Saturday, July 25, 2009

Well, Okay, Now That You Ask, Why A Duck?

My one hundredth posting—it's nice that it can be about one of the reasons I became a movie fan in the first place, the Marx Brothers. Just wait until we get to 1933 and I explain how Duck Soup landed me a job in Washington!

For faithful reader Who Am Us, I post here a famous sequence from their first movie (not counting a now-lost silent short from 1921 called Humor Risk, which Groucho later said was lousy), the 1929 hit The Cocoanuts.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Apropos Of Nothing, This Note About The Cocoanuts


The Marx Brothers' first movie, The Cocoanuts, was based on a stage play that has the distinction of being the only Irving Berlin musical not to feature a hit song.

This wasn't Berlin's fault, however.

The original song list he submitted included "Always" which went on to become a standard. The playwright, George S. Kaufman, whose friend was having an affair with a younger woman at the time, joked to Berlin that he should change the song's first line from "I love you always" to "I love you Thursdays."

Berlin—who had written the song as a tribute to his wife—was so offended, he withdrew the song from consideration until he could find a more suitable vehicle for its debut.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1929-30: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Now this is how you adapt a classic novel for the big screen.

Being a (failed) writer myself, it has often struck me how few great movies have been based on great books. They are such radically different media—one visual, one verbal—that what works brilliantly in a book doesn't work at all on the screen, and vice versa. I mean, despite at least four attempts (and a reported fifth on the way), no one has ever figured how to translate the last line of The Great Gatsby—arguably the greatest last line in all of literature—into anything other than the most banal cinema.

Faithful attempts to film great books often wind up turgid (For Whom The Bell Tolls), incomprehensible (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues) or nine hours long (Greed). And that's when Hollywood is bothering to be faithful at all. Who can forget the liberties Demi Moore took with The Scarlet Letter to disastrous effect, or the unmitigated mess Brian De Palma made of The Bonfire of the Vanities?

That an adaptation of the best book ever written about World War I should have resulted in the best movie ever made about World War I is, in context, a bit of a miracle.

If you don't know the novel All Quiet On The Western Front, you certainly should. Written by Erich Maria Remarque, it's the story of a schoolboy's journey from gung-ho volunteer to disillusioned war veteran. Remarque had been a soldier, conscripted along with his friends at the age of eighteen, serving in the trenches with the German army in France, and the novel captures both the horrors of war and the lust for empire and glory that led to it. The novel sold 2.5 million copies in the eighteen months after its publication in 1928 and was quickly acquired by Universal Pictures.

The adaptation of Remarque's novel was handled by two celebrated Broadway playwrights with an assist from a veteran Hollywood director of silent B-pictures.

Maxwell Anderson is best remembered now for such Broadway hits as What Price Glory, Anne of a Thousand Days and The Bad Seed. He worked on screenplays throughout his career, with All Quiet On The Western Front earning him his only Oscar nomination. He primarily wrote political dramas and often wrote his plays in blank verse, including Key Largo, later adapted into the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. In 1933, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Both Your Houses, a polemic aimed at seedy Washington politics.

George Abbott began his Broadway career as an actor before turning exclusively to writing. Like Anderson, he was a successful playwright, penning mostly musicals such as Pal Joey and Damn Yankees. He won five Tony awards, became a Kennedy Center honoree in 1982, and, for his play, Fiorello!, a musical based on the life of reform-minded New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Abbott was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Unlike his two co-writers, Del Andrews was primarily a director, and not a well-known one either. He directed forty movies, mostly westerns at a time when westerns were strictly B-picture kiddie fare, and comedy shorts featuring actors you've never heard of. So far as I can tell, none of these films still exist, although the westerns did star Fred Thompson and Hoot Gibson, two of the biggest western stars of the Silent Era. I can't tell you much more about him than that—he was born in 1894, he died in 1942, he was married and he had a son—but I'm willing to bet he knew plenty about how to get a story on film in a hurry and I suspect he was paired with Anderson and Abbott, who were great playwrights but knew little about Hollywood, to tutor them on the finer points of movie-based storytelling.

Despite the feeling that you are watching a completely faithful adaptation of the novel, the movie actually differs significantly in its structure. The novel begins in medias res, the novel's hero Paul already a grizzled veteran of a long and pointless war, revealing most of his back story through a series of flashbacks as he muses on how he and his classmates moved from the classroom to the trenches, and for most of them, to the grave. The book is elegiac, both haunting and haunted, and one of the finest anti-war novels ever written.

The movie straight- ens out the chro- nology, beginning with a school teacher's patriotic harangue and then following the students as they first volunteer and then discover the reality of war's horrors. As an audience, you arrive at Paul's conclusions at the same time he does, giving the movie an immediacy and growing tension. Both approaches are effective, but I suspect each approach is best suited for its respective medium.

Writing credits in old Hollywood movies are often confusing and the credits for All Quiet On The Western Front are no different. Del Andrews was credited with the "adaptation," Maxwell Anderson with the "adaptation and dialogue," and George Abbott with the "screenplay." The technical meaning of each is a bit murky, especially since they've evolved over the years, but my understanding is that in 1930, "adaptation" referred to the overall structure of the piece, "dialogue" to the words the actors spoke and "screenplay" to both dialogue and the physical staging of the work.

