Monday, August 31, 2009

Nina Mae McKinney And The 1932 Short, "Pie, Pie Blackbird"

My old pal and movie mentor, bellotoot, and I have been exchanging comments about King Vidor's Hallelujah!, the all-black musical we both enjoyed starring Nina Mae McKinney as a jazz-singing temptress. In fact, bellotoot enjoyed Hallelujah! so much, he dug up this 1932 short, Pie, Pie Blackbird, one of the twenty movies McKinney made in her film career. It co-stars Eubie Blake and his orchestra as well as the tap dancing team, the Nicholas Brothers.

That Hollywood could ignore this much talent while stuffing musicals of the time full of non-entities like Charles King (see The Broadway Melody) only underscores the self-defeating nature of racism ...

Forewarned is forearmed: In setting the scene, McKinney uses a word (pickaninny) that has long been considered offensive. McKinney's use of the word is so casual, however, it prompted me to do some research on the word's origin and evolution. It is believed to have been derived from the Portuguese word "pequenino," an affectionate diminutive of the word "pequeno," which means "little," and was used in the American South prior to the Civil War to refer to African-American children. Later, the word became associated with particularly grotesque stereotypes which I will not pass along here, yet remained in general usage (see, e.g., Scott Joplin's "I Am Thinking Of My Pickaninny Days for clarinet," The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, etc.) at least until the 1940s. By the late 1950s, however, it had fallen strictly into the category of offensive and anybody using the term in the 21st century would rightly be considered a racist buffoon.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Best Actress Of 1929-30: Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl)

"There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich, there is only Louise Brooks!"

Or so curator Henri Langlois said when asked why he had chosen to prominently display a huge portrait of Louise Brooks rather than Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich at the entrance of the Musee National d'Art Moderne in Paris on the occasion of its retrospective of the first sixty years of motion pictures.

I wonder how many essays about Louise Brooks begin with that quote. All of them, probably.

Langlois was overselling his case—after all, I wouldn't want to imagine a movie history without Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich—but I wouldn't want to imagine one without Brooks either. She made just twenty-three movies and she's not nearly as celebrated as her two counterparts, but in 1929 at least, there was no actress better than Louise Brooks, and when Langlois reintroduce her to a world that had forgotten her after a twenty-five year exile, perhaps he was entitled to a bit of hyperbole.

Brooks's brief but unforgettable film career followed the trajectory of an early NASA rocket—straight up, then straight down, with some crazy loops in the middle and a spectacular explosion at the end. She combined brains, elegant beauty, and scorching sex appeal with a party-girl work ethic self-destructive enough to end ten careers. She made no apologies for preferring sex, jazz and alcohol to a steady job, and she burned every bridge she ever crossed, some while she was still standing on them, until finally there were no bridges left to burn.

"I have a gift for enraging people," she once said, "but if I ever bore you, it'll be with a knife."

Twice married, twice divorced, Brooks conducted well-documented affairs with Charles Chaplin, Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, movie producer Walter Wanger, and many others, including an experimental one-night stand with Greta Garbo. CBS founder William Paley, who was briefly involved with Brooks in his youth, was so fond of her that when she hit the skids after her movie career, he helped her with a monthly stipend for the rest of her life.

Born in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1906 to an indulgent lawyer father and a social-crusading mother with the maternal instincts of an "alligator," Brooks became a dancer at an early age and as a teenager joined the Denishawn Dancers (working with the legendary Martha Graham). Later she danced with the George White Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies. "I learned how to act by watching Martha Graham dance," Brooks said, "and I learned how to dance by watching Charlie Chaplin act."

She made her movie debut in 1925 for Paramount Pictures, appearing in eleven films over a three year period, playing the quintessential flapper across from such actors as Adolphe Menjou and W.C. Fields. She had an insatiable appetite for the Hollywood nightlife, was a regular at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle, and was a fixture in the gossip columns. Her "black helmet hairdo" was one of the ten most influential haircuts in history, according to InStyle magazine, and she was one of the most photographed celebrities of her time.

But it wasn't until 1928, when she made Howard Hawks's A Girl In Every Port and William A. Wellman's Beggars of Life, that she really made an impression as an actress.

Her contemporaries, schooled in the art of silent film overacting, thought she was doing nothing on screen; years later, it's clear she was a method actress before the method had been invented. "The great art of films does not consist in descriptive movement of face and body," she said, "but in the movements of thought and soul transmitted in a kind of intense isolation." As with the works of Buster Keaton, Brooks's understated, internal approach gives her performances a modern feel, very much in contrast to her contemporary, Greta Garbo, who wouldn't completely shed her silent film theatrics until 1933. Brooks never had any to lose.

With her work in A Girl in Every Port and Beggars of Life, Brooks came to the attention of German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst, a collaboration that would result in the best work of both their careers.

Pabst, an Austrian born in what is now the Czech Republic, was one of the leading directors in Germany's important and influential film industry. After making movies with Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street, her first outside of Sweden) and Brigitte Helm (who later played the lead in Metropolis), Pabst set his sights on a movie version of a pair of stage plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Der Büchse Die Pandora (Pandora's Box), two well-known works by German playwright Frank Wedekind.

In his two plays, Wedekind had set out to expose the secret lusts and private immoralities of Berlin's ruling class, with the action centering on the manipulations and cruelty of a prostitute named Lulu. Wedekind described Lulu as a "monster," but Pabst re-envisioned her as "sweetly innocent" and unaware of the evil she inspired, shifting the moral responsibility for the resulting tragedy to a flaw in her upper class patrons.

It was bold idea for a story well-fixed in the mind of a German public in no mood to acknowledge their role in the decadence and growing weakness of the Weimar Republic. "[M]y playing of the tragic Lulu with no sense of sin," Brooks wrote later, "remained generally unacceptable for a quarter of a century."

