Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday # 17: My Introduction To Buster Keaton

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

I don't know how you first became acquainted with Buster Keaton, arguably the greatest film comedian of all time, but my introduction came from the unlikeliest of sources, a book about the Beatles. In The Beatles in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night: A Complete Pictorial Record of the Movie, editor J. Philip di Franco interviewed director Richard Lester and asked him the following question:

"How and why do you cut, cross cut, jump cut or shoot a particular scene this way or that. What theory do you use to make films?"

To which Lester responded, quite candidly:

"Well, I think all those things are valid, but you lose the kind of cutting that normally exists. The focus puller has lost focus because he has gone the wrong way with the handle, or the opening and the end of the shot are excellent, and the middle is blurred so you lose it, and you have to piece it where you couldn't see who is in it.

"That is the first kind of editing for me. If you want to go into it, I will show you shot by shot, list by list, of where you are saving a catastrophe by editing. For example, in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Buster Keaton was picked for a role in which he does what he usually does, which is be physical. He arrived dying, in the last stages of an incurable disease and we find that he can walk, but certainly not run. Therefore we have to find a double for Buster Keaton. When you have a shot where he is supposed to be coming along, he does a bit of action, bumps into a tree and falls down, you end up using eight cuts because Buster can't run that distance. So you have to have a shot to establish that it is Buster, then the long shot for the double, then another shot to remind everybody that is Buster, then another long shot, etc. ..., a close-up for him when he says his lines. All that is totally wrong in terms of one's principles, one's hopes, one's feelings toward the scene, but that is what you do. That is number two. I am afraid that I must stick everything that you said down at the end at number three."

Now when I first read that, when I was, I'm guessing, seventeen, I didn't know Buster Keaton from Diane Keaton (or for that matter, Buster Olney, the ESPN sports analyst who was to become a buddy of mine in college—Katherine says "hey," Buster), and it was a long time before I finally saw a Buster Keaton movie, but that story always stuck with me.

Strange knowing the unbearably sad ending of the story before I ever knew its beginning, but there you have it.

Anyway, for reasons I don't understand, I found myself regaling Katie-Bar-The-Door with that yarn this morning, and then I realized that thanks to the efforts of my little brother, who rescued the Beatles book from the trash pile at my mother's house during one move or another, I could share it with you, verbatim.

Now you have a glimpse into what it must be like to be married to a film buff with a pack rat's memory and a penchant for obscure anecdotes. Lucky you.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Buster Keaton And The Hurricane

While we here on the East coast batten down the hatches, why don't the rest of you watch Buster Keaton in his classic comedy about the weather, Steamboat Bill, Jr., courtesy of the Internet Movie Database.

I promise to get back to the serious business of blogging next week ...

[Click here to read more about Buster Keaton's performance in Steamboat Bill, Jr.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday Wednesday # 16: Blade Runner

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. Usually, although not always, on Tuesdays.

When I was a kid, sportswriters used to say that a football team that had three quarterbacks was a football team that didn't have a quarterback. And I have to say, a movie available in five different version is a movie begging for a sixth.

Nevertheless. Raymond Chandler wrote in his introduction to a collection of short stories,
Trouble Is My Business: "There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out altogether. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you find you cannot do it at all. You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else."

While a director (or any other artist) might have a right to revisit the work of his youth, at some point the effort becomes counterproductive, not only diminishing the quality of the original work, but also robbing him or her of the energy to create something new. I mean, I can't help wondering what movies Francis Ford Coppola and Ridley Scott could have made and never will while they re-worked
Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner.

To quote Woody Allen paraphrasing Balzac, "There goes another novel."

Postscript: By the way, I used to wonder the same thing about George Lucas as he fiddled with the original Star Wars trilogy, speculating idly what movies he could have been making had he not been revisiting old ones. Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be The Phantom Menace ...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birthday Of A Salesman

Today is my big brother's birthday—I won't tell you how many. Knowing him, he's either on the road working or he's playing golf in Amelia Island. In any event, I'm reasonably sure I know which he'd rather being doing.

In his honor, a short film about golf.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #15: The Face He Deserves

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

Somebody—possibly George Orwell—once observed that a man gets the face he deserves by age fifty. Here are some famous actors at that age. Are these the faces they deserved? You make the call.