Further confusing the issue is that the studio released two versions of All Quiet On The Western Front, the sound version we know today and a silent version, with Walter Anthony providing titles, for those theaters which had not yet made the conversion to sound.

Judging from the way the credits read, I would guess that Anderson, with the guidance of veteran director Andrews, decided on the basic flow of the story—which scenes to include and in which order—and then went on to write a draft of the screenplay's dialogue. Then for whatever reason, I'm guessing that the producers brought in Abbott to significantly rework Anderson's draft. But I could just be talking through my hat.

What I do know is that All Quiet On The Western Front is a terrific movie based on a terrific book and for that miracle, its screenplay wins the Katie Award for best screenplay of 1929-30.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Katie Award Nominees For 1929-30

Six days after the April 3, 1930 Oscar ceremony in honor of the best movies of 1928-29—a public-relations debacle where a five-member panel of Louis B. Mayer's hand-chosen lackeys handed all the statues to insiders and Mayer's own entry for best picture—the Academy junked the Central Board of Judges and for the first time set in place procedures to leave the task of selecting winners to the full membership of the Academy itself. They didn't wait long to see the results of the new system, holding the next ceremony just seven months later, the only time in Oscar history awards were handed out twice in the same calendar year.

For a first exercise in democracy, the Academy did pretty well.

All Quiet On The Western Front, not just the best picture of the year, but one of the best pictures of any year, won both the top prize and an Oscar for its director, Lewis Milestone, the second Oscar of his career. George Arliss was the best actor with a solid performance in Disraeli, a role he had first crafted on Broadway. And The Big House, a highly-regarded prison drama, nabbed a pair of awards, one for legendary screenwriter Frances Marion, the other for sound editor Douglas Shearer, the first of his fourteen career Oscars.

The only controversy was generated by Norma Shearer's win for best actress in the movie The Divorcee. "What do you expect," said Joan Crawford afterwards. "She sleeps with the boss," referring to powerful MGM producer Irving Thalberg.

Whether you agree with Crawford's assessment may depend in part on your opinion of Shearer's abilities as an actress. Katie-Bar-The-Door can't stand her, but judging by the number of complimentary postings about her on various sites, somebody must love her. I myself have, at best, mixed feelings about Norma Shearer and will later share them at some length in a pair of postings, one about Shearer the actress, the other about Shearer and Thalberg as Hollywood's quintessential power couple.

As I put together my own list of Katie Award nominees, I realized that my only problem with All Quiet On The Western Front was that it was so good it obscured the fact that overall, 1929-30 was a very weak year for movies. Silent movies had all but disappeared from theaters, but unfortunately, the talkies that replaced them were saddled with a primitive technology that practically bolted the camera and the actors to the floor. Moreover, most directors clearly had no idea what to do with sound, treating it as a novelty rather than an opportunity, sticking in a song or two, or worse going overboard and cramming every nook and cranny with talk-talk-talk.

To fill out the roster of nominees, I had to range far and wide, drawing heavily from the German film industry for three best picture nominees and from the few remaining silent pictures for nominees in the acting and screenwriting categories. As for nominees from the pool of sound pictures, at times I based my picks as much on how well they overcame the limitations of the new medium as on their objective merits. But I believe that by the time I am done handing out Katies to this year's crop of nominees, the winners will be those who have established their worth through the ages.

At least I hope so.

PICTURE:
All Quiet On The Western Front (prod. Carl Laemmle, Jr.)

The Blue Angel (prod. Erich Pommer)

Diary Of A Lost Girl (prod. Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

Hallelujah! (prod. King Vidor)

Pandora's Box (prod. Heinz Landsmann)


ACTOR:

Lew Ayres (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade)

Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)
Gary Cooper (The Virginian)

ACTRESS:

Louise Brooks (Diary Of A Lost Girl and Pandora's Box)

Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel)

Greta Garbo (Anna Christie)
Jeanette MacDonald (The Love Parade)


DIRECTOR:

Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel)

King Vidor (Hallelujah!)


SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Wallace Beery (The Big House)

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Our Modern Maidens)

Louis Wolheim (All Quiet On The Western Front)


SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Marie Dressler (Anna Christie)

Nina Mae McKinney (Hallelujah!)

Seena Owen (Queen Kelly)


SCREENPLAY:

George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Elliott Lester; adaptation and scenario by Marion Orth and Gerthold Viertel; titles by H.H. Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker (City Girl)

Frances Marion; additional dialogue by Joseph Farnham and Martin Flavin (The Big House)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No. 12: Marie Dressler

And last but not least, the number one box office draw of the Early Sound Era, Marie Dressler.

No foolin'. Number one, and a personal favorite of the Monkey.

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No. 10 and 11: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Just a couple more photos of Early Sound stars to remind you what you have to look forward to—this from 1934's The Black Cat, but of course we've got Frankenstein and Dracula coming, too—and then it's on to the Katie nominations for 1929-30 ...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No. 9: Joan Blondell

From 1931's Blonde Crazy, everybody's favorite picture of Joan Blondell ... or, well, mine anyway.