In Brooks, Pabst saw the precise combination of innocence and unapologetic sexual appetite he was looking for in his Lulu. The problem was, she was under contract to Paramount Pictures and the studio had its own plans for the actress. Sitting in post-production was a silent movie, The Canary Murder Case—Brooks played the "Canary" of the title, a blackmailing singer turned murder victim—which the studio wanted to re-shoot as a "talkie."

Typical of the industry as a whole, though, Paramount saw the advent of sound not just as a technical challenge, but also an opportunity to slash salaries and dump difficult stars (such as Wallace Beery and Clara Bow), using the cost of converting to the new technology as an excuse. Never a fan of the business side of acting to begin with, Brooks balked when the studio informed her she would be doing the work of dubbing The Canary Murder Case for less pay. She quit on the spot, at which time studio head B.P. Schulberg informed her of Pabst's offer.

Legend has it that Marlene Dietrich was waiting in Pabst's outer office to test for Pandora's Box when a cable arrived saying that Brooks had left Paramount and was available to play Lulu. For Brooks, it was a fateful decision.

The first scene of Pan- dora's Box sets the tone. We first see Lulu in her spacious apartment in the city, friendly, smiling, fresh-faced—with a bottle of brandy tucked under her left elbow to pay off the meter reader with less than what she owes, and even though he's old enough to know better, he can't help thinking such a lovely, innocent smile is for him only. And it is for him only, at least until the next man arrives at the door.

Any number of men open this particular Pandora's box without much regard to the cost to their dignity, social standing or bank accounts: Schigolch, a pimp and a leech, Lulu's first "patron," respectable until he met her, now an alcoholic bum with holes in his shoes; Dr. Schön, a wealthy publisher with a high-society fiancee, who lusts after Lulu and hates himself for it; and his son, Alwa, who adores her even as she cheerfully tells him she is incapable of love. There's even a Countess (played by a reluctant Alice Roberts, who didn't realize she was to play what was perhaps the first overtly lesbian character in movie history) who longs for Lulu with an unrequited passion.

Like Josef von Sternberg who was busy making a very similar movie, The Blue Angel with the aforementioned Marlene Dietrich, Pabst had men pegged as nothing much more than big animals with pants on—in one scene he shows Schön rutting like a pig in white tie and tails—and it comes as no great surprise that the last man in Lulu's life, Jack the Ripper, proves to be the biggest animal of all, albeit with a different agenda on his mind.

Lulu is blessed with a sort of short-term moral amnesia that it makes it possible to forget from moment to moment that her relationships with other people flow, or should flow, in two directions. As Brooks plays her, Lulu is a child in a woman's body, and that childlike innocence at the core of Brooks's approach is the key to the movie. Lulu is a flame who attracts men to their destruction, but because there's no malevolence in her, the audience never turns on her as they might a typically scheming femme fatale.

No doubt that's why Pabst so preferred Brooks to Dietrich. "It's a part that can't be played by her type," Brooks said later of Dietrich in a rare interview. Pabst agreed, saying, "Dietrich was too old and too obvious—one sexy look and the picture would have become a burlesque."

Pandora's Box is not a perfect movie. At 133 minutes, it's about half an hour too long for a silent film, and Pabst never really solved the structural problem of stitching two stories together. But Brooks's performance is extraordinary, quite unlike anything that had come before it and so far ahead of its time, years would pass before it found an audience.

Premiering in Berlin in January 1929, Germans were outraged that Pabst had chosen an American to play their beloved Lulu and were offended that he had dared show Berlin's upper classes in a less than flattering light. The movie fared no better when it reached the U.S. in December of that same year. Already a relic of the Silent Era, Pandora's Box sank without a ripple.

Undeterred, Pabst began work on a follow-up to Pandora's Box in June, 1929. Diary Of A Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen) is an adaptation of Margarete Böhme's novel about a girl who is seduced and raped only to be sent to a brutal reform school by a hypocritical father who himself has a taste for young girls.

In choosing to make Diary of a Lost Girl, Brooks turned down an offer of $10,000 from a Paramount Pictures now desperate to avoid the expense of finding another actress to dub her voice in The Canary Murder Case. With this second rejection, Brooks burned all but the last of her Hollywood bridges. B.P. Schulberg, the head of Paramount, put the word out that Brooks's voice was unsuitable for talkies and she was blackballed from most of the major studios. It was years before Brooks grasped the significance of her decision.

The resulting collaboration between Brooks and Pabst is not quite as good as Pandora's Box, but Brooks's performance may be even better. The movie blogger L'Eclisse has observed that while she's not convinced the movie works, "What is indisputable ... is the gravity of Brooks’ performance. She is delicate, subtle, vulnerable, intuitive, and a host of other immortal adjectives."

Certainly the performance proves Pandora's Box was no fluke.

As an innocent victim made to suffer outrageously at the hands of others, Brooks's character in this one, Thymian, is very nearly a polar opposite of Lulu. Yet in both movies, Brooks serves as a prism refracting upper class hypocrisy into its full spectrum of hidden sin. Discovering her father has seduced and impregnated the family housekeeper, a woman not much older than herself, Thymian turns to her father's lecherous business partner for solace, an unscrupulous lech who takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Brooks noted she played the scene as a ballet, an emo- tionally complex scene in which an "'innocent' young girl" (the quotation marks around "innocent" are Brooks's own) subtly maneuvers a "wary lecher" without any idea of what is at stake, knowing only that her father has hurt her. For Thymian, to faint dead away in her lover's arms was the consummation promised in romance novels. For the lecher, consummation was something else.

The subsequent rape, implied but not shown, leaves Thymian pregnant which, in the eyes of the hypocrites who raised her, is her own fault, a sin worthy of harsh punishment.

