, and then a musical choreographed by Bob Fosse in 1975, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. It was to have been filmed by Fosse after his success with Cabaret, but the project was shelved after his death. The tremendous success of the revival on Broadway in the mid-1990s, however, provided the impetus for a modern film version a few years later with a new screenplay by Bill Condon, who would then go on to pen Dreamgirls.

The film opens backstage at a jazz club in the mid 1920s--with musicians playing an anachronistic version of jazz designed for modern ears rather than the real thing--and the manager getting the next act ready to go onstage. Performer Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to the club late, and hides the bloody gun in her suitcase. Renée Zellweger is in the audience watching, hopeful that her tryst with Dominic West will get her a spot onstage. When she finds out later he’s been lying to her, she shoots him dead. Then her husband, John C. Reilly, comes home and tells the police that West had broken into the apartment and was killed in self-defense--by Reilly. As the police question them, Zellweger imagines she’s on the club stage singing, but before long Reilly figures out what really happened and gives her up. After being processed at the jail, she finds herself in the charge of prison matron Queen Latifa . . . which leads to more singing. Zeta-Jones is also in for murder, but has a very different experience because she has money and fame, and Latifa promises to get her out for a cut of her earnings. Then Zellweger tries to ingratiate herself with Zeta-Jones in order to get out as well, but fails, and so Latifa offers her Richard Gere, a big shot lawyer who can get her acquitted. If she has the money. Ironically, it’s Reilly who gets it for her and Gere takes the case, turning her into a media sensation in order to influence every possible juror before the trial.

The pacing is fast, the cracks are wise, and the whole thing is so stylized and artificial that it’s difficult to generate any real interest in any of it. The acting is equally outsized and uninteresting. In a way it’s difficult to categorize the film because its 1970s beginnings are so clearly a part of the production. The performances, the dancing, the songs, are all from a different era. The dance routines definitely have Fossee’s fingerprints all over them and, as such, it is a loving tribute to the man. But the performances themselves as performances--even including Queen Latifa--seem fairly banal and routine because of the casting of actors rather than real jazz singers. But then that was by design, to create an instant audience for the picture. As a result, it’s just one a string of musical debacles like Les Miserables and Mama Mia that, while filmed and constitute the definition of a movie, are anything but cinematic. Perhaps I’m jaded--okay, I know I’m jaded--but this just isn’t something that I’m remotely interested in watching, and if it hadn’t won an Oscar for best picture I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near reviewing it. Clearly I’m an outlier, though, as the film earned a ton of Oscar nominations and took home six--four of them in the technical categories--and is still very popular with audiences. If you like Disney movies and fantasy history, then Chicago is definitely the film for you. As for me, I’m going to stick with Sylvia Sidney in Ladies of the Big House.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Director: John Ford                                         Writer: Philip Dunne
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood

Much like the Academy Award winning Cavalcade a decade earlier, I have absolutely no idea what the point of this film is, much less why it won an Oscar for best picture. How Green Was My Valley is one of those multi-generational slice of life stories that do nothing and go nowhere. For me, they are the precursors to today’s Trauma Dramas that have infected movie screens and take home awards for the utterly unimaginative feat of showing what happens to real people in real life. Yet there’s actually a separate category for that kind of film: the documentary. It would be nice if those stories were relegated to that category instead of polluting what major motion pictures of the past always attempted to be, fictional stories that transport the viewer to another time and place instead of to the misery going on just down the street. But it stands to reason today that in a time period utterly devoid of imagination, where Hollywood is unable to create anything other than retreads and sequels of popular stories from long ago, science-fiction, sword and sorcery, and superhero movies that are practically indistinguishable from each other, and idiot comedies little better than TV sitcoms, when it comes to high drama the only thing that crosses the minds of modern screenwriters are “Based on a True Story” soap operas that obviate them from the arduous task of actually coming up with an original story. The only function I can see to John Ford’s maudlin family tragedy seems to be as the progenitor of what we’re stuck with today

The great Irving Pichel opens the film, in voiceover, as the older character Huw Morgan. The character is leaving his home for the final time, and remembers back to his childhood in a mining village in Wales, where his character is played by a young Roddy McDowell. He’s the youngest of six sons and a daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara. The family is ruled by father Donald Crisp, heavy handed with his moral guidance, which runs through his sons down to Huw. O’Hara helps her mother cook and clean, and the sons all contribute their money earned in the mine to mother Sara Allgood and then receive a small allowance in return. As always in this kind of film, the church looms large and young Huw is also guided by Walter Pidgeon as the local priest. As such stories usually go, the family is threatened by any number of perils, beginning when the mine shortens hours and cuts back on workers. The eldest son, Patric Knowles, is the first to marry, but the other boys soon move out when they want to unionize and go on strike, against their father’s wishes. Then the inherent dangers of the mine go on to claim a number of men in the village, O’Hara falls desperately in love with Pidgeon, who has no intention of marrying anyone, and before long the whole family is miserable, a reflection of the general misery of the entire valley, and so it goes. Through it all, the whole thing is just so overly sentimentalized and fantasized that it’s unwatchable much of the time.

