Criterion Dreaming: 5 Movies That Made Me a Cinephile

51y6xRUTHbLLife grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.

The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.

You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.

I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.

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Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.

I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.

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As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.

My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.

As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.

(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)

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Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.

In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.

Let me tell you about how it started.

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July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.

When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.

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The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.

I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)

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A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.

What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.

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The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.

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The film’s fairytale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.

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Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.

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It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)

“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.

I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.

(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)

August 2007: Tears for a Villain

I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.

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Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?

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All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.

My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.

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February 2009: At the Gate

The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.

That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.

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I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.

“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a loyal following.

“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.

The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.

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Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”

That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.

April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat

Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.

I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.

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Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:

“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”

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December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come

My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.

My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.

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I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.

One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.

“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”

That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”

He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”

Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.

“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”

“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”

I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.

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Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.

As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.

Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.

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Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.

Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.

When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.

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Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.

After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.

A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition

I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.

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Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.

That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.

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This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to read all the delightful entries!

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Art Imitates Life: Shirley MacLaine Revisits The Apartment (1960) at TCMFF

maclaine“We didn’t know where it was going,” Shirley MacLaine recalled.

That “it” happened to be the plot of The Apartment, which remained up in the air as shooting for the film began. “Jack [Lemmon] and I both, we talked about it, we were given 29 pages of script.”

The actors just had to wait and see how it would crumble, cookie-wise.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, MacLaine, exuberant as ever at age 80, regaled a packed audience in the TCL Chinese Theater with stories about the making of Billy Wilder’s enduringly powerful dramedy. 

I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that audience. After seeing MacLaine 4 times over the course of the festival, believe me, I could have listened to this fascinating and endlessly sassy woman for hours more!

In conversation with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine revealed how behind-the-scenes spontaneity helped to shape the masterpiece. Asked about the onscreen sparks between herself and Jack Lemmon, with whom she’d never worked before, she explained, “I think chemistry is good when you find yourself on a discovery mission.”

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MacLaine and Maltin at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

In keeping with this atmosphere of “discovery,” writer-director Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond largely eschewed any preconceived story or characterizations. Instead, they tailored their script to fit the two leading actors’ growing friendship—with remarkable results.

According to MacLaine, Diamond and Wilder “watched the developing working relationship. They were so on cue, on key about every little movement, every little sigh and disappointment and joy and happiness, and they made little notes about what they saw. So, the love affair between Fran and [Baxter] became basically what they observed.” 

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Wilder and Diamond also mined MacLaine’s personal life for screenwriting material, finding inspiration for what would become a major motif in The Apartment: “I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

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MacLaine also unwittingly supplied one of the film’s most memorable lines while having lunch with Wilder: “I was having a love affair that wasn’t working. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people anyway? Why can’t we be in love with giraffes?’ or something like that. And he said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Knowing a good thing when he heard it, Wilder launched into action. “He ordered us to retake the whole scene, because that made sense to him and to Izzy Diamond,” MacLaine said. “See, that’s unusual, because it took a lot of expense, time, and so forth, but when he saw something that seemed, in his opinion, to make his stuff better, he went for it.” 

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Fans of the film will know that Fran Kubelik does closely echo MacLaine’s words. Sitting up in bed after her failed suicide attempt, she half-ignores Baxter’s sweetly clumsy attempt to distract her from her sorrows with a game of cards and asks, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” 

In contrast to Wilder’s human-centered approach to the script, he proved a steely, almost clinical taskmaster when it came to coaching performances. 

Wilder was “the most scientific of directors,” as MacLaine described him. “He would say to us, ‘Do the scene again and take out 12-and-a-half seconds.’ I don’t really know how that worked, but we did it.” 

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On the whole, with 55 years of perspective on The Apartment, MacLaine spoke of Wilder in fond and admiring terms: “As a person, I liked him a lot. He was very funny and very sensitive when it came to what he thought would be best for the screen.”

Day to day, however, Wilder often used his caustic wit to keep the actress in line and it hurt. “At times he was very brittle with women,” she observed, “but in the end you were better for it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m38s155The next day at Club TCM, again in interview with Leonard Maltin, MacLaine elaborated on the pressures of being directed by Wilder. “He was very sarcastic. I see why Marilyn [Monroe] was afraid to come to work,” she said. “He scared the hell out of me. But he taught me how to be self-reliant and how to take criticism.” 

Fortunately for MacLaine, years as a dancer had taught her to deal with tough overseers. “Choreographers are made to make you miserable, so I was used to that… When this incredible Austrian [Wilder] came at me, I thought, ‘Okay, well, just show me the step.’” 