Filming those scenes must have been an uncomfortable reminder of a pivotal incident from Brooks's own childhood when as a nine year old she was sexually molested by a neighbor only to have her mother blame her for seducing the man when she came home crying. Brooks wrote later that the episode haunted her for the rest of her life and shaped her feelings about love and sex.

"Love is a publicity stunt," she said bluntly, "and making love—after the first curious raptures—is only another petulant way to pass the time waiting for the studio to call."

After Thymian gives birth, her baby is given over to a midwife and Thymian herself is sent to a girl's reformatory, which like the girl's school in Mädchen In Uniform, which followed two years later, seethes with authoritarian cruelty and repressed desire. That Thymian's life improves when she escapes the reform school to work in a brothel should tell you everything you need to know about Pabst's opinion of reform schools, and I think Pabst, like fellow German directors Fritz Lang (M) and Leontine Sagan (Mädchen In Uniform), was groping to diagnose the very real sickness in German society that would soon bring Adolf Hitler to power.

Censors heavily edited Diary of a Lost Girl on its release, the French version being so cut up (the entire brothel sequence was excised), the movie's screenwriter thought the film had broken half way through its premiere. Still, despite making no impression in America, Diary of a Lost Girl was enough of a success in Europe that Brooks made a third movie, Prix de Beauté, a truly European effort with a screenplay from Pabst and French director René Clair, and direction by Italian Augusto Genina.

The film was a hit, yet despite Pabst's promise to turn her into an international star to rival Garbo, Brooks was bored with Europe and after three movies there, returned to an indifferent America. The hard work of making films in a language not her own held no interest for her, no matter how much fame or fortune was in the offing.

"Your life is exactly like Lulu's," Pabst angrily told her on parting, "and you will end the same way." He wasn't far wrong.

Although her European films had had no impact on the American market and she was still in bad odor after snubbing Paramount, Brooks did find small roles in four pictures, and made her belated sound debut in the execrable comedy short Windy Riley Goes Hollywood, directed by the still-disgraced Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle under an assumed name. All four movies are terrible and Brooks, who admitted she knew nothing about how to project her voice for the microphone, is pretty bad in them.

Still, in 1931, William Wellman, who had directed Brooks in Beggars of Life, offered her the female lead in his next picture, James Cagney's gangster classic, The Public Enemy. Brooks initially said yes, then changed her mind and abruptly left Hollywood to be with then-lover George Preston Marshall. The role went instead to Jean Harlow and made her an instant star.

Brooks had burned her last bridge. There was nowhere to go but down.

"That Hollywood treatment is murder, just murder," she said later. "It isn't that people turn their heads not to speak to you, they don't see you, you're not a person anymore. The people who've dined with you and you've spent weekends with, they look right at you, you don't exist."

By the time she realized she missed acting, it was too late. "I never gave away anything without wishing I had kept it," she said later, composing her own epitaph, "nor kept anything without wishing I had given it away."

Brooks returned to Hollywood in 1936 and appeared in a pair of Westerns, including her last film, Overland Stage Raiders with John Wayne a year before his breakthrough in Stagecoach, then spent another two years in Hollywood waiting for offers that never came. When she left California in 1940, she left for good. She was thirty-four.

Brooks fell back on dancing for a while, working on the stage in Chicago, and even opened a dance studio in Wichita, Kansas, but she was as impatient and ill-tempered as ever, alienating clients and driving away business. Eventually she retreated to New York, working as a salesgirl, maid and finally as an "escort."

She said later that only Paley's monthly stipend kept her from suicide. "How I have existed fills me with horror," she wrote, "for I have failed in everything—spelling, arithmetic, riding, swimming, tennis, golf, dancing, singing, acting, wife, mistress, whore, friend. Even cooking. And I do not excuse myself with the usual excuse of not trying. I tried with all my heart."

She was "a very strong woman," a friend said after her death, "but whose strength annihilated her, I think, and I always felt she was a lost soul."

Then by chance in 1953, Brooks's neighbor had a conversation with James Card, curator of the George Eastman House of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., who mentioned that he had been searching for years to find Brooks. The neighbor introduced the two, and Brooks and Card began a correspondence that led Brooks to relocate to Rochester and begin writing a series of respected essays about the Silent Era, collected under the title Lulu in Hollywood. In 1957, Henri Langlois held his film retrospective in Paris and reintroduced Brooks to a world finally ready to recognize her talent.

More than a quarter of a century after she had turned her back on fame, fame forgave her. She is now regarded as one of the greatest actresses of the Silent Era.

Brooks lived out the rest of her life in Rochester, writing, painting, reading voraciously, entertaining friends, occasionally lecturing to students at the Eastman House, but otherwise avoiding the public that had rediscovered her. In her later years, she suffered from arthritis and emphysema, living, like a character from the Proust she loved, in memories of things past.

"In my dreams," she said not long before her death, "I am not crippled. In my dreams, I dance."

Note: In 1998, Turner Classic Movies produced a terrific documentary of her life that, along with Brooks's book Lulu in Hollywood, was an immense help in putting together this essay. The documentary is included, along with one of the few interviews Brooks ever gave, on the Criterion Collection's DVD of Pandora's Box. I highly recommend this two-disc set.

You might also want to check out the blog "The Louise Brooks Society," with over a thousand posts about not just Louise Brooks but also about how her image has influenced culture through the years.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

As Promised, The Nominees For Best Actor Of 1929-30

I had planned to post the essay naming the best actress of 1929-30 today but as the cat said in The Manchurian Candidate, "My dear Yen, as you grow older, you grow more long-winded. Can't we get to the point?" No, no we can't. I'm at 1200 words and haven't even started talking about the movie yet!

Besides, I keep feeling this compulsion to pass the time with a little solitaire ...