But I get it. The U.S. was on the cusp of World War II. It had just been through, and was still suffering from, The Great Depression. So I’m sure it seemed as if everything Americans held dear had evaporated out from under them, and naturally a story like this would have been appealing, perhaps even provided a measure of comfort. But it can hardly be said to be entertaining. Still, even acknowledging it’s popularity with the public, the fact that a film like this could win the Oscar for best picture over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is incomprehensible. John Ford won an Oscar for best director as well, even though he had taken over the project from William Wyler in the early stages of production, and while some critics compare the film to best of his westerns, there’s something about the overt emotional manipulation in this particular film that is rather unsavory. He would do the same thing a decade and a half later in The Long Gray Line, and with equally dismal results. There’s no real star in the picture, as it’s something of an ensemble piece, though Crisp and Allgood are central to the story, even more so than McDowell, and the relationship between Pidgeon and O’Hara is more exasperating than interesting. While How Green Was My Valley is purportedly a sentimental look at a simpler time, it feels much more like an unrelenting view of grim reality with no redeeming features to make the experience worth the journey. It might still have appeal to some people today, but I’m not one of them.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Formula (1980)

Director: John G. Avidsen                                Writer: Steve Shagan
Film Score: Bill Conti                                       Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, Marthe Keller and John Gielgud

The Formula is an attempt at alternate history that posits global dependence on fossil fuels was not really necessary, and simply engineered by corporations who stood to make a profit from it at the expense of people, nations, the environment, what have you. The first half of the film feels very much like a TV mystery movie, something that would have played on the late show in the seventies. But the second half is a little better, when the setting changes to Germany. Still, this is a straight ahead corporate thriller that has very little thrill going on. It lacks suspense and any real threat of danger to the protagonists--though minor characters drop like flies. Director John Avidsen is best known at the time for helming Rocky, and then went on after this to direct the Karate Kid franchise. But nothing can save Steve Shagan’s screenplay. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that had the story been adapted by a more adept screenwriter, rather than the original novelist, it could have been much better. It has a solid cast, but they’re simply not given enough depth of character to make them believable or enough screen time to cause the audience to care for them. The production itself is equally flat and doesn’t really draw the viewer in. In the end it’s mildly interesting as a period piece, but little else.

The opening credits roll over a battle scarred Berlin at the end of World War II. With the Russians on their doorstep, German general Richard Lynch is given orders by the SS to take secret documents across the border into Switzerland to make a peace agreement with the U.S. Thirty-five years later, police detective George C. Scott is put on the case of a murdered friend of his, former police chief Robin Clarke. Apparently Clarke was friendly with corporate oilman G.D. Spradlin, sharing cocaine and hookers, and Clarke’s ex-wife Beatrice Straight also tells Scott about a connection Clarke had through Spradlin to Marlon Brando. The new police chief, Alan North, wants Scott to stay away from Brando, though, and then Spradlin conveniently connects the dead man to a drug dealer. It’s a convoluted case, but things get even stranger when, back at Straight’s house, Scott looks at an old photo of Clarke and the audience can see that he was the very U.S. Army major who’d captured Lynch during the war--then he finds Straight shot to death in her hot tub. Both of them, it turns out, were shot with the same German pistol. When Scott meets with Brando he guesses that Clarke was working as a bagman, and his guess is confirmed. Not only that, but Scott later learns that Straight had gone with her ex-husband on his last delivery to Europe, and finally learns from Interpol that Clarke was the officer who’d captured the secret German files.

The truly bizarre thing about the screenplay for the film, written by author Steve Shagan from his own novel, is how much telling there is rather than showing. It’s really weird. Every few minutes Scott relays information to other characters that the viewer wasn’t privy too. It’s rather disappointing as an audience member to be shut out of those important conversations, and rather jolting on the numerous occasions it happens. And yet, at the same time, the viewer also knows things that Scott doesn’t, not only because of the wartime prologue but also in scenes like the one in which the audience learns that Alan North is actually working for Spradlin--who in turn works directly for Brando. Scott convinces North to let him go to Germany, and meets with a cop he knows there, John Van Dreelen. Clarke’s last act before his death was to write the name of a German secret project called Genesis. Scott hopes he can put the pieces together in Europe. And it’s there that people from the prologue begin coming out of the woodwork. The secret project is, to no one’s surprise, the formula of the title, and what it promises could have a disastrous effect not only on American oil companies--like those owned by Brando--but the world economy.

