The Mind Reels: 10 Personal Highlights from TCMFF 2015

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You’d think I’d turn my pass to the right side for my photo op, but you’d be wrong.

4 days. 11 movies. 5 special presentations. 100+ buttons handed out to eager film fans. 20 hours of sleep, tops.

And I loved every minute of it.

This year, the TCM Classic Film Festival took “History According to Hollywood” as its theme. However, the history went deeper than the fancy costumes on the screens or the struggles of the past that drove the plots.

First off, TCM and TCMFF do so much to keep the history of motion pictures alive, enabling people of all ages to discover and appreciate our movie heritage. I mean, where else can you see a 1898 Méliès film from a hand-cranked projector one day and a Soderbergh hit from the 1990s the next?

More and more people of my generation (and I’m 24) are exploring Hollywood history, not just history according to Hollywood.

When Shirley MacLaine looked out at the standing-room-only crowd there to see her at Club TCM, she chuckled about the absence of white hair among the spectators.

Leonard Maltin explained, “TCM gets pigeonholed as a mature viewer network, and there’s a reason for that, because older people tend to like older movies, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t like old movies, too, and it shows in the audience here.”

“Because they were better,” MacLaine chimed in, expressing what I suspect most of us were thinking.

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

That betterness is something that TCM brings into people’s homes, and I’m grateful for that. As Christopher Plummer remarked at the festival, “there can be no future without a past.”

Second, TCMFF gives attendees the chance to listen to people who are truly, to borrow an apt cliché, living history. Listening to their memories illuminates not only their lives as performers, but also the social climate from which their work emerged.

Finally, corny though it sounds, the festival connected the personal histories that many of us have with people we hardly know in the conventional sense, but with whom we share our deepest thoughts and passions on social media.

I recently learned that the Library of Congress is storing tweets, archiving them as part of our cultural history. I daresay mine don’t rate that, but the practice shows what I’d known for years: that our virtual existences do constitute a real part of our lives, our identities, our stories. Whatever tweets are made of, maybe friendships are made of the same stuff.

I feel tremendously privileged to have attended the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. For the record (and maybe for posterity?), here are a few of the many, many highlights.

I’m working on more detailed posts about a number of these talks and movies, but I figured that I’d share some memories while they’re fresh. Ranking these by any criterion would be just too difficult, so I’ve put them in chronological order.

Seeing Captains Kirk and von Trapp together—I mean, William Shatner and Christopher Plummer along with Shirley MacLaine and Ben Mankiewicz at the handprint and footprint ceremony.

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Bravely snapped from the press box… on my iPhone.

It’s a miracle I didn’t faint, and heaven knows the blistering sun was no help, but there I was standing in the press box with the pros… juggling my basic point-and-shoot Cannon and my iPhone. Ever get the feeling you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight?

Well, this girl reporter’s nervousness melted right away when the guests arrived; I was there snapping away and recording with the rest of ’em. Hey, even Hildy Johnson had to start somewhere.

The ceremony featured amusing tributes from Shirley MacLaine, who credited Plummer with teaching her how to drink a whole bottle of wine, and William Shatner, who spoke of his long history of working with Plummer and following him to Canada, Stratford, and New York. “I followed you to Los Angeles, to Hollywood. That means I’d follow you anywhere!” Shatner joked.

In that sonorous baritone of his (which sounds even better in real life), man of the hour Christopher Plummer told spectators, “My mother once predicted that I would have to wait to be a very old man before receiving recognition in my profession. She was absolutely right, of course. But she never mentioned anything about being stuck in cement or allowing pedestrians to trample over me to their hearts’ content.”

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Christopher Plummer leaves his handprints in front of the TCL Chinese Theater. No, this one’s not mine. This is from one of the pros: Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage.

“I am immensely, immensely touched that I am part of this glorious history,” Plummer said, acknowledging all those who’d left their imprints before him. “To all my newfound brothers and sisters in arms, my talented dear neighbors in life after death, those wonderful artists whose grand achievements are forever carved into memory, I promise I won’t spoil the party.”

I took a lot of pictures, which I’ll treasure for occasions when I need a reminder of what pure class looks like.

Ann-Margret confessing to a very badass speeding violation.

While introducing a screening of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), the actress discussed her Swedish origins, her early roles, and her passion for motorcycles. When Ben Mankiewicz asked about the fastest she’d ever gone on one of her beloved bikes, her reply flabbergasted the audience: “120 at 2 a.m. on Mulholland… There was no traffic!”

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The enchanting Ann-Margret. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

About her Cincinnati Kid co-star Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret said, “Like me, he loved speed… I could identify with him, because I’m a bit of a daredevil.”

However, the studio informed both Ann-Margret and McQueen that they needed to stop riding their bikes to work. It was too dangerous for major stars.

Mankiewicz asked what McQueen advised her to do. Alas, that wasn’t the sort of thing you repeat to hundreds of people at the Egyptian Theater: “Well, I can’t really say everything… He said, ‘Let ’em stay nervous. That’s their job.’”

Ann-Margret also shared stories about her film debut, working with Bette Davis on Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961): “She really took care of me. She watched what I did, and since I didn’t know the meaning of close-up, medium, long shots—as I said, I was just really happy to know my lines—and all of a sudden she comes up and says, ‘Stop!… Ann-Margret, this is your close-up and I want you to look the best that you can. Makeup and hair!’”

Discovering rare and racy pre-Code comedy Don’t Bet on Women (1931).

Since I’d watched Men on Call at Cinefest the week before, Don’t Bet on Women was the second pre-Code Fox feature released in 1931 starring Edmund Lowe that I’d seen in one week! That, folks, is how I roll.

This zestful comedy centers on Jeanne Drake (Jeanette MacDonald, in her only non-singing role), who finds herself the subject of a wager between her stuffy husband Herbert (Roland Young) and a suavely caddish acquaintance Roger Fallon (Edmund Lowe). Hubby bets that his wife will resist Fallon’s advances… then gets to sweat it out as she uses the wager to teach him some respect and spice up her life.

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Una Merkel steals the show as Jeanne’s dizzy, flirtatious relative from the South. Merkel’s Tallulah encourages her conflicted cousin to play both sides of the bet: “I’d let Herbert win the wager and then I’d let Mr. Fallon kiss me to bits. That way I’d help my husband and then I’d help myself.”

Former James Bond George Lazenby leaving Ben Mankiewicz and the audience slightly shaken (and stirred).

Before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the Australian actor let loose with disarmingly unfiltered reminiscences of the movie and his wild behavior during the production.

“The last thing I ever thought of being was a film actor. Sounded like hard work,” he said, recounting how he bluffed his way into the role of 007 with no acting experience.

Mentioned for the role by a friend, Lazenby, a top male model of the 1960s, turned up at the casting office with a Connery haircut, a sharp suit, and a Rolex. When producer Harry Saltzman tried to schedule a screen test for the following day, Lazenby panicked.

