Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hokey Smoke, Bullwinkle! The Monkey Wins A Prize!

Remember the Great Citizen Kane Debate that True Classics hosted a couple of weeks back? The one with prizes, such as Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray, for the best essay?

I'll let the good people at True Classics speak for themselves:

The entries that we received for the Great Citizen Kane Debate were above and beyond our expectations. After quite a bit of reading (and re-reading) and discussion amongst ourselves, we have determined the prize winners!

The voting was quite close, particularly between first and second place, and we want to commend each and every blogger who participated for writing some truly thought-provoking, intriguing entries.

Without further ado …

First Place: The Mythical Monkey (A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies) for his insightful and humorous entry, Citizen Kane: Best Ever? Monkey raises some interesting questions about the film, and we felt that his approach to the debate was extremely well-written, refreshingly honest, logical, and heartfelt ...

As I told True Classics in an e.e. cummings style e-mail last night: "holy cow! i wasn't expecting that. considering the level of competition -- there were a lot of really well-written essays -- this is a genuine honor. thanks so very much."

That's not false modesty, just a simple statement of fact. But I'll take it. I make it a policy never to turn down free DVDs.

In second place was Rachel from The Girl with the White Parasol. Third, was Jill Kittenbiscuits of Sittin' On A Backyard Fence.

You can read my original post here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Favorite Mary Pickford Movie: Stella Maris (1918)

I'm working on a review of the classic Mary Pickford film Stella Maris, which if I work well this week, will be up by Friday. But the whole point of the review is to encourage you to see the movie, so why not cut out the middle man?

In terms of its narrative, Stella Maris has both feet planted firmly in the Charles Dickens tradition, with a rich girl (Pickford) crossing paths with a poor one (an unrecognizable Pickford in a dual role). Great, melodramatic stuff.

Whoever uploaded this to YouTube very cleverly left off the soundtrack. That's how they get you, in case you didn't know—the movie itself is in the public domain, but the soundtrack isn't and so the studio can reassert control of the movie through the music rights. That's why It's A Wonderful Life isn't on television twenty-eight hours a day during the Christmas season anymore—the film itself is in the public domain, but the score isn't.

Which is a real problem for a talkie, but a silent movie, well, I just provide my own soundtrack, probably Oscar Peterson's Night Train, which is what I've been listening to lately.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Monkey At Sharpologist #2

My latest post about "Shaving in Hollywood" is up and running at Sharpologist, the online magazine devoted to shaving and grooming for men. This month, I've picked a number of memorable shaving scenes from the history of movies, including clips from the likes of Buster Keaton, Bugs Bunny, Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood—videos and links to twenty-one movies in all.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Variations On A Gag #1—The Comedian As Sanitarium Patient

Stealing is a time honored tradition among comedians, and God bless them, I say—thanks to their thieving ways, we can directly compare comedy acts with different styles and of different eras and get a sense of what each brings to the table.

This is especially true, I think, where as here, the players are not at the top of their games. Great work tends to transcend its source material, and even if it's still identifiably the work of its creator, largely becomes something unique. Merely good work, on the other hand, especially when done in a hurry for money, tends to reveal its creator's default tendencies.

In this case, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Three Stooges all check themselves in as patients in a sanitarium and in each case, you can see them race for the tried and true. Chaplin leans on repetition and rhythm, Arbuckle on pratfalls and cross-dressing, the Stooges on destructive ineptitude. All did better work, but none more typical.

Charles Chaplin in The Cure (1917).

Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in Good Night, Nurse (1918).

The Three Stooges in Monkey Businessmen (1946) (in two parts).

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Mouse Turns 83 Today

Today is the 83rd anniversary of Steamboat Willie, the Walt Disney cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Here's what I previously wrote about it.

In the summer of 1928, around the time Buster Keaton's latest comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr., hit theaters, a young animator named Walt Disney was looking for a vehicle to launch his struggling studio's latest creation, a cartoon mouse by the name of Mickey. On November 18, 1928, the animated short Steamboat Willie premiered at New York's 79th Street Theater.