George C. Scott does his usual solid job as the lead, strong and inquisitive, though the role is not nearly as interesting as others he had around the same time, like Hard Core and The Changeling. Marlon Brando loses himself in his role with heavy makeup and a lisp but, as with everyone else, the screenplay does him no favors. And John Gielgud makes a brief appearance as a German scientist, accent and all. Marthe Keller does a nice job in her small role. In just a few short years she had changed from a sort of baby-faced milkmaid in Marathon Man, to a more angular and interesting Liv Ullman type, though the roles are rather similar. Beatrice Straight has even less screen time here than she did in Network--no Oscar this time, though--and Craig T. Nelson shows up in a small role as a geologist working for Brando. Ultimately it’s a moderately interesting film, but nothing out of the ordinary. And in fact the screenplay, as well as the direction by John G. Avidsen, are decidedly ordinary. But there is one extraordinary aspect to the film, and that’s the ideas espoused in it and how similar they still are to those in our own day. Though today the corporate collusion and lies are more visible, they are just as real and just as damaging to a free society. The Formula could almost be seen as an allegory, not for energy, but for complete corporate oligarchical control of a nation. We can only hope that it doesn’t persist for yet another forty years, and that people will finally wake up to the imminent dangers they face from it every day.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Napoléon (1927)

Director: Abel Gance                                      Writer: Abel Gance
Film Score: Arthur Honegger                         Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Philippe Hériat and Gina Manès

It’s incredibly difficult at times to accurately assess silent pictures. Much of what has survived to this day has not survived intact. Add to that the necessity of the film score to survive independent of the films--only twenty minutes of Arthur Honegger’s original score for this film is extant--and this adds yet another degree of removal from what the director intended. Age, amateur editing, censorship and neglect have all taken their toll on some incredible cinematic masterworks of the early twentieth century. Napoléon, by Abel Gance, is a case in point. The original film, as intended, was massive in length and the final sequence required three cameras lined up horizontally to get the impact he wanted in his finale. But the film was cut and mangled by distributors from the moment it was released, and so what we’re really watching are portions of a masterpiece rather than the finished film the director created. For example, the film I’m reviewing here is the 1981 version edited by Kevin Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s the only version authorized for release on home video in the U.S., and then only on VHS. It also features a score composed by Coppola’s late father rather than the original music by French composer Arthur Honegger. Nevertheless, despite its abbreviated length, Abel Gance’s genius behind the camera is undeniable.

The first section of the film takes place during the childhood of Vladimir Roudenko as Napoleon when he attended military school. One of the seminal events in his career was the famous snowball fight when, despite great odds against him, he was able to overcome a much larger force. His professors noticed this, of course. But he was also picked on at school for being Corsican rather than French, and when he was given the gift of an eagle by his uncle it was released by his jealous classmates. When the eagle comes back to him, however, it’s a sign that the young boy is destined for great things. Eight years later the action moves to Paris during the French Revolution. A young army captain teaches “La Marseillaise” to the crowd at the revolutionary club and Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon is inspired once again. While he is appalled at the destructive nature of humanity during the Revolution, he also recognizes the opportunity it will afford him. Later, on the street, he meets Gina Manés as Josephine, though she barely notices him, and eventually makes his way back to Corsica to see his family. There he learns from a family friend that the president of the island intends to give Corsica to the British, something Napoleon vows to prevent. Then he steals the president’s French flag and makes his perilous escape from the island by sea, using it as his sail.

In Part Two Napoleon, now an artillery captain in the French Army, participates in the siege of Toulon and tries to get the hopefully outmoded general to see things his way. When the general is finally replaced, the new one sees the captain’s abilities and gives him a command. But when he asks him what to do next, Napoleon says he won’t speak unless he’s given command of the entire siege, so the general gives it to him and the midnight attack he plans is ultimately successful. The final part opens on the Terror in Paris with the Napoleon’s rival Saliceti, played by Philippe Hériat, eager to put him on trial, but Robespierre instead offers him command of the forces guarding Paris. When Napoleon refuses, however, he’s jailed. Then Robespierre is deposed, Napoleon is released, but still he refuses orders, this time to fight against other Frenchmen. But when the French royalist military mounts an attack on the capital, Napoleon reluctantly agrees to defend the city and the Republic, and when he succeeds he is given command of the entire French army. At last he is finally able to attract the attention and interest of Josephine. Then he begins his quest for European union where the climatic battle of the film takes place in Italy.

