Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year In Review (2011)

Note: my year, not the year, which would require me to write about recent movies, politics, current events and a lot of other stuff I'm not qualified to yack about.

If you're new to the Monkey, this might serve as a good introduction to the blog. If you're a veteran, well, you can warm yourself at the glow of these twice-stirred embers.

10. Reposting
Lazy dreaming led to a lot of reposting this year and these about Georges Méliès, Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton and Clara Bow proved to be more popular—and timely—the second time around.

9. Buster Keaton's Pie Recipe
Speaking of Buster Keaton, this was the tastiest entry of the year, a recipe from the greatest silent comedian of them all for the perfect pie-throwing pie. Mrs. Smith's it ain't.

8. Major Awards
No, not a leg lamp, but almost as good—a box of DVDs from the good people at True Classics for an essay answering the age-old question, "Citizen Kane: Best Ever?" and Blog of the Month at the greatest blog of them all, If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats. Not to mention the Liebster Blog Award, the Stylish Blogger Award and Katie-Bar-The-Door's unexplained but greatly appreciated willingness to let me hang around with her for twenty-two years running.

7. Sharpologist
The Monkey's other cyberspace gig, an infrequent column about shaving in Hollywood movies, starting here.

6. That's Typing Tuesday
A fairly regular feature here at the Monkey, in which I share unpolished, unpublished writings from my vast store of unpolished, unpublished writings (on Tuesdays), That's Typing Tuesday produced my single-most clicked upon post of the year, some random musings about The Sound of Music.

5. Accidental Substance
Every once in a while I actually manage to write about what I profess to write about—movies and people from the past that you should know about.

4. The Dick Van Dyke Show At Fifty
This one-shot foray into the world of classic television was a pure pleasure to write.

3. The On-Going Silent Oscars Series
My attempt to write the history of silent movies through a series of multi-part essays. Wish the effort were going faster.

2.Report From The Willow Manor Ball: In Cyberspace, No One Can See You Dance
Tess Kincaid of Life at Willow Manor throws a mean party and it got a whole lot meaner when the Mythical Monkey, Katie-Bar-The-Door and the cast of The Thing From Another World showed up. Some free advice: if James "Disco Inferno" Arness shows up at your New Years Eve bash tonight, keep a fire extinguisher handy.

1.Cary Grant Has A Cold
A case of writer's block meets an odd-ball celebrity quote and results in my favorite post of the year.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011


Long-time followers of the Monkey have probably begun to suspect what I already know—that I suffer from the rarely-diagnosed and as-yet medically-unrecognized Bipolar Comment Disorder (BCD). Which means that sometimes I respond enthusiastically to every comment you leave and sometimes I don't respond at all. The latter is not a result of a waning in my affection and appreciation for your cyber-presence, but is a reflection of the dullness of my mood, the low level of my energy or, in the case of this last weekend, the geographical distance from my computer (I am one of six people in America without an iPad, iPhone or iAnythingElse—why, I'm not even on Facebook).

Such behavior is generally considered rude in the blogosphere.

So to Rachel, Thingy, Brandie, Philip Sumpter, Yvette, Bellotoot, Juliette, Who Am Us, Janice Below, VP81955, Mister Muleboy, John Baxter, Mark Bourne, and especially to you, Dawn, who chose my "Christmas Movies You May Have Forgotten Are Christmas Movies" as the post of the week last week, I most humbly apologize and say "God bless you, God bless you everyone!"