“I was shitting myself and this was my way out,” he recalled. “I said ‘I can’t be here… I’m doing a film in France.’” There was no film in France, by the way. Our hero was BS-ing.

Saltzman asked how much he was getting paid. The made-up reply? “500 pounds a day, which was half a year’s wages in England at that time. I think, ‘That’ll get me out of here.’” Instead, the producer offered Lazenby that much just to show up—and so he became “the only actor who’s ever been paid for a callback.”

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Lovable rogue George Lazenby. Photo credit: Tyler Golden.

Upon meeting director Peter Hunt, Lazenby came clean and admitted that he’d never acted before in his life. Hunt corrected him: “You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless guys I’ve ever met in my life! You’re an actor.”

Lazenby went through intensive training to play Bond, including elocution and deportment lessons: “They got me to walk like Prince Philip. I used to swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night.”

During shooting, he wooed Diana Rigg, but ultimately lost her when she caught him in an, ahem, compromising position with a receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Hearing this ribald anecdote, Mankiewicz exclaimed, “You are James Bond!”

To make this moment even cooler, my mom (@MiddParent on Twitter) and I were sitting next to our longtime Twitter pal James David Patrick of #Bond_Age_, the James Bond Social Media Project.

Cackling deliriously at a midnight screening of Boom! (1968), the ne plus ultra of camp cinema.

boomI literally laughed my eyeliner off and resembled nothing so much as a raccoon when I staggered out of the Chinese Multiplex at 2 a.m. If you took ’shrooms and watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, you might get something like the same director’s puzzlingly bad Boom!

Eccentric dowager Liz Taylor howls as she pushes an X-ray machine into the ocean and bloviates about the ephemerality of existence. Richard Burton pensively intones “Boom!” every chance he gets and swings a samurai sword about for no apparent reason. Pompous camera movements threaten to induce motion sickness. I can’t decide if Boom! is brilliantly atrocious or atrociously brilliant.

Interestingly enough, Boom! polarized those friends of mine who were brave enough to stay up for it. Joel Williams of #TCMParty enjoyed it as much as I did and Miguel Rodriguez of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is thinking of how to work lines of the film’s ponderous dialogue into ringtones for his cell.

At the other end of the love-hate spectrum, Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has vowed to destroy all surviving prints of the cult classic. So, quite a range of responses there.

Norman Lloyd reenacting his famous Hitchcock plunge from Saboteur (1942).

At age 100, Norman Lloyd gets my vote for the most charming man on the planet; he is the personification of joie de vivre. So, rather than simply telling his audience many of his engrossing tales, he acted them out.

While describing his memorable death as the nasty title character of Hitchcock’s thriller Saboteur (1942), Lloyd explained how John Fulton and company created the illusion of the villain’s fall from the Statue of Liberty.

“It started with a seat on a pole on a black drape on the floor… that would be painted in as what’s known as a matte shot, where they painted in New York bay.

“Now, above me… was a platform. The middle of it was cut open and on it was a camera, shooting down. On a cue, this camera would go up in the air to the ceiling of the stage as I performed various beautiful balletic movements.”

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Norman Lloyd invites you to appreciate his awesomeness. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

At this point, on the stage of the Montalban Theater, Lloyd recreated these “airborne” undulations of the arms and legs—albeit in a more comic vein. If he’s Fry in the film, he was Wry at that moment (and, if I may say so, rather Spry for his advanced years), and I will never, ever forget it.

“I didn’t fall at all,” Lloyd explained. “I just made these movements [more undulations] as the camera was going up. And they ran the camera at different speeds. They weren’t sure at what speed it would look best, so the speeds went from 18 [fps] to 22, I remember. I’m not sure what they printed at.”

Spending over 2 hours with Sophia Loren, listening to an astonishingly down-to-earth diva.

About halfway through the interview with his magnificent mother, Edoardo Ponti joked that we’d all have to come back the next morning for part two of the discussion since it could go on for hours more. No one in the audience seemed to object to the idea.

Loren immediately won us over (not that she needed to!) by telling us about her natural shyness: “It was very difficult for me to come out and meet you all, but now that I’m here with you, I consider you a member of my family.”

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The luminous Sophia Loren in conversation at the Montalban Theater. Photo credit: Edward M. Pio Roda.

The idea of family wove through much of what she shared. For instance, Loren recounted how, with money from her aunt, she and her sister went to see Hollywood movies during World War II. Blood and Sand (1941) remained a vivid memory from those dark times, when bombardments regularly rocked Loren’s home and she had little to eat. “At my age, I was 8, 9 years old, to see these grand buildings and the clothes, the hair… the dance, the music… it took me to another world, so that for some minutes, for some instants, we were happy.”

Some of the most moving parts of the interview provided a glimpse into the close relationship between Sophia and Edoardo. When he asked her to talk about the costars she didn’t like, he got a slightly stern response: “Why do you ask me this question? We’re going to talk about this later!” The mother-son dynamic brought a sense of comfortable intimacy to the conversation that added poignancy to each answer.

Fighting sleep deprivation for hand-cranked movies, including a film unseen in full for 110 years.

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The dream machine, my picture

When you walk into a theater and they’re playing hits of the early 20th century on a 1908 Edison Phonograph, you know you’re in for something truly special. Indeed, at this presentation, Joe Rinaudo showed movies made between 1898 and 1913 from a 1909 Hand-Crank Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine.

As I sat spellbound in the dark, my attention shifted from the flickering images on the screen to the lively shadows cast on the wall by the projectionist’s arm. The presentation brought us back to the hushed wonder of the first motion picture shows, emphasizing the material, mechanical basis of film in a time when that aspect of cinema is rapidly slipping out of the public consciousness.

The program of films ran the gamut from the somber, like A Corner in Wheat (1909), to the whimsical, like Four Troublesome Heads (1898), to the downright bizarre, like The Dancing Pig (1907), which can only be described as nightmare fuel.

Best of all, the presentation ended with a recently rediscovered Pathé serpentine dance, believed for many years to be partially lost, not projected in entirety for an audience for over a century. Foreshadowing Les Vampires and Dracula, a bat swoops into the frame before a hidden cut transforms it into a woman who artfully sways her veils, at times resembling an angel, a butterfly, or a bird. Fully restored, the exquisite rainbow of hand-tinted hues on her “wings” shined from the screen and nearly moved me to tears.

I can’t think of many more beautiful sights that have ever danced before my eyes.

Tapping my toes to “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” during The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

smilinglieutenantI missed the chance to see this irresistibly saucy comedy when it first screened on Friday, but when it was selected to fill a “TBA” slot on Sunday, I decided that a touch of Lubitsch was just what I needed.

As Cari Beauchamp observed in her introduction, “If innuendos can fly, they do so in this film.”

