Tuesday, June 30, 2009

While You're Waiting ...

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I were out of town this past weekend which put my essay about the Best Actor of 1928-29, a contest between Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim, on hold. While I'm working to catch up, why don't you pass the time with this early Buster Keaton short, One Week, a classic two-reel comedy which just last year was included in the National Film Registry.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Brief Word About The Brief Life Of Jeanne Eagels

Jeanne Eagels, who starred in the 1929 production of The Letter (later remade in 1940 with Bette Davis), was the first actor to be posthumously nominated in Oscar's history. She had died in October 1929 of a heroin overdose, six months prior to the Academy Awards ceremony. She was 39.

Kathryne Kennedy, her co-star in the Broadway production of Somerset Maugham's Rain, said of Eagels, "I sincerely doubt if Jeanne Eagels really knew, in spite of her pretensions, that she was a great actress. She was. Many times backstage I'd be waiting for my entrance cue and suddenly Jeanne would start to build a scene, and [we] would look up from our books at once. Some damn thing—some power, something—would take hold of your heart, your senses, as you listened to her, and you'd thrill to the sound of her."

Eagels was well-enough known that the character Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) says of her in All About Eve that seeing her on stage for the first time was one of the two greatest moments of his life.

Her own assessment? "I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn."

In 1957, she was the subject of a very fictionalized account of her life, Jeanne Eagels, starring Kim Novak in the title role.

Despite an Oscar nomination for best actress, very little of Eagels's film work survives. The Letter exists only as a 35mm work print with no sound other than dialogue and is unavailable on VHS or DVD. A couple of her silent movies survive in truncated form. Her second talkie, Jealousy, and the other five films of her nine film body of work, have been entirely lost.

Not a very satisfying memorial for an actress of her reputation.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Best Actress Of 1928-29, Part Two: And The Winner Is ...

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

So who was the best actress of 1928-29, Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc or Lillian Gish in The Wind?

As I was saying yesterday, movies are such a collaborative process that trying to figure out where one person's contribution ends and another's begins is as difficult as trying to separate out the ingredients of a cake once it's been in the oven. We look at what we think we see on the screen, we read (often self-serving) anecdotes from the set and we make some guesses.

In close cases like this, it helps (to my mind) to look at the actor's work in other movies, with other crews and directors, a process of triangulation if you will, and if you keep seeing great work from an actor regardless of the director, script, editor, etc., then maybe you're looking at a great actor. So while it is certainly true, for example, that the director and editor had a great deal to say about what work of Brando's showed up in On The Waterfront, I'm comfortable in saying based on the whole of his career that Brando was a great actor (at least when he wasn't phoning it in, that is).

When I read behind the scenes stories of The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Wind and I look at the careers of Maria Falconetti and Lillian Gish, this is what I see:

Maria Falconetti's work on The Passion of Joan of Arc, while great, was the only significant film appearance of her career and was collaborative only in the sense that director Carl Dreyer said, "Give me tears," and she gave him tears or said, "Be a saint," and she was a saint. While the character works brilliantly, it was Dreyer calling the shots and it was Dreyer who assembled the performance in the editing room out the raw footage. Falconetti made no speeches (obviously), appeared in no long scenes that revealed shifts in character, had limited interactions with her fellow actors. She may well have been a brilliant actress but she had no real opportunity to prove it here and since she made no other feature-length movies, it's impossible to draw any inferences about her talent.

Gish, on the other hand, who turned in more great performances in more great movies during the Silent Era than anybody else, and then after her return to the big screen in the 1940s, continued to give great performances until her retirement in 1987, gave the best performance of her career in The Wind.

The Wind rests on Gish's shoulders in a way that The Passion of Joan of Arc never rests on Falconetti's. While legendary writer Frances Marion laid out the psychological components of the story in her screenplay, without Gish on screen to convey that psychology with a single look—for example, a glance that reveals her desperation, knowing she's not welcome in the house of a childhood friend when the only other choices are a loveless marriage or death in the desert—the story as it plays out would make no sense.

I don't have to draw inferences about her talent—her talent is an established fact.

Gish was also stretching herself as an actress in The Wind. She commissioned the project in part to play with her established screen image. For years, as D.W. Griffith's favorite actress, Gish played the passive victim of any variety of men looking to relieve her of her treasured virginity. In The Wind, perhaps the single biggest threat to Gish's virginity is her own desire, a marked departure from her established screen image. And to see Gish—not just the character she plays, but the artist and the actress—choose to take up a gun and kill an attacker after all those years of playing the long-suffering, passive victim is liberating in a way Thelma and Louise only pretended to be.

The auteur theory holds that it is the director who is the author of a movie. It's a popular theory that has shaped film criticism for decades now, but it's one of those theories that is more normative than descriptive (i.e., recommending what should be rather than describing what is), for in motion picture history, movies have in fact born the stamp of any number of people involved in their creation—producers (David O. Selznick), writers (Paddy Chayefsky), actors (Fred Astaire) and yes, directors (Alfred Hitchcock).

In the case of The Wind, the driving force behind the movie and the hand controlling every aspect of its production was clearly Lillian Gish. Gish alone picked the director, the stars and the story. She alone decided to take her screen image and play with it and deepen it. And she alone was the one who signed off on the final product and paid the price with her career when The Wind failed at the box office despite its creative brilliance.