Humphrey Bogart (In A Lonely Place)

James Cagney (with Virginia Mayo) (White Heat)

Douglas Fairbanks (The Private Life Of Don Juan)

Henry Fonda (Mister Roberts)

Cary Grant (age 51) (To Catch A Thief)

Robert Mitchum (age 49) (with John Wayne) (El Dorado)

Jack Nicholson (The Witches Of Eastwick)

William Powell (age 49) (with Myrna Loy) (Shadow Of The Thin Man)

James Stewart (Vertigo)

Spencer Tracy (with Joan Bennett) (Father Of The Bride)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon At Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear

Just thought I'd mention that Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear is hosting his first every blog-a-thon this October 3rd in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the greatest television sitcoms ever (maybe the greatest) and certainly the one whose example set the pattern for my own workplace behavior, with me playing the role of Dick Van Dyke, my good friend bellotoot as Morey Amsterdam and the ever lovable Mister Muleboy as Rose Marie.

Time to get cracking!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Greed (1924)

I'm working on a post about Buster Keaton's early partnership with Roscoe Arbuckle, but in the meantime, I tracked down a used copy of Erich von Stroheim's screenplay of the nine-hour version of his 1924 classic, Greed.

I'll just assume you know the legend—Stroheim spent two years putting together a nine-hour version of Frank Norris's novel McTeague, which Irving Thalberg then edited down over Stroheim's protests to a somewhat more commercial two hours. The excised footage was destroyed, but about forty years ago, somebody rediscovered Stroheim's original shooting script, including his extensive notes for camera set ups, along with hundreds of production stills, which together provided the basis for TCM's partial restoration.

Anywho, I've been reading the script and I'm taking notes for one of those marathon essays which I'll post later in the year. But in the meantime, in case you're tired of greed 2011 style, how about watching Greed as it appeared in theaters in 1924.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Liebster Blog

Hey, dig this—while I was checked out yesterday working on more Silent Oscars and our bleak financial future, faithful reader Dawn of Noir and Chick Flicks bestowed on me the coveted "Liebster Blog" award.

In her citation, she very kindly says, 'A Mythical Monkey, has a wonderful sense of humor and writes many interesting articles about classic movies from the silent era and the Golden Age. But most importantly, he believes that "There's a little monkey in all of us!"'

Yes, yes I do.

For those of you who are not multilingual, "Liebster" is German for "beloved crustacean"—or at least I think it is—which is appropriate in this case because a friend of mine in high school who thought my voice sounded like the announcer's on a television commercial for Red Lobster Seafood Restaurant used to call me "Red Lobster." True story.

But supposing you aspire to win the Liebster Blog award and don't sound like talking seafood? Fret not. The term "crustacean" also applies to shrimp, crabs, crayfish (what we in the South call "crawdads" or "crawdaddies"), krill and barnacles, thus broadening the circle of potential recipients literally a thousandfold.

So according to the rules of the award, I'm supposed to bestow the award on three-to-five more worthy bloggers—which is a bit of a problem, since I follow something like two hundred and if I didn't like them, and didn't think you should also like them, I wouldn't follow them, would I. Since Dawn gave me the award, I'm precluded from giving her one in return, even though she deserves it. And then there are others, like Ivan Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, who have already pulled down a Liebster Blog award (actually, he's so good, he won two!).

And you have to figure Dr. Heckle would find an award with a word meaning "beloved" in the title vaguely insulting, although he amuses the hell out of me.

So here are five, and hopefully I'll have an occasion in the future to mention others.

Yvette at "in so many words ..." who introduced me to the Nero Wolfe mysteries, which are great to read while sitting in sun.

The Mouth O' The Mule, of course, because we've been pals since like three recessions ago.

KC over at Classic Movies, for the daily birthday reports and for the links to interesting movie articles. I wonder how many of the blogs I follow I first discovered at Classic Movies. A lot, I'll bet.

Plain Chicken, because she's my niece, I use many of the recipes from her blog and my big brother will beat me up if I don't. Here's a link, by the way, to her recipe for the best damn cookies on the planet.

And last but certainly not least, Monty at All Good Things, whose best actress and best actor tournaments might be the best things to happen in the blogosphere this year.

The Last Of The Silent Era Spring Cleaning

1911 is about as far back as I can go and still single out individual acting performances for praise. Before this, film technique and storytelling didn't allow for much of a connection between the actors and the audience (they didn't even receive screen credits), and except for Asta Nielsen in Afgrunden (1910) and Max Linder's early comedies, actors were not much more than props holding up the scenery.

Speaking of Max Linder, I think his early work (pre-World War I) puts him on the Mount Rushmore of silent comedy with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. By my count, I've seen 44 of his films and I can say with absolute metaphysical certitude that Max Takes Tonics is the best of them.

See it here and read a bit more about the triumphs and ultimate tragedy of Max Linder while you're at it.

