Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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“The last thing she said over the phone was, ‘You were going to take me to the opening of the Vanities. Now you want to shove me off on a cheap picture show. Nuts!’ ”

—Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen), Murder at the Vanities

What happens when you put Agatha Christie in a blender with the Ziegfield Follies and some kind of powerful hallucinogen? 

You’d probably get Murder at the Vanities, a film that offers more proof, if needed, that Paramount was the most head-scratchingly, jaw-droppingly, self-destructively, censor-defyingly cuckoo bananas studio of the pre-Code era.

In fact, if this movie has one virtue, it’s the ability to offer up every major motif of the unbridled early 1930s in one big, flamboyant sampler. It might accurately be retitled Pre-Code-O-Rama or the Hays Capades.

A terrific reminder that egregious mash-ups didn’t originate in the 2000s, Murder at the Vanities combines two popular genres of the 1930s: the backstage musical and the complex murder mystery. “What an intriguing premise!” I hear you thinking. No dice. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters can only be described as shrill and unlikable. (I strongly suspect that a previous incarnation of Seth MacFarlane had a hand in this movie.) Yep, that’s right, folks. I subject myself to some bad movies, too—and all for you!

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Interestingly, this film was directed by the much-maligned Mitchell Leisen who’s behind at least two films that I love (Death Takes a Holiday and Midnight), but whose real talents may have resided in his gifts as a production designer. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder thought so too, although not quite that kindly. Both of those talented gentlemen decided to direct their own films because they so despised what Leisen did with their writing. As Wilder vituperated, “All he did was he f**ked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you.” Ouch!

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(Because I try to be a gallant soul, I do encourage you to read Mark Rappaport’s attempt to resurrect Leisen’s reputation. Just don’t tell Wilder or Sturges I told you.)

Well, in this case, Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities lacked even the backbone of a coherent screenplay, much less a script by luminaries like Wilder or Sturges. However, the movie didn’t have to be such a hot mess. A similar musical-murder genre mashup of the 1930s, Charlie Chan at the Opera managed to be much more tautly paced, interestingly shot, and emotionally involving than Vanities.

Trust me, though, if you can stomach some nastiness, racism, sexism, and general vulgarity, the kitsch value and sheer weirdness of Murder at the Vanities makes it worth watching.

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On to the plot—which I found as skimpy as the costumes. The usually huggable Victor MacLaglen plays dim-witted policeman Bill Murdock who decides to investigate some backstage hoopla, such as falling stage lights and potentially lethal bitchiness, at the musical extravaganza Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

The Vanities, as an attraction, aren’t fictional, by the way. They were a real musical review which rivaled the Ziegfield Follies for popularity on the early 20th century variety/exploitation scene. Many of the dancers, billed as “the Most Beautiful Girls in the World,” were brought over to Hollywood especially for this film. Poor dears.

Anyway, since Detective Murdock couldn’t get tickets to the show for his date, he agrees to do some ineffectual sleuthing on the other side of the curtain in order to leer incessantly at a parade of nubile, virtually naked chorines. He bares his teeth like a gorilla during mating season and exhibits even less grace and charm as he stumbles through the backstage mayhem.

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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You see, a catty blues belter named Rita Ross (perennial pre-Code mean girl Gertrude Michaels) had a thing going with leading man Eric Lander (Carl Brisson). Ross flies into a jealous rage when she finds out that he’s going to marry operatic brunette Ann Ware (played by the golden-voiced Kitty Carlisle who’s wasted in an irksome nicey-nice role).

Why two women are going head-to-head over Lander is anyone’s guess, since smiley, stocky, heavily-accented Carl Brisson doesn’t exactly light up the screen, despite a fine crooner voice. Seriously—where’s Maurice Chevalier when you need him? I think even a Great Dane could’ve filled out Brisson’s role better.

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Eric Lander tries to talk reason to Rita Ross—who fully deserves the epithet of “Vanity.”

Anyway, mayhem and murder ensue. Who were the writers kidding with the plot? The insane Murder at the Vanities exists for two reasons—and they may be summarized as follows: T and A. The nutty musical shamelessly flaunts the assets of its girls, girls, girls who wear even less than we’re used to for pre-Code dancers. Unfortunately, these dames aren’t anywhere near as rhythmically gifted as their Warner Brothers counterparts. I mean, a lot of the time they’re just standing there like a magazine centerfold! Paramount tried to cover up the dancers’ lack of coordination (well, not cover up… distract) with the most insubstantial outfits short of birthday suits. We’re talking fronds and fig leaves.

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Now, I don’t necessarily object to objectification. For instance, while Busby Berkeley objectified the female body, that genius also abstracted it to the point of sublime unreality and harmony to stimulate a kind of audiovisual ecstasy. Berkeley created the closest thing to avant-garde cinema that Hollywood ever produced. By contrast, Murder at the Vanities is basically a peep show with a few dead bodies.