Gance does some terrific work with his cinematographers, tracking shots and multiple angles that add a great deal to the artistry of the film. The snowball fight is particularly distinctive in its use of montage, which includes a mobile camera, to suggest the frenetic quality of battle. And this technique is used elsewhere to similar effect, especially during his escape from Corsica by sea. Gance also crosscuts this scene with the conflict at the General Assembly in Paris, and uses a camera on a pendulum to replicate the wave motion of the sea, as though the sea of people arguing back and forth are the same as the waves themselves. His night shooting in a downpour during the siege of Toulon is also surprisingly effective. Another innovative technique he uses is to sort of shake the camera, especially during battle scenes, to achieve the effect that comes from a hand-held camera today. But Gance’s camera never sits still for long, either moving itself or quickly cutting between shots to suggest movement. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, that also includes numerous types of image manipulation, with multiple images superimposed, or Napoleon himself placed in the middle of battle scenes, as well as numerous other effects. Finally, there are the sections in the Italian battle in which Gance used three screens at once. The whole thing is so brilliantly inventive that there’s nothing else like it in silent film history.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to discuss Napoléon for American audiences without bringing in Francis Ford Coppola. The director believes that Gance gave him the copyright to the film and after his 1981 truncated restoration—-at four hours this is actually the shortest version of the film—-produced by Zoetrope was released on VHS, he has blocked any attempt to release other longer versions in the United States. Fortunately, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to do the same in Europe and a much more complete version is available on DVD with the Carl Davis score, though it must be played on a region free player. There’s only one thing to be said about Carmine Coppola’s score for the American release: too much percussion. It feels as if he uses drums in every scene, to the point of distraction. Okay, there are two things, he also does not have the kind of Romantic melodic sensibility that is needed for this kind of picture. In short, it’s a bad film score. And this is made all the more frustrating by the release on CD of nearly two and a half hour’s worth of Carl Davis’s score for Kevin Brownlow’s British restoration, which makes us realize just how much we’re missing. That said, Coppola’s score is not entirely devoid of artistry. The French Revolution sequence, for example, is done entirely with a pipe organ and the connection between the bloodthirsty revolutionaries and the murderous history of the church is a powerful subliminal association. Much of the rest, however, borders on the unlistenable.

But by far the biggest issue with the Coppola version of the film is the lack of speed correction, and because of that the film jerks along like a Keystone Cops short-—which is unfortunate in the extreme. As a result, the British edition is really the only way to watch the film. Not only is it speed corrected, but it’s a far more complete version of Gance’s vision, and has the added benefit of containing the Carl Davis score. Despite tinting that is just too saturated for my taste, it is a much more enjoyable experience overall. The five and a half hour running time may seem daunting, but at least a half hour of that extra time, if not more, is due to the speed correction. And even Coppola’s four-hour version can feels a little truncated at times during viewing. The acting in the picture is uniformly excellent throughout. Albert Dieudonné is small of stature, which makes him fit the role physically, but he also has a wonderfully distinctive face and plays the part to perfection. While Vladimir Roudenko, as the young Napoleon, might even be better. Then Gance himself plays the part of one of Robespierre’s inner circle, Louis de Saint-Just. The set design is meticulously detailed, the costumes are wonderfully realistic, and the military battles really feel like battles. In the end, however, it is Gance’s unique vision as a director that makes Napoléon required viewing—no matter which version you see.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Arbuckle & Keaton, Vol. 2 (1917-20)

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle                           Writer: Roscoe Arbuckle
Music: Alloy Orchestra                                 Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake

The second of Kino Video’s two-volume set of Arbuckle & Keaton, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s shorts featuring Buster Keaton, picks right up where the first volume leaves off. Keaton’s apprenticeship with Arbuckle was a fortuitous one, as Fatty was perfectly willing to share the spotlight with his co-star as long as it made the films better. While Chaplin used his stock company as straight men, villains or fools, Keaton and Arbuckle worked as an unacknowledged team, and while at first the divergent styles of the two comedians would not seem to be a good fit on screen, the two of them make it work, with superior results. While Arbuckle had been working in screen comedies since 1909 and brought a wealth of film experience to bear, Keaton had just recently quit his family’s stage act and added a his voluminous vaudevillian set of gags to the mix, but now able to take them further and in more inventive ways through the use of film technology that wasn’t limited by the practical effects of the live stage. It really served to unleash Keaton’s creativity and prepare him for what he would be able to do in the future when he was forced to go on his own after Arbuckle’s framed-up murder trial ended his career.

Back Stage is from 1919, and begins with Arbuckle and the gang breaking down a bedroom set on a theater stage. Fatty has some great gags with a kid and a bucket of whitewash. Meanwhile Buster and Al St. John goof around with some of the eccentric performers at the theater, including abusive strong man Charles A. Post. Fatty makes it his business to take care of the man’s overworked assistant, Molly Malone, with an eye to winning her affections. In a wonderful sight gag, Malone lifts all of Post’s heavy weights out of a packing case by herself. When Post leaves in a huff, Malone stays behind and she and the gang put on the performance themselves, featuring some well-done routines by everyone in the cast. The most memorable of which is when the front of the house set is cut loose by Buster and the window frame falls on Fatty but doesn’t touch him. It’s a gag Keaton went on to repeat in Steamboat Bill Jr. but on a much larger scale. Good Night, Nurse, from a year earlier in 1918, begins with a drunk Fatty in a torrential downpour, and the driving wind and rain is something else Keaton used on Steamboat Bill Jr. as well. Arbuckle plays the first part of the film in the front of a drug store, with various characters coming along and interacting with him, a drunk, a lady with an umbrella--played by Keaton--a cop, a gypsy dancer, and all the while he’s trying to light a cigarette in the pouring rain. Back at home his wife wants to cure Fatty of his alcoholism and sends him to a sanitarium where he is put under the charge of Keaton as a scalpel-happy surgeon, and pursued by mad woman Alice Lake. The scene in which Buster flirts with Fatty in drag is the highlight.