In the meantime, as I promised faithful reader lupner, these are the nominees for best actor of 1929-30.

Lew Ayres (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Maurice Chevalier (The Love Parade)

Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond)

Hopefully, I'll get to the winner early next week, but in addition to the best actress post, I also plan to write about the actual Oscar winner of 1929-30, Norma Shearer, as well as the other half of her power couple marriage, Irving Thalberg. So no promises.

Trivia: For those of you who have forgotten or never knew, that wooden stick in Ronald Colman's right hand is called a "pencil." Way back in the day, people used it to text and twitter, only instead of tapping out messages on their phone, they scratched out a sort of hieroglyphics on paper, put the result into physical containers called "envelopes" and handed them over to a uniformed employee of the United States Postal Service who would sometimes take days to deliver the message to its intended recipient. To kill time while waiting, people drank a lot and had sex and whatnot. By the time the "letter" would arrive, of course, everybody had forgotten what had inspired the message in the first place, but nobody much cared either.

I'm not saying it was a better world—they also had polio and wars that killed millions—just a different one.

Your kids, too, will one day ridicule you as an old geezer. And they'll be right.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Case You've Forgotten, The Nominees For Best Actress Of 1929-30

I'm working on the essay for Best Actress of 1929-30. It might be ready today, but more likely it won't show up until tomorrow. So in the meantime, here are the nominees:

Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl)

Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel)

Jeanette MacDonald (The Love Parade)

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Comments Policy

It was another busy movie weekend here at the Monkey. In addition to the essay about King Vidor's Hallelujah!, which off and on took all day Saturday, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I watched Spike Lee's answer to Saving Private Ryan, Miracle at St. Anna, a very fine war movie about the experiences of the 92nd Division's "Buffalo Soldiers," an all-black division that fought in Italy during the Second World War. Here's a movie that somehow slipped through the cracks last year—no, actually here was one that critics and moviegoers alike stomped on and shoved through the cracks—but Katie and I both thought it was a superb movie and highly recommend it.

We also watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks because it was Angela Lansbury day on Turner Classic Movies and neither of us had seen the movie since its release in 1971. Turns out there's a reason for that. It's not good. It's dull and derivative and chock full of bad songs. Rent Mary Poppins instead.

On my own, I also watched a couple of Ernst Lubitsch movies, Design For Living, which you'll be hearing much more about later, and Monte Carlo, which you won't. The former is a Hays Code-busting comedy about a ménage à trois between Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Fredric March, with excellent support from Edward Everett Horton (support in a movie sense, that is). The latter proves that even the immortal Lubitsch can't overcome a fatal flaw in casting, in this case Jack Buchanan as the romantic lead. Who's Jack Buchanan, you say? Exactly.

As for the new comments policy, I enjoy hearing from my readers, even the ones who have been dead for years. But the comments section has gradually turned into something of the old Wild West lately and it has been called to my attention (possibly by the left side of my brain) that genteel folk have become afraid to walk the street in broad daylight.

So for the time being, my good friend, Sheriff John T. Chance, has agreed to review all comments before they are then posted on the blog. He says no cussin', at least nothing that even Two and a Half Men couldn't use, no racial slurs, no ad hominem attacks on readers who are still alive, no wearing tights in public, etc.

And leave all firearms with Dude at the end of town.

Likely, there will be some delay between when you submit your comment and when it shows up on the blog—Sheriff John T. is strictly old school when it comes to all this newfangled technology— and if you think your comment was unfairly rejected, take it up with Chance. If you dare.

Anyway, we'll see how this works out ...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

King Vidor's Hallelujah!

Already one of Hollywood's most successful directors, with such hits as The Big Parade, The Crowd and Show People to his credit, King Vidor chose a decidedly off-beat and risky project for his first sound film, a musical based on an idea he had been trying to get off the ground for most of a decade, the story of the African-American experience in the deep South using an all-black cast.

MGM was wary of the project, believing white audiences would resist a film using blacks in leading roles, but Vidor believed so strongly in the project that he offered to work without salary and finally the studio relented. The resulting film, Hallelujah!, premiered in August 1929.

The story itself is pretty standard fare for a musical—a weak man (Daniel L. Haynes) is torn between the good girl who loves him and the jazz singing vamp (Nina Mae McKinney) who only wants to use him—set in the farmland outside Memphis, Tennessee, where the movie was filmed. After accidentally killing his own brother in a bar room brawl, Haynes's Zeke becomes an itinerant preacher only to be drawn back into McKinney's web when he runs into her at a tent revival meeting.

The music alternates between spirituals and jazz numbers, and while Mc- Kinney turns in a performance of Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle" that audiences at the time found electrifying, it's the spirituals—"Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," and many others—Vidor is most interested in. He was determined to show the role religion and music played in the South he grew up in and, as a Tennessee boy myself, I think it's one of the few movies to come out of Hollywood that captures something of this aspect of Southern life without condescending to it, or worse.

Hallelujah! was also notable for its early success at combining sound recorded on location with sound recorded in the studio, a feat which was considered a great technical achievement at the time.

Hallelujah! is not a perfect movie and despite three Katie nominations, I don't want to oversell it. The plot is a stock Hollywood musical contrivance, the acting is amateurish (not surprising since Vidor mostly used amateurs) and the characters are often stock racial stereotypes, such as the sex-crazy black man or the wise "Mammy." Vidor himself later admitted that despite his best efforts, the story was at times condescending to the African-American experience.

And yet I have to say that while the black farmers, preachers and jazz singers of Vidor's Hallelujah! sometimes lack nuance, so too did Hollywood's portraits of flappers, gangsters, Broadway producers, newspapermen, housewives, politicians and pretty much anything else it set its sights on. Films of the Early Sound Era still had one foot firmly in the Silent Era when exposition was difficult and subtle characterizations nearly impossible. Filmmakers served up characters in a sort of visual shorthand—this is the good guy, this is the bad guy—for the quick understanding of the audience, and while modern audiences may find some of the portrayals in Hallelujah! startling, they aren't much different from the characters played in the all-white musical The Broadway Melody which won the Oscar for best picture the year before.