Gloria Swanson: Best Actress Of 1919 (Male And Female)

The second in a series of brief essays about the Katie winners of the pre-Oscar era.

I've teased Gloria Swanson off and on for two lines of dialogue that her character, Norma Desmond, spoke in the Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard—"We didn't need dialogue; we had faces!" and "I am big; it's the pictures that got small!"—but she really was one of the best actresses of the Silent Era and for her breakthrough performance in the Cecil B. DeMille drama Male and Female, I gave her the Katie for best actress of 1919.

The movie itself is an odd marriage of Upstairs Downstairs and Gilligan's Island—a group of English aristocrats and their servants are marooned together on a South Seas island where naturally the servants prove much more adept at survival than their indolent, self-indulgent counterparts. Initially, Gloria Swanson plays the most stubbornly indolent of them all, but when she falls in love with her butler, the real leader on the island, she gradually comes to realize what's truly important in life.

That is until they're all rescued and DeMille serves up one of the most reactionary endings in movie history.

That Swanson managed to make all this hokum believable was a testament to her skill as an actress. Overnight, both she and DeMille became major players in Hollywood and both were stars on their respective sides of the camera for the rest of the decade.

Swanson made such silent classics as The Affairs of Anatol and Sadie Thompson and seemed to make the transition to talkies successfully—she received an Oscar nomination for her first talkie, The Trespasser—but her career went into decline and, with one exception, she made no movies between Music in the Air in 1934 and her comeback in Sunset Boulevard in 1950, for which she received her third and final Oscar nomination.

She died in 1983 at the age of 84.

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No. 8: Edward G. Robinson

One of the greatest actors of all time. Not only did he never win a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary Oscar two months after his death), he was never even nominated.

And you wonder why I started the Katies ...

This Weekend On Turner Classic Movies Sunday Silents: Broken Blossoms

I've theoretically left silent movies behind but I wanted to mention that TCM is showing my choice for the best movie of 1919, D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, on Monday, July 20, 2009, at 12:15 a.m. (i.e., Sunday night).

Like most of Griffith's work, the portrayals of race—in this case, a Chinese immigrant in London played by Richard Barthelmess—may make it a difficult movie for a modern audience. Plus, unlike the genres of comedy, horror or action, silent dramas generally don't hold up that well. But if you're approaching the work of D.W. Griffith for the first time, this might be the route to take.

In reviewing Broken Blossoms for his series on great movies, Roger Ebert noted that it was "perhaps the first interracial love story in the movies" and that it directly influenced Federico Fellini's classic, La Strada. He also said of its star, Lillian Gish, "her face is the first I think of among the silent actresses, just as Chaplin and Keaton stand side by side among the men." (He also passed along this anecdote from the filming of The Whales of August, a 1987 film co-starring Gish and screen legend Bette Davis: "One day after finishing a shot, [director Lindsay Anderson] said, 'Miss Gish, you have just given me the most marvelous closeup!' 'She should,' Bette Davis observed dryly. 'She invented them.'")

From TCM's website:

12:15 AM Broken Blossoms (1919)
In this silent film, an Asian man in London falls in love with an abused child. Cast: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp. Dir: D.W. Griffith. BW-89 mins, TV-PG

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No. 2: James Cagney

... with Mae Clarke and the most famous grapefruit of all time from the 1931 classic gangster pic, The Public Enemy.

Douglas Fairbanks: Best Actor Of 1920 (The Mark Of Zorro) And Producer Of The Best Picture Of 1924 (The Thief Of Bagdad)

The first in a series of essays about the Katie winners of the pre-Oscar era.

He was called "The King of Hollywood" and if any actor during the Silent Era might credibly have claimed to be more popular than Charlie Chaplin, it was Elton Thomas Ullman, better known to his adoring public as Douglas Fairbanks.

The star of forty-eight movies, including some of the greatest action films of all time, he was, along with Chaplin and his wife Mary Pickford, one of the three highest-paid and most-popular actors of his day. On his honeymoon with Pickford, Fairbanks and his bride drew crowds of 300,000 in Paris and London. At home in their mansion, dubbed "Pickfair," the two threw lavish parties and routinely entertained the world's most sought-after celebrities. To receive an invitation to Pickfair was to receive the social blessing of Hollywood royalty.

But Fairbanks was more than just a regular feature of the gossip columns and party circuit. He was also a fine actor and virtually created the modern action hero in a series of swashbuckling adventures that showcased an infectious joie de vivre and an extraordinary flare for stuntwork.

His lead performance in The Mark of Zorro, for which I awarded him a Katie as best actor of 1920, was his first foray into the genre of the period-costume action-adventure. Already a star of comedies, audiences responded with such enthusiasm to Fairbanks's new role that he cheerfully ended up playing variations on it for the rest of his career.

The per- formance was both ground- breaking and one of the most influential in movie history, esta- blishing many of the superhero and action hero conventions we now take for granted. His physique later served as the model for the comic hero Superman and the mask, secret hideaway and foppish alter ego inspired the creators of Batman.