Frances Marion later said of Lillian Gish, "She might look fragile, but physically and spiritually she was as fragile as a steel rod. Nobody could sway her from her self-appointed course. With a Botticelli face, she had the mind of a good Queen Bess, dictating her carefully thought-out policies and ruling justly, if firmly."

Am I giving Gish credit as an actress because of her role as a producer? Probably, but why not? Her choices as producer help reveal the choices she made as an actress—that process of triangulation again, trying to separate the sugar from the flour of the baked cake.

So my choice for best actress of 1928-29 is Lillian Gish in The Wind. For me, I would rather reward Gish for the most complete performance of a long career than Falconetti for what is in fact a one-hit wonder, no matter how great that one hit was.

Note: As I have said, despite its brilliance, The Wind was a box office flop. This was no doubt due in large part to the arrival of sound movies. But silent era actress turned film historian Louise Brooks also believed there was a concerted Hollywood effort to destroy Lillian Gish's reputation and box-office appeal and that a box office was exactly what the studio was hoping for. It was a simple matter of economics, says Brooks. Gish was making $400,000 a year and had complete creative control of her career. Emerging star Greta Garbo was making $16,000 and wholly dependent on the studio to solve the visa problems that would allow her to work. Brooks lays out evidence of the studio's manipulation and then posits the studio was tired of paying big money to an actress with the power to map her own career when it could pay a younger actress a lot less money to do exactly what it wanted.

Ironically, the studio eventually did to Garbo what it had done to Gish—undercut her career when cheaper actresses came along.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Best Actress Of 1928-29, Part One: What Do We Mean By Best?

Of the three nominees for best actress of 1928-29, one of them, Marion Davies, is pretty much here just to round out the field. Which is not to say Davies didn't deserve the nomination. While she is mostly remembered now as the inspiration for no-talent opera singer Susan Alexander in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane—a grossly unfair characterization if that's what Welles really thought of her—Davies was actually a very talented comic actress and it shows in the silent comedy, Show People, for which I've nominated her. But the fact is, no matter how good Davies was, 1928-29 boils down to a race between two actresses, Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Lillian Gish in The Wind, who between them deliver not just the two best performances of the year, but two of the best performances of any year.

By now if you've been following this blog (a big "if," I'll grant you), you've heard of both Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti. Gish, as you may recall, was my choice for the best actress of the Silent Era. She was D.W. Griffith's go-to actress for every great movie he ever made and then after his career faded, she carried on for another decade making nothing but top-notch films. The Wind is probably the finest performance of her award-winning career.

Falconetti, on the other hand, only made one movie of significance, The Passion of Joan of Arc, but, boy, what a movie. Pauline Kael, the influential albeit erratic critic for New Yorker magazine, said after Carl Dreyer's masterpiece was rediscovered in 1981 that Falconetti's performance "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Premiere magazine ranked it as the twenty-sixth best performance of all time in a list of the 100 greatest performances in film history, making it the highest ranked silent performance.

Choosing between them involves not so much a matter of knowing good from bad as knowing what it is in a performance that you value. And this is where I run into a problem: as a woman I once knew said to me twenty-five years ago, "You don't have any values."

True. But she of the Katie Awards, Katie- Bar-The- Door, and Mister Muleboy of the blog The Mouth O' The Mule are positively silly with values and fortunately for me, often have strongly held opinions even on issues they have no opinion about. They both agree that Lillian Gish was a great actress; where they disagree is on the issue of whether Maria Falconetti was an actress at all.

Two events in movie history permanently scarred Katie, Ali McGraw's Oscar nomination for Love Story and Anna Paquin's win for The Piano. Subsequent work firmly established in Katie's mind that neither can act a lick and that honors were bestowed on them in anticipation that they might one day prove to have talent and in recognition of the work of other people. In reaction, she's adopted an informal rule: "Never give someone an Oscar for their first performance."

Here, Maria Falconetti wasn't technically appearing in her first movie—the Internet Movie Database lists small roles in a pair of 1917 shorts—but she might as well have been. And while Katie agrees that The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest movies ever made and that Maria Falconetti is effective in it, she's convinced Falconetti's performance is a product not of any particular skill but of director Carl Dreyer's relentless bullying, Rudolph Maté's excellent camera work and Dreyer's and Marguerite Beaugé's patient work in the editing room.

Roger Ebert describes the effort that produced the performance this way: "Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face—so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression."

Katie-Bar-the-Door thinks that given to what degree Dreyer hectored and humiliated her, and worked her to the point of exhaustion, it's no surprise that Falconetti convincingly comes across as hectored, humiliated and exhausted.

Consider too that since this is a silent film we're talking about, there are no line readings, which greatly complicate the actor's task, and because Dreyer shot the whole thing in a series of close-ups, there's very little need for Falconetti to play off the other actors. Dreyer simply put the camera on Falconetti and recorded everything and then assembled a character out of the footage.

Katie says that's not acting, it's something else—maybe a perfect face and a lot of film. I mean, if you put a stovepipe hat on your dog and took a hundred pictures of him, in one shot he's bound to look like Abraham Lincoln. But that doesn't make your dog the 16th president of the United States. (And no this is not my dog, who actually bears an uncanny resemblance to Woodrow Wilson.)