I will resolve to be more consistently responsive in the coming year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1918

winner: Stella Maris (prod. Paramount/Artcraft Films)
nominees: Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw And His Wife) (prod. Charles Magnusson); A Dog's Life (prod. Charles Chaplin); Old Wives For New (prod. Cecil B. DeMille); Shoulder Arms (prod. Charles Chaplin)
Must-See Movies: Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw And His Wife); A Dog's Life; Old Wives For New; Shoulder Arms; Stella Maris
Recommended Films: Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley; The Blue Bird; The Married Virgin; Tih Minh
Of Interest: Die Augen der Mumie Ma a.k.a. Eyes Of The Mummy; Carmen a.k.a. Gypsy Blood); Hearts of the World; Himmelskibet, a.k.a. A Trip To Mars; The Sinking Of The Lusitania; Tarzan of the Apes

winner: Victor Sjöström (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru a.k.a.The Outlaw And His Wife)
nominees: Roscoe Arbuckle (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts); Charles Chaplin (A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms); Elliott Dexter (Old Wives For New); William S. Hart (Blue Blazes Rawden); Harold Lloyd (The Harold Lloyd Short Comedies)

winner: Pola Negri (Die Augen der Mumie Ma a.k.a. Eyes Of The Mummy and Carmen a.k.a. Gypsy Blood)
nominees: Mabel Normand (Mickey); Ossi Oswalda (Ich möchte kein Mann sein a.k.a. I Don't Want To Be A Man); Mary Pickford (Stella Maris and Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley); Norma Talmadge (The Forbidden City)

winner: Cecil B. DeMille (Old Wives For New)
nominees: Charles Chaplin (A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms); Marshall A. Neilan (Stella Maris and Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley); Victor Sjöström (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru a.k.a. The Outlaw And His Wife); Maurice Tourneur (The Blue Bird)

winner: Theodore Roberts (Old Wives For New)
nominees: Snub Pollard (The Harold Lloyd Comedy Shorts); Rudolph Valentino (The Married Virgin)

winner: Dorothy Gish (Hearts of the World)
nominees: Sylvia Ashton (Old Wives For New); Kathleen Kirkham (The Married Virgin); Florence Vidor (Old Wives For New)

winner: Jeanie Macpherson, from a novel by David Graham Phillips (Old Wives For New)
nominees: Frances Marion, from a novel by Belle K. Maniates (Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley); Charles Chaplin (A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms); Frances Marion, from a novel by William J. Locke (Stella Maris)

Winsor McCay (The Sinking of the Lusitania) (Animation); Walter Stradling (Stella Maris) (Cinematography)

Just to give you an idea of what I'm working on. I've already written a reviews of Pola Negri's movies and of Hearts of the World and will be writing reviews of the other winners. Eventually. I've also queued up a review of the year 2011 in purely egocentric terms. That will appear early Saturday morning. I also posted a stand-alone page with more Katie-Bar-The-Door Award winners, this time for 1940. Oh, goody. And I'll probably write something tomorrow, too—finishing the year with a florish.

I'll bet you can hardly wait.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Screaming Meme

One of my favorite fellow bloggers, Rachel at The Girl with the White Parasol, has come up with a New Years "meme"—12 questions, including a New Years resolution. Since I'm back in town after a long Christmas trip, perhaps this will help me edge back into the blogging habit.

1. What is your all-time favorite Grace Kelly costume?
Whatever she was wearing as she makes her first appearance in Rear Window. Red lips, wetly parted, mostly. Humina.

2. What classic film would you nominate for a remake?
To me there are two kinds of movies that should be remade: one with a good idea not fully realized (i.e., the first two versions of The Maltese Falcon before John Huston and Humphrey Bogart got hold of it and finally did it right), or a hardy perennial every generation should leave its stamp on—Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare.

Perchance that will suggest something to you.

3. Name your favorite femme fatale.
That's easy, Jane Greer, the only femme fatale in movie history I'd let shoot me.

4. Name the best movie with the word "heaven" in its title.
Best? Can't say. Favorite? Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which I wrote about here.

5. Describe the worst performance by a child actor that you’ve ever seen (since Laura gave me the idea).
Whoever the kids were in the Cary Grant-Sophia Loren comedy Houseboat. Utterly charmless, throughly annoying. And I like kids.