And what a dance it turned out to be!

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h44m30s80 As for her co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine had nothing but positive memories: “He was such a sweetheart. What a wonderful man.” On the set, she would watch Lemmon perform whenever possible: “He really could do anything. He was good, very, very, very good, until the sixth or seventh take. I mean, absolutely sterling.”

With his “scientific” approach to comedy, Wilder gave MacLaine plenty of opportunity to watch, as he put Lemmon through long series of takes, seemingly for the sake of experiment. “I think Billy wanted to see what the contrived actor in all of us could do if he asked him to do take 16,” she said. “He was seeing how far probably the best actor of drama and comedy… could go and still be honest to it.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-06-20h26m30s27MacLaine also mentioned an encouraging foible of Lemmon’s: “He would say, ‘Magic time!’ every time the camera rolled. And then we knew we’d better make some magic.”

Fred MacMurray didn’t get off so easily in MacLaine’s no-punches-pulled appraisal. “Fred never picked up the check at lunch,” she wryly commented, prompting gales of laughter at the Chinese Theater. The next day at Club TCM, the spirited actress couldn’t resist another jab at MacMurray’s parsimony: “His money blinked when he took it out of his pocket. It had never seen the sun.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-05-19h49m04s98While discussing the collaborative effort of making The Apartment, MacLaine emphasized a contributor who rarely gets the credit he deserves: Doane Harris. “He was Billy’s secret,” MacLaine insisted. This veteran editor worked on most of Wilder’s greatest films, including Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Ace in the Hole, and received credit as an associate producer on The Apartment.

After looking over the rushes in the cutting room, Harris would make his diagnosis to Wilder. As MacLaine recounted, “He would say, and I heard this because Billy didn’t mind if I heard… ‘Billy, you gotta shoot that whole day over. You did not break my heart today.’ And they would re-do it.”

“See, that’s where trust comes in,” she explained. “Billy didn’t even ask why. To save time, he just did it.” 

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On the subject of retakes, MacLaine told us about a scene where the dialogue posed a frustrating challenge for her: when Fran and Sheldrake meet in the Chinese restaurant after 6 weeks spend apart and rekindle their affair.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

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Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

After a few takes, MacLaine’s nervousness about the line interfered with her ability to project Fran’s multitude of emotions in that scene, as she opens up about the shame of being the mistress of a married man.

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The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

(Ouch. Yeah, I can see why Marilyn was scared of Wilder, too.)

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Whereas other actresses might have buckled under the humiliation of being called out in front of her colleagues, MacLaine had a different reaction. 

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

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Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

I’m darned grateful that she was, because the scene plays beautifully. It stands as a lesson to all of us. There’s a lot to be said for “Shut up and deal.”

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Mary Carlisle at 101: The Last of the WAMPAS Stars

If you examine the picture below, taken on the Paramount backlot in the 1930s, you can pick out quite a few Hollywood legends. Cary Grant. Charles Laughton. Josef von Sternberg. Maurice Chevalier.

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Only one person in that photograph is still alive as of this writing: Mary Carlisle, pictured in the second row, next to W.C. Fields.

And, as of today, she’s 101 years old!

It’s somewhat mind-boggling to consider that, in California, there still lives a stylish screen veteran who was photographed in two-strip Technicolor and starred in pre-Code films with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lionel Barrymore, and Jimmy Durante.

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Carlisle is the last surviving member of the WAMPAS baby stars, a yearly crop of young women chosen as the industry’s most promising hopefuls. A 1932 WAMPAS alum, Carlisle appears in this (rather sexist) short “Stars of Tomorrow” along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, and several others.

marycarlisleAlthough major stardom eluded Carlisle, her gracious, effervescent personality improved quite a few films between her debut in 1930 and her retirement in 1943. For instance, amidst the cacophony of a whacky, big-budget Paramount musical like Double or Nothing (1936), Carlisle exerts a positively tonic influence.

During the 1930s—an era of dangerous, street-hardened women and slinky, suffering sinners on film—Carlisle’s maidenly charms struck a note of nostalgia. MGM’s comedy-melodrama Should Ladies Behave took an amusing pre-Code slant on Carlisle’s disarming sweetness. Her sheltered character, Leone, despairs when her boyfriend complains that she’s too “inexperienced” for him to marry!

