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.