Art never gets off the runway in its static, unimaginative panoplies of flesh, arranged by Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz. And Prinz—who later worked on Yankee Doodle Dandy and South Pacific—should’ve known better! We watch a bunch of dangerously odd musical numbers transpire on a revolving stage—there’s none of the inventive, dynamic, extradiegetic spaces of Berkeley musicals which tend to flood into sets that couldn’t possibly exist on a single stage.

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The musical variety show within the movie opens with a tone-deaf, hammering musical number about the women who perform in these shows. “Where do they come from and where do they go?” Mary Carlisle asks, as a series of poses give us a few ideas. The half-naked girls pose on cigarette boxes, work in artists’ studios, or pop out from perfume containers.

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Women bought and sold, women as commodities. Women on display for easy purchase and consumption. Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, every other pre-Code movie.

Then, for no good reason, a bunch of cowboys show up and there’s a mini-orgy of lassos. So, are you freaked out yet?

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The next number takes place on a desert island, swaying to the languorous strains of “Live and Love Tonight.” Whatever my feelings about the movie, I personally adore this wistful tune of the “sweet music” genre. The staging adds to the lulling, dreamy quality of the song. This time, we watch a stage full of recumbent ladies waving feather fans to make the whole floor ripple and undulate.

Meanwhile, Lander, wearing a ripped romper, sings the dreamy song and practically lies on top of his duet partner. That’s right about where I wanted to go all Oedipus on my eyes.

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Don’t you DARE splay any more or I WILL turn off my TV set…

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Just when the viewer is starting to wonder what the Paramount executives were smoking, we get the answer with the musical number—and, no, I am not making this up—“Sweet Marijuana.”

In this novelty rumba tune, Gertrude Michaels pines away for the wacky weed, actually singing to it, as though it were a person: “You alone can bring my lover back to me, though I know it’s only just a fantasy.” (Kitty Carlisle later claimed that she had no idea what Michaels was singing about. I bet she didn’t inhale, either.)

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We also savor shots of a bunch of stationary chorus girls dressed as cactus blooms—naked from the waist-up. And if that weren’t the kicker, one of them suddenly notices something dripping on her shoulder from the catwalk. Blood. She screams just as the number is closing and the cops discover the first body.

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The next musical number, “The Rape of Rhapsody,” lives up to the inflammatory suggestiveness of that name, though not as you might think. In the first part of the number, “The Rhapsody,” Lander, in unfortunate Beethoven breeches, plays a classical ripoff melody at a piano as superimposed dancers swirl around him. Okay, that’s standard fare. Nothing too weird there.

Just you wait.

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Part two takes place in some vaguely Napoleonic salon, where a classical orchestra is presenting the rhapsody as a dull, plodding march. Suddenly, a bunch of black jazz musicians show up in the orchestra, peacefully hijack the tune, and swing it like mad.

And, out of nowhere, Duke Ellington—yes, really him—pops up, filling the screen with his exuberance and refinement as he jams away, giving us an intimate mini concert. We get to look over his shoulder and watch him tickle those ivories. His genuine performance is, without doubt, the best part of the movie. Duke’s glowing celebrity persona and incendiary talent gives us a moment of respite from the trite flatness and flashiness of the film. It seems that he’s the one living thing in it.

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Meanwhile, a bunch of maids of color jump up and start dancing. Gertrude Michaels, in a matching maid outfit, leads the gang and sings the “Ebony Rhapsody,” despite being about as ebony as Snow White. They tap around and everybody has a good time to the new swingin’ tune led by Duke and his ensemble. This might be an uprising, but it’s a fun, friendly one. Jazz babies of the world—unite!

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Until the disgruntled white conductor comes in with a prop machine gun and “shoots” them all for taking over his rhapsody.

Um… are we supposed to find that funny? The gleeful laughs of the audience within the movie suggest that we are—but in what way? Funny as in “Oh, it’s funny to watch black musicians get killed for distorting white music”? Or funny as in, “How exaggerated and ridiculous that was! We all love black jazz as well as white music”? And the whole idea of black musicians, moreover respectable, widely acclaimed black musicians, “raping” white classical music throws us right back to Birth of a Nation territory—albeit in a symbolic, quasi-humorous fashion.

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So, again, the question presents itself: if this is humorous, at whose expense? Is “The Rape of Rhapsody” a musical spoof of the black-versus-white tensions that movies melodramatically portray or is it feeding real aggression?

I suppose that it’s aiming for an innocuous parody, since, after all, the excellent African American jazz musicians do elevate posterthe artistry of the scene—anyone can see and feel that.

They’re part of the attraction and Ellington received prominent billing on the poster, even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes! Nevertheless, the unexpected violence of “The Revenge” leaves a bad taste in our mouths

How did they pitch this bit to Duke Ellington? What did that genius think of all this absurdity and his complicity in it? I have no idea. And the film doesn’t seem to want to answer me. Which is pretty damn disturbing.

But, then again, Vanities is a disturbing film. When we finally discover who the murderer is (SPOILER!), if you didn’t guess in the first reel, like I did, she’s not a self-interested monster, but a victim lashing out against her tormentor. Perhaps the most sympathetic member of the cast, Norma, the maid who scurries around backstage, taking abuse from leading ladies, finally flipped out and killed the tyrant queen of her world.