On the other hand, Mister Muleboy who is actually a trained actor in addition to being a highly intuitive blogger, points out that's "presumably the case in every feature film," that most screen performances consist of "a director badgering, sucking, pleading, or manipulating a 'performance' out of the actor. Usually manipulating it at the editing table. Crafting that 'great scene' from the (potentially nonsensical) multiple takes that, when combined, gave rise to that 'perfectly modulated, brilliant' performance. And that, in this director's/editor's medium, the idea of one acting performance that is in the control of the actor is—at best—only conjecture."

In fact, this is true of every per- formance, he says, even Marlon Brando in On The Water- front. Trying to identify where the work of the director and editor and cinematographer leave off and the work of the actor begins is like trying to identify the individual ingredients in a baked cake and then hand out an award to the sugar and the butter.

Hmm. So who's right?

Oh, wait. Katie-Bar-The-Door just reminded me that I'm married to her which pretty much means that even if she's wrong, she's right. But I don't think she's wrong. You know?

Also she says it's recycling day and can I please put out the newspapers? Gotta go.

To read Part Two, click here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

See Jean Hersholt's Katie Award Winning Performance Tonight On TCM

Before you go to bed tonight, be sure to set your recorders to tape Ernst Lubitsch's bittersweet comedy, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, which is showing at 2 a.m., Wednesday, June 24, 2009, on Turner Classic Movies.

For those of you with long memories, Jean Hersholt won the first Katie Award for best supporting actor playing Ramon Novarro's kindly tutor.

From the TCM website:

2:00am [Silent] Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, The (1927)

In this silent film, a young prince attending college falls for a barmaid below his station.
Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Gustav von Seyffertitz Dir: Ernst Lubitsch BW-106 mins, TV-G

Monday, June 22, 2009

Best Director Of 1928-29: Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion Of Joan Of Arc)

When we celebrate great directors—Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Ford—we are actually often celebrating wildly different qualities. Sometimes it's the gift of an Ingmar Bergman (remember a chess-playing grim reaper in The Seventh Seal?) to translate a deeply personal vision into an unforgettable image. At other times it's the knack of a William Wyler (who directed the most Oscar-winning performances in history) for coaxing award-winning performances from his actors. And at yet other times, it's the sheer determination of a Marcel Carné (who directed Children of Paradise during the Nazi occupation of France) to conjure a masterpiece from nothing under the most difficult of circumstances.

To turn a personal obsession into one of the greatest movies of all time, Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer had to become a combination of all three.

Dreyer was already slated to direct a movie about Joan of Arc when he discovered in a Paris library the complete transcript of the trial that led to her execution. Poring over the court's meticulous notes, Dreyer became obsessed with the Joan revealed in the give and take of the trial. Dreyer threw out Joseph Delteil's screenplay, which was a more traditional account of Joan's life, and instead wrote his own screenplay focusing the story solely on the interrogation.

The result, as the opening titles put it, is a portrait of Joan "not in armor, but simple and human." It's also one of the best movies ever made about the collision of religious faith and worldly cynicism.

Dreyer subscribed to what Ernest Hemingway later called the iceberg theory of storytelling, that if you focus on the core of the story and get the details right, then like the seventh-eights of the iceberg that's underwater, the audience will intuitively sense the parts of the story that you've left out. In directing The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer stripped away everything—subplots, politics, and especially showy, kabuki-style acting—that distracted from the emotional core of his story.

He even went so far as to bar the cast from wearing make-up, unprecedented in the Silent Era.

The brutal demands Dreyer made on his star, Maria Fal- conetti, were legendary. To get the performance he wanted from Falconetti, a stage actress known for light comedy, Dreyer had her kneel on the stone floor of the set for weeks on end, blank all emotion from her face and do take after endless take. In addition to cropping her long hair, Dreyer insisted over Falconetti's objection that in a key scene where the judges cut her hair in preparation for her execution, her head be shaved for real. And when a doctor is brought in to bleed the ailing Joan, Dreyer took a knife to Falconetti's arm and opened a vein.

Reportedly, the suffering etched in every line of her face was genuine, the tears well-earned.

Dreyer was as demanding of every performer in the movie, from his star to the extras. For the duration of shooting which ran from May to November 1927, he required that his performers stay in character as much as possible and keep their heads shaved in monkish tonsure-style haircuts. As Gary Morris pointed out in an essay for Bright Lights Film Journal, this included even those actors whose characters wore caps that entirely covered their heads.

Likewise Dreyer built an elaborate, three- dim- ensional set and then never showed it, shooting nearly the entire movie in a series of close-ups, possibly using more close-ups than any other movie in history. Yet following the iceberg principle again, the reality is there in the background so that without drawing attention to the set or stopping to pat himself on the back for the effort, you never question that what you're seeing is real.

Can you image a director now who would blow a substantial chunk of his budget to create such an elaborate set and then not shove it in your face every minute to the detriment of the final product?

Because it stripped away every ex- traneous detail, Dreyer's version of the Joan story doesn't delve into the political or military conflict that drove the trial, nor does it directly answer the question of whether Joan was a saint (the Catholic church declared her to be so in 1920; my own religious background makes no allowance for such a possibility). Dreyer made clear, however, where his sympathies lay. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, the judges are photographed in a harsh white light that exposes every wrinkle and blemish that "seem to reflect a diseased inner life. Falconetti, by contrast, is shot in softer grays." Joan looks like a saint, bedeviled by corrupt, venal men with a worldly axe to grind.