Pert and plucky, Carlisle was Hollywood’s ideal of the vivacious, all-American co-ed. Despite her angelic appearance, she gave the impression of being a down-to-earth idol, an approachable dream girl that a fellow might get up the courage to talk to at a dance.

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The writers of “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” could’ve been describing Carlisle: “The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair/ Are a blend of the western skies.” And, indeed, Carlisle would star in a 1933 film inspired by the popular college song.

She made a delightful onscreen counterpart for the mellow suavity of Bing Crosby, with whom she co-starred in three films—College Humor, Double or Nothing, and Dr. Rhythm—and whom she “still remembers fondly,” according to her Facebook page.

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My favorite Carlisle performance adorns a film that I consider the best of the Poverty Row old dark house movies, Christy Cabanne’s One Frightened Night (1935). 21-year-old Carlisle makes the most of an unusual turn as a sassy vaudevillian poised to inherit a fortune… if she’s not killed off first!

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If there were such a thing as 1930s character actor bingo, One Frightened Night would surely win with Hedda Hopper, Wallace Ford, Regis Toomey, Charles Grapewin, and Rafaela Ottiano among its ranks! In contrast to the dismal, almost pathetic feel that some low-budget films of this type exude, this mystery reminds me of a themed house party, with every actor clearly having a ball.


Since it’s in the Public Domain, I encourage you all to curl up with this cozy, lightweight thriller.

More film clips and complete movies of Mary Carlisle on YouTube:

For more information about Carlisle, I strongly recommend this typically thorough post at Immortal Ephemera.

And be sure to “like” Mary on Facebook! And wish her a happy birthday!

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Happy Thanksgiving! Harold Lloyd in Hot Water (1924)

Today I’m thankful for Harold Lloyd. Today and pretty much every other day. That bespectacled goofball/genius never fails to make me laugh and remind me that life, even at its most awkward and calamitous, is a beautiful thing.

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Sadly, Lloyd doesn’t seem to get the widespread love that Keaton and Chaplin do, but his comedy has aged every bit as well as theirs. I actually feel like I can relate to Lloyd’s character the most of silent comedy’s “big three.” Lloyd’s harried, usually eager-to-please persona displays the right amount of cockiness and crankiness to let audiences recognize him as one of their own. Encountered with ridiculous obstacles or heinously rude people, Lloyd takes a moment to grimace in solidarity with his audience, as if to say, “Well, that’s just typical, isn’t it, folks?”

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I decided to share the brilliant scene where Harold wrestles with a turkey in Hot Water—perfect Thanksgiving entertainment, right? Well, I couldn’t find it on YouTube, but I don’t want to live in a world where that scene’s not available for your instant viewing pleasure. So, I uploaded it myself. Enjoy!

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An hour-long feature, Hot Water doesn’t stand out as one of Harold’s best films or even a representative entry in the Lloyd cannon: he doesn’t have a distinct goal or overcome a weakness to win the girl he loves. Instead, he plays a new husband grappling with his wife’s unpleasant family through a series of disastrous events.

However, Hot Water does contain some of Lloyd’s funniest material, such as the celebrated car-ride-with-the-family shenanigans and a dizzyingly hilarious faux-ghost finale. Although the movie’s second half takes place in a mundane setting, a modest 1920s home, the simple cleverness of the gags speaks to Harold’s remarkable timing.

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For instance, seized by the false fear that he’s killed his mother-in-law, Harold Lloyd looks down at a newspaper to see a story about a hanged criminal. He tries to pull away, but, oh no, he’s leaned on his necktie! We get a hearty belly laugh as Harold’s guilty conscience, no doubt interpreting the pressure around his neck as a phantom noose tightening on him, prompts a panic. This underrated gem of a movie proves that Harold excelled at a wide range of comic styles—including domestic humor—not just the high-anxiety daredevil comedy for which he’s best remembered.

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When I had the pleasure of meeting Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd at the TCM Classic Film Festival, she described Harold as “the father of romantic comedy.” Hot Water, with its abundant misunderstandings and ambiance of family dysfunction, suggests that Harold might’ve been the ancestor of the modern sit-com, too!

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10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bob Hope

coverDescribing Bob Hope as “underrated” may sound strange. After all, he remains one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century. However, a new comprehensive biography suggests that few of us fully appreciate Ol’ Ski Nose and his significance in American culture.

Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it was. The book matter-of-factly addresses the star’s less lovable side, including his womanizing, his stifling conceitedness, and his heavy reliance on sycophantic employees.