Nobody ever made the unseen or the unsaid sexier than Lubitsch did. Seriously, how many movies pay a musical tribute to breakfast afterglow? When Chevalier croons to Claudette Colbert, “You put magic in the muffins,” you get the feeling he may not be talking about a nutritious morning meal.

Lest we forget, The Smiling Lieutenant includes perhaps the most pre-Code of all movie lines: “Let me see your underwear.” And, as if that weren’t cheeky enough, we can savor a whole song about the benefits of choosing your skivvies with panache.

Shown from a darn near immaculate 35mm print, courtesy of Universal, The Smiling Lieutenant pulled me out of the creeping fatigue that has been known to afflict those going on about 4 hours of sleep.

I tend to prioritize the stars at TCMFF. After all, who knows when/if I’ll get to see them again? This viewing choice, though, was motivated by pure movie love on my part. It left me with a slight knowing smile and a rosy complexion, as though I shared a naughty secret with the characters.

Shirley MacLaine dishing on pretty much everyone and everything that the Club TCM audience asked about!

MacLaine doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind (which is why I love her) and, for a magical hour at Club TCM, virtually no topic was off limits to the perennially sassy and enlightening star.

She mentioned Hitchcock’s confusing, oddball sense of humor, giving her direction in rhyming slang. If he wanted a pause, he’d instruct her, “Before you say that line, dog’s feet.” (Because paws = pause, get it?)

MacLaine noted that she got along fine with Hitch while making The Trouble with Harry (1955), because she wasn’t his ideal beauty. “I was his eating partner. I wasn’t tall and blonde and willowy and ethereal. I ate.”

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The outspoken and awe-inspiring Shirley MacLaine at Club TCM. Photo credit: Tyler Golden

Commenting on the director’s callousness, she said, “He was doing all that he did maybe to deflect from his lack of what man heroes were, and that’s where the sarcasm came from. He was really adept at being cynically funny.”

When asked about the difficulty of getting Frank Sinatra to do more than one take of any scene, MacLaine exclaimed, “They had a hard time getting him to do anything! They had a hard time getting him to work. I think he suffered from the same thing that Ernie Kovacs suffered from, and that is, ‘If I really rehearse, if I look like I care and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault’… He loved the spontaneity of not knowing what he was going to do.”

MacLaine also offered a colorful anecdote about Jack Nicholson: “Once he came to the door in a robe, so you kinda wondered what was under there. Next time he came with his shorts. Next time he came with a hooker. And the fourth time with nothing.”

A voice from the audience rather indelicately asked, “What did it look like?” to which MacLaine cannily replied, “It’s too long a story.” An uproar ensued.

Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, who briefly interviewed MacLaine before a screening of The Children’s Hour (1961), called her Club TCM conversation the best event he’d ever attended at TCMFF. I feel mighty lucky to have been there—and that goes for the festival as a whole.

I can hardly wait for next year. This one will be hard to top, but I have faith that TCM can do it.

Did you go to TCMFF? What were your highlights?

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5 Movies Announced for TCMFF 2015 (Plus 5 Films I’d Love to See There)

julieandrewsThe blogosphere is abuzz with The Sound of Music!

On January 20, TCM announced that the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood will open with Robert Wise’s beloved musical. With its tense pre-WWII backdrop, the choice is not only a crowd-pleaser, but also an apt reflection of the festival’s theme: “History According to Hollywood.”

And, if that news didn’t already get movie-lovers belting out show tunes, living legends Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer will attend the opening-night gala screening.

A major box office success upon its release in 1965, the lavish adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s hit celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Twentieth Century Fox will release the ever-popular film in a special Blu-Ray edition this March; the recent digital restoration slated for screening at TCMFF promises to be an exquisite one.

Relatively few festival titles—all of them world premiere restorations—have been announced at this point. However, I have full confidence that TCM’s expert programmers will select more terrific films than even the most tireless movie buff could possibly watch in a few days!

January 23 – UPDATE! TCM just announced that a restoration of The Grim Game (1919), a silent action thriller starring illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, will screen at the festival.

In a press release, Charles Tabesh, the network’s senior vice president of programming, expressed his excitement over the long-unavailable classic: “The discovery, restoration and screening of The Grim Game is the perfect embodiment of the TCM mission to celebrate our cinematic heritage and share it with new audiences.”

Best remembered for its amazing aerial sequence, the film incorporated footage captured during a real plane crash. Not exactly good taste, but quite riveting cinema. You can watch that scene below (although please note that this footage is not a preview of the restoration):


Here are the 4 other movies named so far, plus my two cents.

steamboatSteamboat Bill Jr. (1926)

This non-stop laugh riot includes a justly famous cyclone finale—inspired in part by the storm that literally wiped Buster Keaton’s birthplace off the map—one of Keaton’s boldest and most creative action sequences.

The Great Stoneface plays the dandyish son of a gruff riverboat captain who reluctantly joins the competition against a formidable business rival… while wooing the rival’s daughter.

Add a new score by the masterful Carl Davis, who delighted us by conducting his original music for Why Worry? in 2014, and you’ve got a screening I certainly don’t intend on missing!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The first film shown at the first ever Festival de Cannes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame also marked the American debut of an astonishingly gorgeous Irish actress called Maureen O’Hara. An underrated director if ever there was one, William Dieterle imbued the monumental adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel with a grotesque, expressionistic ambiance of paranoia.

I wonder if O’Hara, whom I was lucky enough to see at TCMFF last year, might return to the festival in March?

posterSpartacus (1960)

This movie depresses the hell out of me despite its Kubrickian intensity and Laurence Olivier’s weirdly erotic speech about oysters.

That said, some are speculating that 98-years-young Kirk Douglas might show up to introduce the film. If that’s the case, I’ll bring my gladiatorial sparring equipment and fight anyone for a good place in line!

UPDATE 1/29/15—Spartacus will not screen at TCMFF due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Apollo 13 (1995)

If a movie 5 years younger than me is a classic, does that make me one too? All sarcasm aside, Ron Howard’s film fits nicely with the festival’s theme. Its impressive special effects will provide an interesting contrast to the less high-tech historical recreations of, say, the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, let’s venture into the realm of possibility. I would love to see the following 5 classics on a big screen… and ideally introduced by any of their living stars. Please note that I am not affiliated with TCMFF and these are merely guesses and fantasies on my part.

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

With haunting cinematography Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane), this unconventional Western centers on the perils of irrigating a desert. While that might not seem like the basis for gripping cinema, trust me, it is. With the collective beauty of Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, and Vilma Banky, this silent will leave you quite speechless.

Alternate Choice: John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924)—silent Westerns are where it’s at, partner.

colbertThe Sign of the Cross (1932)

What would a festival about “History according to Hollywood” be without the Biblical blood and bombast of Cecil B. DeMille? Most famous for Claudette Colbert’s milk bath, this orgy of sin masquerading as a pious epic contains some of the most shocking content of the pre-Code era. It’s a decadent feast of “wait, did I really just see that?”