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This demented, simple-minded killer launches into a long speech about how she was glad she killed the wicked Rita (who actually bumped off the first victim—don’t ask). As Norma whips herself into a frenzy with her confession, she looks right into the camera, breaking the escapist confines of the film.

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Her gaze creeped me out, I must say, almost as though she were accusing me and the audience of being complicit in her abuse, as if by watching the show, we were ignoring some other big problem.

We feel deeply sorry for plain, put-upon Norma—she only killed a really terrible person who beat her and wanted to destroy everyone else’s happiness. This kind of sympathy for a murderer as a victim, of course, was a total no-no as soon as the Production Code came into full potency. But here, as the police lead Norma away, the lead characters promise to help her with her legal defense and actually call out, “God bless you!” Don’t expect to see THAT after 1934!

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Nevertheless, in a way, the excesses of Murder at the Vanities make me (almost) feel as though the end of the pre-Code era may have been due. For every Temple Drake, Scarface, or Black Cat, for every blasphemously brilliant pre-1934 film, there were probably a lot more movies like Vanities: largely mindless, insulting, lecherous spectacles. Ultimately, I would still argue that the impact of the great pre-Code movies outweigh the gratuities of the rest, but Vanities is hard to swallow.

And yet—always I hesitate to condemn a film—because in spite of the painful musical numbers and creaky plot, this movie, perhaps unintentionally, tells us something about the time and the issues churning under the surface of even blind entertainments.

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“Cocktails for Two”: the least bizarre musical number in Murder at the Vanities

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This crazy musical also gave us an enduringly popular hit, “Cocktails for Two,” and includes (briefly, though) the unusual plot element of a female private eye! Although it fails to develop any kind of engaging conflict, it does scratch at the surface of a lot of economic, sexual, racial, and legal tensions in society.

Like the chorines in Murder at the Vanities, the truth may not be naked, but enough certainly peeps through.

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The Cameraman (1928): Roll With It

postHe had never seen her before, but he knew on sight that she was something mysterious, unattainable, and lovely.

He longed to understand her and couldn’t help edging a little closer.

And so Buster’s onscreen love affair with the movie camera begins—almost identically to his mega-crush on Sally, who happens to work at the M-G-M Newsreel Office. Upon “meeting” both Sally and a newsreel camera, he proceeds the same way, with boyish simplicity and joy in discovery, snuggling up to of them without a thought for what others might perceive as weirdness. Just as Buster can’t resist plunging his face into Sally’s hair and inhaling deeply, he sticks his head right inside the chamber of the first professional newsreel camera he gets the chance to examine.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.22.54 AMHe nuzzles the woman and the camera in much the same way, knowing instinctively that the mechanical device which so many of us see as cold and exacting is, in fact, a fascinating creature with as many secrets as a beautiful woman. Admittedly, the camera Buster explores in the newsreel office is a different from the one that becomes his loyal companion, a mangy early Pathé camera that needs to be hand cranked. Nevertheless, his childlike affection for the device in general is telling and utterly charming.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 7.27.05 PMThe film originally ended with Buster abandoning the camera in a Chinatown scrape. He previewed the sequence and it “died the death of a dog. It dawned on us what that was. I deserted that camera. So I had to go back and remake that—even with the trouble of trying to get away… I still kept my camera. Then it was all right.”  Throughout the perilous Chinatown tussle, Buster gallantly totes his battered camera around as he usually carries damsels in distress, hugging her to his body when the bad guys corner them. The romantic bond between Buster and his camera must never be undermined, otherwise the whole film would come crashing down.

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Buster’s onscreen love of the camera as a being, an almost personified toy that brings him closer to his dream girl, reflects his real-life appreciation of this mystical doohickey. No sooner did Buster start his film career than he borrowed a camera, took it apart, and put it back together again: “One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to run it on the projector.” The potential of the device immediately struck him; he grasped the boundless scale of what a camera could put before viewers, compared to the cramped artifice of a stage.

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And because Buster, real and fictionalized, loves his camera, the camera loves him, takes pity on him, and comes forth to bear witness to his courage when he needs it most.

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As a movie about movies—or, to be precise, about the video journalism of newsreels—The Cameraman blissfully shatters all of our notions about the boundaries between fact and fiction. Really, it’s a movie that messes with your head in the best possible sense. I mean, by the end, we’re watching people watching Buster Keaton in a movie… within a Buster Keaton movie. Thanks to its dizzying mise-en-abyme conclusion, much of The Cameraman’s most enduring humor and pathos resides in its ability to hint at what it means to film something, to preserve reality and then to play it back.

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For instance, during the climactic Tong War in Chinatown, Buster’s antics reveal the extent to which “documentary” footage often benefits from a little creative staging. Buster, caught in the thick of it, seizes on the opportunity to embellish what’s happening all around him. Watching two men wrestling on the ground, trying to reach a knife, Buster drops them the knife and then cranks away, recording the now slightly more dramatic fight.

