A Reel Treat: Day Three of Capitolfest

reelsonasphaltSifting through folders of vintage movie stills. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Errol Flynn winks up at me. Valentino smolders from a shiny pocket-sized portrait. And Tyrone Power, well, he just looks like Tyrone Power. That’s enough.

Apparently my idea of heaven turns a little hellish when I have to do it under a time constraint. Because there I was, standing in the lobby of the Capitol Theater frantically searching through soon-to-be-dismantled displays of old movie memorabilia on the final day of Capitolfest. I always leave important work to the last minute.

Operating under duress, I managed to score an obscene amount of glossy stills and star portraits at 25 cents apiece—a price that seems to belong to another era as much as the pictures do.

Cherished favorites like Carole Lombard and George Sanders joined my collection, but I’m also pleased to have adopted pictures of Mary Miles Minter and Fatty Arbuckle. Those two need a good home. Best of all, as I write this post my pocket Rudy, in matador attire, pocketrudysmolders down at me from the base of a reading lamp, making its light seem dull by comparison.

I could hardly imagine a more appropriate souvenir of a weekend spent immersed in classic cinema than a packet of old Hollywood glam shots… but I tried to go one better. You see, as I was leaving the theater with my armful of photos, I happened upon film reels from the festival casually lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to be returned to their respective archives. Although I asked quite reasonably if I could take Forgotten Faces home with me, Art Pierce, executive director of the Capitol, politely declined and I respect that.

Now let’s get to the real goodies: the films I saw on the last day of the festival. (If you’re interested, here are my write-ups of day one and day two of Capitolfest.)

Cradle Song (Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

I confess: the thought of a weepy melodrama about nuns raising an orphan girl didn’t really enthuse me when I took my seat that Sunday morning. Consider me a convert now. Since actresses as different as Dorothea Wieck, Louise Dresser, and Gertrude Michael all play nuns, we get to see religious devotion refracted through diverse personalities; there’s wieckno one “right” path to goodness. Not the least bit preachy or dogmatic, this film exhibits profound respect for the wisdom, insight, and compassion of the women at its core.

A meditation on the challenges of raising a child, Cradle Song also reminded me of Ozu’s Late Spring, which is always a good thing. Both films eschew the conflict-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from melodramas in favor of the wistful inevitability of letting a loved one go. The cinematography, lyrical and mobile, yet still reminiscent of an old master painting, adds to the sweetness of this movie’s sorrow.

Bottom Line: A delight. If this is nunsense, it really is habit-forming.

My Weakness (David Butler, 1933)

A peppy piece of musical fluff, My Weakness showcases Lilian Harvey, the British-born star of the German-made international hit Congress Dances, in her first American film. This glamorous confection gives the Pygmalion trope a decidedly pre-Code twist. One of those drop-dead gorgeous jerks that women in 1930s comedies keep falling for, Ronnie Gregory myweakness(Lew Ayres) bets his stingy uncle that he can turn a mousy chambermaid into a successful gold-digger. Low-class Looloo (Harvey) cleans up so nicely that she sets out to win over Ronnie… by seducing every eligible man in his family.

Harvey’s pixie-ish charisma floats the film, but the supporting actors have even more fun (as usual). Henry Travers—whom you know as Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life—is no angel here. That white-haired screen institution eagerly smooches the effervescent Harvey and, aping Mae West, even invites her to “come up and see me sometime”! Charles Butterworth pulls out all the stops on his wimpy Romeo routine as a carrot-nibbling, stamp-collecting dork who, won over by Harvey’s allure, cries out, “Take me!” in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Silent clown Harry Langdon presides over the story as a decidedly fey Cupid, rattling off rhymed couplets and bounding hither and yon with his bow.

A collection of uproarious gags also compensates for the lack of originality where the story’s concerned. For instance, the song “You Can Be Had” is sung not by any of the actors, but by a collection of grotesque statuettes, chintzy figurines, and even the pages of a fan magazine!

Bottom Line: I’m still whistling “Gather Lip-Rouge While You May” to myself. What do you know? This movie is my weakness, too.