In many ways, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the opposite of what I usually I like in a silent movie. It's a heavy drama, laden with dialogue (which of course must be read on intertitle cards that appear between scenes). Except at the end, it features little of the visual lyricism that can eliminate the need for pages of exposition. And yet, Dreyer, who along with Marguerite Beaugé edited the movie, found an effective rhythm as he cut between close-ups of Joan, her inquisitors and the intertitle cards, a rhythm that steadily increases the tension until it explodes, like screwing a lid tightly onto a pot of boiling water.

Dreyer's approach to filmmaking was idiosyncratic, wholly at odds with, say, F.W. Murnau's, who was aiming to make movies a purely visual experience. And yet because he did make it work, Dreyer managed a nearly unique achievement, a movie so modern in its look and its pared-down approach to storytelling, that if I didn't know better, I would have assumed it was made forty years later.

That we can see this movie at all almost qualifies as a miracle in itself. Censors went to work on the movie soon after Dreyer completed it and then the film was lost to fire—twice. The negative was destroyed soon after its premiere and Dreyer cobbled together another print out of scraps from the cutting room floor only to see that print destroyed in a fire too. Dreyer died in 1968 believing that his finest achievement was lost forever.

Then in 1981, while cleaning out a janitor's closet in an insane asylum in Oslo of all places, workers discovered a complete copy of the original print, apparently ordered by a forgotten doctor to show to his patients fifty years before. Often these rediscovered lost films prove to be a disappointment that cannot live up to idealized memories; The Passion of Joan of Arc proved to be even better. Critics hailed it as a masterpiece, a word too casually tossed around, but for once they were right.

Of my three nominees for best director, Luis Buñuel made the most influential movie, the sixteen-minute surrealist experiment Un Chien Andalou, possibly the best example of experimental film ever created. Victor Sjöström (credited here as Victor Seastrom) is better known now for his performance as an aging professor in Ingmar Bergman's classic Wild Strawberries, but in his native Sweden he is remembered as the father of Swedish cinema and he directed fifty-five movies in his career. Hand-picked by star Lillian Gish for The Wind, he directed a near textbook example of a silent movie that sheds the need for dialogue and he did it under grueling conditions in the Mojave Desert.

In other years, either of these nominees would have been an excellent choice for a Katie Award.

In the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer made neither an influential movie nor a textbook example of anything. He simply made the best movie of the year and without his determination, it wouldn't have been made at all.

Dreyer followed The Passion of Joan of Arc with an atmospheric foray into the horror genre, Vampyr. Although some now believe it rivals Murnau's Nosferatu as the best vampire movie ever made, Vampyr flopped so miserably at its premiere in Berlin that Dreyer fell into a deep depression and didn't direct another movie for ten years.

In his career, Dreyer directed a total of twenty-three movies, including Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955); he wrote forty-nine others. He directed his last movie in 1964, just four years before his death at the age of 79.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

And Now Try Un Chien Andalou For Yourself

You know, nobody tries to make sense of a music video (or almost nobody), they just watch, listen and have a gut reaction. And they're perfectly content to do so.

But stick a piece of experimental film in front of some film critics and even if the guy who directed the movie, in this case Luis Buñuel, says it doesn't mean anything, the critic will still insist it must have some meaning. And everybody else just scratches their head, says, "I don't get it," and gives up on experimental film forever.

Well, I'm here to tell you, I believe Luis Buñuel. Un Chien Andalou doesn't mean anything. But it will provoke a reaction.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dadaism, Surrealism And The Anti-Narrative Experiment, Part Two: Additional Examples And What To Make Of All This

Un Chien Andalou was the best of the surrealist films but it wasn't the first—although what exactly was the first is hard to say. I mentioned that René Clare's Entr'acte with its runaway coffin came along in 1924 but some film historians argue that it's more Dada than surreal and who am I to disagree (especially since I wouldn't know how).

But one thing is certain. By 1928, the attempt to break away from the traditional narrative form as a way of conveying the human experience on film was in full swing.

Well, I say traditional.

The narrative structure of movies we today know and love was all of fourteen years old at this point, hardly established enough to qualify as a tradition. Let's say "trend" then, a trend toward making movies resemble the narrative structure of theater and literature. And not everyone was ready to concede that this particular trend made fullest use of film's potential to convey the human experience.

But anyway.

In addition to Entr'acte, a trio of highly-regarded films displaying surrealist influences beat Un Chien Andalou into the theaters.

La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman) premiered in Paris in February 1928, sixteen months before Buñuel's classic. Directed by Germaine Dulac, a leading radical feminist and one of the first women to direct movies in the French film industry, La Coquille et le Clergyman is the story (if there is a story) of a clergyman who becomes erotically obsessed with a general's mistress. Although this struggle is shown in symbolic terms—the priest's slowly fragmenting face, for example—and British censors banned La Coquille et le Clergyman on the basis that the "film is so obscure as to have no apparent meaning. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable," which no doubt thrilled Madame Dulac, there's nothing on screen that has the power of Buñuel's razor and its reputation has justly faded over the years.

A superior exercise was Jean Epstein's La Chute de la Maison Usher, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall Of The House Of Usher. Luis Buñuel worked as Epstein's assistant director and it shows. The movie combines the abstract, exaggerated sets common to German Expressionism with images of surrealism, particularly of a portrait central to the story that is at times a painting and at times a live woman, that are pure Buñuel.

