Thursday, April 30, 2009

Before There Was Heath Ledger, There Was Conrad Veidt

The Man Who Laughs is a macabre little love story that begins with a decadent king's order to carve a permanent grin into the face of a boy whose father has been convicted of treason. The boy grows to manhood earning an unhappy but lucrative living as a circus freak, shunning all human contact but that of the young blind woman who travels with him.

Through a series of twists plotted by the great Victor Hugo, whose novel L'Homme Qui Rit was the basis for this movie, the man (Conrad Veidt in a first-rate performance) finds himself elevated to Britain's House of Lords and ordered against his will to marry a brazen duchess with a fetish for his ruined face.

It sounds like the stuff of a pretty ludicrous melodrama but thanks to Veidt—better known to movie fans as Casablanca's Major Strasser—The Man Who Laughs is actually one of the best movies of 1928.

I mention it here because Veidt, who played the part wearing a prosthesis that pulled his lips into that horrible grin, inspired the role that earlier this year won Heath Ledger an Oscar.

Depending on who you believe, either Bill Finger and Batman creator Bob Kane concocted the Joker from a photograph of Veidt in full Man Who Laughs makeup; or illustrator Jerry Robinson conceived the Joker from a playing card and then fleshed out the character based on a photograph of Veidt that Finger provided. (Apparently this is one of those bitter tempests in a teapot that only people with too much free time and not enough recognition can brew up.)

The one thing, however, that all the participants can agree on is that Veidt was central to the creation of the Joker's bizarre look.

The character of the Joker has gone through many changes since his creation in the Spring of 1940, from sociopath to comic jester and back again. A number of actors have inhabited the role, including Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and, of course, Ledger.

But all incarnations of the Joker have included the rictus grin that Conrad Veidt first introduced to the screen and without his performance in The Man Who Laughs, we can only guess at who the Dark Knight would have done battle with in last summer's biggest blockbuster. You can just be sure it wouldn't have been the fascinating psychopath that Ledger essayed so brilliantly.

Remember that the next time some snot-nosed kid tell you old movies are irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Best Actor Of 1927-28: Lon Chaney (Laugh, Clown, Laugh)

Earning the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces" with his skill as an actor and as a makeup artist, Lon Chaney had a gift for making the grotesque look real then imbuing his creations with a humanity that reaches right off the screen. Better known for his roles in the silent versions of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera, Chaney's performance in the tragic love story Laugh, Clown, Laugh may very well be the best of his career and is my choice for the best performance by actor for the year 1927-28.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh is the story of Tito Beppi, an aging circus performer who raises an abandoned child as his own only to find to his horror and his shame that when she grows to young womanhood he is falling hopelessly in love with her. Tito wrestles with feelings of guilt and, despite his enormous professional success, falls into a deep depression. The girl (played by a fourteen year old Loretta Young a full twenty years before she won an Oscar for The Farmer's Daughter) is unaware of Tito's feelings and complicates matters by falling in love with a close friend of her stepfather.

That by the end of the film the three participants of this unhappy love triangle are motivated by genuine affection and self- sacrificing concern for one another makes the tragic denouement all the more poignant.

Norma Desmond claimed silent stars acted with their faces—Lon Chaney really did. He had to. Often he was buried under layers of make-up and prosthetics and with the limitations of silent film that robbed him of a voice and a soundtrack to cue a mood, he was reduced to telling stories with his eyes. That he was able to convey deeply-felt transformations of character with little more than a look is a testament to his hard work and talent.

Here, Chaney moves from portraying the energy and contentment of a consummate professional in love with his work to the tears and self-loathing of a man in love with the girl he has raised as a daughter and is somehow able to make this troubled and troubling character sympathetic. It was the sort of delicate task he accomplished on film many times.

Years later, Loretta Young said of Chaney, who took great pains to help her with her first starring role, "I shall be beholden to that sensitive, sweet man until I die."

The same year Laugh, Clown, Laugh arrived in theaters, Chaney also starred in London After Midnight, a highly-regarded vampire thriller that may have been an even better showcase for Chaney's talent. Unfortunately, London After Midnight was destroyed in a fire at an MGM warehouse in 1967, an all-too-common end for many Silent Era films.

In 2002, film historian Rick Schmidlin produced a truncated form of London After Midnight for Turner Classic Movies from a series of still photographs and the film's screenplay. I've seen this version and while it's almost impossible to judge the movie itself from what's left, nothing I saw dissuaded me from my opinion that Chaney's work was the best of 1927-28.

After Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Chaney made one sound picture, a commercially-successful remake of one of his silent classics, The Unholy Three, and was slated to star in a number of other sound movies, including Tod Browning's classic Dracula and the Oscar-winning prison drama, The Big House. Shortly after his sound debut, however, he died of cancer. He was only 47.

Over the course of a film career that spanned eighteen years and 161 movies, Chaney developed into one of the greatest actors of the Silent Era. In addition to his film appearances, Chaney also directed six movies. In 1957, James Cagney starred in a movie about Chaney's life, appropriately named Man Of A Thousand Faces.

After Chaney's death, his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., carried on the acting tradition and appeared in nearly 200 movies and television shows, including a starring role in the 1939 classic Of Mice And Men.

A Side Note: It's easy to forget that before Hollywood began to censor itself in mid-1934 with the enforcement of the Production Code, movies were often as explicit and frank as anything we're accustomed to seeing now. In Laugh, Clown, Laugh, there's a scene where an aristocrat (Nils Asther) kneels to remove Loretta Young's stocking and kiss her bare foot, a scene of raw sensuality that helps explain both why he is obsessed with the girl and why she finds him simultaneously fascinating and repulsive.

I was reminded of scenes in other pre-Code movies I've seen recently—Clara Bow flashing her bare breasts in Wings, a woman breast-feeding a baby in The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, and Joan Blondell's tendency to strip down to her bra and panties in practically everything she starred in—scenes which serve as proof for those who need it that baby boomers didn't invent sex at Woodstock.