Pointed Heels (A. Edward Sutherland, 1929)

With its cliché-ridden plot and love-conquers-all denouement, Pointed Heels soothed and satisfied audiences recently smote by the shock of the Great Depression and pulled in a hefty profit for Paramount. From a modern perspective, this backstage musical creaks here and there, to say the least. Phillips Holmes and Fay Wray look so beautiful that we can almost forgive their characters—a composer disowned by his heelswealthy family and the chorus girl who loves him—for their drippy blandness. William Powell fares slightly better as a suave, noble impresario who lusts after Wray, but does the right thing by her in the end. Eugene Pallette adds some much-needed crankiness to the love-fest. Thank goodness for Skeets Gallagher and Helen Kane, who carry off the show with generous helpings of boop-boop-a-doo and whoopee.

I’d seen an incomplete version of Pointed Heels before at the Internet Archive, but a newly-rediscovered two-strip Technicolor sequence excited me. I love this early color process for its unnaturalness, the way it allows you to see the world as through the vivid, askew filter of a fever dream. The minty greens and coral reds left me spellbound.

Nevertheless, when I ponder the color musical number in retrospect, the unimaginative laziness of the camera, plunked down in the audience like a back-row spectator, irks me. We enjoy a few close shots of Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette (a look she’d reprise in Mystery of the Wax Museum), but the point-of-view remains lethargic and uninteresting. In contrast to an imaginative backstage montage earlier in the movie, the color sequence seems perfectly content with its imperfect imitation of a night at the theater, circa 1929. Then as well as now, it takes a while for art to catch up with technology.

Bottom Line: A waste of talent. A. Edward Sutherland directed some fine comedies in his time, but I want to leave these heels on the shelf.

The Shadow of the Law (Louis Gasner, 1930)

Did I miss something? Some other reviews of the festival praised this drama about a fugitive from blind justice, but I found it rather tepid and uninspiring. The best thing about the movie, William Powell delivers a noteworthy, if unusual, performance as a shadowofthelawman-about-town falsely imprisoned for murder. Shorn even of his dapper mustache in the hoosegow, Powell conveys the dehumanization of the prison system with his blank looks of desperation. When he busts of out jail, Powell builds a new life for himself but spares no expense searching for the one witness who can exonerate him. Unfortunately, she’s not the kind of dame who’ll do a good turn for anybody…

Intrigued? Well, the movie didn’t turn out to be nearly as taut and moving as it could have been. After the opening scenes and a hard-hitting courtroom montage, the plot moved forward in fits and starts. Dragged down by an insipid romance, the tough drama collapsed into an abrupt change-of-heart happy ending. Powell still took full advantage of his big coup-de-théâtre in the third act: he plunges his hands into a mangling machine to destroy his fingerprints and elude recapture. He only screamed with his eyes, but that was enough to make my blood run cold.

Bottom line: Bill Powell’s bald lip (not to mention his dramatic gifts) could incite any woman to lobby for justice reform. But not to watch this movie again.

Sharp Shooters (John Blystone, 1928)

This beguiling comedy ended the festival on just the right note. Hunky navy man George O’Brien woos a girl in every port, until he makes an insincere promise to French dancer Lois Moran… a promise that his two sailor friends force him to keep. WWI’s heavyweight champ of the Pacific Fleet, O’Brien easily turns on his snarky, sharpshooters_postermegawatt charm in comfortable territory. With the aid of some luminous close-ups, Lois Moran transforms a character that might have been irritating and clingy into a surprisingly grounded dreamer who could make even most hardened cynic believe in destiny. The stars’ chemistry strikes a perfect balance between glamorous sensuality as only the movies can do it and a more relatable sheepishness.

Well-played running gags stitch the simple rom-com together and shape amusing characters, like the three navy buddies who, whenever threatened with a fight, coordinate to “Hoist pants for action.” Seasoned with doses of humor, romance, and tension, the gossamer love story really floated my boat (pun intended). And, hey, who wouldn’t want to watch a small army of navy mugs do battle with a speakeasy full of scumbags to defend a maiden’s honor?

Bottom Line: Will destiny please reunite me with this movie? I think I’m in love.

Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

mary

A Reel Pleasure: Day Two of Capitolfest 12

reelsI’m not the kind of person who’d get up before 10:00 on a weekend if you were giving out free money. For Capitolfest, however, I arose at 7:00 sharp with a smile on my face, breakfasted with a coven of fellow film geeks, and headed to the Capitol Theater for another round of ultra-rare films. Movies are more important than sleep.