Coney Island goes back two years earlier to 1917. The film opens with Buster and Alice Mann at a Marti Gras parade. Meanwhile Fatty is enduring the day at the beach with his overbearing wife Agnes Neilson, and finally manages to escape. The two couples intersect at the carnival, where Buster loses his girl to Al St. John, and it’s startling to see Buster cry. While the two men have it out, Fatty makes a play for Mann and he winds up in drag again, this time in a women’s spa, and eventually they wind up back at the beach where his wife spots him and Buster gets Mann back. The Rough House, from 1917 as well, is a family comedy that begins with man of the house Fatty lighting a cigarette and falling asleep, then surprised to find his bed on fire when he wakes up. Al St. John is the goofy kitchen helper, overreacting to everything from runaway bread dough to a wild garden hose. A real jolt of recognition comes at breakfast when Arbuckle puts a pair of rolls on forks and performs a little routine, a gag that Chaplin would steal for the Gold Rush. When Keaton appears it’s as a grocery delivery boy, and he grins mightily as he flirts with Josephine Stevens playing the maid. Eventually the whole thing devolves into mayhem as the group completely trashes the house. Straight up slapstick the whole way through.

The Garage is the latest of all the pair’s shorts, filmed in 1920. It opens with the same window cleaning gag from The Bell Boy two years earlier, this time with Fatty at the garage cleaning the rear window of a car. As if the team was running out of gas—pun intended—they seem to be recycling any number of gags and are content to let the story sink into slapstick right from the outset. And yet . . . it still manages to be pretty funny, maybe the best of the bunch. There are some great sight gags with the cars—something Keaton would use later—and even faux Chaplin imitator Charles Dorety. By far the best bit, though, is the ubiquitous black motor oil that winds up all over everyone, similar to what Dr. Seuss would do decades later in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. What’s interesting to see is Keaton’s evolution as the films progress. Unfortunately the Kino discs don’t have them in chronological order, and thus have the more pedestrian slapstick films come after the slightly more sophisticated comedies. Keaton begins in 1917 by laughing and goofing off with the rest of the cast in whatever costume is called for, but just a year later he takes on his straight-faced demeanor and flat hat as he becomes a far more distinct entity in the films than any of the others in the company. The change isn’t complete, and it doesn’t happen all at once, but trend is very distinct. It’s a curious evolution when compared to Arbuckle, who seemed content to coast along without any thought of maturing his character.

The earlier films suffer from age, many showing a lot of wear and artifacts, though that’s not nearly as bad as the frequent sections of missing film that tend to jolt the viewer along with numerous jump cuts between those missing frames, some of which even ruin the gags. As with the first volume, the Alloy Orchestra is horrible to listen to and the films are better off watched without it. The versions on the five-disc Buster Keaton Shorts Collection have either a jaunty but innocuous piano score by Antonio Coppola or a small traditional orchestra, both of which are much easier on the ears—with the obvious exception of the horribly intrusive vocals on Coney Island. It addition, this new set also forgoes the rather heavy-handed tinting of the Kino versions, and is probably the preferred way to get the collection overall, as the set incudes all of Keaton’s own shorts as well. The Kino discs are also missing four of the fourteen shorts the duo made in total, so that’s another reason to opt for the compete collection. Ultimately the Arbuckle films were just the beginning for Keaton, who would go on to far more well thought out comedies and stunning features later in the silent era. While the Kino Arbuckle & Keaton discs were all that was available for many years, they did not do the films justice the way newer collections have done. So while the films themselves come highly recommended, just try to find them in a newer form.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)

Director: Maurice Tourneur                              Writer: Maurice Tourneur
Piano Score: Philip Carli (1993)                       Art Direction: Ben Carré
Starring: Robert Warwick, Ruth Shepley, Alec B. Francis and Robert W. Cummings

One of the early gangster pictures, Alias Jimmy Valentine helped set the stage for the numerous pictures about crime and the underworld that would flood theater screens in the pre-code thirties—as well as spawning two sequels, in 1920 and 1928. The plot comes from a 1903 short story by O. Henry titled, “A Retrieved Reformation,” and was adapted for the stage by Paul Armstrong in 1910 under the name Alias Jimmy Valentine. The director of the film, Maurice Tourneur is credited with the scenario, and the picture was shot in New York. The prison sequences were filmed in Sing Sing, in Ossining, New York, with the permission and assistance of Warden Thomas M. Osborne who plays himself in the film. It’s a tremendous piece of work, too, essentially a modern reworking of Les Misérables with a twist, but one that holds up well over a hundred years later. The film begins with a typical introduction of the actors and the characters they play. Robert Warwick is Jimmy Valentine, and he is seen both smiling in a tuxedo, and then dissolves to the same actor grimacing in prison. Actress Ruth Shepley is shown smelling flowers as she looks smiling into a mirror. Alec B. Francis, obviously playing a criminal, is shown peering around a door, while John Hines looks suspiciously out a window into an alleyway. Finally, police detective Robert W. Cummings is shown at the police station.