As a co-founder of United Artists, Fairbanks had complete creative control over his pictures and he produced a string of action-adventure classics—The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Don Q Son of Zorro, The Black Pirate, The Gaucho—before saying farewell to the genre with The Iron Mask. On each of these movies, he worked not just as an actor but also as a writer (under the name Elton Thomas) and a producer.

The Thief of Bagdad was the best of these movies, one of the finest of its type ever made. Loosely based on stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Thief of Bagdad is the tale of a pickpocket who falls in love with a princess and who then sets off on a fantastic adventure to prove himself. With the graceful and athletic Fairbanks at its heart, The Thief of Bagdad is as fluid as a ballet while at the same time serving up a rip-snorting yarn filled with the best special effects 1924 could offer.

I selected it as the best picture of 1924 over such classics as Greed, The Last Laugh, The Navigator and Sherlock, Jr. and feel completely justified in doing so. The American Film Institute voted The Thief of Bagdad the ninth best fantasy movie of all time, the only silent film on the list, and along with City Lights, one of only two silent movies on any of the AFI Top Ten lists. In my opinion, it was the best fantasy movie made before The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and was probably the best action-adventure movie before 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Fairbanks continued making swashbuckling adventures until the dawn of the Early Sound Era when he put down his foil and returned to the genre that had given him his start, comedy. He made four movies, including one, The Taming of the Shrew, with his by-then estranged wife, Mary Pickford, then retired from acting altogether.

He later received a commemorative Oscar in recognition of his work as the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his "outstanding contribution ... to the international development of the motion picture."

Douglas Fairbanks died of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of fifty-five. His last words were "Never felt better."

Stars Of The Early Sound Era, No.1: Jean Harlow

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Early Sound Era: An Introduction

Back sometime around Easter, I guess it was, when I was first ac- quainting myself with the films of the Silent Era, I happen to catch both the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ and the 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston, which happened to be on cable around the same time. Being versions of the same book, you would expect the movies to have similarities—the former has a heavier emphasis on the political underpinnings of the first Jewish-Roman war, the latter focuses more on Judah Ben-Hur's various relationships, but they both feature the same characters, plot progression and action scenes—but I wasn't quite prepared to discover that both feature nearly identical versions of the most famous scene in the movie, the chariot race. Similar to the point that if William Wyler didn't consciously set out to copy Fred Niblo's version, I'd be amazed.

And yet to my mind, there's no comparison between the two scenes: the 1959 version is head and shoulders better than the earlier version.

What was the diff- erence? It's not the latter's use of color film stock, nor its use of 70 mm wide- screen. I've seen enough movies in my life to know that with rare exceptions (Lawrence of Arabia, for example), I prefer black-and-white film and the intimacy of the 1:1.33 frame ratio to the distraction of color and the often-cluttered canvas of widescreen. And it's certainly not the actors. Charlton Heston was an underrated performer who made a lot of good movies, but he wasn't clearly any better than Ramon Novarro, one of the best actors of the Silent Era. So what was the difference?

It was the sound.

The thundering hooves, the cracking whips, the frenzied roar of the crowd, rising and falling with the emphasis of the scene, like instruments played by the tightest live band you've ever seen, all working together to draw you in, make your adrenaline flow, building to its apex as Judah and his rival duel head-to-head, dropping off almost to silence as Messala struggles crushed and broken on the arena sand. The individual shots in the two movies are virtually the same, the blur of chariots and hooves, the flash of whips, the cheering of the crowd; it's the use of sound (the work of Oscar-winner Franklin Milton) that makes the latter version the greatest action sequence ever filmed. The silent version has many of the same camera angles and sets it's good, but the emotions watching it don't build in the same visceral way, and when it's over, you know you've seen only the second best chariot race in movie history.

Sound editing is a little understood or appreciated art—least of all by me. You may recall that it was the notion of having to pick an alternate Oscar winner for sound editing this year that prompted this blog in the first place. But in the course of cycling through well over a hundred silent movies, and developing a true affection for them, I think I now, too, have a better idea of the role sound plays in a movie and maybe, too, how that sound arrives on the screen, not as something passively picked up by pointing a microphone at the actors and recording whatever the mic happens to hear but by constructing—as carefully and consciously as anyone else working on the movie—a symphony of sounds that plays on your intellect and emotions as surely as the work of the actor or the director.

Thomas Edison experimented with uniting film and sound as early as 1894, inventing what he called the Kinetoscope, which combined a phonograph record, a loop of film and a drive belt that moved the two together, all housed in a viewing cabinet (basically a penny peep show but with movies of mundane scenes such as a man sneezing or a couple dancing). The technology was fraught with problems—brittle film, inexperienced operators—and Edison abandoned sound movies by 1915.

Research shifted to putting sound on film itself . Lee De Forest proved to be the primary innovator in the field and by 1922 he had developed both a technique for imprinting sound waves on film in the form of variable shades of gray lines, and what he called the Audion tube, which amplified the sound so that more than a few people could hear it.

De Forest premiered various sound shorts in April 1923 and later filmed Franklin Roosevelt placing Al Smith's name in nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention. De Forest though had a falling out with some of his colleagues who took the work to Hollywood where the studios perfected variations on this sound system, including Fox's Movietone, Warner Brothers' Vitaphone and RCA Phonophone.