My favorite day of the festival, Saturday also afforded my friends and I the chance to tour the Capitol Theater. Ornamented in neo-Moorish style with some later deco embellishments, the movie palace harbors all sorts of redolent treasures. Vintage seats with built-in hat racks line the upper balcony. A patriotic display on the second-floor lobby urges spectators to buy war bonds. A shift schedule from the 1940s hangs from a cabinet in the projection booth. It’s time warp in the best sense.

Although the theater plans to accommodate digital in the future, screening 35mm prints for audiences is a top priority for the Capitol team. Up in the projection booth, Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the theater and general fountain of cinema knowledge, demonstrated the inner workings of the Capitol’s carbon-arc projector. Arc lamps, emitting light from extremely hot carbon electrodes, illuminated motion pictures during projection for the first half of the 20th century. As Theakston explained, “I like the fact that we’re running movies in the format they were originally seen in. We’re a movie theater and an entertainment showcase, but we’re also a museum since we present these films in a historically accurate fashion.”

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A visit to the Capitol Theater reveals that the value of film as a tangible thing extends far beyond nostalgia. On the contrary, whenever the screen darkens slightly with a projector mishap or a reel countdown interrupts the story, we’re reminded of the tenuous mixture of art and technology bound up in filmmaking. Not only does 35mm look better, but the materiality behind the images—strips and reels and “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen—also brings us back to André Bazin’s concept of film as the fingerprint of reality. When I pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into a player or tune into a stream of images online, it’s easy for me to mystify classic Hollywood and avoid thinking of the sheer man hours and effort that went into producing, distributing, and exhibiting old movies. Something about seeing the flicker on a big screen teaches you respect for all that toil and trouble, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Without further ado, here are the features I saw at Capitolfest, part II. Click here to read part I.

The Czar of Broadway (William James Craft, 1930)

On the surface, this Universal gangster drama reheats one of the stalest dishes on the pre-Code menu: a ruthless gangster’s young protégé falls for the boss’s moll (Betty czarCompson) and ends up betraying his mentor in crime. However, the devil’s in the details—and speaking of devils, Czar‘s titular gangster (John Wray) added a pulpy, deliciously over-the-top idiosyncrasy to his character with bouts of diabolical giggling. This mobster’s so organized that he sells life insurance policies to his victims before he has them whacked. Pretty neat, huh?

A fashion-obsessed gay hit man and the close bond between the gangster and his friend endow the film with unusually upfront homoerotic overtones. Plus, this splendid rarity busts the myth that early talkie cameras couldn’t roam if they wanted to. Numerous restless camera movements and a fantastic shot of a poker game—through the bottom of the card table—distract you from the fact that this movie was probably made for a song on recycled sets.

Bottom Line: A killer-diller entry into the canon of 1930s gangster movies. I wish you all could see it.

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929) 

What if an eccentric, monocle-wearing British inventor/politician wrote a futuristic epic as a vehicle for his own singular views on militant pacifism? We don’t have to wonder, actually, because Noël Pemberton-Billing penned the story of this whacky sci-fi drama, set in 1940, about the necessity of stopping future world wars. You can see clips of the original silent High Treason in the excellent documentary Silent Britain, but Capitolfest projected the talkie version, the first all-talking movie shot in Britain.

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Now, I’m a sucker for cult movies, so I lapped this up—clunky dialogue, metallic cloche hats, swagged-out jet-cars, and all. Britain’s answer to Lang’s Metropolis, sadly High Treason doesn’t come close in terms of quality. It does, however, feature an extended scene of Benita Hume’s scantily clad ablutions in a Flash Gordon-ish deco bathroom, which ought to keep anyone happy. The anti-war message and an apocalyptic bombing montage struck me as startlingly modern. And, hey, Billing predicted Skype, TV as we know it, and the Chunnel. In fact, during the film’s finest sequence, a nail-biting, Hitchcockian piece of suspense, a hidden bomb planted by terrorists ticks away and finally explodes the underwater train to Kingdom come. Unfortunately, the stilted performances brought the movie right back to the dawn of the talkies. Is this the future? Um, it’s the future of the past.