The story begins with a title card informing the audience that the criminal Robert Warwick lives a double life as a respected citizen during the day. He’s seen finishing up his workday at an office, and then walking out of the building and home to his apartment. He sets his alarm clock and emerges at midnight as Jimmy Valentine, meeting up with Francis and Hines to rob a bank with the assistance of D.J. Flanagan. While Francis stays as lookout, the other three make their way to the vault and Warwick quickly cracks it open. But while they are loading up the money the noise starts a nearby dog barking, which rouses the night watchman, who turns on the lights and begins inspecting the building. Everything looks all right, initially, until he flushes the men from their hiding spots, and after a brief chase he calls in the police and Francis is nabbed. But the other three men manage to slip out the back and escape. The next day Detective Doyle, played by Robert Cummings, finds a cufflink at the scene, which turns out to be Warwick’s. When Cummings shows up at Warwick’s apartment the criminal flees, but not before a coded message can be sent to John Hines warning him that Cummings may be on to them. Then Warwick and Flanagan hit the road.

Shepley, it turns out, is on the same train, and when Hines makes unwanted advances it is Warwick who steps in and saves her. But Hines won’t stop and Warwick is finally forced to throw him from the train, which in turn necessitates himself jumping off a short time later. Back home Shepley tells her father--Frederick Truesdell, who turns out to be the state’s lieutenant governor--the whole story. Hines survives his trauma long enough to tell the police everything before he dies, and Cummings then tracks down Warwick to the hotel he’s staying at and the expert safecracker of the heist is finally apprehended. At this point Warwick is sent to Sing Sing for ten years, and it’s here that Shepley turns up later, doing some charity work, and recognizes Warwick. Of course she thinks he’s been wrongly convicted after his gallant behavior on the train, and Warwick goes along with the idea until Truesdell eventually manages to get him pardoned. The crux of the film then becomes whether Warwick will be able to go straight and pursue a relationship with Shepley, or revert to his old life of crime and fall prey to Cunningham who has sworn to put him behind bars again, à la Javert in Victor Hugo’s classic novel—especially once Francis is released and wants to get the old gang back together.

The greatness of the film is primarily due to Tourneur, who makes some nice choices as director and as a result injects some real artistry into the film. In the beginning of the film he shows Warwick leaving his apartment building from behind, a deep focus shot through the open door, and holds on the crystal clear tenement buildings in the background while the actor walks all the way down the sidewalk and out of the frame. For the bank robbery, Tourneur sets his camera high up in a balcony and shoots the whole sequence in one continuous shot as the men make their way through the maze-like office. It’s a brilliant effect. In fact, the shot selection throughout the film is far more advanced that what someone like D.W. Griffith was doing at the same time. Griffith’s interior set ups were done in long shot, with the full room like a proscenium in view from floor to ceiling, whereas Tourneur prefers medium shots which feel far more natural and intimate, and give the film a much more modern sensibility. All of the actors are very good as well, and Warwick gives a splendid performance in the leading role. While the story is fairly predictable, it has a great climax and is very satisfying overall, but the vision is all Tourneur and that makes Alias Jimmy Valentine—like Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration from the same year—one of the great films of the era.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

America (1924)

Director: D.W. Griffith                                        Writer: Robert W. Chambers
Film Score: Joseph Carl Breil                           Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Starring: Neil Hamilton, Lionel Barrymore, Carol Dempster and Erville Alderson

In a self-serving interview shortly after the release of the execrable Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith gushed that with the advent of cinema, public schools now could do away with history books as students need only watch films, letting them actually be there to experience history rather than simply read about it. In his words, “you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button, and actually see what happened. There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history.” Unfortunately, we’ve nearly come to that today, where people who refuse to read get everything they know from television and YouTube videos. And since film is one of the most subjective, and least objective art forms, Griffith’s unknowing dystopian nightmare has nearly come true. America was no doubt one of Griffith’s attempts at contributing to anti-intellectual education through absorption rather than doing the work of true intellectual thought, and contrary to his contention that no opinions are expressed, proceeded to mythologize the founding of the United States as if to atone for the evil he had wrought in his white supremacist Civil War fiction of a decade earlier.