As I will eventually cover, the Production Code would soon forbid scenes such as those in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Films from the pre-Code era would be bowdlerized or buried and, in either case, forgotten. It would take a later generation to reintroduce explicit imagery into the movies and then congratulate itself for inventing what had already been perfected—art, and its Siamese twin, exploitation.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Best Picture Of 1927-28: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

The history of the Academy Awards, particularly when it comes to the best picture award, is a study in predictable middle-of-the-road conformity. The Academy has long favored dramas and biopics that turned a respectable profit; were artistic, but not too artistic; and above all, fit safely within a preconceived notion about what a movie is supposed to be. How else to explain the choice of, say, 1944's pleasant but predictable Going My Way over the groundbreaking noir classic Double Indemnity?

When Oscar does go out on a limb and choose something edgy, it's most often a so-called message picture—a drama seeking to teach a political or social lesson—albeit one with a message that Hollywood is already quite comfortable with. That's why you wind up with a head-scratcher like Crash but never with something truly controversial like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (well, okay, let's not get nuts here).

What Oscar doesn't do is pick a movie that twenty years later is still regarded as the best picture of the year. It's hard enough to do when you're trying, impossible when you're not.

That the first time out of the box the Academy should have managed to hand the Oscar for best picture (well, Unique and Artistic Production, anyway) to what time has revealed to be not just the best picture of the year but one of the best of all time is nothing short of a miracle. Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is beautiful, lyrical, a deceptively simple film that plumbs the depths of a marriage—and a soul—in crisis.

Directed by the great F.W. Murnau, who had previously helmed such classics as Nosferatu and The Last Laugh, Sunrise starts out as a silent era film noir with a beautiful temptress from the city persuading a handsome young farmer (George O'Brien) to murder his wife. The city woman (Margaret Livingston) is a classic 1920s era flapper, with bobbed hair, cigarettes and a slinky black dress.

By contrast, the country wife, played by Janet Gaynor in an Oscar-winning performance, looks like she just blew in out of "American Gothic"—with a gingham dress, blonde hair in a bun and a baby on her shoulder—and as the opening scenes unfolded, I expected the lesson of the tale to be either (1) country = good; city = bad; or (2) men, don't marry women who dress like your grandmothers.

A third of the way through the movie, however, the farmer (who has lured his wife into the city so he can murder her) has a change of heart and from then on, the movie becomes a surprisingly touching story of reconciliation and redemption.

That this abrupt shift in tone works so brilliantly is a testament to Murnau's skill as a director and also, I think, to the very human nature of the conflict within the farmer's heart.

Admittedly, the story is not realistic in the sense we've come to understand that word, a documentary-like fidelity to the world as it is. Instead, the story is what I would call operatic, painting with bold brushstrokes to evoke a series of strong emotional responses, and while the facts are not realistic, the emotions those facts evoke are.

Which is to say, from the outside, adultery may look sordid but it's pretty typical and not very interesting, whereas from the inside it plays like a grand operatic passion and the mad desire for a woman and the guilt, doubt and anxiety associated with leaving your wife feels a little like murder (or so they tell me). To tell this story in a way more true to the facts would be to lie about the feelings. And Murnau clues us in with the very title of the movie—it's a song of two humans, not a story of two humans—that it's emotional truth he's after.

This operatic search for emotional truth is what film critics are talking about when they speak of "Expressionism." It's a term I'd heard kicked around and I thought for a long time it had something to do with cinematography and weird, abstract sets, but it's primarily about evoking an emotional response in an audience and as an artistic movement it influenced not just movies but painting, literature and even architecture.

Which you no doubt knew already. Me, they didn't talk about this stuff in law school.

As an approach to storytelling, Expressionism is largely alien to a modern audience. Somewhere along the way, we bought into the idea that Realism, with a capital "R," is the only way to create a realistic portrait of the human experience. But Realism is just a technique and artists have explored any number of ways to convey truth, from Impressionism to Cubism to Reality Game Shows. Murnau was merely experimenting with another way to say something true about the human condition.

That Hollywood long ago abandoned this approach doesn't make it invalid, just unfamiliar.

Sunrise won three Oscars at the first ceremony, for Unique and Artistic Production, Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Cinematography (Charles Rosser and Karl Struss).

Sunrise's reputation as a movie has only grown since. The influential French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, called Sunrise "the single greatest masterwork in the history of the cinema." In a critics poll conducted in 2002 for Sight and Sound magazine, it was chosen as one of the ten best movies ever made. It also ranked #82 on the AFI's list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time and was selected in 1989 for the National Film Registry.

Although Sunrise was critically acclaimed at the time and later, however, it was not a success at the box office. The scenes set in the city were not filmed on location but on a vast and very expensive set and perhaps it was inevitable that given a blank check and a promise of no interference from the studio, Murnau made a movie that couldn't make back its expenses.

As I will discuss when I write about my choice for best director, after the box office failure of Sunrise, the studio reigned in Murnau who never again directed a film of this quality. It was a story repeated time and again as movies made the transition from silence to early sound.

[To read my essay about F.W. Murnau, click here.]

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards For 1927-28

PICTURE: Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (prod. William Fox)

ACTOR: Lon Chaney (Laugh, Clown, Laugh)

ACTRESS: Mary Pickford (My Best Girl)

DIRECTOR: F.W. Murnau (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jean Hersholt (The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg)


SCREENPLAY: King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver; titles by Joseph Farnham (The Crowd)

SPECIAL AWARDS: The Circus (prod. Charles Chaplin) (Best Picture-Comedy); Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer) (Best Actor-Comedy or Musical); Eleanor Boardman (The Crowd) (Best Actress-Drama); George Groves (The Jazz Singer) (Special Achievement In The Use Of Sound); "Toot Toot Tootsie" (The Jazz Singer) (Best Song); Charles Rosher and Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans) (Cinematography)

MUST-SEE MOVIES OF 1927-28: Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans; The Man Who Laughs; The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg; The Circus; Wings; The Crowd; Laugh, Clown, Laugh

The most popular movie of 1927 was The Jazz Singer, which introduced synchronized sound to the movies at last. Audiences were thrilled not just to see Al Jolson singing but to hear him singing—and after plowing through dozens of silent movies in the past couple of weeks, I can't say I blame them. You forget how much information you process through your ears and how much pleasure you can get from a human voice—at least until you do without for a while.