6. Who gets your vote for most tragic movie monster?
Frankenstein's monster, who I wrote about here.

7. What is the one Western that you would recommend to anybody?
Rio Bravo, I think. If you don't like Westerns and you see this one and don't like it either, you can safely skip all the rest. Right, Stumpy?

8. Who is your ideal movie-viewing partner?
Why, Katie-Bar-The-Door, of course. But let's face it—she's my favorite everything partner.

9. Has a film ever made you want to change your life? If so, what was the film?
There are definitely films that have changed my life, which isn't quite the same as saying they made me want to change my life. Here is the story of one of them.

10. Think of one performer that you truly love. Now think of one scene/movie/performance of theirs that is too uncomfortable for you to watch.
Every great star makes at least one true stinker—Cary Grant in The Pride and the Passion, for example—and lots of them hung on long after they should have hung it up (think of Joan Crawford in Trog).

But uncomfortable?

I'm sure I'm forgetting something obvious. Katie-Bar-The-Door will read this and immediately chime in with "What about ...?" When she does, I'll post an addendum.

11. On the flip side, think of one really good scene/performance/movie from a performer that you truly loathe.
Well, I was never particularly a fan of Norma Shearer, but I wound up giving her a Katie-Bar-The-Door award for the comedy Private Lives. Because, frankly, she deserved it.

12. And finally, since it will be New Year's soon, do you have any movie or blogging-related resolutions for 2012?
To keep my eyes on the prize, i.e., finishing the "Silent Oscars" series.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lazy Dreamer

The Monkey (i.e., me) had lunch with faithful readers and longtime pals mister muleboy and bellotoot yesterday. What with commuting with mister muleboy and the long chat with bellotoot, lunch lasted about six hours—a lot of conversation under the bridge, amongst which the topic of my recent lack of blogging came up. I have my reasons—yuletide busyness, post-award modesty, and an essay about Mary Pickford's Stella Maris that stubbornly refuses to write itself—but mostly I think it can all be boiled down to the words of this song by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Liz Phair:

I promise to wake up and get back on track after the new year. Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

That's Typing Tuesday #23: Christmas Movies You May Have Forgetten Are Christmas Movies (A Baker's Dozen)

To quote Liz Lemon, What the what, Monkey? Didn't I read this very post last year? Is this blog to become nothing but an endless series of reposts?

Well, no, it only seems that way. But 'tis the season to be busy and (to quote Bob Dylan) Johnny's been in the basement mixing up the medicine. I'll get back to the serious business of writing the history of silent movies one blog entry at a time after the holidays. If not before.

In the meantime ...

Me, I love Christmas movies—It's A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Scrooge (both the 1951 and 1970 versions), Miracle On 34th Street (1947 only), How The Grinch Stole Christmas. And I could watch little Ralphie Parker's quest for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (with a compass in the stock!) twenty-four hours a day if only some cable channel would think of it.

But a lot of people don't like Christmas or its movies, and that's okay with me. Here are some alternatives which will allow you to acknowledge the season without succumbing to it:

The Thin Man (1934)
Nick and Nora celebrate the holidays in the company of gangsters, thieves and murderers. It was either that or another Christmas at the in-laws'.

"I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune."
"I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids."
"It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."

Holiday (1938)
Most people think of this as a New Year's Eve movie, and rightly so, but if you do the math, the entire first act takes place on Christmas day. And what a Christmas it is—no tree, no egg nog, no mistletoe, no nothing. No presents, either, unless you care to unwrap a tousle-haired Cary Grant. A romantic comedy as wistful as the season itself, Holiday is my favorite Katharine Hepburn movie.

"When I find myself in a position like this, I ask myself what would General Motors do? And then I do the opposite."

Stalag 17 (1953)
Christmas 1944: Grown men in longjohns dancing with other grown men in longjohns while William Holden searches for the Nazi spy hiding out among American prisoners of war. Sounds like the one miserable semester I spent as a student at an all-boys school.