Bottom Line: Part ludicrous, part prophetic. Imagine the bastard child of Fritz Lang and Ed Wood and you won’t be far off.

Morals (1921)

Directed by William Desmond Taylor, better known today as a murder victim than as a highly respected filmmaker, Morals won me over with the vivacity of its heroine and the comic stuffiness of its hero. A British orphan raised in a Turkish harem, Carlotta (May McAvoy) flees from an arranged marriage and, through a chance encounter, becomes the ward of Sir Marcus (William Carleton), a curmudgeonly British noble. Vexed by Carlotta’s excitable disposition and her foreign customs, he sniffs, “I don’t believe that her father was a British Vice-Consul. I think he was Satan!”

coupleBefore you can say “meet-cute”, Sir Marcus has grown accustomed to Carlotta’s face, but will he have the courage to profess his love before one of his backstabbing friends wrecks their relationship? Puckish McAvoy walks a fine line between adorable and annoying, but carries it off swimmingly, especially with the counterbalance of Carleton’s cynical Sir Marcus. Given William Desmond Taylor’s notorious liaisons with younger women, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he could lend credibility, not to mention humor and tenderness, to a May-December romance onscreen.

Bottom Line: An unanticipated highlight. So many silents—even the ones we haven’t necessarily heard of—are golden.

Steady Company (Edward Ludwig, 1932)

My least favorite movie of the whole weekend, this noncommittal programmer romance set against the world of boxing would take a dive in the first round if not for the miraculous likability of two character actors. As the heroine’s best friend and fellow switchboard operator, Zazu Pitts demonstrates her talent for bone-dry comebacks. Hit on by one of those ubiquitous Depression-era creeps, she drolly replies, “I’m sorry, but your line is out of order,” and turns back to her switchboard. Henry Armetta, the most Italian Italian in the history of Hollywood, steals his share of scenes as a cuddly old cobbler. The unflinching ferocity of the boxing ring scenes stood out, but a saccharine conclusion majorly undercut the movie.

Bottom Line: Didn’t pack enough of a punch for me.

Forgotten Faces (Victor Schertzinger, 1928)

I appreciate and praise all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, but movies that blow my mind on pretty much every level come along only once in a blue moon. They are rare. They are precious. This, folks, is one of them. In my opinion, it belongs in the pantheon of great silent movies.

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Gentleman thief Harry ‘Heliotrope’ Harlow (Clive Brook) comes home from a heist one night to find his wife Lily (Olga Baclanova) in bed with her lover. Harry shoots the other man and, not wanting his infant daughter to be raised by her wicked mother, secretly entrusts the baby to a rich couple who’d recently lost their child. Leaving his sidekick Froggy (William Powell) to watch over the girl, Harry turns himself in. Fast forward 20 years: Lily discovers her daughter’s new identity and threatens blackmail. After winning release from prison, Harry vows to stop his spouse’s plans at all costs… while keeping his promise to the prison warden not to lay a hand on her.

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Though the plot might sound needlessly contrived, Forgotten Faces exemplifies the unrivaled art of silent movies in their final flush. It uses the film medium to the fullest, evoking both the seen and the unseen to draw out the audience’s emotions. Even the lack of sound, theoretically a disadvantage, bends to serve the film’s aesthetic—for instance, a key gunshot, unheard by the audience, lends an eerie stillness to the murder scene. Expressive, fluid camera movements gracefully tell half the story with jaw-dropping long takes that echo the exacting elegance of its protagonist.

I can barely scratch the surface of this movie’s brilliance in a paragraph or three and hope to devote an entire post to it soon. Stay tuned.

Bottom Line: Hey, Criterion Collection—get on this, will ya? Forgotten Faces has been forgotten for too long. Far and away the best of the program.

Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Cahn, 1933)

If I were a little 1930s shop girl or factory worker who toiled ridiculous hours all week, I wouldn’t want to see Pat O’Brien being beaten and whipped on my day off. As much as I’d like to assume the condescending tone of a contemporary highbrow and start whining about how this movie didn’t get the respect it deserved in 1933, I can understand why. My inner mogul shrugs and thinks, well, ambitious as it is, commercial it ain’t. 

hellLaughter in Hell stands as a testament to harsh social criticism that pre-Code movies could pull off. I consider it even more daring and ambiguous than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, not least of all because our protagonist really is guilty of a double homicide. And, as the film shows, even he doesn’t deserve the inhuman punishment of a southern chain gang. Too strong for its era—and maybe too strong for many people today—a horrific lynching sequence hits you with all the impact of a martyrdom shot in real time, the visual equivalent of “Strange Fruit.”