The rest, as they say, is history. Mickey Mouse soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the movies' most popular cartoon character, appearing in hundreds of shorts, feature-length films and television shows over the next eighty years, as well as serving as the corporate symbol of the largest media conglomerate in the world. But if Disney had had his way, the famous mouse would have been a rabbit and history's most beloved pants-wearing rodent might never have made it off the drawing board.

Disney had only just launched his own studio when he and his chief animator, Ub Iwerks, created a series of animated cartoons centered around a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The series was a smash hit but unfortunately for Disney, distributor Universal Studios wound up owning the character. Universal hired away most of Disney's animators (all but the loyal Iwerks), wrested control of Oswald from Disney and left his fledgling studio on the verge of bankruptcy.

Desperate for a new franchise to fill the gap, Disney and Iwerks quickly came up with an animated mouse they dubbed Mortimer—soon changed to Mickey at the insistence of Disney's wife, Lillian. After two silent Mickey Mouse shorts, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, failed to find a buyer, Disney produced a short with sound, a loose parody of Keaton's latest film.

Steamboat Willie was an immediate hit and is still considered one of the most important cartoons ever produced. In 1994, a group of one thousand animators chose it as the thirteenth greatest cartoon of all time and four years later, the National Film Registry selected Steamboat Willie for preservation in the Library of Congress.

Walt Disney, by the way, was nominated for fifty-nine Oscars, winning twenty-six of them, including four in one year, all records. Ironically, though, he didn't win for Steamboat Willie, one of the most important works of his career—there simply was no category of "cartoon short" at that time.

We'll correct that oversight now. For creating Mickey Mouse in 1928, I'm giving Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks honorary Katie Awards.

Make a little more room on the mantlepiece, fellas.

Trivia: Maybe you knew this, but I didn't: Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1946.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Pola Negri Double Feature: The Eyes Of The Mummy And Carmen

Before Marlene Dietrich, before Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren or even Greta Garbo, Polish film star Pola Negri made the journey from Europe to Hollywood and found fame in America, the first European film actress to succeed on both sides of the Atlantic.

She was born Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec in what is now Poland in 1897, fashioning the name "Pola Negri" for herself (after Italian poet Ada Negri) during her confinement to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. After Russian authorities sent Negri's father to Siberia as a revolutionary, Negri and her mother moved to Warsaw where Negri studied ballet and eventually found success on the stage and screen.

During World War I, she moved to Berlin where she caught the attention of Ernst Lubitsch who signed her to a movie contract at Universum Film AG ("UFA"), Germany's best studio and, until the Nazis took power in 1933, one of the most influential in the world. After a half dozen low-budget films with other directors, Lubitsch in 1918 cast Negri as the lead in Die Augen der Mumie Ma—"The Eyes of the Mummy."

We remember Lubitsch now for his witty, sophisticated comedies, but during his early career in Germany, he alternated between broad farces and serious dramas. The former usually starred Ossi Oswalda, the latter, Negri. Despite its lurid title, The Eyes of the Mummy wasn't a horror picture but a tragic romance, the story of a young woman (Negri) rescued from the Egyptian tombs where her captor (Emil Jannings) has held her for years only to find him stalking her anew through the posh capitals of Europe.

The Eyes of the Mummy is a minor entry in the Lubitsch canon, and Negri is still a raw young actress (she was just twenty-one when filming began), but somebody connected with the film—the screenwriters, Lubitsch, Negri—knew something about the psychology of stalking from the point of view of both the stalker and the victim, and Negri is effective as a lusty child-woman slavishly devoted to whichever man possesses her at any given moment.