Despite the sometimes uncomfortable honesty, Hope proves an ultimately inspiring read, largely due to the clear-sighted appraisal of its subject’s vast legacy. Not too long ago, Christopher Hitchens crankily asserted that Hope wasn’t funny. I guess that’s a matter of opinion (Not in my house, but I’m trying to be diplomatic…). What Hope certainly was, though, was influential.

In his prime, Hope made it cool to crack wise about current events. Never content with the constraints of a medium, he broke fourth walls, stressed the connection between comedy and reality, and developed a cozy, familiar bond with audiences. Hope also set a precedent for today’s stars by wading into the arena of public causes. He demonstrated the power of celebrity to improve lives and stir a nation.

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As Zoglin points out, Hope not only developed a fast-paced, wry style and character unique to him: “brash, sophisticated, modern.” He also adapted it to an astonishing range of media and venues—from vaudeville to radio to film to television. Following Hope’s story really takes the reader through a dizzying century in the history of mass entertainment.

While reading Hope, I learned a lot about the comedian and discovered facets of his life and career that I’d never known about before. Here are a few of those.

 1. John D. Rockerfeller gave Hope his first important piece of career advice.

To supplement his struggling family’s income, 12-year-old Leslie or ‘Les’ Hope (his real name) sold newspapers on the street in Cleveland. One night, a limousine stopped and a well-heeled older gentleman tried to buy a penny paper with a dime. Lacking the change, Leslie asked if he could run to a store to get some.

The gentleman waited and gave the young Les a tip of the intangible variety: “If you want to be a success in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep change on hand. That way you won’t miss any customers while you’re going for it.” The customer drove away, as a bystander informed Les that he’d been talking to the founder of Standard Oil.

bobhopeportraitThis tale—a favorite anecdote of Hope’s—might sound apocryphal, but Zoglin makes a strong case for its plausibility. Old man Rockerfeller did indeed make the rounds of Cleveland and enjoy chatting and dispensing wisdom to the mere morals he encountered on his drives.

2. He spent time in a reform school—a fact he covered up for the rest of his life.

You’d think that Hope would’ve exploited his time in juvie as comedy material. However, he never publicly mentioned the experience, which hints at how traumatic the stint in reform school must have been for him.

According to surviving records, 15-year-old Hope committed an unknown offense (probably shopliftng) for which he was “adjudged a delinquent” and sent to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. Although he was released after a few months, young Hope violated his parole terms and was readmitted for at least another full year.

3. One of his earliest successful show business gigs involved dancing with the famous conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton.

daisyandviolethiltonIf you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s famous horror melodrama Freaks (1932), you’ll remember the fresh-faced, cheerful Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins. Years before making that famous movie appearance, the duo proved a major attraction while in the vaudeville circuits, with spectators lining up literally around the block to see them.

The talented sisters wowed audiences by playing a saxophone duet and then performing a tight dance number with two partners. For a long stretch, Hope was one of the partners.

As he remembered, “At first it was a funny sensation to dance with a Siamese twin. They danced back to back to back, but they were wonderful girls and it got to be very enjoyable—in an unusual sort of way.”

4. His first crack at a Hollywood career was a total disaster.

Touring on the prestigious Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1930, Hope visited Pathé in Culver City for a screen test and performed his act for the cameras. Heartened by the chuckles of the crew, he braced himself for stardom. However, when agent Bill Perlberg screened the test for Hope, the up-and-comer just about died: “I’d never seen 1938anything so awful. I looked like a cross between a mongoose and a turtle. I couldn’t wait to get out.” It would take almost a decade before Hope could rustle up the nerve to take another try at the movies.

5. His famous “Thanks for the Memory” number in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was recorded live on the set.

Departing from the typical pre-recording of musical numbers, Mitchell Leisen, who directed Hope’s film debut, wanted to capture the song’s wistful intimacy by recording on the soundstage. Hope and Shirley Ross sang the unforgettable tune—which would become Hope’s theme song—for the cameras, accompanied by an off-screen orchestra. Reportedly, there wasn’t a dry eye on the soundstage.

6. Hope’s racy language and quips got him bleeped on radio. 

Hey, foul-mouthed rappers and raunchy comedians everywhere, guess what? Bob Hope was getting bleeped before you were even born. Admittedly, those were the days when censors practically had a nervous breakdown over the prospect of Clark Gable saying “damn.”

bobhoperadioStill, Hope’s willingness to be controversial showed he had guts. In his heyday, the brash comedian was a far cry from the bland, innocuous old timer of his later television specials. By defying the censors with risqué jokes, Hope also became a target for Catholic reformers. When that happens, you know you’re onto something good.