Bottom Line: It hurts and it should. Concession stand candy will be needed to sooth your nerves.

A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore: The Noirish Brilliance of Lauren Bacall

stillIt was hard to believe she had to ask for a match. With those molten eyes, she gave the impression of a woman who didn’t need anybody’s help to ignite.

Although she made her first movie, To Have and Have Not, at age 19, Bacall didn’t seem to have an ingénue bone in her body. In fact, petrified of the camera, she had to clamp her chin against her shoulder to avoid visibly trembling—and she still exuded maturity and nonchalance.

That famous voice of hers sounded indifferent, bored even, as if she’d burst fully formed from a pulp writer’s head, already fluent in the laconic rhythms of noir dialogue. At Howard Hawks’s urging, she had actually trained herself to talk like that by reading the colossal epic The Robe to herself in a low, husky voice.

The more you listen to her, the more you hear the nuances of desire, humor, fear, and anger, like snippets of a conversation overhead from across a smoke-filled room.

Acting styles can become dated quickly, but Bacall’s best performances remain as subtle and exciting as I imagine they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s a puzzle that audiences, as well as her love interests, have a good time trying to figure out. True, she had Hawks’s coaching in the beginning, but the talent and the brains were there. She was a natural-born film actor, the kind that doesn’t let the viewer realize she’s acting.

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In the noirish roles for which she is best remembered, Bacall projected her own brand of toughness, distinct from the established paradigms of Crawford’s masochistic bitterness and Stanwyck’s lethal hardness. Instead, she incarnated the perfect feminine counterpart to the hardboiled integrity of protagonists like Philip Marlowe.

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Slim in To Have and Have Not can take a slap without flinching. Vivian in The Big Sleep can outwit a vicious gunman at a moment’s notice. Irene in Dark Passage can flirt her way through a police checkpoint with a convict in the backseat of her car. They each pitched an unspoken dare to the world: “You think I’m bluffing? Watch how far I can go.” But whatever made these women so tough left their souls intact. With a spark of unsentimental optimism, they muffled their feelings to survive, but never lost their capacity to feel.

Bacall offered us the joy of a less fatale femme, a dangerous dame who could still believably deliver a happy ending.

vlcsnap-2014-08-12-22h11m42s177Consider her celebrated “whistle” scene. It’s easy to forget that the scene is really the third scene in a row of just Bogie and Bacall talking in hotel rooms, their characters hesitantly sussing each other out. About eight minutes of such back-and-forth between two other actors might drag in pace. With Bogie and Bacall, it’s so satisfying I want to reach for a cigarette when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke.

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No wonder a cartoon short of the era, “Bacall to Arms”, lovingly parodied the onscreen sizzle of her debut. As she saunters across a room, an animated trail of flames spurts up from her footprints.

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Now, To Have and Have Not doesn’t count as a film noir in my book, but its key relationship scenes undeniably channel a noirish vibe with the low-key lighting, the shuttered windows, and the characters’ ambiguous morals. And Bogie fans then as well as now would have recognized his line to Slim, “You’re good. You’re awful good”, as a clear echo of Sam Spade’s mocking admiration of Brigid’s shtick in The Maltese Falcon.

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However, the chemistry in To Have and Have Not promises a more auspicious ending for Slim and Steve than for your typical noir couple. In By Myself, Bacall remembered that, when her family went to see To Have and Have Not, they expressed their relief at the humor in her performance, which lightened some of the sexier elements in the script. Audiences could read the melancholy in her eyes when Steve leans in to examine her face—but they also could hear the note of knowing amusement in her voice as she switches to vampy innuendo. Because Bacall neither plays the role entirely straight, nor burlesques it, she maintains a reassuring aura of decency. Bacall interprets Slim as a good bad girl, daring Steve to take a chance on her. Unsurprisingly, he does.