Better is Lubitsch's next collaboration with Negri, a film version of Prosper Mérimée's novel, Carmen. Adapted to film as early as 1907, the story of a soldier who throws over his family, his fiancee and his honor for a beautiful gypsy smuggler with tragic results has spawned dozens of versions over the years and was familiar enough to audiences that Charlie Chaplin could film a spoof of it, A Burlesque on Carmen, in 1915. Stripped of its Spanish setting, Carmen is essentially a retelling of Eve and the apple, and while I agree with Nero Wolfe's sidekick Archie Goodwin that "[n]o man was ever taken to hell by a woman unless he already had a ticket in his pocket, or at least had been fooling around with timetables," that doesn't mean this oft-repeated formula doesn't work; indeed, it forms the basis of much of literature, film noir and some of the more brutal aspects of many of the world's cultures.

The key to Carmen is, of course, the actress playing the title role. You have to believe that an honorable man would throw away his good name, a promising career and a faithful fiancee for a romp with a treacherous tramp. Although the print of Carmen has deteriorated beyond repair in places, it's still possible to see what both Don José and movie audiences saw in Pola Negri's Carmen—she's ripe and sensual, with large eyes full of promises she has no intention of keeping.

Better men than Don José have given up a whole lot more for a whole lot less.

"Love is disgusting," Negri herself later opined, "when you no longer possess yourself."

Negri and Lubitsch made a total of eight movies together, each better than the one before it. In addition to The Eyes of the Mummy and Carmen, they made Madame DuBarry (a.k.a Passion) and Rausch (both 1919), Sumurun (a.ka. One Arabian Night) (1920), Die Bergkatze ("The Wildcat") (1921), Die Flamme (1923) and Forbidden Paradise (made in Hollywood in 1924 for Paramount).

Negri's collaboration with Lubitsch made her an international star, and so great was her reputation that the U.S. finally dropped its embargo of German films (instituted during the war) just to satisfy popular curiosity. After the success of Carmen (released in the United States in 1921 as Gypsy Blood), Negri signed with Paramount and arrived in New York in September 1922.

She quickly supplanted Theda Bara as silent film's top sex symbol and while (thanks to the vagaries of film preservation) I can't compare Negri to Bara's most famous role, Cleopatra, if Bara's surviving film A Fool There Was is any indicator, Negri was lightyears beyond her in terms of projecting sexuality on the screen. Was Negri a great actress? I'm not sure. But judging from the reaction of audiences when her European films finally made their way to America, she was revolutionary.

The films with Lubitsch also represented Negri at the top of her popularity. Despite begging her to come to Hollywood, Paramount didn't really know what to do with Negri and as her star faded, she became even more theatrical and haughty, which poisoned her relationship to both the studio and her audience.

When in 1926, the press decided her engagement to the recently deceased Rudolph Valentino was a fabrication, the public was done with her. To her dying day, Negri insisted that the engagement was real and told the Los Angeles Times shortly before her death, "Rudy was the great love of my life. I remember him with great regret. Somehow, the fates changed what wasn't to be. You can't rage with anger against it, and even though you love someone, you like to be with them and want to marry them and hope that it will all work out this time ... but he died, just when we were engaged to be married."

She was also briefly engaged to Charlie Chaplin who jilted her soon after giving her a $15,000 engagement ring. Negri's revenge? She gave the ring to her Forbidden Paradise co-star, Rod La Rocque.

She later married a Georgian prince, Serge Mdivani, who left her for an opera singer after Negri lost her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. After their divorce, Negri lived with Margaret West, a Texas oil heiress, until the latter's death in 1963.

"No one could believe that we were closest friends, that nothing sexual was involved," she wrote in her autobiography. "Yet it is true. She was as close a friend as I've ever had."

When talkies came in, Negri's thick accent relegated her to supporting roles. Despite a measure of success in such films as A Woman Commands—she had a hit with the song "Paradise"—she retreated to Europe and retired in 1943, making one last picture in 1964, The Moon-Spinners, at Walt Disney's personal behest. Her London press conference promoting the film was a sensation—she showed up with a live cheetah on a chain leash.

Negri died on August 1, 1987, in San Antonio, Texas. She was 90 years old.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday # 22: The Cane From Citizen Kane

Stumbled across this on Sittin' On A Backyard Fence, Jill Kittenbiscuits' blog.

