Monday, November 30, 2009

Nominees For Best Actor Of 1930-31

The essay naming the best actor of 1930-31 will either go up tomorrow evening, Friday or star date 1312.4, depending on the breaks. In the meantime, here are the contenders in case you've forgotten.

James Cagney (The Public Enemy)

Charles Chaplin (City Lights)

Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar)

Oh, and be sure to vote on this week's Monkey Movie poll to answer that age-old question, Which of these Katie nominees for best actor of 1930-31 would make the biggest splash if he were in his prime today?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Looking Back ... And Ahead: Carole Lombard

Remember how Mary Pickford won the Katie Award for best actress of 1927-28 for her work in the comedy My Best Girl? Got this comment today from VP81955 (what a coincidence, my mother's name is VP81955), a copy editor who blogs about movies in her spare time:

Funny you mention Carole Lombard in this entry -- because she's in "My Best Girl." She plays a "flirty blonde salesgirl" who's spurned by Buddy Rogers.

At the time this was made, Lombard was age 18, coming off the 1926 automobile accident that caused some minor facial injury and derailed her budding career as a Fox starlet. This was made either before she signed with Mack Sennett or very early in her tenure there; not many people (even most Lombard biographers) are aware of this because she was unbilled.

For more about this -- including some stills from the film -- go to an entry I wrote at

I did not know that, but I'm glad now I do. See, this is why I write this blog, to find out what I don't know. I've reposted one of the stills she mentions here. Head on over to her site to see the rest.

I'll be writing about Carole Lombard quite a bit in the future. Here's a photo to whet your appetite:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Best Actress Of 1930-31: Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)

Marlene Dietrich began her career as a cabaret singer in Berlin and made several silent movies in Germany before rocketing to international stardom in Josef von Sternberg's noirish masterpiece, The Blue Angel. Dietrich's portrayal as the amoral and treacherous Lola Lola set the pattern for femme fatales for decades to come and had American audiences panting to see what all the fuss was about.

Morocco was the second of seven
movies (eight if you count the German and English versions of The Blue Angel separately) with director Josef von Sternberg, but the first released in America—Paramount Pictures held back The Blue Angel for a year until it could launch Dietrich's Hollywood career with a more sympathetic role. Morocco proved to be a perfect vehicle for her, fully establishing the Dietrich persona—exotic, jaded, daringly androgynous (for example, she wears a tuxedo and kisses a woman; to quote Robert Osborne, "very European!")—lacking only the humor and self-parody she would later display in films such as Destry Rides Again and Foreign Affair.

Adapted by veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman from the stageplay Amy Jolly, Morocco is the story of a romantic triangle between a cabaret singer, her wealthy patron and a Foreign Legion soldier, who between them have experienced every kind of love but true love, and when at last it happens for each of them, they hardly know what to do with it.

Dietrich is the cabaret singer Amy Jolly (pronounced "Jolie," ala Angelina Jolie), down on her luck and traveling to Morocco for a job. On the boat she meets a wealthy playboy (the always dapper Adolphe Menjou) who as much out of habit as lust dangles jewelry in front of her—as the captain of the boat implies, the stop after Morocco is prostitution and if you're going to go, you might as well go in style—but Dietrich's Amy Jolly is too proud to jump at such baubles. Nevertheless, she turns to Menjou at a critical moment of need.

And all would be well but for the young, handsome soldier (Gary Cooper) sitting in the cheap seats at Dietrich's first performance. Predictably, the two are drawn to each other, at first simply because they are accomplished bed-hoppers who know they will look beautiful in each other's arms, but soon after because they discover in each other a longing for a past they can never reclaim.

"There's a foreign legion of women, too," confesses Amy Jolly, "but we have no uniform, no flag—and no medals." For these two, the single greatest act of passion they can perform is to not perform at all and to the surprise of all involved, genuine intimacy and tenderness develops, not just between the singer and the soldier, as you might expect, but between the singer and her wealthy patron as well.

The result is the warmest of the collaborations between Sternberg and Dietrich, maybe the only film they made together that suggests that the union of a man and a woman can produce something other than misery and obsessive, fetishistic self-destruction.

Morocco was a smash hit, earned four Oscar nominations (for actress, director, cinematography and art direction) and landed Dietrich the most lucrative contract in Hollywood. I should take time to mention the work of cinematographer Lee Garmes whose lighting of Dietrich was a key to the film's success. He positioned the key light above and slightly forward of her which (according to TV Guide's online review) "hollowed her cheeks, shadowed her heavy eyelids, and masked the dimensions of her wide nose." Dietrich was so pleased with the effect, she insisted on it for the rest of her career.