7. His joke rhythm and timing impressed even his idol Charlie Chaplin.

As a boy, Hope entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and took either first or second place (depends who you talk to). In 1939, when working on The Cat and the Canary, Hope got to meet his childhood idol, married to the film’s star Paulette Goddard. Chaplin saw a few takes of the movie and complimented Hope on his delivery: “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen.” High praise indeed!

8. He really did risk his life to entertain the troops during World War II.

We’ve all seen the images of a slightly disheveled Bob Hope standing at a microphone in Hope_WWII_44front of a sea of men in uniform. But do we realize exactly how tough it was to get him there?

Flying to a performance in Alaska at night, his small plane barely made a landing after the pilots instructed Hope and his troupe to say their prayers. Driving through North Africa, Hope and singer Frances Langford cowered in a ditch and narrowly escaped burning debris from crashing German bomber planes. In Algiers, despite General Eisenhower’s assurances of safety, Hope and Langford spent over an hour huddling in a wine cellar while enemy aircraft bombarded their hotel.

Perhaps riskiest of all, in Palermo a middle-of-the-night air raid caught Hope by surprise in his vulnerable hotel room. Unable to make it to a bomb shelter, he watched helplessly as tracer bullets and flak narrowly missed his window. For Hope, it was “the most frightening experience of my life.”

9. He came up with Tony Bennett’s stage name and gave the singer his first big break.

In 1950, Hope embarked on a vaudeville-style tour and brought along a rising Italian-American crooner known as Joe Barry as one of his troupe. Barry’s singing at Pearl Bailey’s nightclub in Greenwich had impressed Hope, but the comedian felt that the phony stage name was holding the young man back.

jokesHope thought that Barry ought to change it to something more similar to his birth name (Anthony Benedetto) and pitched “Tony Bennett.” When Hope took the newly-rechristened performer to L.A., Bennett recalled, “It was the first time I ever sang in front of a huge crowd.”

10. By the end of his career, there were over a million gags in his comedy vault.

One of the first comedians to openly acknowledge his debt to good writers, Hope kept a meticulous collection of his jokes, gags, and wisecracks, indexed by subject, in a fireproof vault in his home. You could count the jokes, but can anyone comprehend the impact of the joker? Speaking for myself, I’m still chuckling.

Thank you to Dana Trocker of Simon and Schuster for making advance copies of Hope available and to Noralil Ryan Fores of TCM for offering me one!

Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

poster“Clark Gable and Jean Harlow have come to typify… free love and plenty of it. Anybody having the slightest knowledge of youth psychology knows what a disastrous effect such films have on the immature minds of adolescents who see them.” So preached Max Knepper in his humorless 1935 tirade Sodom and Gomorrah: The Story of Hollywood.

Okay, full disclosure time. I started watching Harlow movies in my teens and have since embarked on a life of wantonness, criminal activity, and blogging, so you might want to take this review with a grain of smelling salts.

Ironically enough, Red Dust is a story about morality, bordering on allegory at times. Much to the dismay of America’s bluenoses, however, the most moral individual in the movie turns out to be a wisecracking, unapologetic prostitute. I suspect that what really scared censors about this movie wasn’t the steamy chemistry between Gable and Harlow. No, what must’ve shocked them is that an apparently moral wife willingly succumbs to Gable’s adulterous advances.

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The story tastes like someone put The Letter and Rain into a cocktail shaker with some pineapple juice and thrashed vigorously. Rough-hewn Denny Carson (a moustacheless Gable) runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, occasionally longing to escape the grimy work for a more civilized life. One day he comes back to his bamboo hovel to find Vantine (Harlow), a feisty prostitute hiding out from the law.

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After a few weeks of playtime, Carson stuffs a roll of cash down her blouse and tries to ship her back to Saigon. Falling for the big lug, Vantine decides to stick around instead. The plot thickens when Carson’s new employee Gary arrives with his elegant, tennis-racket-carrying wife, Babs (Mary Astor). Before you can say “The natives are restless,” Carson seduces Babs—in a doozy of a rain-drenched, clingy-white-clothing-swaddled love scene—and cuckolds his deferential underling. Will he break up the marriage or do the right thing by returning to Vantine’s loving arms?

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Despite its underlying racism and occasional creakiness, Red Dust challenges audiences to see through outward signs of virtue and shatters the assumption that a good reputation equals a good heart. This movie makes you think a little—something that self-appointed champions of morality seldom want the public to do for themselves.