Musical scores and sound effects began appearing in movies by 1925, but it was the premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 6, 1927 at Warner Brothers' theater in New York City that turned sound from a novelty into a necessity.

If there was any other technological breakthrough that had a bigger impact on the history of movies (other than the ability to project a film image onto a screen itself), I can't think of it off hand. Critics and directors were divided over the value of the new technology, but the public embraced it wholeheartedly and whether or not studios quite knew how best to use sound—most at first simply shoehorned a couple of musical numbers into otherwise silent movies—sound was clearly the future.

Compare the public's acceptance of—indeed, insistence upon—sound in movies with the public's indifference to 3-D. Hollywood first introduced what we think of as 3-D in 1952 (various processes have been around since 1922) in the now-forgotten movie, Bwana Devil. 3-D's inventor, M.L. Gunzberg, heralded the technology as the next big thing, and studios still produce a 3-D movie out every now and then, touting every refinement as the breakthrough that will win the hearts of the movie-going public. But after more than fifty years of tinkering with it, the movie audiences still find it a novelty, more annoying than necessary.

By contrast, people were irrevocably hooked on sound about halfway through Al Jolson's first song. The fact is, sound so fundamentally alters the movie-watching experience that, as I've said before, it's an entirely different medium.

Which is not to say the transition to sound went smoothly.

Early sound recording equipment was cumbersome and prevented directors from moving the camera fluidly and actors from moving naturally outside the narrow range of the microphone. By 1929, the invention of the boom mic, which allowed actors a broader range of movement, and "blimps"—protective covers that masked a camera's noise—helped alleviate the problem somewhat. But it hadn't taken long to learn bad habits and coupled with the loss of the Silent Era's best directors (Murnau died, Keaton locked himself into a bad deal at MGM, Chaplin retreated into his own little world), the look of movies suddenly became static and stagy. It took Orson Welles in 1941 to come along rediscovered what a previous generation of directors had taken for granted.

Other losses were more fundamental to the nature of the new medium which added a layer of realism that could never exist in a silent movie. As Imogen Sara Smith in her essay "Sinner's Holiday: An Ode To The Pre-Code" points out, "With the change to talkies, the silent era's swashbuckling heroes, Great Lovers, ringleted sweethearts and carefree flappers suddenly seemed antiquated. Sound punctured fantasy and brought movies down to earth and up to date: never again would they soar to the heights of romance they had reached in silence."

To that list, I would add the horror genre as one that sound changed forever. In the Silent Era, horror depended not, as Roger Ebert put it, on the shock of the hand reaching in suddenly from off-screen but on the emotion of dread, the dread of "all of the things we worry about at 3 in the morning—cancer, war, disease, madness," with no banter to relieve the tension, no ridiculous dialogue to ruin the mood. Horror movies in the Silent Era had the quality of a nightmare, for in our nightmares as in silent movies, no one can hear you scream.

Finally, the advent of sound not only changed movies, it changed the movie business as well.

I think most of us who know anything about the history of movies, or at least have seen Singin' in the Rain, know that many a silent career foundered with the introduction of sound. Olga Baclanova had a heavy accent that relegated her to small "exotic" roles when she found work at all. John Gilbert, who had a fine English stage actor's voice, could have made the leap to sound if Louis B. Mayer had taken care with the transition rather than saddling him with inferior scripts. And Paramount producer B.P. Schulberg treated Clara Bow so cavalierly, giving her a total of two weeks to prepare for her first sound picture, that she eventually cracked up and left Hollywood altogether.

What I didn't realize until I began researching the transition to sound was that the studios often had a vested interest in seeing their silent stars fail.

Silent film legend turned film historian, Louise Brooks has written that bankers, having financed the construction of sound-equipped movie theaters to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, muscled their way onto the boards of studios to ensure a return on their investment. Hollywood quickly changed from a wide-open town willing to try anything to a tightly-run old boys' network characterized by reactionary politics and a focus on the bottom line.

By destroying the careers of some of the more expensive talent, saddling them with lousy movies and publicizing the resulting failures, they were able to cut costs and send a message to the next wave of talent just breaking into pictures. Thus, for example, Louis B. Mayer at MGM quietly trashed Lillian Gish in the press and then dumped her $400,000 a year salary as soon as one of her movies failed to make money at the box office. Meanwhile, Greta Garbo, at less than a tenth of the salary and with a work visa under the studio's control, became the new studio cash cow.

On the other hand, while Mayer's vision was cruel, at least you could say he had one. The aforementioned B.P. Schulberg helped bankrupt Paramount in no small part because he viewed movies as disposable commodities and actors as interchangeable widgets. The ticket-buying public wasn't as gullible as he assumed. The producers who succeeded were those who could balance the ruthless demands of the new bottom line with the exacting needs of art.

In any event, silent movies were out, sound was in. Many of the greats from the old era—Keaton, Lloyd, Gilbert, Bow, Gish—never recovered and I for one will miss writing about their movies. But without sound, there would have been no Groucho Marx, no Preston Sturges, no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. On the horizon were a new crop of actors, James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and after they arrived, the movies as we know them would never be the same.