Only one problem with The Jazz Singer: it's a terrible movie. Really. I mean, yeah, being able to put sound in a movie was a tremendous breakthrough and audiences ate it up with a spoon, but beyond it's importance now as a historical footnote, I can't recommend it.

As for everything else that was released between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928 (I'm following Oscar's convention of straddling the two years), the Academy actually did a pretty good job of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff even if the awards were largely parceled out as a result of insider politicking and studio manipulation.

Wings (Best Production) and Sunrise (Unique and Artistic Production) won the two best picture awards, Emil Jannings was a well-respected actor and won for The Way Of All Flesh and The Last Command (remember, the award in those days was handed out for a body of work rather than a specific picture), and best actress winner, Janet Gaynor, was the star of the best movie of the year, Sunrise.

There were two best director trophies that year, one for comedy, one for drama. Lewis Milestone, who would win another Oscar for directing the classic All Quiet On The Western Front, won for the former; Frank Borzage, another two time winner, won the latter.

All respectable choices. With the benefit of more than eighty years worth of hindsight, however, I think the Academy could have done better.

That's where the Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards come in.

I've done away with the splitting of categories—one director instead of two, one best picture award instead of the unexplained and unexplainable Best Production and Unique and Artistic Production awards.

I'm also doing away with Academy's habit of spreading the award for writing across a wide variety of ever-changing categories, including best original screenplay, best adapted screenplay, motion picture story, story and screenplay, screenplay and even this year's award for "title writing." With the Katies, it's one award, Best Screenplay, regardless of whether it's based on another source, wholly original or, as is often the case, a thinly disguised rip-off of last year's popular movie.

As I did with the career achieve- ment awards for the Silent Era, I will explain my choices in a series of essays over the next couple of weeks.

I've also included here a list of what I think are the must-see movies of the year, and will include a must-see list for each year I hand out awards.

Finally, I have included choices for best supporting actor and actress even though the Academy did not create those categories until 1936. I felt I otherwise would have ended up ignoring too many performances worth recognition. Besides, it gave me another excuse to see even more movies—and what could be wrong with that?

Notes: I don't have an official Fun-Stupid movie pick for 1927-28, but two might fit the bill: Wings is overly long for a silent movie and a bit corny but it also has at least an hour's worth of some of the best stunt flying and aerial dogfights ever filmed; and Charlie Chaplin's The Circus features a lot of physical comedy and acrobatic stunts and is readily available.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Best Fun-Stupid Movie Of The Silent Era, Part Two: The Gold Rush

I don't know about you, but to me Saturday night at home with your loved ones after a long brutal work week (yeah, I used to have those; Katie-Bar-The-Door still does) is not the time for cuddling up to impenetrable symbolism and stern lectures. You want stupid fun, preferably more fun than stupid, but in any event, something to turn your brain off for a while.

So do I have a choice for the best fun-stupid movie of the Silent Era? Well, sort of.

To be honest with you, I'm not sure I'd consider any silent movie to be a casual, Saturday night popcorn movie.

As I've said before, in some essential way, silent movies aren't movies at all but a sometimes puzzling, sometimes boring combination of kabuki theater and a bad Power Point presentation, all set to repetitive Wurlitzer organ music. It's also true that the farther back in time you go, the more alien is the look and feel of a movie—its themes, its pacing, and critical to the fun-stupid experience, the amount of adrenaline you can expect to find coursing through your system.

And there's also a complete absence of scatological humor and Seth Rogen's genitalia, two vital components of current comedy.

Even on a technical level, the widescreen picture (an aspect ratio greater than 1.33:1) wasn't invented until 1953, so if you own a widescreen television, you have to adjust the picture setting from "Full" to "Normal" (or whatever they call it on your system) or else even whippet-thin Audrey Hepburn looks like that pear-shaped guidance counselor you vaguely from your high school days.

So I'm warning you ahead of time that silent movies are never going to fall into the category of a fun-stupid rental.

But if there is such a thing as a fun-stupid silent movie, then that would be—well, actually that would be Buster Keaton's The General, which also just happens to be my choice for the best movie of the Silent Era.

But The General might be a little hard to come by. You have to buy it or put it on your Netflix queue and wait for it. I doubt it's sitting at the corner Blockbuster waiting for you to rent.

Instead, how about a silent movie almost as much fun that has a musical score, sound effects and narration, and best of all, you can watch for free?

That perfect storm of a movie is Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, a 72-minute comedy about a gold prospector in the wilds of Alaska, chock full of laughs, action and some of the most inventive bits of business ever committed to film.

I mean, there is something pretty entertaining about watching a man eat his own shoe.

This is also the movie that in- troduced two oft- imitated bits, the one where a starving man thinks his partner is a chicken and the one where Chaplin spears two dinner rolls with forks and does a little soft-shoe with them under his chin.

Throw in a little romance, an attempted murder and a happy ending and you've got the recipe for a real good time.

Too bad it's a silent movie, right?

Well, in 1942, Chaplin added a music score, sound effects and his own narration and re-released The Gold Rush as a sound movie. This version is available in its entirety on YouTube (search for the version broken into 10 seven-minute parts) and functions as a sort of "silent movie for cheap, lazy idiots"—which may explain why I liked it so much.

If you're worried about violating somebody's copyright, you might consider that Chaplin himself purposely let the copyright lapse so that The Gold Rush, his favorite among all his work, would always be available to anyone who wanted to see it.

So have at it.