The story begins with postal rider Neil Hamilton near Boston on the eve of the battle of Lexington and Concord. He is in love with Carol Dempster from Virginia, whom he met by chance on one of his long distance deliveries. Even though she is a socialite and has little use for him beyond his occupation, he is determined to win her love. The scene then shifts to the wealthy estate of Dempster’s loyalist family, near Williamsburg, Virginia, and their guest that night, Arthur Dewey as George Washington. Then the scene shifts again, this time to England and the court of George III, played by Arthur Donaldson, whom the audience is told is plagued by evil counselors who have turned him against the colonies. Charles Bennett as William Pitt is introduced in Parliament as a friend to the colonists. Hamilton, who is also a Minute Man, is then shown at a meeting of the Sons of Liberty, and he is sent back to Virginia with word about British oppression, which stirs up an angry split in the House of Burgesses, though it’s unclear why as neither the battle at Lexington nor the occupation of Boston have happened yet. The great divide is between the loyalists in the south, and those who want rebellion in the north, and the lovers, naturally, find themselves on different sides in what is essentially Romeo and Juliet in the New World, complete with feuding families, a balcony scene, and an accidental shooting. Dempster’s family is even named Montegue.

Lionel Barrymore assumes his specialty in playing the villain, a hard-bitten Tory captain who has no love for his fellow Americans. He rounds up the Indians to help him destroy both them and the British so he can set himself up as a petty dictator. And to cap things off he also has designs on Dempster as a sexual conquest, which sets up a predictable conflict in the finale. Neil Hamilton is solid in his role as the hero, but Carol Dempster’s acting is right out of a melodrama from the previous decade. And Lionel Barrymore practically chews the scenery just in case the audience happens to forget that he’s the bad guy. The one really interesting actor in the picture, however, is Erville Alderson. At first he comes off like a French dandy from across the Atlantic, but eventually he settles into a really fascinating role and has the acting skill to pull it off. Unfortunately, he has very little screen time in the film. There is the occasional scene of genuine pathos, and even a couple of times when I laughed out loud, but those moments are few and far between and are never a result of the director’s attempts to directly manipulate those emotions. Nevertheless, the exterior scenes do create a vivid sense of the time period, but overall it’s not enough. It’s a frustrating experience because the combination of a tepid scenario and Griffith’s lack of creativity, together constitute a deficiency that can’t be overcome.

The major flaw in the film is D.W Griffith himself. He’s still in the thrall of techniques that had been pioneered decades earlier. He’s in love with long shots—most maddeningly in the interiors—to the point where some scenes have no close ups at all. The only time he ever moves the camera is when it’s strapped to a car and riding alongside horses or marching soldiers. And he seems perfectly happy with all the stationary camera shots, while ping-ponging back and forth between locations to compensate for it—a technique that was designed initially to bring some action to all of those static shots. Reading about the fact that the great director’s career declined precipitously in the twenties makes a lot of sense when this film amply demonstrates how he failed to advance with the times. In 1924 John Ford directed The Iron Horse, Buster Keaton shot Sherlock Jr. and Erich Von Stroheim created Greed. And yet Griffith was still making films the way he had in 1914 and the industry passed him by like he was standing still. The great irony in Griffith’s obsession with history is that he winds up making this film about as dull as a high school history book. Rather than finding a story within the story that has some kind of interest, he instead merely grafted the familiar Shakespearian love story onto the familiar old narrative of the Revolution. As a result, the best that can be said about the film is that it’s interesting rather than entertaining.

One of the odd things about Kino’s presentation of the film is the brief amount of time given the title cards. Most silent films on DVD tend to err on the side of staying on the cards a bit too long, but in this print huge swaths of text rush by and require repeated rewinding in order to get all of the information. Then there’s the matter of what seem to be occasional missing title cards, as well as some that don’t appear to go with the action at all or are in direct conflict with information given in others or the action on the screen. Kino silent films are usually excellent, but this one seems to have been assembled badly and is therefore full of nagging inconsistencies. There are also numerous jump cuts in the middle of scenes, which suggest that a lot of titles were removed in order to speed up a film that is already overlong at nearly two and a half hours. Because of that a lot of dialogue is left unnecessarily vague. The original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Adolph Fink is played by Eric Beheim on what sounds like a synthesized version of a Wurlitzer organ, and borders on the unlistenable. There’s a version of the same print online, using stock music from a small orchestra that, while wildly mismatched much of the time, is still infinitely better. The film also has the usual tinting, blue for night, and various other colors for exteriors and interiors, and like most tinting it’s way too saturated and could use some lightening up so that the intensity of the color layer doesn’t wind up washing out the visuals. America, Griffith’s attempt at filming a history book, is ultimately a missed opportunity, and therefore can easily be skipped without missing anything.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Buccaneer (1938)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille                                  Writers: Edwin Mayer & Harold Lamb
Music: George Antheil                                       Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Fredric March, Franciska Gaal, Akim Tamiroff and Beulah Bondi