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Once holed up in a dry goods store, he positions his camera in the window and chucks a few light bulbs down on the squabbling gangsters below to stir the fight up a bit more, all in the sake of a better shot. We recognize that the newsreel cameraman is never a passive entity, a dumb witness to events. Merely by choosing what to record and how to record it, what to show and what exclude, he discerns value and importance out of a world of noise. And, as Buster shows, these early video journalists didn’t baulk at stooping to a little directing, as well.

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I’ll bet audiences left The Cameraman feeling a bit more wary of newsreel truth, seeing how those daring young men with their filming machines sometimes enhanced the action. Rearranging or even totally restaging historical events wasn’t unheard of for news coverage… and it still isn’t! Here I’m reminded of the famous Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, so celebrated for their rawness and authenticity… when, in fact, his assistants arranged the corpses for better compositions. Does that make the photographs less truthful? Perhaps. But nobody cares about the truth if it’s not interesting.

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The screening of the Chinatown footage vindicates Buster’s deft management of the situation. Every thrilling shot explodes with danger and conflict. The chief of the M-G-M Newsreel Office even exclaims, “That’s the best camera work I’ve seen in years!” As we watch the footage, we chuckle, however, because we recognize Buster’s handiwork. We see the situation twice—first as a movie, with Buster present as the protagonist, and secondly as a newsreel, with Buster’s presence and influence subtly permeating each frame.

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The humor that arises from this doubling of perspective impresses me with its complexity. The Cameraman abounds with delicious pratfalls, gags, and physical comedy, including the famous get-a-load-of-Buster’s-abs dressing room sequence followed by the nude swimming pool scene.

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In My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster remembered that the film received one of its biggest laughs during the scene where the wet-behind-the-ears cameraman watches his film being previewed for the newsreel crew. The trial goes hopelessly badly, because the reel of film that the newbie took consists of a series of hilarious double exposures and trick shots. Battleships float through New York, stunt divers flip backwards out of the water, and city streets jumble together in an impossible collage of mayhem.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.55.11 AMOf course, what cracks me up about this scene is that his footage looks scarily like the montage documentary opus Man with a Movie Camera, which features a plethora of impressive yet playful superimpositions. See? Buster’s not incompetent! He’s a prodigy. He’s a natural Dziga Vertov, for crying out loud! Amusingly, what doesn’t cut it for the newsreels actually makes for splendid art—and for a hearty laugh.

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Although the film was mostly made at a studio, it does include some genuine newsreel footage, like the shot of Charles Lindberg that punctuates its conclusion. The archive shot serves a clear narrative purpose, explaining the reason for the parade Buster gets caught up in, which he thinks is in his honor—and also adds a strong emotional reaction to the scene.

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No American in 1928 could’ve looked at that shot and not been filled with pride and joy. This documentary image, plucked from the Hearst files, serves an expressive purpose in the context of a fictional narrative. Lindberg’s real-life triumph—and he was Superman in the 1920s—echoes Buster’s smaller victory, and the inclusion of reality bolsters the fiction.

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Plus, Buster’s confusion, mistakenly believing that the swelling ticker-tape parade is celebrating him, parallels the mix-up created by seeing newsreel footage of Lucky Lindy embedded in a fictional storyline. We get a whole bundle of conflicting things to laugh about. Buster thinks he’s the protagonist in the newsreel reality of the diegesis, but he’s not. However, in the reality of The Cameraman, he is, of course, the protagonist.

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The fact that a movie about newsreels returns to actual newsreel footage at the end makes us feel that the whole film has coiled up on itself. Buster never quite lets us free of this movie, trapping us in a Möbius strip of irony to the end. Was this a fiction with a detour through newsreels… or a newsreel with an extended detour through fiction?

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Buster’s adventures cross over so serendipitously with actual historical events—even if the documentary footage component makes up only a few feet of film among thousands of studio-shot illusion. His journey, especially the wish fulfillment conclusion, recalls the way we bump into our favorite films and half imagine ourselves to be the protagonists.

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What is and is not recorded on camera also interjects some of the saddest moments of The Cameraman—and some of the saddest moments of any comedy I’ve seen! When Buster returns from his death-defying mission to Chinatown only to discover that he forgot to put film in the camera, the emptiness of the reel makes our hearts sink. Not only has he utterly failed as the newsreel journalist he longs to be, but he literally lost the thing that he tried so hard to protect. The fruit of his labor, the thing that he valued above his own safety, suddenly dematerialized. Such is the nature of film.

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When Buster rescues the girl and goes to get something to revive her, he returns to find her walking away with another man. As our hero sinks to his knees, the camera slowly slides away from him… showing his own camera a few yards away, still being cranked by Josephine the monkey.

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It’s hard to put into words what that devastating tracking shot conveys. As Buster watches, the young lovers walk away, and his heart breaks, like an intruder in somebody else’s movie, a conventional romantic comedy. I suppose that seeing the camera jerks us out of the film world and forces us to take a moment of silent reverence for the suffering that Buster undergoes for the sake of our belly laughs. The sudden appearance of that implacable camera shocks us and strips away the escapism of comedy.