I also wrote about the groundbreaking feature film L'inferno here, and the cartoonist turned animator Winsor McCay here.


winner: Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, a.k.a. Little Nemo (prod. Winsor McCay)
nominees: L'inferno (prod. Milano Film); The Lonedale Operator (prod. D.W. Griffith); Manhattan Trade School For Girls (prod. unknown); Max Victime du Quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics (prod. Pathé Frères)

winner: Max Linder (Max victime du quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics)

winner: Dorothy West (Swords And Hearts)
nominees: Linda Arvidson (Enoch Arden Parts 1 & 2)

winner: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro (L'inferno)
nominees: D.W. Griffith (The Biograph Shorts); Max Linder (Max victime du quinquina a.k.a. Max Takes Tonics); Winsor McCay (Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics, a.k.a. Little Nemo)

Francesco Bertolini and Sandro Properzi (L'inferno) (Art Direction-Set Decoration); Emilio Roncarolo (L'inferno) (Cinematography)

That's Typing Tuesday #14: D.W. Griffith, Economic Meltdowns And The Politics Of Compromise

"That's Typing" Tuesday, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings. On Tuesdays.

I don't know what you were up to yesterday—me, I was watching my 401(k) go down the tubes. Again. That's twice in the last three years.

Last time (way back in 2008, if you can remember that far), things got so bad, we were about a week away from trading beaver pelts for food. This time? Well, let's just say if we have to resort to cannibalism, Katie-Bar-The-Door could last a pretty good while on my carcass.

But that won't do me much good.

They used to say Social Security was the "third rail" of American politics. Now it's compromise, the dirtiest word you can still say on daytime television, as long as you never admit to engaging in it. But while I can appreciate idealism and adherence to principle as much as the next guy, in this case, compromise
is the principle at stake—else we're all just frogs swimming across the river with a scorpion on our backs.

Anyway, in honor of the latest economic meltdown, here's D.W. Griffith's 1909 short
A Corner In Wheat, a National Film Registry selection that stands for the proposition that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Monday, August 8, 2011

More (Awards And Pictures)

If you're only going to see one comedy about adulterous insects this year, make it The Cameraman's Revenge!

Seriously, it's one of the best short movies of the entire silent era.


winner: Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora a.k.a. The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman, a.k.a. The Cameraman's Revenge (prod. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov)
nominees: How A Mosquito Operates (prod. Winsor McCay); The Land Beyond The Sunset (prod. Edison Company); The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (prod. Biograph Company); Richard III (prod. J. Stuart Blackton and M.B. Dudley)

winner: Elmer Booth (The Musketeers of Pig Alley)
nominees: Martin Fuller (The Land Beyond The Sunset; Max Linder (The Pathé Frères Comedies)

winner: Dorothy Bernard (The Girl And Her Trust)
nominees: Lillian Gish (The Unseen Enemy and The Musketeers Of Pig Alley); Mary Pickford (The New York Hat); Ynez Seabury (The Sunbeam)

winner: Wladyslaw Starewicz (Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora a.k.a. The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman, a.k.a. The Cameraman's Revenge)
nominees: D.W. Griffith (The Biograph Shorts); Harold M. Shaw (The Land Beyond The Sunset)

winner: Dorothy G. Shore (The Land Beyond The Sunset)
nominees: D.W. Griffith and Anita Loos (The Musketeers Of Pig Alley); Wladyslaw Starewicz (Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora a.k.a. The Revenge of a Kinematograph Cameraman, a.k.a. The Cameraman's Revenge)

G.W. "Billy" Bitzer (Cinematography) (The Musketeers Of Pig Alley)

Even More Pictures (Of People You've Never Heard Of) (Probably)

Still expanding the Silent Oscars backwards—what can I tell you, I accidentally learned too much about old silent movies to keep my opinions to myself.

I'm not picking supporting actors for the years before 1914. Basically, the way movies were filmed in those days, with relatively simple stories and few close-ups, actors other than the stars were just props, no more three dimensional than some of the sets they stood in front of. Hell, three dimensional? They were barely two dimensional, mostly just standing there so the star wouldn't get lonely.

Oh, and when I say Fantômas, I mean the entire five film serial ...