But despite the film's success, the set had not been a happy one. Sternberg focused his attention solely on making Dietrich look good to the annoyance of Gary Cooper, already a big star. Sternberg further underscored where his interests lay by speaking only German whenever Cooper was around.

The mutual animosity between director and star had no impact on Cooper's relationship with Dietrich though—shortly after filming commenced, the two began an affair that would continue for years. Despite the fact that she was living with Sternberg at the time, there was no slinking around for Dietrich. Reportedly, she and Cooper conducted their trysts in Sternberg's Hollywood home while Sternberg worked in the garden outside and silently seethed.

I share this anecdote, by the way, not because I am a fan of celebrity gossip but by way of explaining how the partnership of Sternberg and Dietrich, which began with such critical and commercial success, could wind up being a threat to both their careers. More and more, their collaboration became an exercise in voyeuristic excess, with Sternberg trying to control Dietrich with his camera in a way he couldn't control her off screen. And while these films have their champions (see, e.g., Kim Morgan on Blonde Venus or Roger Ebert on The Scarlet Empress), the public gradually turned away until they were turning away in droves.

Dietrich survived the fall by smirking her way through the worst of it—emerging for example from a gorilla costume in Blonde Venus with a half smile that seemed to say I'm so cool even this looks good on me—but Sternberg never recovered, earning only eight screen credits after his last picture with Dietrich (1935's The Devil Is A Woman) and even those credits are misleading, given that he was fired from at least two of those projects, Macao and the execrable Jet Pilot.

In 1939, after years of fading box office appeal, Dietrich reluctantly agreed to star in a comedy/Western, Destry Rides Again. The result was box office gold. Co-starring Jimmy Stewart as a pacifist sheriff armed only with folksy wit, saloon singer Dietrich parodied her own image so successfully she was able to reinvent herself as a comic actress and endear herself to audiences once again. (Madeline Kahn memorably spoofed the performance in Mel Brooks's comedy Blazing Saddles.)

After Destry, Dietrich's best performances were in a pair of Billy Wilder efforts, Foreign Affair, a romantic comedy set in postwar Berlin, and Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama co-starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. Many will also remember her cameo in Orson Welles's noir thriller, Touch of Evil.

Despite this impressive body of work, Dietrich was nominated for just one Academy Award, for the picture I've just written about, Morocco, losing to Marie Dressler. In 1999, the American Film Institute named her the ninth greatest actress of all time.

After a supporting role in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg, Dietrich retired from acting, making only one cameo appearance after that, in David Bowie's 1978 misfire, Just A Gigolo. She spent the final decade of her life living in seclusion in her Paris apartment and died in 1992.

Postscript: Be sure to look for a young Cary Grant in the clip from Blonde Venus. This was just his sixth movie and he isn't given much to do—as the New York Times put it in its 1932 review,
"Cary Grant is worthy of a much better role." Like Gary Cooper, Grant was the object of Josef von Sternberg's jealousy; unlike Cooper, Grant didn't yet have the clout to do much about it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Results Of The Latest Poll: Another Big Win For Lang!

The results are in from this week's Monkey Movie poll, Who would you choose as best director of 1930-31?

Fritz Lang who directed Peter Lorre in the serial killer classic, M, ran away with it, receiving 6 of the 10 votes cast. The immortal Charlie Chaplin picked up 2 for directing City Lights and René Clair (Le Million) and Luis Buñuel (L'Âge d'Or) received one vote each.

Tod Browning who directed Dracula had admitted last week in a interview conducted strictly between the left and right lobes of my cerebral cortex that he feared he was just in this poll to round out the field and this proved to be the case.

Raoul Walsh, William A. Wellman and Josef von Sternberg were annoyed not to be in the poll at all and called for an investigation.

After the win, Lang and his (alleged) mistress, actress Joan Bennett, shared a celebratory cigarette on the set of their current movie project, the film noir thriller Scarlet Street.

"Winning this poll," said Lang at a hastily-arranged press conference, "means as much to me as winning the Katie Award itself. Well, almost. I mean, I'm not crazy. The Katie Award is big and will provide some real leverage at contract time. But this is nice, too."

By the way, perhaps I'm telling stories out of school, but the vote for René Clair came from none other than our own beloved Katie-Bar-The-Door. She felt Clair's work on Le Million was innovative, clever and warm, not to mention it's her favorite movie of the five listed here. She's right, of course. Le Million is on the short list for most pleasant surprises I've received while working on this blog and I give it my highest recommendation. But, well, I went with Lang for the reasons I've previously stated at length.

In any event, whoever you voted for, you're right, their work was the best of the year. A good year for directors all the way around.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nominees For Best Actress 1930-31

Joan Crawford (Dance, Fools, Dance)

Marlene Dietrich (Morocco)

Marie Dressler (with Wallace Beery in Min and Bill)

I'll be re-watching the winning movie again tomorrow. So far I've written nine words about it. You can clock me to see how long it takes to write one of these things. But it's going into the blog by Monday if I have to shove it out the door in its underpants ...