This choice is a long shot since Paramount sold the rights to Universal, a studio notorious among movie buffs for sitting on desired titles (and for knocking down historic landmarks). However, Universal has been releasing more and more previously unavailable films on DVD through their Vault Series as well as through TCM, so there’s a chance this perverse religious drama might make its way onto the TCMFF schedule.

Alternate Choice: DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), with its over-the-top Babyonian sequence that spoofs Hollywood historical romances

blackbookReign of Terror a.k.a. The Black Book (1949)

When Anthony Mann of T-Men and Raw Deal takes on the French Revolution, you know you’re in for history, noir-style. The concept of “period noir” sounds implausible—what’s the genre without trench coats and .45s?—but looks great. In this shadowy cloak-and-dagger political thriller, a dashing spy frantically searches for Robespierre’s list of enemies, bound in a black book, which, if passed to the resistance, could end the dictator’s rule.

The stunning Arlene Dahl, who is still with us as of this posting, delivered one of her most complex performances as a resourceful Girondin femme fatale. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear her talk about such an underrated classic?

Alternate Choice: The Tall Target, another noirish period thriller helmed by Mann… also one of Robert Osborne’s favorite little-known gems of classic cinema.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles would have turned 100 this year, so I’ll be rather bummed if Hollywood’s enfant terrible doesn’t get some screen time at the festival. Mutilated though it was by RKO, Ambersons remains a poignant and historically nuanced portrait of late 19th and early 20th century America.

Alternate Choices: any of Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations—they’re all life-changing and wonderful.

storyofmankindThe Story of Mankind (1957)

My dream midnight screening movie, this trippy entry into the canon of so-bad-it’s-good offers some of the most puzzling casting choices you’ll ever hope to see. Hedy Lamarr as St. Joan of Arc? Yup. Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton? You bet. Dennis Hopper as Napoleon? Oh, would it weren’t so.

Alternate Choice:  I accept no substitute. Seriously, TCM. You own the rights to this one. Indulge me, won’t you?

Are you going to TCMFF? What titles do you hope to see there?

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

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

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

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

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

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR I/PATRIOTISM

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

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

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

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

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

edith_storey_knits

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

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

buster_in_uniform

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

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

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

max_and_the_tirailleur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~          ~          ~

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

Caesar and Cleopatra (1945): Born to Rule

post“You are very sentimental, Caesar, but you are clever. And if you do as I tell you, you will soon learn how to govern.”

—Cleopatra

If Vivien Leigh were alive today, she would be 100 years old. In reality, she lived barely over half that long. Like many astronomically gorgeous women, Leigh endured a nasty amount of disparagement by critics who claimed she used her looks to compensate for her acting.

Which is why I wanted write about Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Leigh gave us the best celluloid incarnation of Egypt’s legendary queen, a role that rewarded both her beauty and her brains. Her monarch of the Nile is no royal cipher, no myth, and no parody, but a flesh-and-blood girl—a creature more tantalizing and paradoxical than a sphinx.

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George Bernard Shaw (on whose play the film was based) disliked Vivien Leigh’s performance, according to film historian Kendra Bean, webmistress of Viv and Larry. Upon previewing the completed film, Shaw moaned, “she’s ruined it.” But—and I write this with profound respect for Shaw’s literary genius—to hell with his opinion. He had some pretty dodgy opinions in his time. Acute observation may often be called cynicism, but not all cynicism deserves to be called acute observation.

After all, if this white elephant of a film holds up, it’s due in no small part to Leigh. Many of us drown in the fountain of Shavian wit. But who can’t relate to Cleopatra as Leigh plays her?

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Thanks to her interpretation, the audience senses that Cleopatra’s quavering reluctance and savage exhibitionism—flip sides of the same coin—hold the potential of greatness. When we first meet the teen queen, her flippant outbursts, her tyrannical gestures of rebellion, and her cutsey manipulations all strike a remarkable balance between annoyance and enchantment. She beguiles the viewer into recognizing that tremendous opportunity sleeps in her whimsy. In one lyrical shot, as Cleopatra snoozes in her virginal bed, the camera tracks over her towards the sea, as though destiny were keeping vigil over her, waiting with certainty for her character to ripen.

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Terence Rattigan once referred to Vivien as “one of nature’s grand Duchesses.” He meant that somewhat pejoratively, since her innate majesty limited her range, in his estimate. By contrast, I would argue that this quality brought out an added facet of many of her roles.

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Hoary old men of literature seem to enjoy the archetypes of the downtrodden or silly woman. However, I personally cannot help but find it refreshing that Vivien Leigh radiates grace and dignity at all times, even in the gutter. In her, substance and coquettishness aren’t separate. They fuse. The beauty of Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra elevates girlishness to a form of latent power.

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In On Acting, Laurence Olivier zeroed in on a basic flaw in the original play’s dynamics: “Shaw makes the most brilliant comic role for Cleopatra in the first act, but after the middle of the play she doesn’t get one laugh. He loses interest in Cleopatra and fastens his interest on Caesar; he just adores Caesar.”

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Spot-on, Larry. Shaw wanted to give us a witty play about education, a paean to the transformative effects of quasi-condescending, platonic relationships between world-weary middle-aged men and much younger women. Rather one-sided, isn’t it? Once Cleopatra proves a somewhat incorrigible pupil, killing traitors and not knowing how to handle the mess, Shaw seems to throw up his hands and reveal the work’s true purpose—letting Caesar preach the Zen of politics, the kindly non-governance that governs best.

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I suspect that Shaw resented Vivien’s efforts to counterbalance this swing of focus. If anything, her Cleopatra grows more fascinating in the second half. And although she obviously benefits from Caesar’s guidance, she was never a tabula rasa, a pretty, childish lump of clay for the conqueror to mold.

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Is it best that we should all be wise, steady, and a little jaded? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said for those youthful, uncivilized qualities that our elders try to break us of. Cleopatra’s vanity, her jagged energy, her impetuousness, her passionate nimbleness of mind, and even her egocentric spite come across as somewhat positive traits, though Shaw no doubt didn’t want them to.

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Vivien Leigh seized on the universality and charm of her role, awakening a side of Cleopatra that disturbs Shaw’s through-line. Just as Cleopatra learns from Caesar but discards the least practical bits of his wisdom, Leigh works with the architecture of Shaw’s play, but takes her performance in a different direction, one rather ahead of its time.

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Watching about twenty different expressions and deductions passing across Leigh’s quicksilver face in a minute, the modern spectator recognizes the strong, but confused girl-woman so prominent in today’s society. Why, you could plunk Leigh’s Cleopatra down in the midst of any gathering of bright millennials and she’d be right at home, with her curious blend of irrationality and competence, arrogance and insecurity.

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There’s enormous strength in girlishness, as Leigh shows us. Girlishness shocks scruples and overcomes the virtue of restraint—a virtue once you’re in control, but not necessarily a habit of highly effective people on the trip to get there. Most political strategy requires a kind of childish boldness, as suggested by Cleopatra’s lines like, “It is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid.”