Note: I had planned to spend the rest of the week coasting with photos of stars from the Early Sound Era and then announcing the Katie Award nominees for 1929-30 sometime this coming weekend. But out of respect for the larger-than-life talent (and grousing) of faithful reader Douglas Fairbanks, I'm going to write essays about some of the Katie winners from 1919-1927—starting with Fairbanks and then moving on to focus on those performers and directors I haven't covered before, say, Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, Sergei Eisenstein and the movie Metropolis. We'll see. I do have a life, you know.

Okay, okay, I admit it—I don't have a life. But I do have responsibilities ...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Over-Under, Part Two: Another Round Of Katies

For a long time, long before I started this blog, I kicked around the idea of putting together a list of pre-Oscar era Katie Award winners.

But the idea was more academic than reflecting any passion of mine for silent movies. The thought of spending months writing essays about silent movies before I got to the movies I really loved, movies like Duck Soup and The Thin Man, struck me as nuts. So as you may recall, what I wound up doing was handing out four career achievement awards for the pre-Oscar Silent Era: The General (best picture), Charles Chaplin (best actor), Lillian Gish (best actress) and D.W. Griffith (best director).

Then something unexpected happened: I fell in love with silent movies. I discovered I like watching them, become absorbed in them, the good ones that is, the ones that figured out to tell stories without words, movies by Keaton and Murnau and Chaplin, with stars such as Fairbanks and Chaney and Garbo. And now I think I have a handle on what those pre-Oscar Katies would be.

Don't worry, though. I'm not going back and writing essays about all these winners. I'm not delaying my arrival at the sound era by another day. But I do hate to let all that hard work go to waste.

Even so, this expanded list only goes back as far as 1919. In truth, my first-hand know- ledge of movies made before that date is pretty much limited to a couple of D.W. Griffith movies (The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance), a handful of Mary Pickford classics and a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. Griffith may have invented the language of cinema with an impressive if controversial run from 1915 to 1921, but to my mind, movies didn't really take off as both a modern art form and as a fun, visceral experience until the German Expressionists Robert Weine and F.W. Murnau came along.

If you're interested, this is my rough draft of Katie winners for the years 1919 through July 31, 1927, but I'm warning you that until you've dipped heavily into the list of twenty silent movies I gave you a while back and convinced yourself that silent movies are your cup o' joe, I wouldn't go wading into this at random:

1919
Picture: Broken Blossoms (prod. D.W. Griffith)
Actor: Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms)

Actress: Gloria Swanson (Male and Female)

Director: D.W. Griffith (Broken Blossoms)


1920
Picture: The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (prod. Rudolf Meinert and Erich Pommer)

Actor: Douglas Fairbanks (The Mark Of Zorro)

Actress: Lillian Gish (Way Down East)

Director: Robert Weine (The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari)


1921
Picture: The Kid (prod. Charles Chaplin)

Actor: Charles Chaplin (The Kid)

Actress: Dorothy Gish (Orphans Of The Storm)

Director: Charles Chaplin (The Kid)


1922

Picture: Nosferatu (prod. Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau)

Actor: Erich von Stroheim (Foolish Wives)

Actress: Anna May Wong (The Toll Of The Sea)

Director: F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu)


1923

Picture: Safety Last! (prod. Hal Roach)

Actor: Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!)

Actress: Edna Purviance (A Woman Of Paris)

Director: Buster Keaton and John G. Blystone (Our Hospitality)


1924
Picture: The Thief Of Bagdad (prod. Douglas Fairbanks)

Actor: Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh)

Actress: Zasu Pitts (Greed)

Director: Raoul Walsh (The Thief Of Bagdad)


1925

Picture: The Big Parade (prod. King Vidor)

Actor: Lon Chaney (The Phantom Of The Opera)

Actress: Irene Rich (Lady Windermere's Fan)

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin)


1926
Picture: Faust (prod. Erich Pommer)

Actor: John Gilbert (Flesh And The Devil)

Actress: Greta Garbo (Flesh And The Devil)

Director: F.W. Murnau (Faust)


1927 (January 1 - July 31, 1927)

Picture: The General (prod. Joseph M. Schenck and Buster Keaton)

Actor: Buster Keaton (The General)

Actress: Brigitte Helm (Metropolis)

Director: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (The General)


Subject to revision and the threat that someday I'll write bushel baskets full of essays about the winners, you may consider these to be official Katie Awards. Which should please faithful reader Douglas Fairbanks no end.


Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are expecting an invitation to Pickfair for the after-ceremony party.


Note: For those with an interest in such things, I included a producer credit for each of the best picture winners. Some interesting names on there, including the heretofore unmentioned Hal Roach, who produced some of the greatest comedy acts of all time—Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and Will Rogers, among others. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1992 and lived to be 100.

One name shows up twice, Erich Pommer, maybe the most important producer in the influential German film industry during the 1920s and early 1930s. He fled Germany when Hitler came to power and ended up working in an American porcelain factory during World War II. Pommer eventually became a U.S. citizen, returned to making movies after the war and died in 1966.