A kimono-wearing, platinum-haired hooker might loathe deceitfulness and strive to maintain a standard of decency, whereas a demure country club brunette might cheat on her husband and remorselessly lie to cover it up. Indeed, the lack of an easily recognizable moral horizon makes pre-Code cinema so tantalizing in general. No one has a monopoly on sin. Like the rubber that Carson harvests in the jungle, pre-Code morals are elastic, stretching to fit the situation.

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Red Dust also uncorks a vinegary commentary on the American way of life. At the very end, we learn that Babs and her startlingly bland husband Gary (Gene ‘the yawn’ Raymond) have arrived in San Francisco and no doubt intend to resume their society lifestyle—with hubby never the wiser of what she was getting up to on that rubber plantation.

This schmoe had earlier confided in Carson that he dreamed of traveling to South America, before his marriage put a stop to such a fantasy. In the same scene, Gary launches into a starry-eyed speech about his new, wife-approved vision of children and a house in the country, within commutable distance to New York, of course. It’s the sort of propaganda that would sound maudlin and gooey in any other movie, but, as Carson sits there in the driving rain trying not to betray his guilty secret, the context flavors the monologue with an unmistakable bitterness. The film thus implies, and none too subtly, that your standard, respectable American couple consists of a repressed wife and an emasculated husband.

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Meanwhile, far from the apparently idyllic dens of people like Babs and Gary, Carson and his crew of outcasts toil and labor to support the consumerism of the culture that marginalizes them. As he growls in an early scene, “You think I’m going to sink my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?”

Intensifying the satire on American values, Vantine mocks Babs by appropriating the vocabulary of a well-to-do housewife. “I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance this Saturday night,” She drawls for Carson’s benefit. Listening to Harlow’s tinny, faux-refined voice spouting out lines that could come from the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the cherished virtue of domesticity as a pretense. Her burlesque of society chatter also highlights the film’s central inversion of roles: the prostitute stays faithful to her man, while the prudish wife cheats on her husband. Who’s the real “lady,” after all?

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In the end, however, I don’t watch Red Dust for the drama, the slick satire, or even for sweaty Clark Gable. I watch it for Harlow’s brazen, yet vulnerable comic performance. Consider her introduction in the movie, dozing in a random bed, when Carson and his crony unknowingly drop one of their drunk comrades on top of her in the dark. That unflappable voice cries from offscreen, “Hey! What’s the idea?” And then we get this piquant close-up of the silvery blonde illuminated by a flashlight, her eyes squinting as she reflexively berates the drunk whom she assumes is trying to sleep with her.

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Rather than present her as an object of fetishistic admiration first, as Lewis Milestone did with Crawford’s famous entrance in Rain, Fleming lets Vantine impress the audience as a brassy straight-shooter. Caught by surprise, she leads with a torrent of her personality and sass. Her profession and her looks are secondary. A few seconds later, as she forcefully swings her bare legs and kicks the drunk out of her bed, she does so with a remarkable lack of daintiness or self-conscious grace. You’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

The notorious rain barrel sequence, in which a nude Harlow lathers herself up and bathes in the plantation’s water supply, doesn’t disappoint. The men in the audience might not have noticed, but this very pre-Code scene serves an important narrative purpose, too, as Vantine tries to annoy Carson by scandalizing Babs. “Afraid I’ll shock the duchess?” She teases, beckoning to Carson with a soapy sponge. When Carson hurries up to reign in Vantine’s antics, Babs appears on a balcony. Fleming repeatedly cuts to her holier-than-thou reactions as Vantine playfully splashes around in the barrel. Again, appearances are deceptive, since Babs’s hypocritical “shock,” we understand, really betrays her own jealousy and her desire for Carson.

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Harlow proves her talent for both verbal and physical comedy. The dry twang with which she rattles off sarcastic dialogue vindicates MGM’s decision to cast her as Vantine, a role previously intended for Garbo or Crawford. Without Harlow dropping sassy lines like, “This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here,” (when she bawls Gable out for his two-timing behavior) save the film from dull melodrama purgatory. In another instance, provoked Carson’s budding liaison with Babs as the monsoon pours down, Vantine disdains to comment. Instead, she scornfully kicks her shapely legs up on a table and starts to file her nails—not an extraordinary gesture, but one that Harlow fills with an amusingly contained anger, a hissy fit manicure.