What distinguishes Hallelujah! from, say, The Birth Of A Nation, which is also filled with stock racial stereotypes, is that the characters and story are based on Vidor's actual, if flawed, observations of African-American life rather than D.W. Griffith's thoughtless regurgitation of racist stereotypes. Vidor was deeply sympathetic to and interested in the lives of black Americans (as, indeed, I get the impression he was of most people). I think the only regret Griffith felt about putting racial stereotypes on the screen was that he wasn't allowed to hit those who criticized him for it with a hammer.

Commercially, Hallelujah! was the flop MGM feared it would be, although certainly the studio's unwillingness to distribute the film to entire sections of the country for fear of a racist backlash was a major contributor to its failure. Critically, the reception has been a bit friendlier. The Academy recognized Vidor with an Oscar nomination for best director at the 1930 ceremony and in 2008, the National Film Preservation Board included Hallelujah! in the National Film Registry. That same year, in honor of Vintage Black Cinema, the U.S. Postal Service pictured an advertizing poster for Hallelujah! on a 42¢ stamp.

Nina Mae McKinney was just sixteen years old at the time of filming, but she made such an impression that MGM signed her to a five year contract. Unfortunately for McKinney, however, MGM was reluctant to cast a black actress in a significant role and most of her work was done on loan to other studios. She soon left Hollywood for Europe where she worked mostly in cabaret shows until World War II broke out. She made twenty movies altogether and died in 1967 at the age of fifty-four. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

As for the film's other stars, Daniel L. Haynes appeared in a handful of movies, mostly uncredited bit parts, and also worked on the Broadway stage. Child actor Matthew "Stymie" Beard played in thirty-seven Our Gang comedies, usually wearing an oversized bowler hat (he was later replaced by Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas). Sam McDaniel, brother of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, appeared in over two hundred movies, usually in an uncredited role as a waiter, janitor or porter, including one role I remember, "Charlie the garage attendant" who provides Fred MacMurray with a critical alibi in Double Indemnity. Likewise, Blue Washington, one of the few veteran actors in the cast, continued playing bit parts until his final movie in 1957.

The rest of the cast quickly faded from view.

Despite the commercial failure of Hallelujah!, Vidor remained one of Hollywood's most sought-after directors, working on such films as The Champ, Stella Dallas and War and Peace. In 1939, when director Victor Fleming left the set of The Wizard of Oz to take over the troubled production of Gone With The Wind, Vidor stepped in and although he did not receive a screen credit, directed the film's Kansas scenes, including Judy Garland's beloved performance of "Over the Rainbow."

Vidor received three more nominations for direction and in 1979 was awarded an honorary Oscar "[f]or his incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator." He died in 1982 at the age of eighty-eight.

Trivia: While Hal- lelujah! is often remem- bered as the first movie with an all-black cast, a much lesser known musical, Hearts in Dixie, also starring an all-black cast, predated it by five months. Hearts in Dixie starred Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry), whose stage name has become synonymous with the negative stereotyping of African-Americans in film. Some revisionist historians consider him a trailblazer who paved the way for later African-American performers. Others point out that white audiences of the time often swallowed the characterization whole and used it as justification for racist policies. In any event, Perry became a millionaire playing the role in more than fifty movies (later blowing it all and declaring bankruptcy).

The NAACP presented him with a Special Image Award in 1976 and the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inducted him as a member in 1978. He died in 1985.

If you're interested, two biographies with very different takes on Lincoln Perry have been published within the last five years, Stepin Fetchit: The Life & Times of Lincoln Perry and Shuffling To Ignominy: The Tragedy Of Stepin Fetchit, both available in paperback.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Equal Time

Now my other brother, Steve, demands that I drop his name here as well. Happy to.

Business keeps him on the road a lot, so in his honor I'm offering this clip of his favorite hotel ...

Our Miss Brooks

Longtime brother and frequent commenter Uncle Tom demands more Louise Brooks. Or he would if he thought about it ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Best Director Of 1929-30: Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front)

For a guy who won two Oscars and directed one of the ten best war movies ever made, you don't hear much about Lewis Milestone anymore. He never shows up on the list of history's greatest directors, his movies aren't the subject of film festivals and retrospectives.

Yet when it came time to hand out the Katie for best director of 1929-30, I happily passed over many better-known names—Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, F.W. Murnau—and went right for Lewis Milestone. By whatever standard you measure a director's worth, whether as an artist, an acting coach, a problem solver or a resource manager, this one time Milestone surpassed them all and in doing so, earned a seat at the table of his era's best directors.

As I mentioned in my essay about this year's best screenplay, All Quiet On The Western Front was one of the biggest novels of the late 1920s, selling 2.5 million copies in just eighteen months, and despite the gamble inherent in filming a big budget war picture right after the crash of the stock market, the head of Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle, quickly snapped up the rights to the novel and slated it for production.

With only eight feature-length movies under his belt when he was tapped to direct, the relatively inexperienced Milestone wouldn't have seemed to be the obvious choice to helm such a prestige picture with the economic future of the studio on the line. But Milestone (born in Russia in 1895 as Lev Milstein) had already proven himself an adept storyteller with a style characterized by gritty realism and a fluid camera, and at the first Academy Award ceremony, he had taken home the only Oscar ever awarded for comedy direction, a war movie to boot, Two Arabian Knights, a lighthearted romp about two American soldiers captured by the Germans during World War I only to escape and wind up rescuing an Arabian princess (Mary Astor).