Incidentally, this re-edited edition of The Gold Rush was nominated for two Academy Awards, for sound editing and music score, a remarkable achievement considering the movie was seventeen years old at that point and one that would be impossible under today's rules. It's a measure of how beloved the movie truly was.

For the purists among you, both the sound and silent versions are available on the 2-disc special edition DVD. Many prefer the purely silent edition, arguing that Chaplin's voice is too refined and educated to fit The Tramp he played and that Chaplin is one of the few silent stars who really doesn't need any dialogue or explanation. Chaplin himself, however, considered the 1942 sound edit to be the definitive version—who am I to say he was wrong?

I rate The Gold Rush 10/10 as a movie and 6/10 as stupid-fun.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Best Fun-Stupid Movie Of The Silent Era, Part One: On The Pleasures (And Necessities) Of The Fun-Stupid Movie

One of the things I like about Roger Ebert, the long-time film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, is that he can appreciate a fun, stupid Saturday night popcorn movie just like anybody. He'll judge it by its own merits and is just as likely to give a four-star rating to the latest bit of Nicolas Cage action claptrap as to an Oscar-bait art film.

Nevertheless, Ebert has professed to be amused and mystified by an exchange he had with a couple in 1973 who were thinking of going to the movies and asked what he thought about Cries And Whispers.

"I thought it was the best movie of the year," Ebert said.

"Oh," they answered, "we wouldn't want to see anything like that."

Now, don't get me wrong. I think Cries And Whispers, an Ingmar Bergman classic about a dying woman and the two sisters who care (or, more to the point, don't care) for her, is a magnificent movie. But it's also emotionally wrenching, filled with difficult to interpret symbolism and, oh, did I mention it's in Swedish?

This is not to say you should watch nothing but a steady diet of fun-stupid movies. Just as a steady diet of booze can damage your liver, destroy your family and numb you to all of life's sensations, so too can a diet of fun-stupid movies leave you incapable of enjoying the subtler pleasures a variety of movies can offer.

But there are times when you're in desperate need of a movie that does nothing but numb your brain, silence the anxious voices in your head and let you unwind enough that you can get up again on Monday morning and start worrying all over again. And any film critic who doesn't recognize that is doing his readers a grave disservice.

But the question is: wouldn't you rather see a good fun-stupid movie than a bad fun-stupid movie?

Well, anyway, I would.

I mean, it's like you can get drunk on champagne or you can drunk on sterno. Take a little care in choosing your poison. (You can also, as I found out while living in England, get drunk on absinthe, a drink made from wormwood with alleged psychoactive side-effects, but good lord, children, I wouldn't recommend it.)

So for all you fans of booze, tranquilizers and Saturday night popcorn movies, I'm hereby officially adopting what is often referred to as The Fun-Stupid Scale to recommend any given year's best fun-stupid movie—if there is one—in addition to the usual collection of high-toned, award-winning films I frequently write about.

It's a ten-point must-system (or ten point musk-melon, as my friend Bellotoot would say), just like in boxing, with 10/10 being, say, Die Hard, a very fun and stupid-in-the-best-way-possible classic from 1988, and 0/10 being Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, a movie so lame, so idiotic and so devoid of the most minimal of campy pleasure that even Ed Wood would have been ashamed to make it.

Next up: The Best Fun-Stupid Movie Of The Silent Era, Part Two.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hollywood Couples: John Gilbert And Greta Garbo

A great on-screen couple in three silent movies (Flesh And The Devil, Love and A Woman Of Affairs), Greta Garbo and John Gilbert also had a passionate off-screen romance and were, to my mind, the most beautiful of Hollywood's Silent Era couples.

They met on the set of their first movie together, Flesh And The Devil. Gilbert was one of Hollywood's biggest names, earning a million dollars a year after the critical and commercial success of King Vidor's The Big Parade, and with the death of Rudolph Valentino, heir to the title of the Sexiest Man Alive. Garbo was a virtual unknown with a reputation as a moody ice queen.

"Hello, Greta," Gilbert reportedly said at their first meeting.

"It is Miss Garbo," was her reply.

Yet somehow they lit up the screen together.
The two fell in love with the cameras rolling and began an affair before the production was over.

The movie was a smash. Garbo created a sensation with her ethereal beauty, cool, exotic manner and thoroughly modern (for 1926) characterization of an amoral woman who slept with whomever she wanted. Gilbert further cemented his reputation as the screen's greatest lover.

Their off-camera romance was a mirror of their on-screen one—torrid, tempestuous and complicated by other relationships. Gilbert, who was married four times and was in the midst of a bitter divorce, proposed and Garbo, who never married, came as close to saying "I do" with Gilbert as she ever did.

Some say she left Gilbert
literally standing at the altar.

I don't know if that story is based in fact or the work of an overly-romantic publicity department, but in any event, the two parted and their careers went in decidedly different directions.

Despite his fine, classically-trained stage voice, Gilbert's career foundered with the introduction of sound. Audiences expecting John Wayne got Ronald Colman, not to mention that the studio carelessly saddled Gilbert with poor scripts in his first sound outings. That "I love you I love you I love you" bit from Singin' In The Rain? That was Gene Kelly copying an actual John Gilbert performance.

The two made one last movie together, the box-office failure Queen Christina, before Gilbert died of a heart attack in 1936.

Garbo continued to make movies, was nominated for three Oscars and then abruptly retired in 1941 to become one of history's most famous recluses. I'll go into more depth about her later career when we reach the sound era.

And in a few weeks, as part of an occasional series about famous Hollywood couples, I'll write about the other great couple of Silent Era, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Charlie Chaplin on TCM, Thursday April 16, 2009

Tomorrow, April 16, 2009, Turner Classic Movies is showing three of the Chaplin movies I recommended in a list of twenty introductory silent movies: The Kid, The Gold Rush and Modern Times. They air at 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. respectively (note: the fourth film on the list, City Lights, is on TCM Sunday at midnight).