L'Âge d'Or

In 1929, as you may recall from our previous lessons, two young Spaniards, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí, collaborated to produce Un Chien Andalou, one of the most shocking films ever committed to celluloid. The image of a razor slicing a woman's eye, once seen, is never forgotten and the 16-minute film was a sensation, both among surrealists and the public at large.

The following year, Buñuel and Dalí collaborated again, this time on a feature-length film, L'Âge d'Or (The Golden Age). For audiences of the time at least, the fruit of their collaboration was even more shocking the second time around.

In general, surrealism reminds me of something Buddy Hackett once told Roger Ebert about stand-up comedy. "Ninety-nine percent is in the delivery. If you have the right voice and the right delivery, you're cocky enough, and you pound down on the punch line, you can say anything and make people laugh maybe three times before they realize you're not telling jokes."

And after my first cursory viewing, that's what I thought L'Âge d'Or was, another of Luis Buñuel's surrealist jokes, only instead of the shocking yet purposely meaningless images of Un Chien Andalou, here you had a series of scenes that could fit into the most mundane of Hollywood movies—a documentary about scorpions, soldiers on the eve of battle, lovers kissing, an angry crowd, a man arrested, a woman fretting about a dinner party, a reception—but instead of the payoff you're expecting, the scenes are punctuated with nonsense dialogue, cattle in the bedroom and blind beggars who get punched for no reason. Buñuel, I thought, was serving up nonsense and daring me once again not to try to make sense of it.

But in drafting this essay, I watched L'Âge d'Or again (anything for you, dear readers) and began to see that, though seemingly random, the images actually fall into one of three categories: acts of violence, stuffy clerics and aristocrats, and frustrated would-be lovers. Read together, not literally but as you would a dream, Buñuel seems to be saying that societal and religious norms are cramping his style—and he's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Read that way, as the dream of an angry, frustrated fetishist, L'Âge d'Or is actually quite an achievement. Buñuel himself called the film "a desperate and passionate call to murder."

"For me," he said, "it was a film about passion, l'amour fou, the irresistible force that thrusts two people together, and about the impossibility of their ever becoming one." No wonder he wanted to kill somebody.

L'Âge d'Or was banned as an attack on the Catholic church and after a few performances, its producer Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who had commissioned the film as a birthday present to his wife, withdrew it from circulation. The film was not seen again for nearly fifty years.

L'Âge d'Or also marked the end of the working relationship between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. To say the two had a falling out while making this movie would be an understatement—on the first day of shooting, Buñuel chased Dalí off the set with a hammer.

To me at least, L'Âge d'Or is not quite as interesting as Un Chien Andalou —once you've slashed an eyeball, it's hard to top yourself —but it does reward repeat viewing and if you're at all interested in surrealism, avant garde film or the career of Luis Buñuel, L'Âge d'Or is indispensable. And I would say any artist—be they a painter, writer, director, whatever—should see it if only to gain some insight into how to present complex ideas metaphorically. Not to mention you get to watch the lovely Lya Lys suck on a marble statue's big toe—which you have to admit is not something you see every day.

In any event, I suspect that Buñuel couldn't have later made his masterpiece The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (which won the Oscar for best foreign film of 1972) if he hadn't first made L'Âge d'Or and for that alone it was worth making.

"All of which is well and good," you say, "but what about us Saturday night movie fans? Should we rent this?" Well, let's just say L'Âge d'Or is about as far removed from Fun-Stupid as you're going to get. It's not even the movie to start with if you want to dive into surrealism (although you'd want to get there eventually) and frankly, if you haven't already seen all the other movies I've recommended on this blog, you've got a lot of watching to do before you need put this one on your list.

Still, cows in the bedroom. You could do a lot worse on a Saturday night.

Personal Note: With this essay, I've now posted roughly as many words on this blog as I wrote in my first (unpublished) novel. I'm not sure whether that's cause for celebration or lamentation. As Tim Robbins said to Tommy the oft-imprisoned thief, "Perhaps it's time you considered a new profession." On the other hand, the poet Charles Bukowski wrote, "I've learned to feel good when I feel good" and I feel good when I write this blog. So all in all, I guess it's a good thing. In any event, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are having a happy Thanksgiving and we hope you are, too.

8:50 A.M. Postscript: I don't recommend writing about surrealism right before going to bed. I dreamed I was at a football game and I said, "The Marx Brothers always had good linebackers," which is ridiculous, of course—everybody knows Chico couldn't stop the run.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You And I Are Going To Live Forever

From Thingy's blog "Pondering Life":

I don't want to step on Mr. Myth's toes, but I think I'll be safe if we move up to the 21st Century. As wonderful and informative as his essays are, he should be about 140 when he gets here.