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The frisson of true love blesses To Have and Have Not with an eternal ability to cheer up its spectators (me, for one). Seriously, who doesn’t get a kick out of watching two of the most badass people ever make googly eyes at each other? In the final scene, Bacall wiggles off into the sunset, while even the extra sitting at the table closest to her can’t repress a facial expression that says, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” As Bogie grabs her by the arm, Bacall smiles her only broad grin of the movie, the toughness slips away, and she looks, for the first time, like a teenager in love.

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The Big Sleep challenged Bacall with a more complex role. In contrast to Slim, Vivian Rutledge really is reclining on the razor’s edge, navigating a depraved world to protect her sister. Despite the crackle of her chemistry with Bogie, Bacall dials back the likability she displayed in her debut in favor of a high-hat condescension that masks longstanding worries. For example, keep an eye out for a split-second look of uppity pleasure when Marlowe asks, “They? Who’s they?” in their first scene together. It’s the face of a woman frantically trying to convince herself that she has the situation under control, that she can outwit or seduce any obstacle that crosses her path.

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Bacall emphasizes Vivian’s spoiled haughtiness, while hinting at the undercurrent of fear that drives her. This is a woman who refuses to admit that she’s in over her head almost until it’s too late. A woman who’ll chide a man with a loaded gun to prove how tough she is to Marlowe. In Chandler’s novel, none of the Sternwoods deserves redemption, but in the film, the whole clan pulls through. Both censorship and Howard Hawks’s worldview motivated these changes to the original, but it’s Bacall who makes us buy a conclusion that could’ve seemed too neat for a messy plot.

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The audience can detect two sides to Bacall’s Vivian: the conniving society brat and the wisecracking dame in distress. Something about the honest mirth of those long takes in Marlowe’s office suggest that the latter is probably the truest side. As she tempts him with a brace of horsey innuendos a few scenes later, Bacall doesn’t hide the fact that Vivian is manipulating Marlowe, but the gusto and wit with which she speaks her lines points to the real Vivian buried under so many lies.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-18h38m00s208Ultimately, she proves her mettle by saving Marlowe’s life, leading the killer Canino astray. Her grace under pressure prompts even the jaded P.I. to admit, “I didn’t know they made ‘em like that anymore.” We get the idea that Vivian would always keep Marlowe guessing. Still, he might want to spend the rest of his days guessing about her.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-19h17m32s124Directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage showcased Bacall’s talent for passing off improbable circumstances as natural and credible. Interacting with the first-person camera as though it were Bogie, her character helps a convicted killer, whom she’d never met before, elude the law when he escapes from prison. Who is she? Why is she helping this alleged murderer? Bacall adds to the suspense with her impassive determination, punctuated by discreet glints of anxiety.

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The romance that blossoms between Bacall and Bogie in Dark Passage would’ve struck the audience as inevitable by this point, and the pair wisely underplay the growing attachment between their characters. Caught in the gaze of the camera-as-Bogie, she occasionally thaws with an unguarded smile. Given her face, that’s enough. Once the camera is freed from its first-person mode, Bacall sustains the almost unbearable tension as she removes the bandages from Bogie’s mug, remodeled by plastic surgery.

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In another splendid scene, she rechristens Bogie’s character with an alias, obstinately attempting to focus on the new name instead of the reality that she might be saying goodbye forever. Of her four movies with Bogie, Dark Passage gets short shrift, so, if you haven’t done so already, watch it and be amazed.

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Bacall possessed a wide range. In Key Largo, though co-starred again with Bogie, she essayed an unusually demure, vulnerable character. Over the course of her career, she played everything from murderesses to abused wives to spunky gold-diggers. But she was at her most iconic as the good bad girl, the woman fit to accompany Bogie down the mean streets of noir as his equal.

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She convincingly portrayed women who lived by their own terms, fought their own battles, and only bared their emotions at the right time to the right man. For a generation of American women who’d done men’s jobs during WWII, Bacall’s performances suggested that toughness and willpower weren’t flaws or signs of ruthlessness, but virtues. In the noirish parts that made her a legend, she was a woman of substance: smart, mysterious, brave, and, above all, fun to watch. And she always will be.