1Her accomplishments in Red Dust are all the more inspiring given the tragedy that struck during production. Her husband Paul Bern, an MGM executive more than 20 years her senior, committed suicide. In addition to Harlow’s emotional loss, the scandal seriously threatened her career. A true professional, she returned to work after a 10-day break and soldiered on with a performance that runs the gamut from funny to heartrending.

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

1932 was a good year for onscreen hookers with hearts of gold. Marlene Dietrich, as an impossibly glamorous courtesan, tempted a warlord to save her true love in Shanghai Express. Ruth Chatterton, playing a businesslike madame, sacrificed all for her son in Frisco Jenny. And Carole Lombard, in the role of a wry streetwalker, discovered the joys of home and hearth in Virtue.

But none of them struck the same gold as Harlow. Her chatty, stubborn, sublimely unladylike Vantine doesn’t want to be redeemed and doesn’t need to, either. Perhaps because of that, she remains one of the most iconic and lovable dames of the pre-Code era.

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Scary Funny: Dwain Esper’s Maniac (1934)

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Right now Torgo and the Master are sulking. Radiator Lady is in tears. And Glen/Glenda is stomping the hell out of his/her pumps. Because, I’m sorry to say, their movies were nowhere near this weird.

I want to make one thing clear before this goes any further: I am not recommending that you watch Maniac. But, if you do, you will have earned my profound respect. This movie will bore you. In fact, it might bore a hole right into your brain. It wants to steal your soul.

Actually, watching this film is, I suspect, akin to the experience of trepanation. Maniac violates the cherished cinematic logic of space and time so thoroughly that you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be able to form a coherent thought again. The only defense viewers can muster against so insidious a threat is to laugh wildly and mindlessly. Herein lies the ironic beauty of Maniac: by the time it’s over, you yourself might very well qualify as the titular lunatic.

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Shot on location in somebody’s dank basement, Esper’s exploitation flick tries hard to pass itself off as a dramatization of mental illness. In other words, brace yourself for scrolling pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo about psychoses inserted without warning in between scenes.

The plot, and I do use the word loosely, resists dignity in any form. Don Maxwell, a down-and-out vaudeville actor, now assists the deranged Dr. Meirschultz in his experiments—raising the dead, naturally. (See, kids? This is why you don’t major in theater. Or film for that matter. Why, I had to join a firm of grave-robbers for two years to pay off my college loans… but I digress.)

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Squeamish Maxwell doesn’t exactly love the sordid errands that the doctor forces him to carry out. Still, on the bright side, he gets to revive the corpses of pretty suicide victims with vigorous massages.

However, when Meirschultz suggests that Maxwell kill himself to serve as a subject for the reanimation process, the lackey shoots Meirschultz instead. Realizing that his boss would be missed but he never would, Maxwell assumes his identity.

No sooner does Maxwell don an imitation of Meirschultz’s bushy Santa Claus beard and mimic his off-brand Bela Lugosi accent than the former ham actor slips into madness and believes that he is Meirschultz.

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“I vill be a great man!” He bellows, vowing to continue the doctor’s work. Apparently, this entails turning a patient into a sex-crazed zombie by injecting him with a glandular serum and performing sleazy examinations on scantily-clad young ladies.

Sadly, busybodies constantly interrupt Maxwell’s Nobel-worthy research. When a blackmailing widow and Maxwell’s own estranged wife show up around the same time, Maxwell decides simply to lock them in the basement and return to his regularly scheduled program of animal torture and hallucinations. Finally, the cops come to nab Meirschultz, break up the ladies’ wrestling match in the cellar, and discover the real doctor hidden in the wall.

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In a ludicrous, yet eerie epilogue (foreshadowing Norman Bates’s “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene), Maxwell addresses the audience from behind bars. Sobbing, the poor misunderstood multiple murderer confides that he only ever dreamed of being an actor. “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” He pleads. “But here I am. Spent my life perfecting an art that no one wanted, no one appreciated. But I showed them… Dr. Meirschultz—my supreme impersonation!”

Um, Maxwell, if it’s any consolation, you certainly amuse me.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that horror and humor complement each other, and the funniest parts of Maniac unsurprisingly emerge from its most unsettling scenes.

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Consider Maniac’s best-known moment, a highly disturbing shot of a cat’s eyeball being removed. (Trigger warning! You should know, however, that no animal was maimed for the purposes of this scene. A one-eyed cat with a glass eye was used.) While entombing Dr. Meirschultz behind a wall, Maxwell notices the doctor’s black cat looking at him. The unhinged actor, convinced that the feline is Satan, accuses the animal of standing between him and salvation. After a few disjointed shots of Maxwell chasing the cat, Esper provides this shot of an eyeball popping out of its socket.