In fact, Chaplin is on all day, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Set the DVR or call in sick. No matter what Tony Blair might have said, there's no third way.

The schedule as listed on the Turner Classic Movie website:

16 Thursday

6:00 AM Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)
7:15 AM Dog's Life, A (1918)
8:00 AM Day's Pleasure, A (1919)
8:30 AM Kid, The (1921)
9:30 AM Pay Day (1922)
10:00 AM Woman of Paris, A (1923)
11:19 AM Short Film: Movie Album #1, The (1935)
11:30 AM Gold Rush, The (1925)
12:45 PM Modern Times (1936)
2:15 PM Great Dictator, The (1940)
4:15 PM King in New York, A (1957)
6:00 PM Short Film: Chaplin Revue, The (1959)

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Male Pin-Up: Rudolph Valentino

Considered the movies' first male sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino tangoed his way into the hearts of American women in 1921 with his breakthrough role in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, in which he played the playboy son of an Argentine cattle baron. His most famous role was as the title character in The Sheik, a bodice-ripper set in the Arabian desert.

Born in Italy in 1895, Valentino emigrated to the United States at the age of 18 and worked for a time as a taxi dancer at Maxim's. Following a relationship with a married woman who shot her husband during a messy divorce proceeding, Valentino fled New York and ended up in Los Angeles.

He had minor roles in a number of films before being spotted by screenwriter June Mathis who thought he would be perfect in her next picture. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, released in early 1921, made Valentino a star. His performance in The Sheik six months later cemented his image as the screen's greatest sex symbol.

Despite his success, Valentino spent lavishly and was often in debt. He was twice married, had numerous relationships with women (and possibly men) and was once arrested on bigamy charges.

On the subject of romance, The Great Latin Lover, as he was known, offered up this insight: "To generalize on women is dangerous. To specialize in them is infinitely worse."

Valentino died at the age of 31 after an operation for a perforated ulcer, still at the height of his popularity. As many as 100,000 people attended his memorial service in New York.

Trivia: Sheik Condoms, first marketed in the 1930s, were named after Valentino's most famous role and carried his silhouette on the package. Silhouette of what, exactly, is unclear ...

The Original "It" Girl, Clara Bow

It—that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force.”—Elinor Glyn.

The first in an occasional series devoted to the most popular movie pin-up star of a given era. More of a snapshot of the era than any insight into my own quirks and preferences.

Tomorrow, the male equivalent.

Clara Bow, the Silent Era's greatest sex symbol, will forever be known as the "It Girl." Born in Brooklyn in 1905 to a schizophrenic mother and an abusive father, she made her biggest splash in the 1927 silent movie, It, about a sales girl who has an affair with a wealthy playboy. The movie made her an instant star.

That same year, she co-starred in the first best picture winner in Oscar history, Wings, playing the girl-next-door who loves a young pilot who winds up flying on the western front during the First World War.

Sound, however, didn't do her career much good—she had a thick Brooklyn accent—and a series of other problems, some tax related, some sex-scandal related. She later battled mental illnesses of her own, left movies in 1933 and died in relative obscurity at the age of sixty.

[But click here for a more nuanced look at Clara Bow.]

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Starter Set: Twenty Silent Movies To Cut Your Teeth On

I've put together a list of twenty silent movies that I like and that I think you will also like. The list is hardly ex- haustive, more like a sampler. Silent movies can be difficult and rather than give you a list of fifty movies that mixes titles aimed at both devotees and a general audience, I put together a list of movies any one of which would be a good one to start with if you're a novice thinking about taking the plunge.

Most of these movies are in the public domain and are available in their entirety on YouTube—a cheap way to test the waters. You might have to search for all eleven parts of The Phantom Of The Opera, for example, but it's there.

The best place to check out silent film without a heavy commitment of time and money is Turner Classic Movies, what Washington Post critic Tom Shales calls the classiest network on cable t.v. Every Sunday night at midnight (Eastern daylight savings time), TCM opens the vault and shows a classic from the silent era.

In fact, on Sunday, April 19, 2009 (okay, April 20 for you East coast purists), TCM is showing one of the greatest of all silent movies, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Set the TiVo or the DVR and watch it at your leisure. I can tell you, if you don't like this one, you're not going to like anything else on this list.

Think of it as a nice test. Besides, if you've got basic cable, you're paying for TCM anyway. You might as well take advantage of it.

If you're really interested in silent movies, I recommend you visit Silent Era: The Silent Film Website. It's as comprehensive a site as you're likely to find on the subject of silent films—or anything else, for that matter.

For what it's worth, my list of silent movies to cut your teeth on, in chronological order:

1920 - The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (German Expressionism meets The Twilight Zone)
1921 - The Kid (Charlie Chaplin rescues an orphan)

1922 - Nosferatu (the vampire classic that makes lupner tremble)
1923 - Safety Last! (Harold Lloyd climbs a building)
1923 - Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton stumbles into a Hatfield-McCoy-like feud)
1924 - The Thief Of Bagdad (Douglas Fairbanks's best swashbuckler)
1924 - Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton dreams he is a great detective)
1925 - The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe)
1925 - The Phantom Of The Opera (the best Lon Chaney movie)
1925 - The Freshman (a naive Harold Lloyd goes to college)
1925 - The Big Parade (blood and romance during World War I)
1925 - Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein's oft-imitated classic of the Russian revolution)
1925 - Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ (the second best chariot race in movie history)
1926 - Flesh And The Devil (Garbo and Gilbert get it on)
1927 - The General (my pick as the best movie of the Silent Era)
1927 - Metropolis (an early science fiction classic)
1927 - Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans (won the first Oscar)
1928 - Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton's last great movie)
1931 - City Lights (the Chaplin classic and the other obvious choice for best silent movie ever)


1936 - Modern Times (which is not silent at all, but if you've seen it, you know what I mean).

If you want a comedy, try Keaton or Chaplin, if you want a romance, go with Garbo, and if you want a little excitement, I'd suggest Nosferatu. Personally, I like them all.