Despite its radically different tone, Two Arabian Knights was something of a dry run for Milestone, mixing battle scenes and daring escapes with realistic portrayals of the soldier's life. It even starred Louis Wolheim who provided such strong support in All Quiet On The Western Front.

One of the most significant choices Milestone made in directing All Quiet On The Western Front was the decision never to provide the audience with a strategic overview of the war, not just in terms of the story, which remains tightly focused on a group of young boys who have volunteered for war straight from their classroom, but in terms of his camera as well. There are no shots of maps, no soaring tours over the battlefield to give you a sense of where the warring armies are in relation to each other, no visual signals about their tactical or strategic aims.

At the same time, however, while Milestone is effective at making you feel the confusion of war, he himself is never confused about what he's trying to show you—and if you've seen some recent movies, where directors hide the limitations of both the action and their imaginations with a rapid blur of edits, you understand there's a big difference between the two.

A good example of this comes during the first great battle sequence, one the greatest cinematic achievements up to its time. The camera sweeps low to the ground, almost always at the eye level of the men in the trenches. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson—as anonymous these days as Milestone despite also working on Casablanca—reminds you once again of the power of live action over cartoonish computer-generated images, particularly with the shot of a machine gun panning down a line of charging soldiers, then the reverse shot of the charging soldiers falling as the camera sweeps past, human bodies falling in the unpredictable ways an animated image, unbound by gravity, cannot replicate.

The sequence includes an impressive artillery barrage, with real explosions running down the line, throwing fine particles of dirt and the dead into the air, and you feel an adrenaline rush as an overwhelming enemy charges. From the point of view of the soldier, it's all churning legs and rifles, bayonets suddenly at one another's throats as the line is breached and the men engage in hand-to-hand combat, and then as the battle rages, men collapse in exhaustion, gasping for breath, their faces grimy with sweat, blood, wincing in pain, Milestone showing you something you don't often see in a war film, the real sense of physical exertion, the weariness and thirst, just taking the time in the middle of battle to show a man knock the throat off a bottle of wine for a badly needed drink.

One other point I want to make, since we're now talking about the Early Sound Era, is that Milestone didn't let the primitive sound recording technology hobble him. Instead, he used the relatively new technology to ramp up his audience's emotional response—you hear the bombs constantly exploding, you hear men gasping for breath, and when during one of the greatest set pieces of this or any other movie, a French soldier passes through the various stages of suffering on the way to death, ultimately culminating in a terrible silence, Milestone largely conveys the scene with sound.

And earlier, in a set piece that acts as a mirror to the French soldier's death, Milestone lets a quiet moment when the young German soldier played by Lew Ayres sleeps with a French girl unspool entirely offscreen, with just the shadow of a bedpost on a wall and two voices unable to communicate with words and yet saying everything that needs to be said.

All Quiet On The Western Front premiered in April 1930 to immediately critical acclaim and box office success and that November, Milestone won the second Oscar of his career. The movie has lost none of its power over the years and remains one of the best war movies ever made.

Today, Lewis Milestone is largely forgotten by all but hardcore film buffs. Although he won two Academy Awards, was nominated for a third and made forty-eight movies over four decades—including, in addition to his two Oscar winners, The Front Page, Of Mice And Men, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers and The Red Pony—most of his career after All Quiet On The Western Front lacked focus. He became head of production at United Artists in 1932, decamped for Columbia and a bigger paycheck in 1934, then moved on to Paramount in 1935, directing few movies along the way. Accused after the war of being a Communist sympathizer, in November 1946 he took the Fifth in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and while he was not blacklisted, his choice of projects was limited.

After directing the original Ocean's Eleven with the Rat Pack in 1960 and the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny On The Bounty two years later, Milestone retired and died in 1980 at the age of eighty-five.

The famous last shot of the hand reaching for the butterfly is not in the book and was conceived in the editing room after the cast had been released. The hand in the close-up is Milestone's own.

For The Boys In The War Room—More Louise Brooks

Some day I'm gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In Lieu Of Content, Louise Brooks

Although I haven't posted any entries lately, I really have been working overtime on the blog. In order to write about movies, from time to time, you have to stop and watch them. Since Friday, when the Mule talked me into seeing The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, I've watched Holiday (1930), An American Tragedy (1931), The Guardsman (1931), A Free Soul (1931), One Hour With You (1932), Zero For Conduct (1933), L'Atalante (1934) and Five Graves To Cairo (1943). Not to mention, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I saw Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated film, Ponyo, which we both highly recommend.

That's ten new movies in four days.

Oh, and I dug out Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929) and watched that again, too.

Today, I am back to writing, drafting my essay on the Best Director of 1929-30 (the nominees, in case you've forgotten: Lewis Milestone, King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg). Look for that later today or tomorrow.

In the meantime, new reader General Buck Turgidson suggests less Douglas Fairbanks and more Jean Harlow. How about Katie nominee Louise Brooks instead?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chaplin And Fairbanks Hawk War Bonds

Apropos of nothing is a photograph I stumbled over at "Pluck You, Too," a website devoted to—get this—movies. Imagine that. But I thought it might give you an idea how popular Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were back in their heyday ...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Hell Of Hell's Angels

I think when Martin Scorsese made The Aviator, his bio-pic of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, he created the impression that Hughes's 1930 World War I adventure yarn Hell's Angels might be a good movie. It isn't. I coughed up nine bucks or so for the dvd, because I wanted to see Jean Harlow's debut and because Hell's Angels has a reputation of featuring some of the best aerial duels of movie history.

Well, I can tell you, Jean Harlow was beautiful, she gave us the line "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" (changing from a humdinger of a backless evening gown to a loosely tied robe and nothing else), but she was as raw as a newborn foal struggling to find her legs beneath her, and what you're going to see is the work of a promising amateur offering up only the hint of what was to come after.