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The camera aids and abets Leigh’s interpretation of a Cleopatra who holds her own against Caesar’s dreamy equanimity. We might not want to feel the rush of intoxicating cruelty as she chases a slave around in her palace in long shot, her little veiled figure flitting and dancing around like a mischievous fairy, but I’d wager that most of us do.

She scampers up to her throne and raises her arms skyward, announcing, “I am a QUEEN!” The glorious self-absorption of this moment serves as both a warning and gratification, the initial glee triggered by a perception of absolute power. (Sadly, it was while filming this scene that then-pregnant Vivien slipped and took a fall that caused her to miscarry.)

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 As the Roman legions enter her palace, the film medium conveys Cleopatra’s erstwhile courage in a way a stage play never could. We witness her trembling anxiety in a number of tense reaction shots, as the soldiers get closer and closer. Rather than presenting a dramatic spectacle, the film offers up Cleopatra’s experience of bravery as the concealment of fear.

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Towards the conclusion, the film uses another close-up of Leigh to signify a key shift in the plot and to meld it with an emotional turning point in Cleopatra’s coming-of-age progression. When Cleopatra cowers over the body of her nurse, killed as a consequence of the Queen’s own meddling, she stares towards the camera with a blank look. The darkness of the murder scene slowly dissolves to the white-hot sands of the desert as Leigh’s face lingers, superimposed, over dunes, as troops march off to war.

Through the transition, it’s as though Cleopata’s wide, horrified eyes were seeing through the scene of a single death to witness a bloody battle, threatening imminent death for thousands of men. We recognize that a major upheaval has taken place in her consciousness. Touched by death, she grasps the stakes of this game.

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Now, I have chosen to devote my attention to Vivien Leigh today, but I cannot praise Claude Rains’s performance enough. Rains may be the first man since antiquity to successfully exude authority while wearing a metallic mini-skirt, possibly because he performs all those Roman gestures with a nod of rumpled humor.

More importantly, the audience can feel the pit of loneliness in the heart of this conqueror. The miracle of his voice, like a well-tuned orchestra, rescues so many of Caesar’s philosophy lectures from oblivion. Rains captures the mixture of affection, mentorship, and wariness in Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra, infusing his performance with the barest hint of attraction for his protégée.

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In one of the most splendid scenes of the film, Caesar, Cleopatra, Rufio, and Apollodorus sit around a dinner table in the rosy sunset glow of the palace rooftop. The camera tracks back from an inscrutable idol to reveal the four revelers, lounging around after the meal. The moment that follows is the closest to romantic intimacy that the eponymous pair will come, and it aches with yearning.

Certainly, Shaw’s florid prose evokes this throb of desire, as Caesar dreams of discovering a new land with Cleopatra. However, the coziness of the two-shot between Caesar and Cleopatra, reclining in waning light, translates the might-have-been into an image of palpable closeness. By default, the audience wants a couple. The chemistry between Rains and Leigh deepens this longing. But it’s not to be.

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Caesar and Cleopatra’s opulence devoured a budget that could’ve paid a king’s ransom: 1.3 million in total. In fact, it was the costliest British studio production up to that time. When the film flopped at the box office, Gabriel Pascal’s career as a director fell on its sword. I admire this film for presenting a total antithesis to every other movie about the Queen of the Nile. Devoid of gratuitous sex and violence (actually, make that all sex and almost all violence), the cerebral tenor of the movie begs to be appreciated like a fine wine.

Ultimately, though, a drawing room comedy can be rolled over one’s palate and not cost a million pounds. Pomp and intellect are ill-yoked partners. As Cecil B. DeMille knew, temples and pyramids upstage fragile thoughts, which is why an epic needs only a central clash and a few morsels of elemental ideology.

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Much as I mourn for the failure of this experiment in the intellectual epic, I do find the film too long, padded here and there by unnecessary bits of business and well-written, but ultimately uncinematic speeches. No matter how much Technicolor eye candy Jack Cardiff and company lavish on the audience members, the film tests their patience.

I become easily exasperated with Caesar’s romantic wisdom. His collection of tolerant aphorisms wears thin on me. Not that I don’t agree with his open-minded doctrine of pragmatic clemency, but he shows this philosophy enough by his actions without having to articulate it over and over and over. A leaner screenplay might have saved this adaptation from its sanctimonious belches.

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Here again, the blood is on Shaw’s hands, given the playwright’s refusal to allow his source material to be significantly cut or modified. You’d think the Oscar he won for Pygmalion (1938) would’ve opened his eyes to the specific demands of the cinema and demonstrated how a successful adaptation can negotiate these challenges.

Despite the quixotic shortcomings (or longcomings) of the film, I recommend it for the sumptuous visuals and spot-on lead performances. Watch it and rejoice in the Queen’s transcendent brattiness. Like Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh was born to rule.

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Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.

And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”

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On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.

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The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.

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I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.

However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.

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Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.

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The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.

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Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.

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Figure A: Bette Davis

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With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.

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So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Sympathy for the Devil: The Penalty (1920)

Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty packs a real punch. And not just for a silent movie.

This sicko gem features, among other things, a stark naked woman, a junkie killer, prostitutes, a chase through San Francisco’s seedy “Barbary Coast,” and a Lon Chaney performance so wicked and ferocious that it borders on possession.

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This is one bad dude. Even by today’s standards.

Even I, who proselytize the glory of the silent era, am recurrently shocked by the intensity and dead-on brutality of this film—an astonishingly raw point of reference for all horror and crime films that followed it.

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See that lady on your left? She’s nude. Really. And this was for general admission!

When I give it a thought, and I often do, I realize that horror films and gangster films have a lot in common. They both emerged, in the forms we recognize today, from genre cycles in the 1930s after some strong foundations were put down in the silent era. They both tend to feature linear, predictable plot trajectories—rise-and-fall for the gangster film, unleashed-amok-destroyed for the horror film.

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Do we love to hate him? Or do we hate to love him?

The horror and crime genres also inspire a mixture of revulsion, pity, sympathy, and, dare I say, admiration for their grotesque protagonists. Monsters and criminals entice us to join (vicariously) in their savagery—there’s something liberating about their intoxicating, anarchic hubris. And, most of the time, they let us indulge whatever aggression many of us harbor towards authority figures—doctors, policemen, community leaders, and the better angels of our nature, our own morally-upright doubles.

And, so, at the crux, the crossroads of all of these emotions we experience in contact with the gangster and the monster, we arrive at The Penalty.

The story starts with a little injured boy, “a victim of the city traffic,” as the intertitles tell us, lying unconscious in a doctor’s office.  Dr. Ferris had to amputate the kid’s legs.

Well, he thought he had to.

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It turns out that the inexperienced surgeon made a mistake, an older doctor informs him, as the now legless little boy wakes up and listens with horror.