Don't you worry: my head has reserved a spot in the freezer right next to Ted Williams.

Self-portrait: "The Monkey's Head On Ice"

The Aging Of John Wayne

Forgive me for jumping ahead, but let's face it, I'm going to die long before I reach the end of this blog and I thought it might be interesting (to me, if to no one else) to see what John Wayne looked like as he aged over the years. Besides, this should give you something to anticipate since I'll eventually write about every one of these movies.

And forgive me if I recycle the photo from The Big Trail essay, but it's just so amazing I can't not show it again.

The Big Trail (1930) (age 23)

Stagecoach (1939) (age 32)

Red River (1948) (age 41)

The Quiet Man (1952) (age 45)

The Searchers (1956) (age 49)

Rio Bravo (1959) (age 52)

True Grit (1969) (age 62)

The Shootist (1976) (age 69)

John Wayne, Raoul Walsh and The Big Trail

Although Cimarron won the Oscar for best picture of 1931, the Western that garners the most attention now was a little-seen, big-budget flop called The Big Trail. Directed by veteran Raoul Walsh and starring John Wayne, I almost nominated this one for best picture because of its historical significance as the first big budget widescreen movie. That, and because I like Westerns.

Raoul Walsh was one of the Fox Film Corporation's hardest working directors when he was tapped in 1930 to helm The Big Trail. Best known for directing the James Cagney classic White Heat (or, if you're a fan of this blog, Douglas Fairbanks's best movie, 1924's The Thief of Bagdad), Walsh worked in Hollywood for more than fifty years, racking up nearly 140 directing credits, including as an assistant director on The Birth of a Nation in 1915. He received his last film credit (as a writer) in 1970.

Walsh had also worked as an actor, appearing in forty films, and was set to star as the Cisco Kid in the Western In Old Arizona when his car struck a jackrabbit, shattering the windshield and costing Walsh his right eye. (After the accident, he opted to wear what became a trademark eye patch, reasoning that with a glass eye, "Every time I'd get in a fight, I'd have to put it in my pocket.") (Warner Baxter, incidentally, went on to win an Oscar in the role.)

Shot on location in Fox's new 70 mm Grandeur process, The Big Trail was one of the first feature-length widescreen movies and the first big budget one. Its $2 million budget was enormous at the time and represented something of a gamble for the studio during the early days of the Depression. Walsh spotted a young unknown named Marion Morrison working with director John Ford and, renaming Morrison "John Wayne," cast him in the lead.

The Big Trail is the story of a young wagon master (Wayne, just 23 at the time) who leads a band of settlers across the frontier while battling Indians, weather and a murderous gambler. It's a beautiful film to look at and if I were handing out awards for cinematography, Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) would certainly have received a nomination.

That said, The Big Trail suffers from the same problem all Westerns of that era suffered from—simplistic storylines and characterizations—and it flopped at the box office. It took John Ford and his 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach to turn the Western into adult fare.

It didn't help that few theaters were able to exhibit a widescreen movie and most theaters received the inferior 35 mm print, filmed at the same time as the 70 mm version (actually, five versions were shot on location, with French, Spanish and German language editions, filmed mostly with different casts, accounting for the other three). After its premiere, a half hour was reportedly trimmed from its run time, but the changes made no difference—audiences just weren't interested in The Big Trail.

John Wayne took most of the blame for the failure and was relegated to low budget B-Westerns for the rest of the decade. Though gifted, he was raw and maybe his long exile in the cinematic wilderness was just what he needed. By the time Ford fought to cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Wayne was a screen veteran with sixty movies under his belt. Though still unbelievably young, by 1939 he knew how to carry a movie—and if you think there's no skill involved in commanding the screen, that it's just a matter of a movie star with looks and charisma "playing himself," then you should compare The Big Trail to, say, The Searchers or Rio Bravo.

Widescreen movies took even longer than John Wayne to catch on. As a cost-cutting move during the Depression, studios abandoned the effort to convert movie houses to widescreen which audiences had never been much interested in anyway. It would be more than twenty years before Hollywood took another crack at a widescreen movie.

In 2006, the National Film Preservation Board included The Big Trail in the National Film Registry. If you're going to watch it, make you sure you get hold of the widescreen version. It is available as part of a two-disc set from Fox and shows up on the Fox Movie Channel from time to time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And Now See It For Yourself: M

This is a public domain copy of M made available through the Internet Movie Database, so if you don't want to spring for the two-disc Criterion Collection set and can't wait for it to arrive from Netflix, you can at least see it here legally.