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However, on a deeper level, the absurdity of a camera capturing the depths of his despair, of memorializing a moment he’ll always remember with a tiny throb of anguish, drives home the loneliness of the experience. I mean, what if someone videotaped the worst moment of your life? Pretty harsh. His only companion (besides the monkey) is that helpless three-legged beast, the camera. And she can’t understand what he’s going through… or can she? Perhaps she can make his isolation shine. After all, that sublime tracking shot sure does. That complex shot is every bit the equivalent of the ending shot of Chaplin’s City Lights, in my humble opinion—that one shot that tells you everything you need to know about the wistfulness at the heart of this little man we find so funny.

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Fortunately, the camera that can be cruel is also kind, because the miraculously rediscovered footage comes to testify in Buster’s behalf. The camera sees his melancholy beauty just as it sees the news, when it’s fed the right subject, recontextualizing life and making it amazing again. A literal deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, it’s film itself, or rather the film within the film, that furnishes the happy ending we all crave.

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This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Please check out the other fabulous entries!

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Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end the post without this, did you? One of these men is Buster Keaton. Guess which.

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Film History Firsts: 10 Milestone Films You Can Watch For Free

1888 – “The Roundhay Garden Scene” – First Ever Film

Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty brazen assertion—as if I can 100% conclusively say “motion pictures started here,” because in some form they existed for centuries! As the great critic André Bazin noted, humans have dreamed of perfectly capturing and preserving the appearance of life since time immemorial. Cinema existed in the mind long before it could be realized. Thaumatropes, zoetropes, and other optical entertainments foreshadowed the birth of movies. Some would argue that the live action motion-capture photographs that naturalists like Muybridge and Marey created really mark the inception of film.

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However, if I have to put my money down on one person as the inventor of film, it’s going to be Louis-Aimé Augustin LePrince. This French-born innovator struggled for years to sell his motion picture camera only to vanish without a trace on the cusp of becoming internationally famous. According to Donald Cook’s History of Narrative Cinema, LePrince projected motion pictures as a demonstration for functionnaires of the French government at the Paris Opera in 1890—five years before the Lumière brothers would exhibit their camera-projector, the Cinematographe.

His uncanny disappearance has sparked your typical range of crackpot theories; some have speculated that ruthless entrepreneur Thomas Edison, whom we remember as a great inventor, a perpetuator of animal cruelty, an occasional idea thief, and an all-round nice guy, had LePrince killed. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

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What has come to be known as “The Roundhay Garden Scene” represents the first successful attempt to make motion pictures, not just to record motion through a series of still images. The fact that an ordinary middle class British family serve as the subject of the first ever film also imbues the fragment with a sense of warmth and nostalgia, hinting at the human dimension latent in the technological advance. Unlike the scientific gaze of many early photographic motion studies, the quaint backyard location and lawn game ambiance of the few seconds of film opens a window in time. Travel back to 1888 and witness the grainy power of LePrince’s vision.

1895  – “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” – First Film for Commercial Projection

Film historians tend to consider Lumière Brothers the founders of the medium even though Edison’s studio was producing films before them. Why? Because Edison’s ideas about film and how it could be marketed and distributed were comparatively limited. His camera couldn’t easily be transported, so Edison’s films were made indoors in a studio called the Black Maria. His Kinetoscope exhibition method relied on a peep-hole scenario where the viewer had to put his eye up against a tiny screen and watch the movie. By contrast, the Lumières’ highly portable camera-projector enabled them to capture footage outdoors and to share the images with many people at once. They were the first to conceive of film as a form of group entertainment.

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However, with the proliferation of online video, the dominance of small screens, and the increasing commonness of media enjoyed in isolation, I can’t help but notice that film actually seems to be shifting away from the shared experience of the Lumière model and back towards the individual experience of Edison’s Kinetoscope.

That is an observation, not a judgment. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this turns out.

1895 – “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots” – First Film Edit

The first edit within a movie was a cut in more ways that one! To recreate a bloody historical event, “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots,” Alfred Clark at Edison Studios used a hidden cut. We see Mary kneel to put her neck on the block, the axe swings upward, and, then, in the blink of an eye, Mary gets swapped out for a pre-chopped mannequin. Off with her head!

Not only does this film remind us that editing itself can constitute one of the most powerful special effects, but it also reveals how editing and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine some of the most masterful, yet violent sequences in film history—the Odessa Stairs massacre from Battleship Potemkin, the shower scene from Psycho, the Ride of the Valkyries sequence from Apocalypse Now—without torrents of rhythmic cuts. And it all started here, even if you’re not supposed to notice that cut. Audiences were appropriately horrified and the relationship between film and extreme violence was born.

1895 – First Film with Synchronous Sound

Long before Al Jolson exulted, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in the so-called first talking film, The Jazz Singer (1927), movies had actually been making noise for quite some time. In late 1894 or 1895, William Dickson of Edison Studios actually timed a film recording with synchronous sound captured by a wax cylinder. Long considered lost, the cylinder was found and recently restored so we can hear Dickson himself playing the first piece of synched movie sound, a bit of violin music.