"All right then, gentlemen, we are all friends again. And with Christmas coming on I have a special treat for you—I'll have you all deloused for the holidays."

An Affair To Remember (1957)
Cary Grant is afraid Deborah Kerr is mad at him, but it turns out she's only paralyzed. Whew!

"My mother told me never to enter a man's room in months ending in 'R.'"

The Apartment (1960)
Suicide, adultery, the boss from hell—what man wouldn't gladly suffer it all to spend Christmas in bed with the young Shirley MacLaine. One of the greatest movies of all time, a not-to-be-missed comedy/drama from director Billy Wilder.

"T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring ... nothin' ... no action ... Dullsville!"

The Lion In Winter (1968)
Kings and castles notwithstanding, this is what Christmas is like for millions of people—bickering, recrimination and endless disappointment. Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn at their snarling best.

"What would you have me do? Give out? Give up? Give in?"
"Give me a little peace."
"A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now there's a thought."

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Sure, it stars George Lazenby as James Bond, but it also boasts Diana Rigg, the best Bond girl ever. Holiday connection? Telly Savalas doles out the all-time worst Christmas present—a bio-weapon designed to destroy the world's food supply. What, Best Buy was all out of Wii Bowling?

"This never happened to the other fellow!"

Life Of Brian (1979)
We came oh so close to celebrating Brianmas every 25th of December, until the three wise men realized Jesus was one manger over.

"He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!"

Trading Places (1983)
Ah, Dan Aykroyd as a drunk, pistol-packing Santa Claus. And he's only, like, the fifth funniest guy in the movie. I don't know about you, but I get hungry for salmon and dirt-matted Santa beard every time I see this movie. Yummy.

"I'll bet you thought I'd forgotten your Christmas bonus. There you are."
"Five dollars. Maybe I'll go to the movies—by myself."

Die Hard (1988)
Man, that's some Christmas party—Bruce Willis shoots a dozen men, drops another out a 40th floor window and blows up a building. Good thing he's a cop!

"Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho."

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Ironically, the "Bloody Christmas" incident that sets this labyrinthine mystery in motion is the least bloody scene in the entire movie. My pick as the best picture of 1997.

"You're like Santa Claus with that list, Bud, except everyone on it's been naughty."

Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise's colossal ego threatens his marriage to Nicole Kidman. Thank God it's only a movie! Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut begins at a Christmas party, ends at an orgy. Hmpf. My parties just end in a hangover.

"If you men only knew ..."

The Matador (2005)
What do you do when a hitman shows up at your door on Christmas Eve? Why, invite him in for pie and whiskey, of course! Starring Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis, The Matador was one of the most sadly-underrated comedies of the last decade.

"Come on! It'll be a good time!"
"Oh, so now killing people is a good time?"
"Can be."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Max Linder On His Birthday

It's a busy day here at the Monkeyhouse—Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary, the dog is celebrating her fourth anniversary of being with us, and silent film comedian Max Linder is celebrating his birthday! Who was Max Linder? Why, the first international film superstar, that's who. If you've seen Martin Scorsese's recent movie Hugo, perhaps you spotted a couple of Max Linder posters in the background.

Anyway, in Max's honor, I've stitched together excerpts from three separate essays about silent film comedy into a single post focusing on his life and films.

The first international movie star was Max Linder, a French comedian not just in the style of Charlie Chaplin but the guy Chaplin was often imitating early in his career, a fact Chaplin himself freely acknowledged. Born to a family of vintners in the Bordeaux region of France, Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle joined a troupe of actors touring France. In Paris, he discovered motion pictures and signed with Pathé in 1905, changing his name at the same time. He made over two hundred movies in his career, most as the recurring character "Max," an upper class roué who is a bit baffled by practical matters.

Linder wrote and directed his own films and in the years before World War I, he was the biggest star in Europe.