I myself worked off the Criterion copy when I was writing my essays about Fritz Lang (here and here) and Peter Lorre (here) which explains why my quotes don't track with the subtitles you'll see in this print.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Best Director Of 1930-31: Fritz Lang (M) (Part Two)

[To read part one of this essay, click here.]

: The Unseen Horror
Fritz Lang's M is a masterpiece of psychology, not just the psychology of child murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in a performance that launched his career), but the psychology of the audience as well. Using nothing much more than sound and shadows, Lang created a genuine sense of suspense and horror by exploiting a basic fact of human psychology, that we are most afraid of what we can't see. Indeed, the most explicit act of violence Peter Lorre does in M is to the orange he surgically skins with a switchblade.

Not until the 1940s, when the legendary Val Lewton produced such classic films as Cat People and The Body Snatcher, would an audience experience so much terror without seeing so much as the suggestion of blood spilled.

M is the story of a city gripped by fear—eight children murdered with no clue as to the killer's identity—and as the movie begins, we are witness to the murder of the ninth. A mother calls for her daughter as the camera cuts from one empty place to another—the stairwell of their tenement, the courtyard where children played moments before, the girl's untouched place setting at the dinner table. Of the killer, we see only his silhouette as her leers at the girl bouncing a ball; we hear him whistling a tune as he buys her a balloon.

And then in one of the most effective shots in movie history, the ball rolls out of the woods, the balloon floats free and the screen fades to black silence.

Lang was one of the first directors to grasp the value of the new sound technology, using it not as Hollywood was, as a novelty—larding weakly-plotted love stories with forgettable songs—but as a means of conveying his story and heightening his audience's emotional involvement. For example, every time Lorre commits murder, he whistles the same tune ("In The Hall Of The Mountain King" from the opera Peer Gynt), so that later when the camera follows a girl down the street and you hear the whistling off screen, you know what's coming, the moment all the creepier for not knowing exactly where the attack is coming from.

Lang was working within the same limitations of early sound technology as everybody else and yet in many ways M could have been made yesterday. Lang used an interesting strategy to get around the problem of sound cameras which were pretty much immobile: the camera is at rest for speaking scenes, but is in constant restless motion in those shots that don't have dialogue, dubbing in a few sound effects afterwards.

The result are some shots you won't see again until Citizen Kane, for example the scene where the camera apparently dollies in through a bay window, snakes around the room and come to rest in a close up on one of Lorre's key pursuers.

Lang also uses voice-overs to keep things moving. Rather than leave the camera on, say, a police specialist as he reads aloud from a psychological profile of the murderer, Lang lets the man continue to speak as the camera instead cuts to Lorre himself, studying his own face in a mirror. A modern audience is so accustomed to the technique, it's easy to forget someone had to invent it; rather than treating movies as simple film records of stage plays, directors such as Lang, René Clair and Rouben Mamoulian told their stories in ways that took advantage of cinema's unique opportunities.

Lang and film editor Paul Falkenberg also use quick cuts back and forth between scenes to comment on the action. When, for example, the constant police presence make the lucrative activity of Berlin's organized crime syndicate impossible, the syndicate's leader holds a meeting and maps out a strategy to capture Lorre—even as the police commissioner simultaneously holds his own strategy meeting. The camera cuts back and forth between the two meetings with cops and criminals finishing each other's sentences, underscoring one of the great themes of the movie, that in the panic of the Great Depression, Germany was in danger of trading its ineffectual democracy for the deadly efficiency of the Nazi party, one of those trades that too many think sounds nice in the short run but which Lang knew promised an even greater misery in the not-so-distant future.

Had it been just an exercise in style, M would still be one of the most effective thrillers ever made, but Lang is interested in more than just a resolution to his police procedural, instead shifting the focus to a study of vigilantism and mob rule. Lang takes advantage of another of life's perverse facts, that we identify with whatever character the camera follows, to force us into a complicity with Lorre as he's trying to escape from the pursuing vigilantes. Lang focuses his camera on him, shooting through doorways and windows, often from above, watching furtively, the Expressionistic sets and lighting that emphasizes shadows and confined spaces, and now after identifying with the victims and their grieving mothers, with the police and the criminals who hunt Lorre, we are now compelled to identify with Lorre.

In so doing, Lang raises questions about the balance between freedom and security, justice and efficiency, and the rule of law and the rule of the mob, that are still relevant today. Lang was watching ruthless thugs and a panicked public pull Germany to pieces, pitting neighbor against neighbor as posturing politicians and a news-hungry media played up the hysteria, and if you watch carefully, you realize nothing much has changed—we've just moved the proceedings to cable television.