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Incidentally, we might giggle at the sight of two men dancing in a 19th century film, but homosocial dancing was not a particularly unusual thing for that era. Men in the army, on boats, and in isolated locations like prairies often danced with each other in a way that implied camaraderie and friendship, since dancing was one of the most popular ways to pass time.

I know this sounds strange, but I find this film the most poignant of all of the ones I’m featuring. I nearly started crying the first time I heard the clear vibration of a violin that ceased to play over a century ago.

1896 – “The Cabbage Fairy” – First Film by a Female Director

I hate to trivialize Alice Guy-Blaché by referring to her as a “female director,” as though her only claim to fame was doing something that men mostly do. In fact, she possessed an extraordinary imagination on a par with Méliès, a deliciously cheeky sense of humor, and sensitivity to the emotional nuances of narrative that foreshadowed Griffith’s masterpieces. She worked with cutting edge technologies like superimposition and synchronous sound at the turn of the century. She oversaw production at early film giant Gaumont and, after she moved to America, she bought and ran her own studio, Solax.

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Unfortunately, her first film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” a version of a myth about where babies come from might not exactly stoke one’s enthusiasm for her oeuvre. It features a scantily clad lady (Guy herself!) plucking naked live babies out of exaggerated cabbage patches. Nevertheless, the whimsical set design, the fantasy quality, and the sheer surreal weirdness of visually representing a legend all speak for this film’s historical value. But Alice would go on to make much better!

I encourage you watch other films by Mme Guy-Blaché. I recommend “Madame’s Cravings,” about a pregnant woman gone wild, “The Consequences of Feminism,” with its wry gender inversions, and “Falling Leaves,” a heartwarming family movie. Plus, click here for a fascinating behind the scenes peek of Mme Guy arranging a film.

1896 – “The Haunted Castle” – First Ever Horror Movie

Thanks to Scorsese’s Hugo, a much wider audience has come to appreciate Georges Méliès and his contributions to cinema. Set designer, magician, inventor, actor, and much more, diablethis multi-hyphenate also gave the world the first horror film.

And guess what?

The plot sounds frighteningly similar to 90% of the scary movies coming to a theater near you: two travellers happen to wander into a haunted castle and fend off attacks from shape shifting ghosts led by the Devil himself. Savor the zany camera tricks as bats turn into humanoid demons and beautiful damsels transform into ugly old hags. 

1900 – “How It Feels to Be Run Over” – First Use of Intertitles

Intertitles—those text screens that pop up between images in silent films—get a raw deal. Long bewailed as an explanatory enemy to true art, they clarified plot points and added dialogue to silent film and often revealed just how artistically text can be integrated with images. In Cecil Hepworth’s “How It Feels to Be Run Over,” a carriage rushes by the camera, then a car rushes right into it as though we, the viewer were being run over. The closing intertitle combusts with exclamation points and an ironic “Oh! Will be pleased!” The dynamic multiple title cards convey the shock and energy of the collision. Not bad for 1900. The BFI has done a nice write-up on this significance of this film.

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1900 – “Grandma’s Reading Glass” – First Point-of-View Close-Up

George Albert Smith, a British filmmaker, produced some very interesting, playful films that display a forward-thinking grasp of how the camera itself can be incorporated into films—not just used as a passive recording instrument. In “Grandma’s Reading Glass,” a little boy uses a magnifying glass to examine the world around him—newsprint, a canary, a house cat, and even his Grandmother! Her huge eye filling the screen must’ve come as a shock to viewers accustomed to pretty long shots. What’s more impressive is that the film puts us, the viewers, in the place of the little boy, demonstrating cinema’s magical capacity to encourage identification with characters and their experiences.

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1902 – First Ever Color Film

The silver lining to every lost film, to every forgotten breakthrough is the hope that we will someday share the joy of rediscovering it. This past fall, the Internet buzzed with excitement over the first ever color film, created by Edward Turner. According to the coverage by the UK Telegraph, which I strongly recommend reading and watching, Turner had developed a process that entailed “recording successive frames through red, green and blue filters then projecting and superimposing them on top of one another.”

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So, unlike the stenciled hand-coloring process that made Méliès’ films, Turner’s method was much more closely related to the multi-strip Technicolor that would revolutionize film in the late 1920s and 1930s. The film shows Turner’s children playing with flowers and a goldfish bowl. If you look closely, you can see the yellow goldfish gliding around.

1903 – “The Great Train Robbery” – First Western

I would have preferred to feature an earlier Edwin Porter film, “Life of an American Fireman,” but the influential cross-cut version has not, to my knowledge, been uploaded to YouTube. So, I’ll fall back on this no less extraordinary film which bequeathed one of the most enduring genres, the Western, and a stronger sense of filmic narrative than probably any previous film.

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Costume Ball: I’m Hosting #MTOS This Sunday!

moroccoThis Sunday, May 5, I will have the honor of hosting Movie Talk on Sunday for the second time! In case you’ve never heard of #MTOS, it’s an engaging Twitter discussion for all cinephiles that happens once a week.