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However, even though the boy knows the truth, the doctors decide to cover for each other. Yup, that’s right, the doctor gets off free as his colleague backs up his malpractice—while the “mangled” child screams the truth to his parents in vain.

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Okay, so raise your hand if you wouldn’t try to exact demonic retribution on someone who not only took away your legs and all hope of a normal life (this was the 1920s), but also made it so that you could never, ever talk about what happened?

I really hope no one raised his hand.

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This opening scene, unusually poignant for a gangster film, immediately establishes our sympathy with the future bad guy. The anguish of the child sucks us right in—and we get several flashbacks to this scene throughout the film to remind us of that irredeemable loss and sickening injustice. What’s been done can never be made right—so who can blame that little boy for not having any particular concept of wrong? He lives the wrong every day of his life.

The Penalty squirms around this uncomfortable question of the world’s wronged and the rage that germinates within them. I think a lot of people just quote Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive divine,” without giving it too much thought. In the end, forgiveness isn’t human. It’s not natural. It does not come easy—and perhaps it shouldn’t, since I could rattle off a few things that I consider unforgivable, and I’m not talking about dissing black-and-white movies. Forgiveness isn’t half as human as vengeance. If you’ll pardon me for ripping an idea from the Rolling Stones, I think most people would find it far easier to relate to proud, self-centered, dissatisfied Satan than to God, in his infinite, incomprehensible wisdom and goodness.

And Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld,” the warped man that grows out of that amputated boy, could probably teach the devil a thing or two. And he happens to look a lot like him! Blizzard sets out to destroy Dr. Ferris by ingratiating himself with Ferris’ daughter, Barbara—a sculptor who hopes to achieve artistic immortality through a depiction of the devil. She even puts an ad in the newspaper.

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As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.

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Then, remembering the cause of all of his suffering (we get a brief flashback to the opening scene), Chaney’s face shifts through so many transformations—from anticipation to self-congratulatory glee to pensiveness to frightening resolve.

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Then he turns to his henchmen and asks them probably the most darkly funny question ever put on an intertitle. One thinks of the “I amuse you?” scene from Goodfellas!

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“Uh… do we tell da boss he looks like Satan?”

Once Blizzard infiltrates Barbara’s studio, he sets about winning this young woman’s confidence while she works on the aforementioned bust of Satan. Their discussions take on a strangely allegorical ambiance as they talk in the midst of half-made statues and grotesques.

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The act of creation in tandem with an ongoing process of manipulation and destruction gives the film a surreal headiness that counterbalances the realistic grittiness of the street scenes. In this way, The Penalty reminds me of Kurosawa’s almost unbearably good High and Low (sometimes entitled Heaven and Hell) since both films combine squalor and art—to recast squalor as art.

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The Penalty, too, relies on a Heaven-and-Hell motif that zeroes in on the origin of all horror and gangster films. Because, what are horror and gangster films if not variations on the story of The Fall… but from a perspective uncomfortably close to the devil’s? Both genres tend to look up from the filthy underworld and inculcate more that a little sympathy for the devil.

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Blizzard is an especially interesting gangster (and monster) because his physical limitations emphasize his mental prowess. He recalls Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost who is, to borrow his own words, “A mind not to be chang’d by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (Book I, Line 253) Like the scariest kinds of monsters, our disabled movie villain corrupts others with his charisma and manipulates his victims to do his bidding. In so doing, he foreshadows the mind-control techniques of Lugosi’s surprisingly hands-off Dracula—and also, I would argue, of Don Corleone who rules his empire by loyalty and psychological terror as much as by real physical force.

Even apart from its rather deep thematic undercurrents, The Penalty stands out as a finely constructed film. Immediately after the opening scene in the doctor’s office, the film plunges us right into an action sequence and a killing in the sordid “Barbary Coast” district of San Francisco. Interestingly, the intertitles describe the Barbary Coast as “a hideous blemish” on the face of the city, making the use of disfigurement as a metaphor for crime and vice even more obvious.

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Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.

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In this den of iniquity, Frisco Pete, played by perennial silent brute James Mason (not to be confused with James ‘Soulful British Eyes’ Mason), stabs a hooker “Barbary Nell” in a dance hall and flees the police through the maze-like, shabby streets of the town.

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The crazy doorways and alleys of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”

Finally, Pete runs into Blizzard who agrees to hide him. A movie that throws you right into a chase sequence—hmm, where have I heard of that before? Oh, yeah, almost every single modern gangster or cop film!

The Penalty also interweaves between several “time bomb” plot devices, juggling Blizzard’s twisted personal revenge scheme, which I won’t spoil, with his larger ambition of looting San Francisco. We actually see the realization of this ambition in the eye of Blizzard’s mind, as flames and smoke engulf the city and Blizzard (with legs, since this is his fantasy!) directs his hoodlums to sack and pillage the city.

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So, in its own quiet way, The Penalty paved the way for large-scale heist sequences. More important, with its “hypothetical heist,” a big robbery that takes place only in the mind of a character, the film experiments with the psychological and narrative complexity of crime strategizing.

In another interesting (if not entirely satisfying) subplot, a female police operative, Rose, goes undercover as one of Blizzard’s dance hall girls/sweatshop workers. As Rose races against time to discover Blizzard’s plan, she lingers in the shadow of The Fate Worse Than Death and the danger of being discovered.

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“I like your spunk. I think I’ll wait to kill you tomorrow.”

The undercover cop angle works generally well and infuses the film with suspense—especially as the hardened young policewoman begins to fall for the magnetically evil Blizzard.

Like Richard III, Shakespeare’s great archvillain and another Satan variant, Blizzard handles women with supreme skill.

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Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…

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He doesn’t just compensate for his lack of legs. Instead, he uses his “deformity” to his advantage, cultivating pity and catering to a weirdly fetishistic attraction. When Barbara Ferris first sees him and recoils slightly, Blizzard responds to her shock by suavely looking down at his stumps as though noticing them for the first time.

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He then returns her gaze with a flirty smile, as though to imply that there’s enough of him for anything really critical.

(Incidentally, the leg harnesses that Chaney had to wear to portray Blizzard’s disability were so painful that he could only act for about 20 minutes at a time.)

Blizzard also loves to play the piano, but, since he can’t reach the pedals, his current favorite among the dance hall girls has to push them for him. Woe to the dame who doesn’t press those pedals in time with the tune!

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You don’t need to watch to film to recognize this as an oddly sexualized act of subjugation—especially given how much enjoyment and excitement Blizzard derives from playing.

Classic horror films derive much of their bite (pun intended) from the sexual menace of the monsters. (Duh. They did it so well that ghastly, slushy versions of these Gothic tales are mega-hits even these days.) The sex and/or love lives of the gangster also provide inexhaustible subject matter for crime films. Is there a more iconic 1930s scene than Cagney smashing girlfriend Mae Clark in the face with a grapefruit at breakfast, the sleaziest meal of the day in Pre-Code cinematic lingo?