And what's wrong with a little vigilantism, you might ask? Nevermind that in 1931, the Nazi party's rise to power made the question fatally shortsighted, Lang raises the possibility that Lorre's serial killer might really be insane. And if end-running the presumption of innocence for some emotionally-satisfying instant justice doesn't keep you awake at night, what about the innocent men beaten on street by a mob all too willing to jump to conclusions, what about the night-watchman who are tortured and beaten simply so the criminals can get their hands on Lorre before the police do. Lang is suggesting that the violence of the compulsive murderer isn't much different than the violence of the lawless mob, and condemns the practice of pretending that the innocents who are one of ours are victims, while the innocents who are one of theirs are collateral damage.

"The idea that each individual is responsible for what happens to the poorest, most anonymous child on the street," says one character, voicing the movie's key idea, "hasn't even dawned on the public at large!" Oh, Lang prays, that such a concept take hold before the Nazi party comes to power. It didn't. Hitler became chancellor of Germany just two years after the film's release.

The Life And Legacy Of Fritz Lang
Born in Vienna in 1890, Fritz Lang initially trained as a painter but began writing movie scenarios while recovering from wounds suffered in battle during the First World War. Working with his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou, Lang directed a series of highly-acclaimed movies in Germany, including Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Die Nibelungen, the science fiction classic Metropolis and in 1931 his landmark achievement, M.

After M, Lang made one more film in Germany, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The anti-Nazi theme in the second leg of the Mabuse trilogy was even more overt, so much so that von Harbou reported her husband to the authorities (she later divorced him and embraced the Nazis). Interestingly, even though The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was immediately banned, Joseph Goebbels offered Lang the opportunity to head the by-then nationalized German film industry while hinting darkly that he was willing to overlook Lang's Jewish ancestry. Lang was no fool and he was no collaborator—he fled Germany soon after the meeting (legend says that very afternoon), leaving his wife, his films and his fortune behind.

"His act of moral courage," Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster wrote in their book, A Short History of Film, "is difficult to overestimate; had he stayed and lent his considerable skill and international reputation to the Nazi movement, he would have been a formidable propagandist for the Reich. But despite his innate pessimism and fatalistic outlook, Lang acted quickly and decisively, removing himself from harm and depriving Hitler of Germany's most popular film director at the height of his early fame."

Lang worked in Hollywood for over twenty years, never quite finding the same success he enjoyed in Germany, but making some fine movies including his first two English-language efforts, Fury and You Only Live Once, and a couple of post-war noir classics, Scarlet Street and The Big Heat.

He had a well-deserved reputation for a perfectionism that bordered on cruelty—for example, he had Peter Lorre thrown down a flight of stairs a dozen times for a scene in M, treating the actor not as a human being but as a visual prop—and his painstaking methods didn't sit well in star-driven Hollywood. Very few name actors agreed to work with him more than once.

"In The Return of Frank James," Henry Fonda said in an anecdote recounted at the wonderful Self-Styled Siren, "I had a scene where I come into a barn hunting down John Carradine, who has killed Jesse. I had to come in to a point, look around, hear something and exit. That's all there was to the scene. We were about five hours doing it because Lang decides he wants cobwebs from the overhead beam down to the post that stood where I had to stop for a moment. So they send to the special effects department, and a guy comes down and blows cobwebs around. It's easy to do. But then Lang would come in and break holes in them to make them look like old cobwebs. Pretty soon he was breaking so many holes that the entire thing collapsed, and the effects guy would end up having to do it over. I sat there watching. By this time I knew Lang so well I would make bets with guys that we would be three hours, [mucking] with the cobwebs in a scene where I come in and stand for two seconds, then walk out!

"Anyway," he said, "I didn't enjoy working with Fritz Lang." And that was a movie Fonda liked.

Aside from his conflicts with actors and producers, I also suspect that Lang was a fish out of water in America. Not one of his German classics could have been made in Hollywood—Irving Thalberg, for example, while admiring M, admitted he would have fired the director or writer who had come to him with the idea—and without the same intimate knowledge of the new society he found himself living in, the images themselves, which were an obsession of Lang's to begin with, became the message, to the frustration of those who worked with him.

Lang returned to Germany late in his career and made three films there, including the third entry in the Mabuse trilogy, none successful. He was never nominated for an Oscar or any other award, although the German film industry did recognize him in 1963 "for his continued outstanding individual contributions to the German film over the years."

No matter. The best of Lang's early German films—Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse—have earned him a place at the table of history's great directors. He's my choice for the best director of 1930-31.