People from around the world turn out, so the mix of viewpoints promises a variety of insights and lots of fun. (It was so much fun last time I hosted that I ended up in Twitter jail! Attica! Attica!) I hope that you, dear reader, will join in and add your responses to the conversation.

I chose film costumes as my topic, because, let’s face it, they’re fun to talk about! And, unlike many elements of cinematic language, clothes are something we all know something about, don’t we? We wear our identity in our clothes, our daily version of costumes. We’re also in the habit of decoding other people’s clothing to figure out who they are. (Unless you live naked on a private island, in which case, that too is a distinct fashion statement.)

scarlettToo often overlooked in film analyses, costumes shape our perceptions of characters and their relationships. As in the case of the infamous “shopping montage” cliché, whole scenes may revolve around costumes. Iconic articles of clothing help us recognize genres: can you imagine classic film noir without the trenchcoat and the Fedora? Or a Western without jeans and the cowboy hat? Whether we’re aware of it or not, costume colors, textures, sometimes even the sounds they make also enrich the aesthetics of any given movie and deserve greater scrutiny.

So, to slip into something more comfortable, here are the questions: 

1. To get started, which film costume impressed you and stayed with you most vividly?

2. Costumes can be used to transform a character or signify how they’ve changed. Which film has done this well?

3. Which director, in your opinion, has made the best use of costumes to enhance the look and style of his/her films?

4. Costumes sometimes serve to contrast characters through their different clothing styles. What’s a movie that has done this well?

5. The power of costuming can work for comic effect. What’s a movie outfit that added to the humor of a scene or made you laugh?

6. What’s a good example of a costume (or accessory) that serves as a key plot point in a film?

7a. Which male movie character has the best/coolest wardrobe?

7b. Which female character?

8. Which movie star’s image is most associated with their costumes they wear (or wore)?

9. Has a film’s costuming ever really disappointed you? Which movie and why?

10. Have you ever copied a movie character’s style? How did that work out for you?

Put on your Sunday best and join the costume ball on May 5! 

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Free Friday Film: Dark Journey (1937)

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In order to explain the plot of Dark Journey fully, I would need to make a diagram. Which is why I’ll spare us all and just tell you to watch it.

If the plot of this 1937 British espionage thriller leaves us in the dark, its resplendent romance rises to the occasion and lights the way through. Best of all, Victor Saville’s stylish movie manages to convey the individual stakes of spying in wartime far more effectively than most pre-WWII secret agent yarns I’ve seen.

Under the gloss of their anachronistic settings and costumes, Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt communicate the exhaustion and anxiety of two people constantly on guard, constantly assessing the risks and rewards of their actions and affections.

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Despite the fact that the story takes place during World War I, the producers made absolutely no attempt to recreate the fashions and ambiance of that period. Right there, the eye is confused: it’s hard to keep telling yourself that the events of Dark Journey are unfolding in 1918 when the cast appears to have sought refuge from one of Wallis Simpson’s house parties. I would usually object, but I find this cavalier attitude towards verisimilitude rather charming. I guess, you can never predict what I’ll find charming, but usually it involves Art Deco in some way.

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“My monocle is very displeased!”

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“And now my monocle is intrigued…”

And speaking of charming, Veidt looks better than ever in a monocle and a tuxedo that shows of his impeccable waist—only slightly larger in circumference than that of his exquisite co-star. Vivien Leigh, in her sixth movie and one of her first true leading roles, musters an extraordinary performance so subtle that, in comparison to her Scarlett O’Hara, it could be mistaken for somnambulism. She carries her much-remarked-on porcelain beauty like a mask that only occasionally allows a crease of genuine reaction to be perceived.

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Be forewarned: from here on in, this post does contain major spoilers. However, I would also note that about 25 minutes into this film, I was searching for spoilers on the Internet, the film had confused me so. IMDb gives the following tagline: During World War I, a German spy and a British spy meet and fall in love. Okay, fair enough, except that I kept wondering which character was spying for whom. On the surface, it seemed obvious, after all, Viv is English and Connie is German.

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But wait! Our Viv plays Madeleine Goddard, a Swiss dress shop proprietor living in Sweden who practically commutes back and forth from Paris, importing the newest French fashions with her. With each trip, she brings more with her than the latest modes: military information sewn into the fabric. We discover this when she attends a clandestine meeting of vaguely sinister middle-aged blokes and proceeds to decipher a dress by holding it up to a lampshade with a map pattern.

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From there, one of her confederates signals the defense information to a boat which then conveys it to… BERLIN?

What!?! Vivien? The so-British-she-was-born-in-India Viv of That Hamilton Woman as a German spy? The mind reels at the thought, even if she is playing a Swiss girl. Or is she?

Meanwhile, the first time we see Conrad Veidt, probably best known as the wicked Major Strasser, he’s not engaged in espionage for the Fatherland. His Baron Von Marwitz is running away from the Fatherland! As he wryly informs a customs agent, “I came to Sweden because I want to refrain from any political activity.”

So, I ask myself, is this deserter going to start spying for the British while she’s spying for the Germans? Well, no. Just wait and see.