There were lots of actors like Tyrone Power or Louis Hayward--and even Fredric March in this film--who played pirates on the big screen. But the exercise was never really very convincing. Just as when they played bewigged Enlightenment characters, or nineteenth century farmers, it is clear they were actors putting on costumes and pretending. The notable exception is Errol Flynn, who always gave the distinct impression that he could actually be a pirate had he wanted to, and the effect was to render swashbucklers by every other studio tame in comparison. The Buccaneer stars Fredric March doing his best pirate, but still coming off like . . . well, Fredric March, as he does in all his films, only this time with a painful French accent. The film was based on the novel by Lyle Saxon titled Lafitte the Pirate, published in 1930, and adapted for the screen by a handful of writers including the uncredited Preston Sturgis, who recommended Akim Tamiroff for the role of Lafitte’s first mate, Dominique You. Director Cecil B. DeMille also attempted to make a star of newcomer Franciska Gaal, but the Hungarian actress never caught on in Hollywood and made only two more films in the U.S. before returning to Europe after the war. The film itself never really caught on with audiences either, despite the director shooting an enormous amount of footage and sparing no expense in the production.

The opening of the film shows a group of pirates unearthing buried treasure beneath the initial credits. One of them unrolls a scroll to reveal the rest of the credits over a rousing score by composer George Antheil, and some nifty special effects as sea water washes away one page of text to reveal another as it introduces the War of 1812 and the pirate Jean Lafitte. The story begins in Washington D.C. in 1814 as the town is being overrun by British Soldiers, and a party given by first lady Spring Byington comes to an early conclusion as she and her guests are forced to flee the White House. Traitorous Louisiana senator Ian Keith stays behind to meet with British officers over the abandoned dinner. His mission is to convince pirate Fredric March, as Lefitte, to help the British occupy New Orleans. Meanwhile, Beulah Bondi’s two nieces are living secret lives, the youngest, Louise Campbell, has eloped onboard a ship leaving New Orleans, while the oldest, Margot Grahame, is in love with Lafitte himself. Though March has assured the governor, Douglass Dumbrille, that he has never sunk an American ship, his fellow pirates are not so conscientious. Pirate captain Robert Barrat has already raided Campbell’s ship, killing all aboard. Only Dutch passenger Franciska Gaal manages to escape, and is hidden on the pirate ship by Fred Kohler. After hanging Barrat, March puts his first mate, Akim Tamiroff, in charge of Gaal, and sends Anthony Quinn to hide the booty so the American goods can’t be connected to them.

Eventually the British show up at March’s pirate island and offer him money, a captaincy in the Royal Navy, and pardon’s for him and all his men if he helps them. But while his men at first want to take the offer, March talks them out of it. Dumbrille initially welcomes March’s help, but the duplicitous Keith convinces the rest of the militia officers that it is a trick and they should consider March the enemy. Later in the film it takes Hugh Sothern, as Andrew Jackson, about thirty seconds to realize where Keith’s loyalties lie, and history tells the rest of the story. But because of Jean Lafitte’s extensive career as a pirate—which continued well after the War of 1812—he tends to be given short shrift in the history books, though his role in the battle was important to Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. The film sports DeMille’s regular cast of thousands, with the likes of Evelyn Keyes, Richard Denning, and the unmistakable Walter Brennan in bit parts. Inexplicably, just before the big battle scene, the screen is tinted green, a throwback to the silent era, except that the viewer is left wondering why DeMille chose only to use the tinted screen in that one place when it would have been far more interesting had he used the technique throughout. It’s clear, though, that this was simply an attempt to turn these daylight shots into a crude form of day-for-night shooting. Whether he intended this all along or used it to rectify a major continuity error will probably never be known.

Cecil B. DeMille was always a plodding, heavy-handed director, and this film is no exception. The Motion Picture Academy felt similarly and the picture only earned a single Oscar nomination for Victor Milner’s cinematography—which was particularly good on that green-tinted swamp scene. The biggest issue with the film is the screenplay, which is undramatic when it tries to be dramatic, and corny when it tries to be funny, and the rest of the time just plain uninteresting. While it’s true that Warners big successes in this genre were based on the novels of Raphael Sabatini, even this was no guarantee of success as Fox's version of his story The Black Swan was even worse than DeMille’s picture. One can see the director’s heavy hand in the production. For example, George Antheil’s music is rarely heard in the film, mostly in the odd transitional scene and to underscore the action sequences. Again, a very different effect from Korngold and Steiner at Warners who filled the screen with their music no matter what was going on. DeMille was probably trying for some misguided sense of realism, but forgot it was a film. It’s supposed to be entertaining, and the lack of a full music score really hampers the overall effectiveness. The film was remade exactly twenty years later, with Yul Brynner in the role of Lafitte, and pirate Anthony Quinn from the original film in the director’s chair, but was unable to improve on a flawed original. The Buccaneer isn’t really a bad film, but expectations need to be lowered dramatically going in. Fans of March and Tamiroff may find some interest in it, but those who love the Warners swashbucklers are advised to steer clear.