Note: For various reasons, I left off several movies that others might consider essential: The Birth Of A Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), The Last Laugh (1924), Greed (1924), Napoleon (1927), and many others. You might want to try them some day, but I can't really recommend them if you are approaching silent movies for the first time.

Or let's put it this way: any of the movies on my must-see list is probably a good first silent movie. The ones I've left off the list, well, if one of them is your first silent movie, there's a good chance it will be your last silent movie.

And that would defeat the purpose of the list.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Best Director Of The Silent Era: D.W. Griffith

I am more conflicted about the choice of D.W. Griffith as the best director of the Silent Era than I am about any other choice I am likely make throughout the course of writing this blog.

On the one hand, Griffith directed the most popular film of the Silent Era and introduced story-telling techniques to the movies—such as the close-up, the flashback and cross-cutting between multiple locations and storylines—that are so commonplace now, you almost forget that someone had to invent them.

And he was a master of the action sequence. The Civil War battle scenes in The Birth Of A Nation, for example, are as good as any ever filmed, and there's a sequence in Way Down East—where a man races across a disintegrating ice floe to save a young woman before she plunges over a waterfall—that is amazing.

These scenes were without precedent and audiences were electrified. The Birth Of A Nation was the most popular movie of the Silent Era, grossing more than half-again as much as the second movie on the list.

But on the other hand, you can't talk about D.W. Griffith's legacy without eventually coming to the subject of racism, because while he was the era's greatest innovator and an undisputed master of film technique, he also included in The Birth of A Nation sequences—for example, Ku Klux Klansmen riding to the rescue of white women being raped by actors wearing black-face—that are so grotesque in their depictions of race and distortions of history that you can't believe that you are seeing them.

As the Directors Guild Of America noted in 1999 upon removing Griffith's name from its top film award, his movies "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."

And before you complain that I am condemning Griffith with the smug benefit of politically-correct hindsight, the fact is that even judging strictly by the standards that were evolving at the time, The Birth Of A Nation was widely regarded as a virulently racist film. Audiences in some northern cities rioted after seeing it, and President Woodrow Wilson, who at a private screening had said "It was like writing history with lightning," felt compelled to issue a statement disowning its politics.

I mean, really, a three hour paean to the Ku Klux Klan?

Even Griffith seemed to realize what a bad idea that was, following it up the next year with Intolerance, a 197-minute apology that nevertheless saw nothing ironic in the fact that not a single African-American appears in a movie railing against prejudice.

It wasn't the last time that Griffith tried to apologize on film for The Birth Of A Nation, but there was, to my eye at least, something always clueless about the effort, like that of a man who recognizes that he's done something wrong but doesn't quite know what.

In fact, there are even those who suggest that Griffith wasn't apologizing for the racism of The Birth Of A Nation at all but was instead condemning the "intolerance" of those who had dared to attack him. All I can say after watching the movies themselves is, it's possible.

From what I've read about him, Griffith did not consciously set out to serve an evil cause, ala Leni Riefenstahl who cheerfully made documentaries praising Adolf Hitler. He was instead a wholly apolitical man—Griffith "didn't have a coherent political idea in his head," writes Slate's Bryan Curtis—astonishingly unaware of the world outside the immediate bubble he lived in, in his case a Hollywood film set. This makes him, I suspect, a typical, if unadmirable, human being.

As a matter of fact, watching his most famous works before writing this essay suggested to me that Griffith's primary fixation was not on race relations but on the imperiled virginity of innocent young women, no matter whose clutches they fell into—be they freed slaves (The Birth Of A Nation), brutal fathers and kindly Asian shopkeepers (Broken Blossoms), wealthy womanizers (Way Down East) or French aristocrats (Orphans Of The Storm).

Despite the lavish productions and impressive action sequences, the formula wears thin quickly and maybe that's why Griffith's movies fell out of favor with the public long before the advent of sound. Griffith lived until 1948, but he made his last movie in 1931, and he hadn't had a bona fide hit in the ten years before that.

More watchable choices for best director of the Silent Era, safer choices certainly, and very worthy choices—okay, let's just say it: maybe better choices—would include Charles Chaplin (The Kid; The Gold Rush), Buster Keaton (The General; Sherlock, Jr.), F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), in about that order, I think.

For that matter, maybe the award should go to Edwin S. Porter, who directed The Great Train Robbery in 1903. That was a pretty cutting-edge piece of work, even if it's only eleven minutes long.

I don't know. Who is more worthy of praise, the guy who discovered fire or the guy who warms your house with it?

In any event, there are two things that you can say about D.W. Griffith. He was an innovative pioneer who influenced generations of filmmakers, perhaps more so than any other director of the Silent Era. And there's not a critic or historian alive who doesn't wish he had set the world on its ear with something, anything, else.

But he didn't. And history is what it is.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Best Actress Of The Silent Era: Lillian Gish

If they'd handed out a career Oscar to the most highly regarded actress of the silent era, Lillian Gish would have been the consensus choice. My personal feeling is that Louise Brooks was better. But as I'll explain in connection with my picks for 1929-30, Louise Brooks's best silent films were made during the sound era; so we'll get to her later.

Another good choice would be Greta Garbo, who was the most luminescent of the silent film stars and very popular with audiences before words started coming out of her mouth. But she didn't show up until right at the end of the silent era, and like Louise Brooks, I think her best work came after the introduction of sound.

Mary Pickford would also be a good choice. She was so popular during the silent era, she was known as "America's Sweetheart" and was Hollywood's highest-paid performer, male or female.

Pickford's success was not limited to work in front of the camera. She produced thirty-four movies, wrote twelve more, co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, along with Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, formed the United Artists Pictures studio. She won a competitive Oscar in 1930 for Coquette, and the Academy further recognized her in 1976 with a lifetime achievement award.

So why not choose Mary Pickford? Two reasons. First, I have the benefit of 20/20 foresight, knowing I am going to give her a Katie for her performance in the 1927 film, My Best Girl. Second, though, and more importantly, based on what I've seen of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, I simply think Gish was the better actress.