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The graceful aristocrat indulges himself in Stockholm, establishing his reputation as a bon vivant with a special trick: he can tell what any girl will say after he’s kissed her. Madeleine sees him playing this parlor game at a nightclub and blows his secret: there are only a few likely things a girl would say, and he keeps all them in some part of his clothing, only to reach for the correct one when the time comes and act like he thought of it beforehand. Don’t ask.

Enchanted by Madeleine’s brains (and the fact that she has Vivien Leigh’s face), Von Marwitz pursues the girl, seemingly unaware of her extracurricular activities. Their love affair unfolds with a mixture of passion and fear, fascination and hostility, as we detect in their earliest exchanges:

Marwitz: Why did you give away my little trick last night?

Madeleine: Because you claim to know so much about women.

Marwitz: I know nothing about them.

Madeleine: That means that you’ve had a lot of experience.

Marwitz: Oh, a lot. But what does it amount to?

Madeleine (giving him the bill for the dresses he just bought for some tarty girl): One thousand two hundred and seventy-five krona.

But back to the intrigue: When Madeleine’s superior agents order her to Paris, then and only then, more than halfway into the film, did I learn that she’s actually a double agent. She passes on select information to the Germans for the strategic benefit of the French and the British.

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However, no sooner do we find this out than does Marwitz… who’s actually the hidden mastermind behind the German Secret Service cell in Stockholm. Head spinning yet?

The final third of Dark Journey shines most brightly, once the characters have put their cards on the table and the situation is handled for suspense rather than surprise. In the astonishing scene when Madeleine figures out Marwitz’s identity, they lock in one of the slowest, most poetic movie kisses I’ve ever seen. Madeleine clings to him as he lifts her slightly—like a ballet in smooch-form.

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Veidt and Leigh possess a strange chemistry that churns mightily, like the waves of the North Atlantic, an image that dominates Dark Journey. The two enigmas collide. Under his hedonistic façade, there’s a core of austere courage and beneath her schoolgirl manners, she harbors the fierce strength of a career woman and a spy. Their relationship buzzes with the electrical charge that comes from two equals, two foes joined in a dangerous embrace. Shades of Garbo and Gilbert!

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Throughout the frenetic following scenes, I found myself wringing my hands in dread over what’s to become of Madeleine, as she now rushes to flee the country and escape from her beloved who must do his duty and try to have her killed.

In one particularly lovely scene at the end, once she’s been smuggled onto a ship leaving Sweden, Leigh’s performance suggests the natural emotions that one would feel: the simultaneous relief (I’m safe now…) and apprehension (…safe for the moment). However, she also adds a layer of more perverse sentiments—we understand that she wants Marwitz to abduct her because that would mean that he is indeed a daring patriot and also a passionate lover. In her mind, he’s part Siegfried, part enemy agent. Ironically, only by trying to drag her to her execution can Marwitz prove an ideal romantic partner. We perceive the barest glint of excitement in her eyes when she hears the ship being boarded.

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In the “Dolce” section of Irene Nemirovsky’s haunting WWII novel, Suite Française, a German officer, engaged in a forbidden romance with a French woman, compares the anticipation inherent in war and in love, observing that “Waiting is erotic.” Dark Journey captivated me with this atmosphere of waiting, of imminence. Fans of a good star-crossed love story won’t be steered wrong with this one.

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The script provides many piquant morsels of dialogue from Arthur Wimperis, whose dry wit enlivened Mrs. Miniver and A Knight Without Armor, and Lajos Biró, the brilliant scenarist behind Alexander Korda’s historical “private lives” films. I enjoyed the banter between Madeleine’s squabbling saleswomen, one German, one French, whose daily backbiting reveals the ultimate pettiness of war and nationalism. As Madeleine finally tells them, “I do not want French women here… nor German women. I want saleswomen!”

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“Stop playing League of Nations and take care of the customers, you hussies!”

Madeleine’s crotchety, lazy storekeeper, Anatole also gets some amusing, but very un-Continental lines. While trying to make his excuses for not sweeping the floor, he kvetches, “What can one do with a broom that’s as bare as the behind of the burgermaster’s baby?”

My absolute favorite line, however, comes from the mouth of a bit player—why do bit players get the best lines in British films? One of Von Marwitz’s servants is bemoaning the Baron’s infatuation with Madeleine which prompts him to buy up all of her dresses as an excuse to see her: “It used to be all girls with no clothes. Now it’s all clothes with no girls.” What’s the 1930s equivalent of LMAO?

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Shot by world-class cinematographers George Périnal (of Colonel Blimp and The Fallen Idol) and Harry Stradling Sr. (of Suspicion and My Fair Lady), Dark Journey paints a glamorous world with undercurrents of surreal dread. From the claustrophobic halls of steamer ships—threatened by torpedoes—to the chic expanses of posh nightclubs, this film offers us an entertaining portal into Europe on the brink of World War II.

Watch Dark Journey. You may be utterly befuddled by the plot. But, if you’re like me, you’ll be too entranced to care.

To watch the movie on YouTube, click here.

And because they’re both so beautiful, here are some gratuitous screencaps of Vivien and Connie. 14 40 46 57

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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