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Isn’t It Romantic? Discussing Rom-Coms at #MTOS

sabrinakissFrom Girl Shy to Some Like It Hot to When Harry Met Sally, many of the most beloved and bankable films of all time fall under the fluid label of “romantic comedy.”

But does this genre get the respect it deserves? Or is it even a genre at all? I guess we’ll just have to tweet this one through…

In case you’ve never taken part in #MTOS, which stands for Movie Talk on Sunday, this weekly discussion brings together film lovers from around the world to chat on Twitter. The wide range of perspectives always makes this social media phenomenon a treat, so follow the hashtag and share your thoughts. I invite you to join in what promises to be a very cuddly, quirky, serendipitous discussion on Twitter this coming weekend, on August 17 at 8:00 p.m. GMT (or 4:00 p.m. EDT), and laugh about love again.

Allow me to pop the question(s)…

1. How do you feel about rom-coms in general? How often do you watch them?

2. The rom-com has a reputation as a “girly” or “feminine” genre. Discuss.

3. How do you define the conventions or characteristics of a rom-com? In other words, what do you expect to see in one?

4. Now, name a rom-com that intentionally *subverts* our expectations and does it well.

5. Okay, the big question—what, in your opinion, is the best romantic comedy of all time? Why?

6. What’s the worst rom-com you’ve ever seen? What was so awful about it?

7a. Who is the ultimate rom-com actor? Why?

7b. Name your favorite rom-com couple. What’s so special about them?

8. What, in your opinion, is the best “meet-cute” scene you’ve ever watched? What worked well about it?

9. Rom-com elements are often combined with other genres. What’s a successful example of this?

10. Some critics have predicted the end of the rom-com. Will it bounce back? Has it even declined? Or are we in for romcompocalypse?

The Reel War: Historic Pictures from WWI’s Celluloid Front

Dismissed as an insipid novelty less than a decade earlier, the film medium flexed its muscles during World War I as it never had before. Movies documented life in the trenches for eager audiences on the home front… while conveniently concealing gory realities. They cheered the hearts of those fighting the battles. They even helped to turned the tide by persuasively prodding America into the fray.

The war also forever altered the landscape of film production and distribution, decimating European national cinemas and establishing Hollywood as the industry’s juggernaut. Screenwriter Anita Loos observed, Hollywood “was an outcome of an economic situation created by war.” If the conflict shaped Hollywood, Hollywood shaped the war, as well. Propaganda pictures moulded public opinion with “real-life footage” actually shot on California sound stages. Movie stars, still a relatively new phenomenon, drew massive crowds and raised even more massive amounts of money for the war effort, demonstrating the unprecedented power of celluloid fame.

So, without further ado, I invite you to ponder these images, gleaned from a variety of sources, that convey the multi-faceted significance of film and filmdom during WWI.

mary_doug_and_charlie_againDouglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin insist that every part of America should make a contribution to the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds. (And, is it just me, or is Charlie giggling over Florida’s phallic shape?)

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The irrepressibly likable Douglas Fairbanks engages a sea of spectators while talking up the third Liberty Loan in front of the Sub-Treasury building in New York City. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

As the actor’s son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. remembered, “When my father tried to join up [for active service] he was personally written to by President Wilson at the time who said ‘For heaven’s sake, we’re not going to let you do that because you can do much, much more for the country by raising these vast sums which nobody else can do.'”

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Mary Pickford stirs up a crowd with her patriotic rhetoric at a Liberty Bond rally in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 1918. A single speech from Little Mary could harvest some big cash—millions in a day. Image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Doug and Mary pose with relief packages. Another image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin make an appearance in Philadelphia, lobbying support and funds for the third Liberty Loan drive.

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Silent film actress Edith Storey knits a sweater for her brother in the Navy, while wearing a Russian Army uniform for her latest film. Wartime fan magazines often shared images of female stars working at their needles—in the hopes that their legions of fans would follow suit and contribute warm woolens for the boys overseas.

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The silent screen’s original vamp, Theda Bara visits a ward of wounded veterans. Though famous for playing carnivorous femmes fatales, the actress revealed her heart of gold by raising money for the war effort and visiting army camps to raise morale. (Image from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

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This image showing Private Keaton of the Fortieth ‘Sunshine’ Division suggests that even the Great War couldn’t make a dent in Buster’s poker face. Still, the silent clown recalled his frustration with the fact that the U.S. Army clearly didn’t design uniforms with men of his build (a lean 5’5″) in mind; his standard-issue outfit made him “look and feel ridiculous.”