Finally, we've all heard of Gloria Swanson, if only because she played fictional silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and as William Holden says, "You used to be big."

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Unfortunately, I'll have to take her word for it. I just haven't seen enough of Swanson's work outside of Sunset Boulevard to say for sure.

So Lillian Gish it is. She was highly regarded at the peak of her career and is still highly regarded by people who know more about the Silent Era than I do.

Besides, I like what I've seen of her.
Gish worked primarily with director D.W. Griffith and starred in his most famous movies, including the highly-controversial The Birth Of A Nation, its follow-up apology, Intolerance, and the three best silent films Gish made prior to our 1927 cutoff date, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans Of The Storm. Gish's style was understated, at least for a time when most movie acting consisted of broad, obvious gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, and she brought a needed realism to a highly-stylized medium.

She made seventy-four movies before The Jazz Singer came along and effectively ended the Silent Era.

Her popularity already in decline, Gish made her last silent movie in 1928. The Wind, in which Gish plays a rape victim, is now rightly regarded as a classic, but with "talkies" already flooding theaters, it was viewed upon its initial release as the relic of another age. While directors and critics were split on the artistic merit of the new sound technology, the public was not. The Wind bombed, so much so, MGM released Gish from her contract.

Gish made a handful of movies after that, the best being the expressionistic noir thriller The Night Of The Hunter in 1955 where she co-starred with Robert Mitchum in one of his most famous roles. In 1946, she was nominated for best supporting actress for her work in Duel In The Sun and she received an honorary Oscar in 1971 recognizing her "contributions to the progress of motion pictures."

She made her last movie in 1987.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday, April 20, 2009, Is Harold Lloyd Day On TCM

Speaking of Harold Lloyd, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of his work from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday, April 20, 2009. The highlight is Girl Shy at 7:15 a.m. but there are also a couple of documentaries and some of his early sound work.

Mark your calendars and set your DVRs.

Or call in sick and climb a building. That's what Harold Lloyd would do.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Speaking Of Comedians, A Brief Word About Harold Lloyd

When it comes to answering the question "Who was the greatest comedic actor of the Silent Era," the debate rightly boils down to Charlie Chaplin versus Buster Keaton. As arguments go, it is to silent movies what "the Beatles or the Stones" was to music in the Sixties.

But just as there were other acts in the Sixties, there were other comedians in the Silent Era. Harold Lloyd, I suppose, would be to Chaplin and Keaton what The Who was to their better-known contemporaries, that is, not as celebrated but producing classic work that still holds up.

Although as far as I know, Harold Lloyd never smashed a guitar or drove a limousine into a swimming pool.

Okay, enough with the metaphors.

Chaplin had The Tramp, Keaton was The Great Stoneface. Lloyd's character was essentially a 75-cent pair of eyeglasses—without lenses—that turned a blandly handsome man into a nebbishy clerk or a naive rube or a clueless rich kid stumbling through a world he only thinks he understands. In fact, it's probably not an exaggeration to say that Lloyd's glasses were more famous than he was.

Lloyd's best movies are Safety Last!, The Kid Brother, Girl Shy and The Freshman. His comedy For Heaven's Sake was the twelfth highest grossing movie of the Silent Era.

The most unforgettable scene of his career comes from Safety Last! where Lloyd climbs the face of a high-rise building, hanging precariously at one point from the hands of a clock.

Lloyd performed the entire climb and stunt himself although he later said he had mattresses and scaffolding two or three stories below him in case he fell.

Although he has been called "The Third Genius," and his films outgrossed those of both Chaplin and Keaton, Roger Ebert contends, I think correctly, that Lloyd was "not a genius in their sense, creating comedy out of inspiration and instinct and an angle on the world."

Which is to say, you won't see the same inspired flights of lunacy you see in Chaplin and Keaton—the visitation by angels, including a flying dog with wings, as in Chaplin's The Kid; or Keaton's spirit leaving his body to climb into a movie screen as in Sherlock, Jr.

The set-ups in Lloyd are more conventional (the rented tuxedo falling apart during a dance, for example). Where Lloyd excels, and where he earns mention with those two giants of silent comedy, is in his execution of his set-ups—the tuxedo doesn't just fall apart, his tailor darts around the room with him, sewing it back together.

"Lloyd was an ordinary man," Walter Kerr wrote in The Silent Clowns, "like the rest of us: ungrotesque, uninspired. If he wanted to be a successful film comedian, he would have to learn how to be one, and learn the hard way."

Ebert summed up the differences between the three comics this way:

"Lloyd is a real man climbing a building; Keaton, as he stands just exactly where a building will not crush him, is an instrument of cosmic fate. And Chaplin is a visitor to our universe from the one that exists in his mind."

Still, genius or not, Harold Lloyd inspired generations of actors who came after him. Cary Grant modeled his classic performance in Bringing Up Baby on Harold Lloyd's persona, which in turn was the basis for Tony Curtis's brilliant imitation of Grant in Some Like It Hot. And I wouldn't be the first person to note that Woody Allen drew in part on Lloyd in creating his own style (which is essentially Bob Hope in Harold Lloyd's body).

Lloyd was nominated for a Golden Globe late in his career, for the 1947 Preston Sturges comedy The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock (later edited and reissued as Mad Wednesday), and received an honorary Oscar in 1953. He died at the age of 78, living long enough to see a revival of interest in his career.

A Review: Tapas, Cherry Blossoms And The General

Katie- Bar-The- Door and I took our own advice and went to see The General at the Kennedy Center last night. How often, when you're writing a chronological history of the movies, do you get a chance to see one of the films you've been promoting in a theater (with the National Symphony Orchestra providing the backing music, no less) and then review it in a timely fashion.