11 “It’s not unlike an oyster or a crepe!” Maxwell-as-Meirschultz exclaims. Cackling, he drops the eye into his mouth.

Okay, so how do I even begin to react to this?

At first, I laugh. Bad acting and a wannabe Poe monologue about an evil cat = comedy gold.

Then I get creeped out. A spooky high-angle shot of Maxwell crawling out of a basement towards the camera fills me with dread.

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Then I laugh again, since we’re back in familiar territory. Jumpy cutting and pratfalls = bad movie = ha ha ha.

Then I want to cry. I don’t care if it was a one-eyed cat. Animal mutilation, even when simulated, always equates out to horror in my book.

10And then, despite myself, I feel like I’m going to laugh again. Now Shakespeare could get away with calling an eye a “vile jelly,” but the comparison between an eyeball and a crepe wins the 1934 WTF Cup. Plus, how can I hold back a snigger over the fact that the black cat transforms into a light-colored feline right before that eye removal shot?

Snarky pleasure and pain attack the viewer without warning throughout Maniac. Esper delights us with the most awkward transformation scene in the history of cinema, only to freak us out with an unexpectedly violent nudity scene. He tries to tickle our comic relief sensibilities with a quirky minor character named Goof who runs a death camp for cats. But he seemingly expects us to respond with earnest curiosity to a protagonist who suffers from every mental illness in the book—and to his lengthy hallucinogenic monologues, complete with superimposed diabolic footage stolen from (much better) silent films.

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You might be thinking, “What kind of nut would make a movie like this?” So, perhaps I ought to take a moment to introduce you to the life and times of Mr. Dwain Esper and his singular slot in film history. Okay, now, class, what’s significant about the year Maniac was made, 1934?

If you replied, “The pre-Code era ground to a halt and Hays Code censorship was enforced with new zeal”, gold star to you.

The shift back to family entertainment meant that audiences couldn’t depend on the titillation and gore they could once get from some Hollywood films. Exploitation filmmakers like Esper aimed to cash in on those forbidden desires. They’d produce often ridiculously choppy movies, but movies that nevertheless delivered the goods (or bads, rather) with scenes of drug use, kinky sex, and nudity.

esperOriginally a building contractor, Esper launched his cinema career when he acquired a set of abandoned filmmaking equipment as part of a property foreclosure. Abetted by his wife Hildegarde Stadie Esper, a streetwise carnie raised by her opium-addicted huckster uncle, Esper toured from town to town with “adults only” films. He directed his own movies on meager budgets, but would also promote and screen any sensational movies he got his hands on, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Reefer Madness.

Gaudy lobby advertising and gimmicky publicity stunts would compensate for the less-than-stellar product Esper often exhibited. Audiences seldom got what the posters promised, but they did get to gawk at stuff that no mainstream movie of the era would’ve shown.

Operating outside the confines of the studio system, Esper could thumb his nose at the censors. Hildegarde cheerfully recalled the outrage they caused in some quarters: “The Hays Office—they hated us. You see they couldn’t stop us and that made them awful mad…they didn’t like anything we were doing. The only reason we liked it so well was because it was making money for us.” If necessary, Esper would reedit his reels to appease local law enforcement, but, all in all, Dwain and Hildegarde Esper were the Bonnie and Clyde of onscreen taboo.

Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers the most unintentional laughter through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.

Jump cuts, temporal leaps, massive continuity gaps, and all manner of experimental devices—stuff that might not startle us that much in, say, a Godard film—proves deeply unsettling in the context of a 1930s movie aiming for the aesthetic of a Universal horror film. These formal eccentricities not only make us laugh at the incompetence of the filmmaker, but they also fray at our nerves and jolt us into nervous laughter.

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Similarly, nobody in this film acts like a human being—not the scheming widow who speaks in a monotone, not the gregarious cat-skin merchant, not the chorus girl dancing around her hotel room in her underwear for no reason. The magic of Hollywood acting resides in the fact that actors give us evenly stylized behavior and we accept it as reality. The black magic of Maniac gives us unevenly stylized behavior—that makes us feel like we’re watching any number of more famous horror movies through a distorting mirror. We behold a universe unthinkably out of kilter.

And then, because our short-circuiting minds can find no other appropriate response, we burst out laughing.

Maniac has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it right now. Do you dare?

This post is part of the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the banner to check out the other entries!

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