Although Keaton applied himself dutifully to army life, he reported in his memoirs, “It was not always possible to take that war seriously. In the first place, I could not understand why we, the French, and the English were fighting the Germans and the Austrians. Being in vaudeville all my life had made me international-mided. I had met too many kindly German performers—singers and acrobats and musicians—to believe they could be as evil as they were being portrayed in our newspapers. Having known Germans, Japanese jugglers, Chinese magicians, Italian tenors, Swiss yodelers and bell-ringers, Irish, Jewish, and Dutch comedians, British dancers, and whirling dervishes from India, I believed people from everywhere in the world were about the same. Not as individuals, of course, but taken as a group.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons via this article about Keaton’s service in WWI, which I recommend.

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Speaking of comedians… Max Linder, the ground-breaking French comic (right), convalescing from a major injury at an army hospital and holding hands with, I believe, a member of a Senegalese tirailleur unit. The first international film star, Linder projected a dandyish screen image and was known for his ubiquitous silk top hat—he’s all but unrecognizable in this cloth cap and ragtag bundle of clothes. Sadly, Linder’s career would suffer from the decline of the French film industry following the war; he directed and starred in feature-length comedies in the United States, but met with only limited success among American audiences.

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Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, solemnly works under a service flag decorated with a star for each studio employee in the military—and there are 217 of them. German-born Laemmle, aiming to distance himself from a background which made him a possible target for prejudice and even boycotting, green-lit some of the most virulent anti-Hun propaganda films of the era. Years later, however, his studio would produce the acclaimed WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which expresses a poignant anti-war message through its sympathetic German protagonist.

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Pickford in uniform? Did she single-handledly win WWI like she seems to do in the movies? Well, no, but she was the honorary colonel and “godmother” of a regiment, the 143rd Field Artillery, jokingly referred to as “Mary’s Lambs.”

A uniformed Pickford also presided over a group of studio employees known as the Lasky Home Guard who vowed to enlist and serve their country. As Agnes de Mille remembered, she “wore a splendid couturier’s outfit of patriotic grey with a little veil down the back. She looked splendid… and sent them to death very valiantly. The grisly part is some did go to death.”

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Two volunteers with the YMCA use a portable projector to show movies to an audience of soldiers in France.

In the Photoplay article that accompanied this image, Janet Cummings of the overseas YMCA service extolled the importance of movies to American troops: “Film has been the recruiting sergeant, the drillmaster, the morale-strengthener and the faithful comrade-in-arms of this country’s army in cantonment, on board transport, in front line camp, in the zone of the rear and in hospital.”

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American sailors crowd in to enjoy a comedy projected on their battleship’s patch.

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An open-air movie theater in an American army encampment. In this picture, however, no movie is playing. A boxing match is taking place on the stage in front of the screen instead.

Interestingly enough, the price of admission to screenings “over there” cost five or ten cents for an enlisted man. Many soldiers couldn’t spare a nickel, so Americans on the home front helped them out by buying and donating movie vouchers. At the time, railroads sold mileage booklets that would enable a traveler to ride for a certain distance. Hence, the film vouchers were affectionately called “smilage” booklets—letting the troops smile and forget their cares for an hour or so.

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Second-Lieutenant A.H.C. Sintzenich of the U.S. Signal Corps prepares to record some footage with his Debrie camera from a light railway track in Sussex, England…

debrie1 …and now Sintzenich braces himsele to take off and capture some aerial shots.

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D.W. Griffith (wearing a bow-tie) visits an active battlefield sector in France—just 50 yards away from the German lines—while developing his wartime drama Hearts of the World. Invited to Europe by the British government, Griffith was the only film director allowed to tour the trenches. (Previous three images from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Yet, Griffith witnessing war firsthand—after faking it so often on film—described the experience as an anticlimax:

“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened.

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

~          ~          ~

Please note that most images with no specified source were cropped and edited (by me) from digitized issues of Photoplay magazine, for which I gratefully acknowledge the Media History Digital Library.