By the way, if you're keeping score, William Fox produced Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, the Katie winner for 1927-28. As for the best picture winner of 1928-29, The Passion of Joan of Arc, all I have is the name of a company, Société générale des films. Maybe the board of directors can come down and pick up the award.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Over-Under, Part One: Michael Wilbon's Favorite Answer

At the Washington Nationals' home opener this year, way back on April 13, Mister Muleboy asked when my blog might leave the silent era and start covering sound pictures.

"Three months," cracked Katie-Bar-The-Door.

Pardon The Inter- ruption co-host Mike Wilbon would be thrilled: with the posting of my blog entry on Monday, "The Early Sound Era: An Introduction," it's going to be what gamblers and the crew of ESPN's PTI derisively refer to as a "push," what the rest of us call a tie. Katie, who has "over" in the pool, has shamelessly and self-interestedly urged me to delay the sound era for another week or two. No can do. Movies wait for no man. (Unless you've got, like, a pause button on the remote, but that's too complicated for me—damn all this 21st century technology.)

One of my in-laws asked me on a recent road trip what's been the biggest surprise so far about writing this blog. Aside from the fact that I'm writing a blog at all, it would have to be how much I've enjoyed watching silent movies. I'd seen some of the most famous ones, The General and City Lights, for example, but silent films had never really captured my fancy and I approached the first couple of years of Katie Awards with more of a sense of taking my castor oil than with a sense of excitement.

But some- where along the way, maybe when Katie suggested we take the metro down to the Kennedy Center to see The General, I discovered I really like silent movies. They have a style and rhythm wholly different from sound movies, they cause a different set of neurons to fire in my brain, like the difference in my reaction to jazz and rock n roll, say. Silent movies are not an inferior form of sound movies; they are a different medium altogether, and depending on what mood my taste buds are in, I now have a wider range of options than I did three months ago.

I've also discovered that because most silent movies are in the public domain, it's possible to watch many of them without spending a cent. A surprising number are available at the local public library, both on DVD and for electronic download direct to my computer. In Maryland, for example, all you need to watch a free double feature of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a computer, an internet connection and a library card—check with your own library system to see if they have a similar arrangement.

Turner Classic Movies is another great source for silent movies, showing one every Sunday night at midnight. It helps if you've been taping them off and on for fifteen years and piling them up in your basement as you promise yourself that you're going to watch them all "someday." I think I have all of Chaplin now, most of Mary Pickford's important work, and who knows what else.

And of course, there is YouTube, video.google, the Internet Archive, imdb.com, Hulu and amazon.com, and no doubt others, all of which provide access to silent films. You might have to watch a brief advertisement or track down six or seven ten-minute segments, but you can really expand your knowledge of the Silent Era.

If you're wondering where to start, it was Buster Keaton that did it for Katie-Bar-The-Door. His silent work, particularly the work he produced through his own company, is uniformly excellent, not to mention very funny. If you're thinking about delving into silent movies and aren't sure you'll like it, Keaton would be my choice.

"Not Chaplin?" asked a pal at lunch the other day.

Well, yes, Chaplin, too. The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights—they're every bit as great as their billing as classic comedies promises. Remember, I picked Chaplin as the best actor of the Silent Era and I stand by it.

So after tomorrow's posting, that'll be pretty much it for silent movies. There are three more significant ones on the horizon, Pandora's Box, City Lights and Modern Times, but those were clearly silent aberrations in a marketplace that had opted decisively for sound.

I don't know about you, but I miss silent movies already.

Tomorrow: "The Over-Under, Part Two: Another Round Of Katies"

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Recap Of The Katie Award Winners For 1928-29, A List Of Must-See Movies And A Word About Erich von Stroheim

The last of the Katies for 1928-29 have been awarded—and it only took six weeks! At this rate, I'll reach the present day in, hmm, let's see, nine years.

Well, better get to it.

In case you've forgotten who won Katies for 1928-29, here's a recap of the year's winners:




Picture: The Passion of Joan of Arc (prod. Société générale des films)
Actor:
Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)
Actress: Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc)
Supporting Actor: Ernest Torrence (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)
Supporting Actress: Anita Page (Our Dancing Daughters)
Screenplay: Frances Marion (The Wind)
Special Award: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks (the creation and marketing of Mickey Mouse); Steamboat Bill, Jr. (prod. Joseph M. Schenck) (Best Picture-Comedy); Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March) (Best Actor-Drama); Marion Davies (Show People) (Best Actress-Comedy); Douglas Shearer (The Broadway Melody) (Special Achievement In The Use Of Sound); "The Broadway Melody" (The Broadway Melody) (Best Song); Un Chien Andalou (prod. Luis Buñuel) (Best Short Subject); John Arnold (The Wind) (Cinematography)

And because a list of awards doesn't tell the whole story, here's another list, this time my selections for the "must-see" movies of the year:


Must-See Movies Of 1928-29: The Cameraman; Un Chien Andalou; The Docks Of New York; The Iron Mask; Our Dancing Daughters; The Passion Of Joan Of Arc; Show People; Steamboat Bill, Jr.; Steamboat Willie; The Wedding March; The Wind

I've written about each of the listed Katie Award winners and in doing so I've also written about each of the must-see movies—except The Wedding March, the last movie directed by Erich von Stroheim that can be reasonably said to work. It's the story of a young aristocrat forced to marry for money rather than love. Von Stroheim was surprisingly sympathetic in the lead role, reminding you, as he would again in Sunset Boulevard, that he wasn't just a pretty face in a monocle. For his performance in The Wedding March, I nominated him for a Katie (he lost to Buster Keaton).