Epstein did not set out to make a surrealist movie, but instead an adaptation of the novel that was faithful to the spirit of Poe, but the use of surrealism here keeps the audience off-balance in a way that heightens the sense of horror.

Maybe the best of the surrealist experiments that doesn't have Luis Buñuel's name on it is L'Étoile de Mer, one of six movies directed by Man Ray, better known for his photographs and paintings. There's no story, just a mood, a man and woman photographed through a pane of glass, juxtaposed with the poetry of Robert Desnos. The effect is as lyrical as Un Chien Andalou is brutal.

You might also take a look at Jean Cocteau's Le Sang d'un Poète (The Blood Of A Poet), a mock- doc- umentary or as Cocteau put it "a realistic documentary of unreal events." Surrealists at the time weren't sure Cocteau qualified as one of their own, and I'm not going to wade into the argument. I'll just say that Cocteau, who here included such sequences as a painted portrait that begins to speak, was clearly influenced by surrealism and probably couldn't have made his beautiful and bizarre version of Beauty and the Beast in 1946 without first making The Blood Of A Poet. For that reason alone, I thought it was worth tracking down and you might, too.

The Russian director Dziga Vertov wasn't a surrealist but his Man With The Movie Camera is definitely another example from early 1929 of a film trying to subvert traditional expectations of narrative. Urban Cinefile calls it three films in one, a documentary of Russian life, a documentary of the making of the documentary and a documentary of the audience watching the documentary. These images—of Russian factories, trolley cars, women in undergarments, etc.—are served up as a collage that is not so much an experiment in film making as an experiment in film editing.

I have read that Vertov intended this collage to be either a sly com- mentary on life in the Soviet Union, interesting and busy but a bit soulless, or an equally sly commentary on our insistence that even a random jumble of images must have meaning. The fact that he spent so much time in the editing room suggests Vertov meant something by it but if he did, the finished product resolutely keeps the secret safe from us. In the end any given image is well-made but overall most of Man With The Movie Camera is no more interesting than the random images you'd find in any tourist's camera.

Finally, while I'm writing about movies without a narrative that aren't necessarily surrealist, maybe I should mention People On Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak with assists from Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann, and written by Billy Wilder. It's actually the opposite of surrealism, an exercise in early neo-realism—just following five young Berliners around on a lazy Sunday afternoon—but it is yet another attempt to tell a story without resorting to narrative.

In the case of all involved it was not an experiment they were much interested in repeating when their careers took off. Wilder, who wrote the script on pieces of scratch paper, dismissed it as not much more than a newsreel. "I would not see it. I don't know—I think it was just a freelance experiment of a picture. It never quite got into much depth."

That might be a pretty good epitaph for most of these movies.

In any event, the surrealist movement began to crack up within a few years, torpedoed by incessant bickering and internal strife as even its practitioners couldn't agree on what they meant as they endeavored to mean nothing. The founder of the surrealist movement, André Breton, bitterly denounced those who he felt had strayed from the party line, Buñuel and Epstein fell out during the filming of La Chute de la Maison Usher, and writer Antonin Arnaud was so incensed by how director Germaine Dulac had interpreted his screenplay La Coquille et le Clergyman, he called her a "cow" at the film's premiere.

Apparently there are a lot of very strict rules involved in doing anything you want.

In late 1928, Buster Keaton spoofed surrealism in his last great film, The Cameraman. In that one the experimental-looking collage was the result of a cameraman (Keaton) incorrectly loading film into the camera and a documentary on the Tong War in Chinatown was actually filmed by an organ grinder's monkey (don't ask). It's a very funny movie, certainly funnier than a razor blade slicing an eyeball.

As a means of artistic ex- pression, sur- realism was a smashing success and remains influential to this day, although perhaps not in the way its founders envisioned. You'll find examples of it in animation (e.g., Tex Avery cartoons, Yellow Submarine), music videos, advertizing. Personally, I think surrealism works best as comedy, Monty Python, for example, and although even the most surreal imagery in Monty Python isn't quite surrealism as its early practitioners understood it since a joke is a form of comprehensible narrative, you have to admit there is always something unexpected about, say, the Spanish Inquisition.

On the other hand, as a political movement, surrealism was a complete bust. While the actions of our world's leaders often seem surreal, it turns out that no matter what system of government you adopt, war and oppression still occur—which shouldn't come as a surprise since governments are made up of people and on a fundamental level, people never change.

So should you bother tracking down Un Chien Andalou or any of the other movies I've mentioned? Well, that depends.

I'm warning you up front, a little bit of this stuff goes a very long way. As with any new medium or technology, early users experimented for a while, eventually hit upon what worked, what didn't. The experiments were useful but definitely of more interest to a budding film student than to a middle-aged working man at the end of a hard week. Which is ironic because the surrealists hoped their films would lead the working man to reject the simplistic answers and bourgeois values that the surrealists felt had led to World War I and the excesses of the post-war bull market. Instead, they wound up preaching to a choir of fellow surrealists and after a while, not even them.