Trivia: After M, Lang would again explore the danger of mob rule in his first American film, Fury, the story of an innocent man who barely escapes a lynch mob only to be consumed by his own lust for revenge. He fought to cast an African-American actor in the lead role—what an incendiary picture that would have made in 1936—but the studio insisted on Spencer Tracy instead who gave one of his best early performances.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Best Director Of 1930-31: Fritz Lang (M) (Part One)

Introduction: Again With Those Pesky Values
In choosing between Charlie Chaplin, René Clair and Fritz Lang for best director of 1930-31, I take comfort in the fact that I can't get the answer wrong. These are three of the greatest directors of all time, each at the top of his game, each producing a commercially- and critically-acclaimed masterpiece regarded by many, including me, to be the best work of each man's career.

But then as I've implied before, possibly without stating it explicitly, the actual winner of any given alternate Oscar I call the Katie Awards is irrelevant—the whole exercise is simply a narrative hook to keep this otherwise meandering blog pointed in one direction, the future, while taking an inordinate amount of time to talk about the past. If by handing out an award named for the undeniably great and award-worthy Katie-Bar-The-Door, I can get you to read about the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton—or better yet, get you to watch the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton—then I will have accomplished my mission.

Not to mention, I get to watch the likes of Clara Bow and Buster Keaton and that's even better.

Here's another unstated truth about the Katie Awards: beyond a simple recitation of the facts, talking about movies, like talking about the Beatles or baseball, is really a way for two people to talk about their values without the emotionally-charged and potentially-divisive need to ratchet up the stakes to the breaking point. You like Paul better than John? Well, who am I to argue with a matter of taste? (Although I've been tempted to do violence to those who suggest Ringo was just along for the ride. But then every man has his line in the sand.) A person who tells you Casablanca is his favorite movie is revealing something very different from a person who says Fight Club is his favorite movie (a person who tells you the latest Transformers sequel is his favorite movie needs to see more movies).

Thus, wittingly or not, when I've written about The General and Sunrise, the Marx Brothers, Marie Dressler and the aforementioned Clara Bow, I've really been writing about myself, my values, my experiences. I've just sweetened my narcissism with a tasty coating of film analysis and movie trivia—not to mention a sackful of photos of Louise Brooks.

So given that the contest between Chaplin, Clair and Lang is essentially a three-way tie, what do I reveal about myself in choosing Lang over the others?

Auteur Theory: Flogging A Dead Horse
Well, for one thing, even though I think Robert Osborne, film historian and classy host of Turner Classic Movies, is a national treasure and second only to Katie-Bar-The-Door on the list of America's greatest living citizens (I'd rather have his job than play centerfield for the New York Yankees), I don't agree with his stated belief (which I read once upon a time in Now Playing) that the best director of the year is per se whoever directed the best movie of year. I mean, I see his point, particularly if he buys into the auteur theory of film criticism, that the director is the principal author of a movie, and if you subscribe to the theory, you no doubt agree with him.

The problem with this particular line of thinking, though, at least to my mind, is that it doesn't actually describe the reality of filmmaking, especially not in Hollywood, certainly not during the studio era when movies were made on an assembly line model, and certainly not these days during the era of bean counters and $20 million movie stars.

Not that there's much question about who authored the films in question here—Clair wrote and directed Le Million, Lang co-wrote M with his wife, Thea von Harbou, and Chaplin, well, he was a one-man studio, writing, directing, producing, editing, scoring and starring in City Lights. All three of these directors are the epitome of the auteur theory.

It's all the other directors of great movies who don't fit the theory that concern me. Consider, for example, Top Hat, the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Mark Sandrich directed the movie, but Hermes Pan choreographed the dances, Fred Astaire determined how to photograph them, Ginger Rogers insisted on the dresses she wore, Irving Berlin wrote the songs, Van Nest Polglase designed the sets, Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott wrote the jokes, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore performed those jokes with their usual impeccable timing, and producer Pandro Berman signed off on the whole thing. It was even Astaire and Rogers who decided when the dancing was done.

So Sandrich was the director of Top Hat, but in what sense was he the author of Top Hat? Yet Top Hat is one of the greatest movies ever made.

The auteur theory also undervalues studio directors—directors under contract who received their assignments from the studio on a seemingly random basis—men such as Michael Curtiz, a studio director with no discernible style or theme who nevertheless managed to give us Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mildred Pierce, among others. He ran the set of Casablanca with an iron hand and was indispensable to the movie's final pace, look and feel. And yet no one called Curtiz an auteur, not even Curtiz himself. Should we pretend he didn't exist or that his contribution shouldn't be recognized?

Admittedly, criticizing the auteur theory at this late date is like Glenn Beck ranting about socialism on Fox News—the boat sailed on both these movements decades ago. But even though it was long ago discredited, auteur theory continues to influence how we talk about directors and I'm just saying I will make a conscience effort to keep it in the corner where it belongs, trotting it out when it applies but otherwise discourage it from barking at the neighbors and scaring away visitors.