Like most of his work (see, e.g., Greed and Queen Kelly), the version of The Wedding March that wound up on the screen was quite a bit less than what von Stroheim had envisioned. Most film buffs have heard tales of von Stroheim's nine (nine, Mrs. Bueller!) hour cut of Greed that the studio whittled down to 130 minutes. In this case, The Wedding March is only the first third of what von Stroheim, who was not one to learn a lesson, conceived of as a six-plus hour movie tracing the reluctant courtship and subsequent marriage of the young aristocrat and a rich industrialist's crippled daughter (Zasu Pitts). The studio shut down the production after nine months and ordered von Stroheim to split the film as conceived into three parts, with The Wedding March at two hours to be followed by its sequel, The Honeymoon, and an unnamed third film to complete the trilogy. The Honeymoon was started but apparently never completed; its elements were destroyed by fire in the 1950s.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suspect the studio's intervention, rather than destroying a work of art, may well have saved von Stroheim from himself.

In retro- spect, I think it's clear that von Stroheim was attempt- ing, with all these six and nine hour cuts of his movies, to invent the HBO miniseries. And he was absolutely right that there is artistic merit to taking time to tell a nine-hour story—I mean, think of The Sopranos reduced from a thirteen-hour season to a two-hour movie. Instead of having a deeply-layered, nuanced story, you would wind up with the same slam-bang surface-level gangster fluff that routinely shows up in the theaters, here for a disappointing opening weekend and then gone forever.

But unfortunately for von Stroheim, HBO and the miniseries hadn't been invented yet. Hell, they hadn't invented television yet. He was stuck with what he had, silent movies, a brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit medium. And while I support an artist's right to chase a vision no matter how impractical, there is no way von Stroheim could have expected in his wildest fantasies that an audience was going to sit still for nine hours while he threw shadows on a screen. In that context of the world he worked in, von Stroheim was not so much an artist pushing the edge as a gasbag who couldn't get to the point. (Or in his case, most likely a pompous poseur with a pathological need to prove himself superior to a public he regarded as rabble. But I digress.)

But let's say for the sake of argument that von Stroheim was a genius and further that some scientist somewhere is working on a time machine that would bring von Stroheim, contract and camera in hand, to the home offices of HBO. The fact is, he still couldn't make a miniseries for HBO because he'd insist on a $100 million budget. Need to film a scene in a nondescript San Francisco boarding house? Go to San Francisco! Have a desert scene in the screenplay? Move your entire company to the desert for months to shoot a scene that winds up looking like something shot on a Hollywood backlot. He was extravagant beyond all reason, insisting on a fidelity to realism that didn't translate to the screen. With the way he spent money, on what in the end were tiny little art films, he never had a hope of turning a profit. No wonder he drove people like Irving Thalberg nuts.

"What's that about?" Thalberg asked von Stroheim as they watched the rushes from the director's 1925 movie, The Merry Widow, referring to one of the odder scenes in a movie heavily censored before its release.

"That is a foot fetish," von Stroheim said.


"You, Von," replied Thalberg, "have a footage fetish."

In all fairness, I should point out that Cecil B. DeMille routinely spent more money than von Stroheim. But I also have to point out that DeMille routinely made more money than von Stroheim. And as nasty a notion as that is to an artist, when you're making pictures with somebody else's money, you have to create the possibility that the guy writing the check will turn a profit or he's soon going to stop writing those checks.

Which really brings me to the most important point, that what survives of von Stroheim's work really isn't that pretty. Von Stroheim's characters may have indulged a wide variety of fetishes—the panty sniffing of Queen Kelly, the foot fondling of The Merry Widow—but von Stroheim himself had a fetish for the grotesque, grotesque in the true sense of the word, "characterized by the fanciful," distorting "the natural into absurdity, ugliness or caricature." For all his blather about realism, von Stroheim was attracted to the fantastic, and the problem with a fetish is that it is inaccessible to anyone who doesn't share the fetish, a serious problem if you're looking for an audience of millions to defray the cost of your particular brand of lunacy.

I'm willing to concede that it's possible that the nine (nine!) hour version of, say, Greed was subtle and brilliant and absorbing (that is, if you didn't have to watch it in a single sitting). As I said, The Sopranos whittled down to two hours would never have had the same impact that the full series had. We'll never know.

But I think it's more likely that von Stroheim needed someone to rein him in, control his impulses, find the movie buried within the miles of footage. The director needed direction.

In any event, von Stroheim only directed nine movies (two of which he didn't finish; five others were heavily cut). His last movie, 1933's Hello, Sister, was mostly reshot after the studio fired von Stroheim. I think to a degree his reputation is based on a sense of what-might-have-been rather than on what-was, the romantic cliche of the great artist with the corporate boot on his neck; but I think based on the what-was I've seen, the-what-might-have-been is a bit overblown.

All of which is an appropriately long-winded way of saying that The Wedding March might be the best movie Erich von Stroheim ever accidentally made.