If you do choose to try some of these movies, my advice is "Don't think, you'll only hurt the ballclub." They were not meant to be understood literally, but emotionally, so don't try to figure them out; just watch them and react.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dadaism, Surrealism And The Anti-Narrative Experiment, Part One: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí And Un Chien Andalou

I'm not sure when we look back on the 1920s—which gave us jazz, flappers, Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth, bathtub gin and both the most lavish spree and the costliest comeuppance in history—that we quite realize that for millions of people around the world, it was a time of unprecedented political, social and economic upheaval, a decade that at times made the more celebrated '60s feel like a sleepy Sunday afternoon sipping lemonade on your Aunt Tilly's porch.

While many survivors of the bloodiest conflict in human history (at that time) wished for nothing more than a return to what President Warren G. Harding called "normalcy," just as many were determined not to accept a status quo ante that had oppressed millions and destroyed the flower of an entire generation. Women won the right to vote, workers migrated en masse from the farms to the factories, breakthroughs in aviation and communications made the world smaller than ever.

Complex problems spawned simplistic solutions. Italy embraced fascism, Russia communism, America isolationism. A dangerous, resentment-fueled nationalism was on the march everywhere. And all the while Adolf Hitler bided his time in a cell refining his bitter, twisted blueprint for a new order that gave us the Holocaust, another world war and our clearest glimpse ever into the post-apocalyptic abyss.

Artists and intellectuals struggled to make sense of the confusion, failed, threw up their hands and concluded that the only rational response was to reject rationality and embrace nonsense. Thus was born Dadaism, a philosophy based on acts of deliberate irrationality, and its offspring surrealism, which proposed to bypass the rational mind and describe the world strictly in terms of images from the subconscious.

The first attempt at translating this philosophy into film may have been René Clare's 1924 exercise in Dadaism, Entr'acte, which includes jumbled documentary footage of Paris and a coffin that runs wild on its way to a funeral. But cinema's first true masterpiece of surrealism wouldn't arrive in theaters for another five years, not until two of surrealism's greatest practitioners, director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí, met for lunch in a Paris café and began talking about their dreams—or perhaps more accurately, their nightmares.

Born in Spain at the turn of the century, Luis Buñuel was working as an assistant to director Jean Epstein when he mentioned to Dalí over lunch that he had had a dream of a cloud slicing across the moon "like a razor blade slicing through an eye."

Dali, who was already emerging as the art world's greatest surrealist painter, responded by describing a recent dream of his own where he'd had a vision of ants crawling out of a wound in the palm of his hand.

Thus was born the greatest surrealist film ever created, Un Chien Andalou, sixteen minutes of bizarre imagery that once seen is never forgotten. Buñuel and Dalí carried rocks in their pockets to defend themselves at the film's premiere and were disappointed when the audience loved what they saw. Their fellow surrealists immediately hailed the movie as a masterpiece and Un Chien Andalou ran for eight months in Paris.

There's no plot to Un Chien Andalou (which translated means "An Andalusian Dog"), nor in the opinion of Buñuel and Dalí could there be if they wanted to remain true to the ideals of surrealism. The two men dreamed up images (literally, in their sleep) and used them in their film only if they agreed between themselves that the images didn't mean anything. The point was to remind the audience that the expectation of finding meaning where there is none is a bad habit we humans get into—leads to lawyers suing deep pockets for random acts of chance or tracts with titles like "Why Bad Things Happen To Good People."

Un Chien Andalou has been cited as the inspiration for everything from music videos to independent filmmaking. Premiere magazine recently listed the opening scene as one of the top ten most shocking moments in movie history.

After the success of Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel and Dalí collaborated on one more surrealist film, L'Age d'Or, a feature-length movie I will write about in more detail when I reach the movies of 1930. Although I disagree, many critics believe it's even better than its predecessor.

After that Buñuel and Dalí went their separate ways. Dalí would paint his most famous canvas, "The Persistence of Memory," in 1931, and would go on to achieve world-wide acclaim. Buñuel on the other hand fled Spain after its civil war and wouldn't regain his footing as a director until 1950 when he directed Los Olvidados. He became one of the greatest directors in history and was twice nominated for Academy Awards. His movies never lost the dream-like quality that made Un Chien Andalou so unforgettable.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Buying Time

Boy, this little essay I started writing about Luis Buñuel and surrealism has turned into one of those grueling literary marathons that isn't going to get finished today. Hopefully, I'll have it for you tomorrow and it will be light, breezy and mildly informative.

Normally at this point, I'd publish another photograph of lovely Katie Award nominee Anita Page, you know, to fill out another entry and, well, because I can. But faithful reader "lupner" has been complaining (silently, in her head) that there hasn't been enough beefcake exhibited (Douglas Fairbanks notwithstanding).

Since she's already rejected Silent Era male pin-ups Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert, I offer up for her viewing pleasure this photo of a young actor named Clark Gable who has been working as an uncredited extra since 1923. He's still a couple of years away from breakthrough performances in Dance, Fools, Dance (Joan Crawford) and A Free Soul (Norma Shearer), but he's working in Hollywood at this time so he qualifies for a mention.

Here he's paired with one of my favorite actresses, Mary Astor, in the classic 1932 film, Red Dust.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Mythical Monkey And Katie-Bar-The-Door Are Back

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I just blew back into town after a few days on the road which explains the dearth of postings this week.

I didn't want to announce I'd be gone beforehand because I knew the Mule would break into the house to watch movies and smoke up all our cigars.