Some things we learned:

1) The General is just as good as I said it was, in fact, better—and you'll remember that I said it was the best movie of the Silent Era. I had seen The General many times before but never in a theater and certainly never with the National Symphony Orchestra sitting in front of it. It turned out to be a great Saturday night date movie, as much fun as the best fun-stupid movie, with the emphasis heavily on the fun.

2) Before the performance, the conductor noted that Buster Keaton had sent out cards with the movie directing the audience to "cheer the hero and hiss the villain," and to its credit, the enthusiastic audience tried hard last night to hiss the villain. The only problem is, in Keaton there really is no villain—other than fate, bad luck and miscommunication. It's as if Keaton had anticipated the French existentialists nearly two decades before Jean-Paul Sartre published Being And Nothingness and decided it's life itself that's our biggest adversary.

3) The Kennedy Center is a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to walk there. Except we did, having eaten tapas at Jaleo's earlier in the evening and then walked down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. For all practical purposes, the Kennedy Center sits on an island surrounded by a sea of interstates, bridges and exit ramps. It was opened in 1971 when I suppose it seemed clear to urban planners that human legs would soon become vestigial to be replaced in the course of evolution by the automobile.

4) The steamed mussels at Jaleo's are terrific. So is everything else.

5) Tickets at the Kennedy Center are half-price if you buy them in person after 6 p.m. on the night of the show. We wound up with good orchestra level tickets for the price of an upper deck nose-bleed seat.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Best Actor Of The Silent Era: Charles Chaplin (Part Two: "Chaplin Or Keaton: The Never-ending Argument")

Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton, who was greater, is one of those perennial questions—like "Republican or Democrat" "Elvis or the Beatles"—that transcends its original context and ends up saying more about the people doing the debating than about the subject at hand. As with any debate of this type, there is no right or wrong answer, only a matter of taste.

My tastes, which are broad enough to include both performers, ultimately lean toward Chaplin.

At his peak, Chaplin was the most popular movie performer in the world and yet his reputation rests on a relatively small body of work. After beginning his career with a flood of forgettable short features (mostly directed by Mack Sennett), Chaplin worked meticulously and produced few films. Over a span of ten years beginning in 1921, he directed only three shorts (including The Idle Class and Pay Day) and five features, one of which—the drama A Woman Of Paris—included only a cameo on his part.

Keaton was more prolific. "[I]n an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929," Roger Ebert has written, "[Keaton] worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."

The public, however, found Keaton to be an acquired taste and he was always scrounging for funding. Still, he managed to make some of the best silent comedies of all time, including The General, Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality and The Navigator.

Both wrote, directed and starred in their own productions. Both did most of their own stunts. And both were, at their best, hilarious. Neither truly hit their stride until they formed their own production companies and took full control of their work, United Artists in Chaplin's case, Buster Keaton Productions in the other.

The argument in favor of Keaton is a good one. He made what many, including myself, consider to be the best movie of the Silent Era, The General. In addition, the understated style of his comedy as his characters single-mindedly pursue their desires is a style at once familiar and easily-accessible to modern audiences. Finally, his movies have none of the unabashed sentimentality of Chaplin's films that some, though not me, find cloying and heavy.

In arguing for Chaplin the actor, I am relying on the handful of shorts and the feature-length films, including The Kid, The Gold Rush and The Circus, over which he exercised complete artistic control.

Watching those movies again, and comparing them with Keaton's, I was struck by the range of the emotions and comic situations in Chaplin, from the gentle humor in the domesticity of The Kid to the surreal slapstick of The Gold Rush to the acrobatic grace and athleticism of The Circus.

While I believe you can argue about who made the better movies, Chaplin, as a comedian and an actor, could simply hit a greater variety of notes with seeming ease than Keaton ever dared try.

I remember one terrific laugh in Chaplin's comedy, The Kid, that comes from a matter-of-fact flick of Chaplin's eyes from a foundling baby to an open sewer hole that certainly suggests one solution to the problem of unplanned parenthood.

And yet later in The Kid there's that unforgettable sequence when Chaplin races across the rooftops to rescue this same child, now a six year old boy he has raised as his own, from the remorseless representatives of the local orphanage. The reunion of Chaplin and the boy is one of the most touching scenes in movie history.

I guess that's what separates Chaplin from Keaton for me: both can make me laugh, but only Chaplin can make me cry.

If that makes me, to quote Louis in Casablanca, "a rank sentimentalist," so be it, I'll cop to the charge.

Audiences the world over related to the character Chaplin played in nearly every movie, the Tramp, the little guy living in squalid poverty, oppressed by the soulless machinery of a hostile society—which is pretty much the human condition in a nutshell for millions of people.

These same audiences longed, I suspect, to achieve the in-it-but-not-of-it insouciance with which the Tramp met his daily suffering. Oh, to relish the taste of the boot you've boiled for your Thanksgiving dinner the way the Tramp did—there's Chaplin's appeal reduced to a single scene.

The other key to Chaplin's allure is that more than any other silent performer, Keaton included, Chaplin truly did not need dialogue to convey action, jokes and especially emotion. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, children get Chaplin; it's only after they grow up that they forget how words serve mostly to confuse and distract.

Chaplin continued to make films sporadically during the sound era. Two of those films, City Lights and Modern Times, are masterpieces, and a third, The Great Dictator, is nearly so.

Chaplin was awarded honorary Oscars for his achievements twice, one at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929, the second in 1972. He won a single competitive Oscar for his scoring of Limelight.

Nothing I've said here settles the debate—the debate can never be settled. Fortunately, I only have to choose between Chaplin and Keaton for purposes of handing out an award that doesn't even exist. My movie collection includes a healthy sampling of each.

You want my advice? Skip the argument, watch Chaplin and Keaton and become a fan of both.

Note: The boy in the photograph with Chaplin is Jackie Coogan, who not only played the title character in Chaplin's classic, The Kid, but later grew up to play Uncle Fester in one of my favorite television shows, The Addams Family.

Keep that in mind the next time you think, "Gee, what a cute kid ..."