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Well, Blizzard, a freak, a seducer, and a criminal mastermind, connects the two strands of creepy, sadistic fascination—he is the missing link between the gangster and horror genres. Through a clever cinematic presentation and Chaney’s incandescently ugly performance, The Penalty provokes every kind of emotion that a monster or crime film might hope to tease from a spellbound audience.

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(A word of warning: I have no intention of spoiling the ending of The Penalty. The ending spoils itself. A lame, apologetic, neat-as-a-librarian’s-sock-drawer denouement amputates this masterpiece manqué and leaves it as incomplete as its fierce antihero. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. But, come on, it was 1920. Try and show me a film this gritty and disturbing made in Hollywood in the last ten years. Please, make my day.)

The Penalty

Frisco Pete, what was once quaintly termed a “hophead,” begs Blizzard for a fix.

Also, for great, thought-provoking writing about crime films, you should totally check out the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! It’s so cool, it’s criminal!

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Divorcée (1930)

The Divorcée

The Divorcée is an odd film.

To the eyes of a modern viewer (at least the cinema-seasoned eyes of this modern viewer), the 1930 M-G-M Norma Shearer vehicle, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, comes across as both shockingly bold and, on first viewing, annoyingly stilted and stagey. I’ll fess up: I did squirm at the oh-so-sophisticated depiction of divorce among the upper classes—where there’s no financial consequences, children, or overwhelming familial disapproval to make the rupture messy. This a fantasy divorce, make no mistake, in which virtually nothing peels away at the veneer of glamour, lacquered thick over the whole affair.

The Divorcée

On the other hand, I cannot quite choke back the glee when Norma Shearer informs her dismissive, one-time-philanderer hubby, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Is there a wittier way of informing one’s, ahem, better half that you’ve attained sweet, sweet revenge?

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Norma gave us her matter-of-fact opinion on sex in motion pictures in this interview from the 30s.

I swoon at the glamour of Norma’s outfits by Adrian. Whether she’s a good girl or a girl behaving badly, career woman Norma parades around in some of the most to-die-for suits and evening gowns I’ve ever drooled over.

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Best of all, she barely dips her toe into vamp territory. We understand that she’s neither a home-wrecker nor a Gothic man-eater, a variation on the succubus. On the contrary, she’s just a sharp lady who wants to have a little fun. And look damn good while doing it.

Shearer won an Oscar for her performance—but she had to fight to get the role. Her husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, didn’t think she could handle the role. He worried it would eat away at her star image and her popularity. It took a photo shoot that Norma arranged of herself in steamy pre-Code lingerie to prove otherwise. Irving caved to her demands.

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And I must acknowledge that The Divorcée throws quite a few hard punches. Ones that send me reeling, that’s for sure. (Oh, and there are spoilers in this post. If you want to bail out now, I’ll let you.)

So, how are we to evaluate a film like this? One that feels tiresomely backwards—yet looks strikingly forwards? It’s New Years, so I think I have some time to contemplate this Janus-faced creation. In particular, I want to ask the question that the movie seems to cling to: should old acquaintance be forgot? Only, instead of talking about ex-husbands, I want to ask that question about this movie and give a few reasons why, despite a few mawkish angles, The Divorcée deserves to be remembered.

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First off, the title intrigues me. No surprises there. Somebody’s getting divorced! The title already announces a separation, so we, the viewers, know that the wooing, cooing couple we see in the opening scenes, Norma and Chester Morris, is going to end up splitting. But how? That’s suspense, right there. And some rather refined irony!

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Don’t get too attached to this couple!

With jazzy credits music and a bunch of people giggling in a country house, the film’s opening lures you in with the promise of a witty marital sex comedy (of the Private Lives ilk) then steers you right into ugly drama. The movie begins with a blithe little party among friends in the countryside. We get a rather ordinary love quadrangle: Jerry loves Ted, but so does Paul—even though Dorothy loves Paul. So, when Paul hears that Jerry is going to marry Ted. He doesn’t take it so well.

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He gets drunk, drives off the road, and the accident smashes up Dorothy’s face.

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Talk about going from zero to sixty! The scene made my jaw drop. The expressionistic angles of the crash, the sense of loss and irrevocable damage, the shrill shrieks of Dorothy’s sister as she cries for revenge over her sister’s disfigured body.

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In a split second, The Divorcée plunges us into darkness and we’re still gasping for breath when the light comes.

The Divorcée

Right from that nasty car-crash scene, we go to a chapel where Jerry and Ted are going to be joined in matrimony. Movie weddings often bubble over with joy—or at the very least hijinks—but at The Divorcée’s doomed wedding, the sheer inauspiciousness of it all virtually whacks you over the head.

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Sure, the bride blushes and the groom smiles, but something’s not right. We’re all too shaken—and full of presentiments—to bask in the joy.

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There’s a very significant dissolve from the priest reciting the service to this shot of the bride and groom taking their vows. Notice how abstracted it is—no heads, no personality. It’s a picture of Marriage, not of our marriage, not a union between two living, breathing people. It reminds me of a glib Victorian illustration.

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And as if that uncomfortably headless shot wasn’t irony enough, another dissolve transports us to another marriage—the atonement marriage of Paul and Dorothy, who wears bandages in place of orange blossoms and a veil, as she reclines, mutilated for life, in a hospital bed. The Divorcée equates these two weddings and prods us to think hard about the apparent chasm between the dream wedding and the nightmarish one—because, in point of fact, they’re not so different.

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Hands actually play a very important part in this film. Once Jerry separates from her husband and embarks on a series of affairs, we see them transpire in rapid succession through a bunch of shots of hands meeting over tables.

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The Divorcée

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I love this clever montage for its acidly funny encapsulation of relationships. I’d also point out that the lack of faces allows the viewer to put herself in Jerry’s place and experience the vicarious rush of her lusty divorced life. But, most important, the sequence reminds me of Jerry’s and Paul’s weddings—and not just in a simple “that was right, this is wrong” kind of way.

On the contrary, I think all this hand-play encourages us to see both extreme forms of relationship—lifelong commitment and casual sex—as equally dangerous if undertaken without thought…when you leave your head out of the picture.

Living in the moment is dangerous, The Divorcée tells us, because every moment you’re bargaining with the rest of your life, even when you’re not vowing “ ’til death do us part.”

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The pleasure-haze of an addled brain—a kaleidoscope of good times.

We see this truth alluded to by the motif of drunken mistakes in this film: Paul’s accident, Ted’s infidelity, and, the most carefully portrayed, Jerry’s drunken affair with Don, who was the best man at her wedding. She learned a few hours ago that her husband cheated on her with a woman who “didn’t mean a thing” to him. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make her feel better.

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So she goes out drinking, and we savor a cloudy, loud nightclub as a tracking shot jerks dizzily over to her table where we see written across Norma Shearer’s face a look of blank, despairing stupefaction. All the festivities are lost on her.