But I will be back on the job tomorrow, writing another brilliant blog entry for you, my adoring public ...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rarely-Seen Harold Lloyd Comedy On TCM This Week

We here at the Monkey are big fans of Silent Era comedian Harold Lloyd. He pretty much stopped making movies in the mid-1930s, but he came out of retirement one time to make the Preston Sturges comedy, The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock. Lloyd was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as a, well, read the description ripped right from the Turner Classic Movie site:

4:00am [Comedy] Sin Of Harold Diddlebock, The (1950)
When he loses his job, a middle-aged bookkeeper goes out on the town.

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jimmy Conlin, Raymond Walburn, Rudy Vallee Dir: Preston Sturges BW-90 mins, TV-G

It's on Thursday, June 11, 2009, at 4 a.m., so set your recorders before you go to bed Wednesday, or get up very early, walk the dog and have a few laughs before you head out to work.

As always these dates are for the Eastern time zone of the United States. I apologize if this strikes anyone as either arrogant or isolationist ...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1928-29, Part Two: And The Winner Is ...

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

In sifting through the most highly (and not so highly) regarded movies of 1928-29, two supporting performances jumped out at me, the immortal Wallace Beery in William A. Wellman's Beggars Of Life, and the not as well known (to a modern audience at least) but equally talented Ernest Torrence in Buster Keaton's classic comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Beggars of Life is about a teenage girl (Louise Brooks in a per- formance that brought her to the attention of German director P.W. Pabst) who kills her stepfather in order to avoid being raped. Disguising herself as a young boy, she escapes with a passing vagrant (Richard Arlen, co-star of the first movie to win the Oscar for best picture, Wings) only to fall into the hands of Oklahoma Red (Beery), the ruthless leader of a "hobo jungle" who wants the girl for himself.

The story by novelist Jim Tully was based on his own experiences riding the rails during a period of unemployment and homelessness. Well before the Depression would acquaint much of this film's audience with the life they were seeing on screen, Tully hoped to demythologize poverty, showing, for example, the brutality of "hobo jungles" and the ruthless treatment of the poor at the hands of arbitrary authorities.

Wallace Beery makes his first appearance during the movie's second act, arriving at the camp singing and carrying a keg of beer on his shoulder (some prints have Beery's growling singing voice on the soundtrack of this otherwise silent movie, others do not). Even with the lovely Louise Brooks on screen, Beery is the one your eyes are drawn to.

This phenomenon, the supporting performance that makes you forget the rest of the movie, was typical of Beery's career. Admittedly, sometimes Beery could be a distraction, but here he breathes life into a story that had threatened to grind to a halt.

Beery discovers Brooks, who has disguised herself as a boy, is a fugitive with a $1000 bounty on her head. Beery helps her escape from the others and from the police, but whether it's an act of altruism or pure self-interest becomes the central question of the film.

Co-star Louise Brooks was blunt in her criticism of the movie: "[William Wellman] directed the opening sequence with a sure, dramatic swiftness that the rest of the film lacked." But of Beery, Brooks said, "His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece."

She's right. Beery plays Oklahoma Red as complex man rather than as a stock villain and, in addition to watching a key early Brooks performance, watching his internal contradictions play out is the main reason to track down this film. It's probably his most overlooked performance in a career that included starring roles in Grand Hotel, Dinner At Eight, Treasure Island and Min And Bill, and Oscar nominations for The Big House and The Champ, the latter a winner for Beery in 1931.

But Brooks was also right about the film overall. The action is repetitive, the acting outside that of Beery and Brooks is amateurish and for a movie inspired by a desire to show what riding the rails was really like, its insights sometimes feel shallow and cliched.

The same year, Ernest Torrence turned in an equally good performance in a better movie, Buster Keaton's classic Steamboat Bill. Jr., and he's my choice for the best supporting actor of 1928-29.

If Buster Keaton was the Great Stoneface because his comedy came from his lack of expression, then Torrence just had a face like an outcropping of stone—granite cheekbones, a long, hard jaw, and a nose that hung so precipitously over his lower lip, it was a danger to anyone who sheltered underneath it.

That face and his imposing size (he was 6'4") made Torrence a natural villain in the Silent Era when filmmakers relied on visual shorthand to tell their stories, but he had surprising range and a fan of silent movies is probably aware of his roles as Peter in Cecil B. DeMille's King Of Kings, the opportunistic rabble-rouser Clopin in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Captain Hook in 1924's Peter Pan and the unlikely but effective love interest in the Clara Bow romance Mantrap.

Here, he plays Steamboat Bill, father to Buster Keaton's college graduate, Willie, and Torrence is one mightily p.o.'ed Popeye who at any moment might pop you one with the fist at the end of his powerful forearm. He provides the perfect comic foil to Keaton who looks like he's never been mad at anything in his life.

The story is simple but the execution is brilliant. Steam- boat Bill's reign as the top steam ship captain of River Junction is threatened by the arrival of a newer, larger, more opulent steamboat bankrolled by Bill's rival in town, John James King. While trouble brews between the two men, Bill's long-lost son in the form of Buster Keaton shows up. Not only is his son Willie completely unsuitable to work on his father's boat, he's also in love with rival King's daughter.

Hilarity ensues. Seriously. This ranks with The General as the funniest movie Keaton ever made.