The aerial footage? Hughes was right that filming airplanes on a cloudy day gives you a better sense of how fast the planes are moving. And there is a scene with a German zeppelin that is both eerie and bizarre (wait until you see how the desperate Germans lighten their load to gain altitude—talk about taking one for the team!). But that's not the same as saying the dogfights are well staged or that the zeppelin scene makes a lick of sense. For an effective version of that sort of thing, track down 1927 best picture co-winner Wings.

As for the story, which unfort- unately takes up the other nine- tenths of the movie, it truly plays as if a schoolboy wrote it in the back of a notebook and then doodled pictures of airplanes in the margins. As the TV Guide online review so artfully puts it, "the story seems to have been written in crayon by Hughes." Which, trust me, is an insult to crayons everywhere. It's so bad it almost transcends itself and becomes campy fun.


I found it for around $9 and it's no doubt available through Netflix. But you've been warned.

Note: I spent all day yesterday in a legal seminar, which if you've ever attended one is a lot like sitting in an airport waiting for a plane that never arrives. But there's nothing like trashing a bad movie while posting a picture of Jean Harlow to get you back into the ballgame. So here we go and hopeful tomorrow or the next day, I'll have my choice for the best director of 1929-30 ...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Speaking Of Supporting Actor Nominees ...

... I promised faithful reader lupner a picture of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., nominated for the Joan Crawford-Anita Page flapper picture, Our Modern Maidens.

I don't know enough about lupner's socks to know whether this picture will knock them off or not, but it pretty well captures the man. "The trouble with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.," said writer Clemence Dane, "is that he likes everything he sees—and he sees everything." On the other hand, two of his marriages lasted until death did one of them part (for 49 years to Mary Lee Eppling, until her death, then to Vera Shelton until his own death at age 90), so he either had some restraint or very understanding wives.

Only a brief marriage to Joan Crawford, whom he met on the set of Our Modern Maidens, was a bust.

He made several fine movies, among them Dawn Patrol, The Prisoner of Zenda and Gunga Din.

He was also, of course, the son of two-time Katie winner Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., a frequent commenter here at the Monkey. Of his father, Junior said, "I never tried to emulate my father. Anyone trying to do that would be a second-rate carbon copy."

Well said.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Fab Four

Stars of the Early Sound Era Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy and Jimmy Durante, courtesy of faithful reader, Bellotoot.

Best Supporting Actor Of 1929-30: Wallace Beery (The Big House)

For best supporting actor of 1929-30, I had my pick from several standout performances, among others, Louis Wolheim as a grizzled soldier in All Quiet On The Western Front, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as a cad with a conscience in Our Modern Maidens and Chico Marx as a particularly dim-witted con man in the comedy classic, The Cocoanuts.

Topping them all, though, was Wallace Beery as the unforgettable "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt in the prison drama, The Big House, which was not just the best performance of the year, but the best Beery gave in a career that included work in classic movies such as Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight as well as an Oscar win for The Champ.

Yet as great as Beery was, he wasn't the studio's first choice for the role and it was only a sloppily-eaten plate of spaghetti that landed him the part at all.

The Big House is the story of three very different convicts thrown together by a deeply-flawed and indifferent correctional system: the young rich pretty boy, Kent Marlowe, played effectively by Robert Montgomery, recently sentenced to prison for vehicular homicide after a drunk driving spree; Wallace Beery as Butch, who is doing a life sentence for a trio of murders; and Chester Morris as John Morgan, a small-time forger, natural leader and the only man who can control Butch's homicidal tendencies.

In re- searching the back- ground for her story, screen- writer Frances Marion toured prison facilities and inter- viewed both prisoners and prison personnel, and while the screenplay exhibits her typical light touch, it is a scathing portrait of the American penal system. She won an Oscar for her efforts, becoming the first woman in a non-acting category to win an Academy Award.

Silent film star Lon Chaney was originally cast in the role of Butch but fell ill before shooting began and died later that summer. As his replacement, Marion persuaded MGM to cast Beery after seeing him eat spaghetti in the studio's cafeteria, saying later that something about the way he ate reminded her of the convicts she had interviewed at San Quentin.

Beery was a veteran of 183 silent movies, including The Lost World, Robin Hood, Beggars of Life and Buster Keaton's first feature length movie, Three Ages, but Paramount had dropped his contract as part of a wholesale purge at the end of the Silent Era and he hadn't worked in a film in more than a year.

Marion's choice turns out to have been inspired.

Although the story centers on Chester Morris, who must find personal redemption without betraying his fellow inmates, it's Beery who has the pivotal role. He must be menacing enough to present a very real danger while being charming enough to give the audience a rooting interest in his fate. Beery essays the part brilliantly, turning Butch into a hulking, conniving, yet likable sociopath who often seems perplexed at his own brutality.

"I shouldn't have slipped her that ant poison," Butch laments while reminiscing about his late love Sadie, "I should have just batted her in the jaw."

Beery is solid in his first few scenes, particularly when Montgomery's Marlowe gets off on the wrong foot by complaining to a prison guard that Butch has stolen his cigarettes, then takes command of the movie in a sequence that has been imitated and parodied many times since. At dinner in the prison mess hall, he explodes "I can't eat that stuff!" throws his plate, bangs his cup and starts a riot.

That a scene copied by everyone from James Cagney to Leslie Nielsen still holds its power nearly eighty later is a testament to Beery's ability as an actor.

The scene is typical of the movie as a whole, capturing the boredom and desperation of prison life, the casual cruelty, the lack of hope and purpose, yet so well-told and acted, that despite having a point to make, it never becomes a chore to watch.

The Big House is quite subversive, I think, as a study of the society that created such a prison system. The prison warden (Lewis Stone) is passive and ineffectual, rich kid Marlowe turns out to be a cowardly weasel, while two hardened criminals are strong, likeable and sympathetic.