Because although I'm going to try to separate the flour from the cake and evaluate each contri- bution to the finished product on its own merits, judging directors just as I do writers, actors, editors and cinematographers, as one of the ingredients of a larger whole, I believe there's no more collaborative art form than motion pictures, and to contend that you need only decide what the best picture of a given year was to know who the best director was is to ignore a hundred-plus years of movie history to the contrary—and the one thing we never ignore here at the Monkey is history.

History and Katie-Bar-The-Door, that is.

Which is my way of saying that I haven't made up my mind which of M and City Lights was the best picture of 1930-31 and if in the end my choice for the top prize is inconsistent with my choice for best director, well, so be it.

Chaplin's City Lights: A Lyrical Silence
What else? Well, first, let's dispense (reluctantly) with René Clair. As George Orwell pointed out (either in Animal Farm or on ESPN's Sportscenter), in a contest between equals, some are more equal than others; and while Clair's direction was innovative and influential, and while Le Million was well-nigh perfect—warm, witty, lyrical—I wouldn't necessarily nominate it as the prime example of its particular genre, the musical comedy. There are just too many other titles that come to mind—Singin' in the Rain, A Night at the Opera, the movies of Astaire and Rogers, or even, arguably, Clair's own À Nous La Liberté—before most people think of Le Million. Maybe an oversight Katie and I can correct, but a fact nevertheless.

On the other hand, if City Lights and M are not the best examples of their genres (silent/Chaplin/rom-com and serial killer/police procedural/suspense thriller, respectively), then they're close, and I wouldn't mind spending an evening watching the fifteen rounders between City Lights and The General, and M, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. René Clair would win the prize in nearly any other year, but in 1930-31's three-way battle of movie titans, the tiniest of margins is enough to put Clair on the mat.

Well, then, why not Chaplin? After all, City Lights is one of the movies—along with The Kid, The Gold Rush and Modern Times—I'd hang my hat on if you've never seen Chaplin, and if you're only going to see one, see this one. To me, its only real competition for the designation of Best Silent Movie Ever is The General, and I'd hate to live on the difference. In terms of the finished product, Chaplin was never more sure-footed than he was here and City Lights represents a kind of perfect summing-up of everything he was trying to accomplish in his career.

But ironically, it's this act of summing up that puts Chaplin behind Lang in the best director sweepstakes, at least for me. All things being equal (the operative word here being equal), I give extra credit to the director who breaks new ground, provides an early clue to the new direction and influences everything that comes after.

Once he saw that talkies were not just a passing fad but were instead the future, Chaplin reacted not as Lang and Clair did, by making artistic use of the new technology despite initial misgivings, but by thumbing his nose at it (in the first scene of City Lights, literally). Chaplin believed talkies would rob the Tramp of his universal appeal, and he was probably right: a silent Tramp is an everyman, Eastern European, American, Italian—whoever is sitting in the audience—but a speaking Tramp turned out to be a wealthy, educated filmmaker from London and while he was still funny and sympathetic, he wasn't us. Caught between the rapidly receding past and the unforgiving future, Chaplin opted for the past.

The result was a magnificent movie and a ballsy gesture—rage, rage against the dying of the light!—that only the enormous box office power of his name would allow Chaplin to get away with. But it's not the sort of thing anyone else could emulate or build upon. The silence of City Lights is the sound of a door closing, end of an era, exclamation point. Nowhere to go from there but home.

M, on the other hand, looks like it could have been made yesterday—and in terms of its subject matter, probably was made yesterday, at least a pale imitation of it anyway. Lang not only made the definitive example of the serial killer movie, he simultaneously invented it. In doing so, he turned his gaze unflinchingly toward the future, not just of film but of the bloodiest century in human history.

Before I leave the subject of Chaplin, would it be churlish of me to point out that if he hadn't owned his own studio, he would almost certainly have been fired as director of City Lights? He took three years to craft his movie, famously filming nearly four hundred takes of the pivotal scene where the blind flowergirl, Virginia Cherrill, mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire—indeed, Chaplin eventually shut down production for six months while he puzzled over the question (the slamming of a car door did the trick).

And while the economics of filmmaking were very different then—Buster Keaton once explained that an independent director, such as himself or Chaplin, owned rather than rented his cameras, and the crew and actors were on straight salary whether they worked or not, so essentially he was only paying for film and sets—working for three years on a silent movie as the sound era unfolded was an enormous financial and artistic gamble and only Chaplin the producer would have allowed Chaplin the director to get away with it.

All of which sounds like a knock on Chaplin; it isn't. It's just that it's enough to separate him from Lang. As with Clair, in any other year I would hand Chaplin the award for best director. Just not this year.

[To read Part Two, click here.]