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Then Don leans towards her and in that close framing, we can practically feel their breath and smell the alcohol on it. She smiles—it feels nice to be appreciated.

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Without a line of dialogue, this scene nails the dim, sleepy, assault-on-the-senses ambiance of the situation, which could’ve felt contrived. It’s almost as though we’re watching someone’s fuzzy memory replay of what happened the night before.

So they go back to his place.

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As Don suggestively strokes Jerry’s fur coat, the soon-to-be-adulteress looks almost right at us, as if defying us to judge her, to think that we’d do any different in her place.

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Curtains close. Lights go out. Sex makes for the best ellipses, doesn’t it?

Even nowadays, I can’t think of too many movie women who get their bedroom revenge so quickly. I can’t think of any who make the walk of shame look as good as Norma does. But again, it’s hard to congratulate this movie. What’s the take-away message? That women should do as they like? Or that women are just as bad as men?

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Perhaps Norma’s Jerry says it best when she dismisses this kind of broadly gendered talk:

Oh, Ted, don’t let’s talk about men and women. They do all sorts of things. We’ve got to live our own life, dear. There’s so much of it ahead.

The Divorcée serves up a story about individual consequences that aims to look at mature situations. It’s not the clarion call of a sexual revolution. It doesn’t need to be, though. And I refuse to fault the movie for not being one. Even if I do get a little miffed at its contrivances, I can see the ways in which this 1930 sensation still echoes through to today.

As Don, Robert Montgomery dances his way through a performance so likable, yet loose of morals that you feel like he was born to provide consoling vengeance. He’s nice, handsome, rich, smooth, witty—and totally no-strings-attached. They could package him up in cellophane and sell him at Rebounds-Are-Us.

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I adore how fun and non-evil he is as the cheerful “other man.” Especially when, years later, he runs into Jerry’s husband (who has no idea Don slept with Jerry) and talks about Jerry’s mysterious rebound guy. “What would you do if you ever found him,” asks Don. “I’d kill him,” Ted replies. The look on Montgomery’s face is priceless.

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He’s so sweetly caddish that you can also easily trace his descendants in the sitcom, rom-com lineage, including Patrick from Stephen Moffat’s top-notch Coupling and Barney from How I Met Your Mother. (Yes, yes, I watch that stuff too!) Don is still with us, my friend!

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The New Year’s reunion at the end of this movie also, I daresay, inspired the conclusion to When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s a lot more problematic since, in the end, Jerry finds her ex and vows to rebuilt their life together. Lots of people would argue that this ending is lame and conservative—making an otherwise scandalous Pre-Code film palatable to a crowd of morality thumpers ready to knock down the studio doors. However, I would argue something different.

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As Jerry kisses her ex-hubby and “Auld Lang Syne” swells on the soundtrack, we get a vaguely happy feeling, but what’s done cannot be undone. These two adults recognize this—which is why their marriage stands a chance now. They’re people who’ve seen more of the world, enough to know that actions have repercussions. Even Jerry’s insistence that “all the world gets a fresh start,” sounds plaintive and a trifle reserved.  And that’s why, with broken illusions, they can embrace as the lights go black.

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Genuine bitterness: Ted knocks over a wedding cake when he discovers that Jerry’s paid him in kind.

It’s no accident that, at the very beginning of the movie Jerry and Ted were acting out a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most clueless and immature lovers.

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When I was in seventh grade and first read Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was mushy and dumb. It’s taken me many, many years to come ’round and see it as a delicate exposé of teenage romanticism—the kind of steam-heated, fast-expiring passion that is so very tragic, not just because it makes people do tragic things, but because if those same people had waited one more week they probably wouldn’t have even remembered the caprice.

Not looking forward is pretty stupid. That’s what the characters in the movie do at the beginning. They marry without knowing much about life. They can’t see past some nebulous notion of “forever.”

But not looking back is even worse. The past returns in a tangible and frightening form in The Divorcée when Jerry gets involved again with Paul who proposes to divorce his disfigured wife (there’s a keeper!) to marry her. Jerry is waiting for Paul in her apartment one day when a knock comes at the door. A woman wearing a thick black veil stands there—and the camera even pivots almost imperceptibly to heighten the unease of this apparition.

The Divorcée

The Divorcée

Whatever you want to say about this movie, the raw, surreal jolt that you get out of seeing the deathly figure appear out of nowhere, in such an ordinary, posh setting, cannot and will not be denied. Like I said, in its own way, this movie packs a punch. The Divorcée tugs at the complex tangle of time, past hopes and overshadowed futures. Poor faceless, blameless Dorothy, encased in layers of black tulle, totters into the film like a specter and, to me, remains the most memorable part of the movie.

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In a film that puts drama and comedy into a cocktail mixer and shakes ’em hard, Dorothy seems to come from a horror film—she’s like a ghost. She brings back the past, she’s almost one of the living dead. Even her sister says that it would be better if she died. Nobody seems to want Dorothy alive, yet she lives. And needs to be listened to.

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But—and this is why I chose The Divorcée for my last post of 2012—we can all learn not to turn our backs on the past.

And, when we do look back, we shouldn’t look back with smugness and condescension, like I wanted to when I put this movie on. This year, I’ve met a lot of lovely people who cherish old movies like I do. However, I’ve noticed a lot of old movie bashing and bristled at different enunciations of the idea that we know better now than they did then.

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Messy streamers in the first of The Divorcée’s two New Year’s scenes suggest that the connections between people never get fully severed. Just tangled up.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past always comes back. It wears a veil, no doubt, but only idiots choose not to look at it. The past comes to us and tells us things that we don’t want to hear, things that we often chose to denigrate rather than decipher.

Well, guess what? Someday we’ll all be past—and a new crop of urbane scoffers will assess us.

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Paul catches a glimpse into Jerry’s train compartment. Fate intervenes to bring the past back to him and to Jerry.

We shouldn’t always look back in fondness. Sometimes we need to look back in anger. But, always, always, we need to look back with receptiveness and a little holy dread.

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So watch this movie. For the wisecracks, the shocks, the clothes, the feminist overtones. Whatever. But watch it.

Watch an old movie you want to discredit. Watch it and it might astonish you. I hope it does. It may not. But don’t sneer at it before you’ve given it a chance.

That’s why I watch old movies. Because I enjoy looking back. Because I like learning from and laughing with the past. Because I like remembering, even when it’s painful to remember.

Because someone damn well needs to.

Take this curtain, for instance, which shows up in the first of The Divorcée’s New Year’s scenes. You only see it for a few seconds:

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But I recognized that curtain! I’d seen it in the 1927 M-G-M silent, Mr. Wu. I wrote my thesis on it!

Mr. Wu

There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s no excuse not to look at what gets recycled, at what we keep, at what we remember.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Not on my watch.

The Divorcée