Unlike most of the comics of this era, Linder largely eschewed the slapstick style of Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in favor of gesture and reaction; and as film historian David Thomson points out, "there was little of the sentimentality that American comedians resorted to."

Thanks to the close-up, a storytelling device unique to film, an actor no longer had to play to the back row of the theater—the camera brought the back row to him. Whether intuitively or by design, Linder realized the broad gestures and inane dialogue of music hall comedy were largely devices for indicating to an audience what to pay attention to as the actors set up a gag. On film, simply lifting an eyebrow would suffice.

While situational comedy had been around since the theater of ancient Greece, until film allowed for recognizable settings, and more importantly, recognizable characters with recognizable needs and desires, film comedy was limited to the most simplistic gags. With a reel of film growing longer—around ten minutes rather than the 45-seconds of the Lumière brothers' standard offering—it became possible for filmmakers to put fully-realized characters and situations on the screen, and so far as I can tell, Linder's "Max" was the first three-dimensional character in the history of movie comedy. You can imagine "Max" existing before the cameras started rolling, continuing to exist after they stopped, and in between, behaving on screen the way a real person would, albeit at the heightened levels required of farce comedy.

With the elbow room to portray an actual character, Linder could derive laughs from the juxtaposition of this character—the dapper aristocrat—and the chaos he created around it, a welcome breakthrough, believe me, if you've suffered through more than a hundred comedy shorts featuring mischievous boys and one-note gags.

Not to mention he was just better at it than anybody else, until Charlie Chaplin came along in 1914 to raise the bar.

Because, as I mentioned before, Linder worked during a time when it was cheaper to buy a camera and steal an idea than to pay the rental fee on the original film, it's easy to compare and contrast the way different filmmakers handled the same comic idea—a laboratory experiment, if you will, in what is and isn't funny.

For example, one of the favorite props used to generate laughs in turn-of-the-century comedies was glue—apparently, a hundred years ago pots of the stuff just sat around waiting for people to fall in it. Alice Guy's La glu (The Glue) (1907) is typical of the era: a mischievous boy brushes glue on various surfaces—a staircase, a bicycle seat—much to the consternation of various adults. Basically a one-joke pony repeated over and over again to no great effect.

Linder, on the other hand, in the one-reeler Max ne se mariera pas (Max Is Stuck Up) (1910), built on the idea the way a classic comedian would. On his way to his fiancee's for dinner, Max stops at a bakery to conduct a little routine business and accidentally gets stuck to a sheet of flypaper. What begins as a minor inconvenience, shrugged off with bonhomie and good humor, becomes a minor annoyance, then becomes a potential source of embarrassment when he arrives for dinner only to find he's still stuck, and escalates into a full scale disaster as he and his future father-in-law wind up wrestling over a serving dish and destroying the entire set.

You've seen this sort of progression in a hundred comedies, from the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler, but you didn't see it before Max Linder, not in a movie anyway.

My favorite Max Linder short is Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics), and his performance in it makes him my choice as the best actor of 1911. He made it three years before Chaplin, but if I had told you Linder copied it move for move from the little Tramp, I dare say you'd believe me. The intertitles are in French (with a German translation!), but there are only a couple and the gist is easy enough to figure out—feeling rundown, Max visits a doctor who prescribes a tonic of red wine and quinine bitters. Soon roaring drunk, Max is mistaken for a big shot and helped "home" by a helpful policeman.

It's in two parts:

Part One

Part Two

Linder's career came to a virtual end during World War I after he was injured by mustard gas while serving as a dispatch driver in the French army. He never fully recovered and although he later made films at Chaplin's United Artists, he never again regained his audience. In 1925, he and his wife killed themselves as part of a suicide pact.

Postscript: And for those of you who can't get enough of Max Linder, here are two more short comedies, Max reprend sa liberté (a.k.a. Troubles of a Grasswidower) (1912) and Le hasard et l'amour (Love Surprises) (1913).

Max reprend sa liberté (1912)
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