There are other equally nutty takes on Citizen Kane. I recommend you pay Kittenbiscuits a visit.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy Birthday, Louise Brooks

I once told my pal, Mister Muleboy, I wanted to be able to reprint an old post every day of the year. I was only half joking. This one is from 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Citizen Kane: Best Ever?

The good people at True Classics are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Citizen Kane this month by admitting that while they respect it and recognize its historical importance, they don't actually much like Citizen Kane.

But they're open-minded. True Classics is holding a contest, complete with some really sweet prizes, including Citizen Kane on Blu-Ray. All you have to do is to write a post "defend[ing] Kane's position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or knock[ing] it off its storied pedestal."

Oh, by Sunday. Did I mention that?

Without going into my usual detail—which is to say, without all the extra yammering that makes the Monkey what it is—these are my thoughts on the subject:

Here's the thing: I can't tell you what you like, or that you're wrong for not liking it. Taste is a purely personal phenomenon. For example, Katie-Bar-The-Door hates cilantro—she's one of the ten percent of the population whose taste buds think cilantro tastes like soap. And who wants soap on their food? Me, it's mango I can't abide. To me, it tastes like feet—and not cute Katie feet with pink-painted toenails, either, but sweaty-feet-that-have-just-run-ten-miles-in-a-ratty-pair-of-sneakers feet.


Can you say either of us are wrong? To you, cilantro or mango might taste like, well, whatever they're supposed to taste like, and you like the way they taste, and I say, lucky you. But since neither Katie nor I can borrow your taste buds, your opinion doesn't hold much water here at the Monkey.

Of course, that leeway works both ways. If you don't like
Citizen Kane, you don't like it, and that's okay with me. But neither can you tell me that I don't like it, because, well, I do. We can like or not like anything we want, but whatever our respective opinions, we have to own them.

Not that they've been anything other than polite about it at True Classics—they're truly classy at True Classics. They're just asking.

So why
do I like it? What's its claim to the top of the Movie Mountain Heap?

Which are two different questions.

I'll skip the discussion of Kane's importance in film history, which seems well-established and which True Classics doesn't contest. Kane didn't invent modern cinema, but it did rediscover the old one, the artistic, flowing, subjective camera that was lost during the transition from silent to sound pictures. (See, e.g., Sunrise, Metropolis, The Last Laugh, etc.)

And I suspect film noir wouldn't have looked like film noir without Citizen Kane. In fact, now that I think about it, you could make an argument that Kane was the first film noir.

As for liking it, well, first off, I find the story and the characters absorbing, the ebb and flow of relationships—between Kane and Jed Leland, between Kane and his two wives, between Kane and his ambitions—and the disillusionment that eventually sets in as a man with a seemingly unlimited amount of money discovers the limits of his money's reach. And if he can't have it all, how can any of us? (Indeed, can the things most worth having—love, affection, respect, satisfaction, self-worth, peace of mind—even be purchased with money? Money can make people fear you, and for a while it can even fool them into thinking they respect you, but it can't make them like you.)

Here's something else to think about—is Rosebud the reason or is Rosebud the excuse? Or to put it another way, is Kane broken or is Kane simply an egomaniac who wants it all? Or is that the same thing? Because one thing I've learned from all that history I studied in school and after is that it's difficult to achieve real greatness without also having within you the demons that can lead to your downfall. Indeed, the very thing that makes a man great is also, when applied to the wrong situation, the very thing that leads to his ruin. As a study of a great man's fall, Citizen Kane is a Shakespearean tragedy that stands alongside King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

But more than its large, operatic aspects, it's the fact that Kane also works on a deeply personal level that makes it resonate for me. Kane is above all else an uncompromising look at aging—the waning energy, the missed opportunities and the nagging sense as your days grow dim that nothing you've accomplished is going to make a damn bit of difference when you're gone—certainly nothing you accomplish can stop you from one day being gone, and that's a sobering enough thought for most of us.