Fantômas (prod. Romeo Bosetti)
Der Student von Prag (prod. Deutsche Bioscop GmbH); Sumerki zhenskoi dushi a.k.a. Twilight Of A Woman's Soul (prod. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov); Suspense (prod. Rex Motion Picture Company); Traffic In Souls (prod. Jack Cohn and Walter MacNamara)

Roscoe Arbuckle (The Keystone Comedies)
René Navarre (Fantômas); Paul Wegener (Der Student von Prag)

Hilda Borgström (Ingeborg Holm)
Lillian Gish (The Mothering Heart); Mabel Normand (The Keystone Comedies)

winner: Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley (Suspense)
Yevgeni Bauer (Sumerki zhenskoi dushi a.k.a. Twilight Of A Woman's Soul); Louis Feuillade (Fantômas)

Louis Feuillade, from the novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre (Fantômas)
Victor Sjöström, from a play by Nils Krok (Ingeborg Holm); Walter MacNamara, from a story by George Loane Tucker (Traffic In Souls)

Nikolai Kozlovsky (
Sumerki zhenskoi dushi a.k.a. Twilight Of A Woman's Soul) (Cinematography)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

More Pictures Of People You've Never Heard Of

I took the time to expand my Silent Oscars backward in time to 1914. (No, don't bother trying to figure out what I'm talking about.)

winner: Cabiria (prod.Giovanni Pastrone)
nominees: Gertie The Dinosaur (prod. Winsor McCay); Judith of Bethulia (prod. D.W. Griffith); The Perils Of Pauline (prod. Pathé Frères); Tillie's Punctured Romance (prod. Mack Sennett)

winner: Henry B. Walthall (The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill")
nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Keystone Comedies)

winner: Blanche Sweet (Judith Of Bethulia)
nominees: Marie Dressler (Tillie's Punctured Romance); Pearl White (The Perils Of Pauline and The Exploits Of Elaine)

winner: Giovanni Pastrone (Cabiria)
nominees: Cecil B. DeMille (The Squaw Man); D.W. Griffith (Judith Of Bethulia and The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill"); Mack Sennett (Tillie's Punctured Romance)

winner: Bartolomeo Pagano (Cabiria)
nominees: Roscoe Arbuckle (The Rounders)

winner: Mabel Normand (Tillie's Punctured Romance)
nominees: Mae Marsh (Judith Of Bethulia)

winner: Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel, from a play by Edwin Milton Royle (The Squaw Man)
nominees: D.W. Griffith, Grace Pierce and Frank E. Woods, from a poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Judith Of Bethulia); Hampton Del Ruth, Craig Hutchinson and Mack Sennett, from a play by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith (Tillie's Punctured Romance)

Winsor McCay (Gertie The Dinosaur) (Animation); Segundo de Chomón, Eugenio Bava, Giovanni Tomatis, Augusto Battagliotti, Natale Chiusano and Carlo Franzeri (Cabiria) (Cinematography); Segundo de Chomón and Eugenio Bava (Cabiria) (Special Effects); Camillo Innocenti and Luigi Borgnono (Cabiria) (Set Design)

Actually, you may have heard of some of them. Mabel Normand is a good bet—she was the first great comic film actress, often credited with throwing the first pie in movie history (read about that debate here).

And I know all you silent film fanatics know who Giovanni Pastrone is—he directed one of the most influential films of the era, the epic Italian historical adventure, Cabiria, about a little girl who is rescued from the eruption of Mt. Etna only to grow up and find herself at the center of the war between Rome and Carthage. (Read more about it here.) Not only did it spawn fifty years worth of "Maciste" movies (Italian "strongman" movies released in the U.S. as Hercules movies), but it directed inspired D.W. Griffith to direct his own ancient history epic, Intolerance (which I wrote about here).

By the way, Bartolomeo Pagano, who played Maciste in Cabiria and in twenty-four more films, was working as a stevedore in Genoa when he was discovered and cast in the movie. Luckily for Pastrone, Pagano was a natural-born actor who quickly became Italy's biggest star.

As for Henry B. Walthall and Blanche Sweet, they were part of D.W. Griffith's stable of actors at Biograph Studios. Both are largely forgotten today, Walthall, I think, because he played the "Little Colonel" in The Birth of a Nation, a role that endears him to no one; Sweet ironically because she was one of the few stars of the silent era who typically "lost" herself in a part, performing the role of a chameleon so successfully, she has no single character or characteristic you can hang your mental hat on. But both were the finest dramatic actors of their day.

Cecil B. DeMille I dare say you've heard of if only because Norma Desmond has been ready now for her close-up going on sixty-one years. The Squaw Man was important in American movie history as the first feature filmed in a sleepy little hamlet named Hollywood. Its plot is one of those hardy perennials of the American movies (and psyche, too)—a man flees the corruption of so-called civilization to re-discovered himself in the wilderness. The basic idea crops up in movies as diverse as The Half-Breed (1916), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1991), and is the unifying myth of those armed "militias" running around in various woods all over the United States.

Me, I've always been much too fond of flush toilets to buy into the basic concept, but DeMille liked the story so much, he filmed it three times, in 1914 with Dustin Farnum, in 1918 with Elliott Dexter and in 1931 with Warner Baxter.