The movie is also an indictment of a system that warehouses men in cells not much wider than Butch's shoulders without regard to the effect a sociopath such as Butch will have on a weak naif such as Marlowe, turning the later into a hardened criminal, a victim or both.

As Butch tells Marlowe on first meeting, "I'll learn you a lot of things before we're through with you in here." You just have to wonder whether they are the sorts of things we really want anyone to know.

During his years in Hollywood, Beery developed a reputation of being difficult to work with. Child actor Jackie Cooper (The Champ) called him "the most sadistic person I have ever known," and Jean Harlow, his co-star in Dinner at Eight, detested him. Louise Brooks, on the other hand, who could be scathing in her dismissal of those she didn't like, adored Beery, saying that while he was "the meanest bear alive on the set," he was "a honey bear" off it.

Maybe he was all of those things. Who knows.

In any event, after earning an Oscar nomination for The Big House, Beery co-starred with Marie Dressler in her Oscar-winning vehicle Min and Bill, won an Oscar of his own playing a broken-down boxer in The Champ, played key roles in Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, and was unforgettable as Long John Silver in 1934's Treasure Island. He worked steadily right up until his death of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of sixty-four.

"When my time is up," Machine Gun Butch boasts in The Big House, "I'll still be standing on my feet." The same could have been said of Beery himself.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim And The Deranged, Derailed Vision Of Queen Kelly

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out an Oscar in the category of "What Were They Thinking?" 1929's hands-down winner would have been Queen Kelly. In fact, this production was so misconceived and ill-executed, the Academy would have had to retire the award immediately afterwards, for everything that followed would have been mere anticlimax.

Queen Kelly's director—at least to start with—was Erich von Stroheim, and as soon as you see the name Erich von Stroheim attached to a project, you know there's going to be more drama going on behind the camera than ever appears in front of it. Gene Siskel, the late film critic for the Chicago Tribune, often said his criterion for judging a movie was whether it was more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch. It's a hard question to answer in this case: from all reports, the director and his stars were too busy fighting to eat any meal together.

Ostensibly, Queen Kelly is the story of a young prince (Walter Byron), who on the eve of his wedding to the mad Queen Regina (Katie nominee Seena Owen), meets a naive young schoolgirl (Gloria Swanson) and falls hopelessly in love. When the queen discovers the prince's betrayal, she takes her revenge including, in von Stroheim's original vision, exiling the schoolgirl to work in an East African brothel. (The movie took its title from this last twist—the schoolgirl, named Kitty Kelly, was to have eventually become the brothel's madam, it's "queen," so to speak.)

It's really the story, though, of unchecked egos and terrible decision making, leading ultimately to an unfinished, virtually-unseen movie that has developed an undeserved reputation as one of Erich von Stroheim's lost masterpieces.

As the mo- tivating force behind this project, star Gloria Swanson deserves a lion's share of the blame for its failure. She convinced her married lover, Joseph P. Kennedy, to bankroll the movie, picked the overmatched Walter Byron as her co-star, and then cast herself in the title role. Swanson was thirty at the time and is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous as the naive teenage girl living in a convent school.

Worse, she chose von Stroheim to write and direct the movie, and then gave him part ownership of the film and control of the final cut of any U.S. release. Given that von Stroheim had a well-known penchant pouring extravagant amounts of money into uncommercial nine hour movies, perhaps Swanson should have known what she was letting herself in for.

This doesn't even address the fact that they were making a silent movie well over a year after the release of The Jazz Singer.

Without a finished script in hand, principal photography began on November 1, 1928, and it became clear to Swanson on day one that von Stroheim was making up the movie as he went along. In fact, she predicted after the first day's shooting that the movie would never be finished. How right she was.

If my in- formation is correct, the first scene von Stroheim shot was the initial meeting between the prince and the schoolgirl, and let me tell you, this was no ordinary "meet cute"—while hiking with school friends, Swanson's underpants fall off as the prince rides past on horseback, and naturally, he snatches them up and gives free rein to what must have been movie history's first panty sniffing fetish. Wow! And von Stroheim got more and more out there. In addition to the panty sniffing, he gives us arson as a conversational gambit, a whip-wielding queen, and, of course, the promise of a second act brothel setting and a minimum four-hour running time.

This inability to rein in any impulse—legend has it that the prostitutes who accompany the prince in an early scene were played by real prostitutes, recruited from the best brothel in Hollywood—was typical of von Stroheim, and Swanson realistically had no choice but to fire him, which she did at the end of January 1929. The film was only half finished.

Two years later, Swanson hired cinematographer Gregg Toland to shoot a truncated ending to the film and although von Stroheim's contract barred Swanson from showing this version in the United States, it was released in Europe in November 1932. A partially restored version of the unfinished film was finally released in the United States in 1985.

Like many movies of that time that no one had actually seen, it's reputation grew until it was regarded as von Stroheim's lost masterpiece, on par with the "butchered" nine-hour version of Greed. When it finally surfaced, it proved not to be quite what people had convinced themselves it was.

Auteur theorists love von Stroheim for the mad passion of his vision, but to be honest, the guy was probably nuts. He was certainly an egomaniac and I think the notion he was a genius derailed by the crass concerns of the studios is essentially a false one. He made pretty pictures, but he wasn't a sharp thinker—he was one of those guys (like a law clerk I knew, way back when) who if you asked him the time, would build you a clock.

Judging from what survives, the end product, here and elsewhere, didn't justify von Stroheim's means.

Trivia: To stand in as an example of the kind of silent movies Norma Desmond made, Billy Wilder used a scene from Queen Kelly (Swanson praying among an array of flickering candles) in his classic Sunset Boulevard.