Kane the best movie ever made? How can that even be defined? No one movie can ever satisfy every single urge or taste. Sometimes I want to see a comedy, sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance. Sometimes I want fun-stupid and sometimes I want to take a nap. And sometimes I want something so involving I lose myself in it and come out the other end with a different sense of who I am and what it all means.

For me,
Kane is one of those transformative movie experiences.

Fortunately, there's no real need to answer the question. Unless you're actually planning on being shipwrecked on a desert island with a DVD player and a single DVD—and if you are, I'd recommend "How To Build A Boat" over Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind or any other candidate for best movie of all time—there's no reason why you shouldn't see Kane, and a lot of other movies besides.

At the very least, you'll be able to say whether or not you liked it, and might even be able to say why.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Looking Ahead: Katie-Bar-The-Door Award Winners, 1927-1939

In case you care, I've roughed out the nominees and winners of the Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards from 1927 through 1939—they're not complete, and they're not carved in stone, but then neither am I.

Click here.

Tomorrow or the next day, I'll be uploading a new article to—Ten Memorable Movie Shaving Scenes. (And if you missed the first installment of "Shaving in Hollywood," click here.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett And Film

Did you know that Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett collaborated on a film together? No, me neither, but as I discovered over at Pretty Clever Films, they did, in 1965.

The result, called Film, was undoubtedly the strangest entry in the Keaton canon. I won't explain it to you—because I can't—but it has something to do with Bishop George Berkeley's philosophical idea, "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"), proposed in 1710, which I think means that there is no objective reality, only our perception of reality, and that apparently when we leave the room and stop perceiving it, reality dissolves back into the dew of our ideas.

Or something like that. I'm strictly "a chair is a chair whether I'm there or not" man, myself, so I don't really buy into any of this. But there's a bit in the middle of the film involving Buster, a dog and a cat that is definitely more Keaton than Beckett, so I found this 17 minutes worth watching.

You may decide otherwise.

Appropriately, the film was completely silent.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hearts Of The World (1918)

When America went to war in 1917, Hollywood—motivated by a mix of patriotism and profit motive—went to war with it. Some made propaganda pictures (Mary Pickford's The Little American and Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania), some made serious drama (Thomas Ince's Civilization), Chaplin even made a classic comedy (Shoulder Arms). And everybody made one-reel shorts promoting the purchase of war bonds.

So it's no surprise that D.W. Griffith—still regarded in 1918 as the world's greatest director—should also enter the fray. And he would seem to have been a natural for the job. He was already a proven master at staging battle scenes. His fame gave him and his cameras access to the front lines. And you would think that a man so devoted to Victorian morality would have something to say as war daily blasted the Old Order into dust.

Too bad, then, that the resulting movie, Hearts of the World, is such a lousy picture.

Griffith billed the movie in an early intertitle as "[a]n old fashioned play with a new fashioned theme." He wasn't lying as it turned out. Hearts of the World is not my first D.W. Griffith movie—including the Biograph shorts, this was in fact my 70th—and I can tell you that the story of a young couple torn apart by war is cobbled together from the plots of several early Griffith films, particularly The Unseen Enemy, In The Border States, Swords and Hearts and, of course, The Birth of a Nation.

The result is stale, overly sentimentalized and unconvincing.

The couple in question is played by Robert Harron and Lillian Gish as two Americans living with their respective families in a small French village on the Franco-German border. War breaks out days before the couple's impending nuptials, which proves inconvenient for everyone involved—the Boy volunteers for the French army, is soon wounded in battle and is presumed dead; the Girl is trapped behind enemy lines and put to work in the fields; and the conflict that consumed all of Europe is reduced to the question of whether the Boy can rescue the Girl before the evil German officer "von Strohm" has his way with her.

This wasn't the first (or last) time Griffith reduced a complex historical event to a question of who would get into Lillian Gish's underpants first, and as propaganda, the rallying cry of "Quick, boys, join the Army and save Lillian's virginity!" pales next to such classics as "The Yanks Are Coming" and "Uncle Sam Wants You!"