Director Charles Reisner (and an uncredited Keaton) play up the odd couple story to great effect, the gruff, working class father disappointed in his college-educated son who arrives in town with a ukelele, a beret and a pencil-thin moustache. It helps that Torrence was an inch shy of being a full foot taller than Keaton (who was 5'5") and has shoulders broader than Keaton is tall.

Torrence proved to be a perfect straight man for Keaton, whose understated brand of comedy needed something big to play against, whether it was a train and the Union army in The General or Torrence and a hurricane in Steamboat Bill, Jr. But typical of Torrence's work, he doesn't play the role of father as a one-note villain. Steamboat Bill is unlike his son and doesn't understand him, but Torrence also shows a patient and protective side that makes him a three-dimensional father rather than a one-dimensional ogre. This bit of nuance truly enhances the comedy, which as I said is as good as anything Keaton ever did, which means it's as good as anything anybody ever did.

Despite its brilliance, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not a success at the box office. Buster Keaton was always an acquired taste and by 1928, audiences had tired of him even as he was reaching his peak.

Torrence's career didn't suffer from the commercial disappointment though. He successfully negotiated the leap to sound movies and made nineteen more films before dying suddenly in 1933 of complications after surgery for gall stones. He was only fifty-four.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1928-29, Part One: The Nominees And The Problem Of Film Preservation

It's quite possible that the best sup- porting per- formance of the year was turned in not by my choice (who I will not reveal just yet) but by Lewis Stone, remembered now mostly for his recurring role as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movie series (or perhaps for speaking the famous final line of Grand Hotel: "People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.").

But Stone was also a very fine character actor and he received his only Oscar nomination in 1928-29 for his performance in the Ernst Lubitsch movie The Patriot. For contemporary accounts, Stone's role was probably more of a supporting one (the Oscars didn't distinguish between lead and supporting performances back then) and if it's as good as people eighty years ago thought it was, he'd be a very good choice for the Katie Award for best supporting actor.

Unfortunately, like many silent films, The Patriot long ago vanished, leaving only a few fragments and it's impossible to tell from the trailer I've posted here, which focuses on the lead actor, Emil Jannings, what Lewis Stone did that so enchanted audiences and critics alike.

Jannings, as you may recall, won the first Oscar for acting but in this trailer at least, he serves up more ham in three minutes than you'd find in one of those two pound sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli. As for Stone, except for a single mention, the trailer ignores him completely.

And while you might be okay with giving an award for a performance you have never and will never see, Katie-Bar-The-Door doesn't put up with that sort of nonsense and I answer to her, not to you. So I had to pass on Stone and The Patriot.

I gave serious thought to shoe-horning Lewis Stone into the award for his supporting performance in A Woman Of Affairs, the third movie pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, and the first of seven movies Stone made with Garbo. Stone was quite good in the thankless role of the family doctor and friend who stands around being wise while everyone behaves like a jackass, good enough to earn at least a nomination.

But in the end, the preposterous nature of the story, about a woman who destroys herself and everyone around her to protect the reputation of a man hardly worth protecting, undermines Stone's effort, leaving him hanging, as they say, like an elephant on a clothesline.

Stone starred in another Garbo movie in 1929, Wild Orchids, in which he plays a cuckolded husband who gets his revenge while on a tiger hunt with a Javanese prince. The New York Times called his performance "splendid," others have called it "solid," but quite frankly the story is even dumber than the one in A Woman Of Affairs (and I like Garbo). So a nomination for Stone, admiration for a long career that covered nearly forty years and a hundred and fifty movies, but no Katie.

Also missing in action, thanks to Hollywood's shoddy treatment of its own past, is Reginald Owen in The Letter. Readers of my generation may remember Owen best as Admiral Boom in 1964's Mary Poppins, but he was also a hard-working character actor and always worth a look come award time. Unfortunately, as I will discuss at greater length when I write about the brief life of Oscar-nominee Jeanne Eagels, The Letter is partially lost and what is left sits in a film archive, unavailable for viewing except for rare exhibitions—which is my way of saying I haven't seen it and am not likely to anytime soon.

Another possible nominee was veteran character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz for his role in Greta Garbo's The Mysterious Lady, but in the end his sole mode of acting, a holdover I suppose from the Silent Era, is to glower. He juts out his long, granite chin, beetles his eyebrows and glowers angrily. And then when watching other von Seyffertitz performances, I began to realize he glowers a lot. Like all the time. He was Hollywood's go-to guy for glowering. You want to hand out an award for glowering, von Seyffertitz was your man (okay, I like the word "glower"), but you want an actor with a bit of range, you look elsewhere.

I also considered Donald Calthrop who plays a twitchy little weasel in the first Alfred Hitchcock talkie, Blackmail. He's pretty good in it, but overall, it's not one of Hitchcock's better efforts and given that Hitchcock and his oeuvre will wind up being well-represented during the course of this blog, I didn't see any need to make more of Calthrop's performance than it deserves.

Which to my mind leaves two major contenders for the prize of best supporting actor of 1928-29, Ernest Torrence in Buster Keaton's comedy classic, Steamboat Bill Jr., and Wallace Beery in the movie that vaulted Louise Brooks to the first rank of American silent actresses, Beggars Of Life.

I'll talk about both of them in my next post and then bless one of them with a coveted Katie.

[To continue to Part Two, click here.]