Hearts of the World does not represent Gish at her best. I've praised her at length before (in my review of The Wind, for example), but here she uncharacter- istically overacts. Rather than allowing her pain and suffering to well up gently from some hidden inner source, as she did in the wonderfully understated manner of Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and The Wind, Gish offers up a grotesque pantomime of grief, panic and temporary insanity.

Her co-star, Robert Harron, is, if anything, even worse. In previous pictures such as Judith of Bethulia, Hoodoo Ann and Intolerance, Harron was highly effective playing a young man in love, but in those movies, he was paired with Mae Marsh, not Gish, and while Marsh could never match Gish's ability to project pain and anguish—no one could—she had a mischievous light in her eye that made her good girls exciting. Marsh made Harron seem much more interesting than he really was—he must have something on the ball, the viewer figures, to send Marsh into such a tizzy—and when he falls for her and fights for her, it's to his credit. But by 1918, Marsh had moved on to greener pastures, and against Gish's reticence and rectitude, Harron could strike no spark.

Hearts of the World might have overcome the limitations of its bland central romance, though, if the battle scenes had lived up to their claim of authenticity. As a short prologue trumpets, the British government had allowed Griffith and his cameras unprecedented access to the front lines, but aside from some brief documentary footage of tanks, dirigibles and trench mortars, the battle scenes are flat and with no sense of the realities of trench warfare. Armies run back and forth as easily as school boys playing Capture the Flag, and with a cavalry charge, a bayonet thrust and the toss of a grenade, the bloody stalemate that in reality lasted for years and cost millions of lives is decided—and just in the nick of time. Hooray!

If you want to see how to do it right, I'd suggest either The Big Parade (1925) or All Quiet On The Western Front (1930).

And yet for all its flaws, there's a story worth telling hidden in Hearts of the World in the form of Dorothy Gish—Lillian's little sister—who here provides the film's comic relief. "The Little Disturber," as she is called, is a traveling street musician who takes a fancy to Robert Harron on the eve of his betrothal. Like the actress who played her, the Disturber is a gawky free spirit, funny and flirty and full of life. She knows what lips and hand grenades are for, and she does plenty of kissing and killing in her twenty minutes or so of screen time.

In fact, Dorothy reminded me a bit of another war film heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, and it occurred to me that the problem with D.W. Griffith as his career wore on is that he was the kind of guy who would read Gone With The Wind and think the story was about Melanie.

What Lillian did well, she did better than anybody, but she couldn't play a conventional romantic lead and anyway, nobody could play Griffith's idea of a Victorian dream woman, part saint, part virgin goddess. It's a consistent failing of Griffith's that he failed to see that the "bad" girl was more interesting than the "good" one. Like a grumpy grandpa hectoring the kids to "get off the damn lawn," Griffith's insistence that girls who wear perfume and lipstick and fashionable hats are harlots luring our pure boys away from the joys of wholesome domestic drudgery was already comically out of date by 1918. By the height of the Jazz Age, it would be downright archaic.

Fortunately, audiences could see what Griffith couldn't. Her supporting performance made Dorothy a star in her own right and in 1919, she was offered a $1 million contract to do five films. (She turned it down, saying, "At my age all that money would ruin my character.")

Like Lillian, Dorothy's off-screen personality matched her on-screen persona: she was funny and roguish and fun, and mostly played in comedies during the silent era. Despite their different temperaments, though, the two sisters remained close and never considered themselves rivals.

When talkies came in, Dorothy departed Hollywood for the stage where she performed for the rest of her life. She made only four sound movies and a smattering of television, making her final appearance in Otto Preminger's 1963 film, The Cardinal. After a long illness, Dorothy died in Italy at the age of seventy.

Artistically, Hearts of the World was Griffith's first serious stumble, and though he would right himself with such classics as Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm, the writing was on the wall. Increasingly, the public found Griffith's Victorian morality tales stuffy and old-fashioned and his audiences melted away. Griffith made his last film in 1931.