Some Pre-Code Candy Hearts for All You Sinners

Heartened (pun intended) by the response to yesterday’s film noir valentines, I decided to spend a few hours creating some pre-Code options for you lovebirds—this time in the form of candy “conversation hearts.”

I had too much fun making these. So much fun, in fact, that I’m worried it was illegal in some way. And, if Joseph Breen had anything to say about it, it probably would be…

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15 Film Noir Valentines for All You Lovelorn Mugs and Molls

outofthepastIt’s that time of year when flurries of cards in Pepto-Bismol hues invade our lives with syrupy messages of eternal devotion. I see gestures of love like that and I think, “What would Raymond Chandler do?”

Well, he’d probably have a drink and say something funny and bitterly insightful, I guess. But I’m no Raymond Chandler. So I did the next best thing and spent some time communing with Photoshop to make shoddily satirical valentines.

When you think about it, though, film noir is first and foremost about relationships—romances that actually reveal the dark side of human interactions and the shallow pretense of bourgeois affection… oh, who am I kidding? I just wanted to make some damn noir valentines. As for the analysis, today, baby, I don’t care.

Please note that these valentines are ironic and are not meant as an endorsement of: homicide, codependency, passive aggression, guns, necrophiliac crushes, l’amour fou, watered-down penicillin, or bad romance of any kind. Make sure you talk to your doctor about whether hardboiled dialogue is right for you.

And, without further ado, the valentines…

Martha Vickers says what we’d all like to say to Bogie in The Big Sleep (1947):

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Rita Hayworth tells us how she really feels in Gilda (1946):

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Gloria Grahame is not charmed by Glenn Ford’s hang-ups in The Big Heat (1954):

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Grimy drifter Ann Savage just can’t quit Tom Neal in Detour (1945):

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Noir’s rottenest couple, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944):

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You thought your girl- or boyfriend was clingy? Get a load of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946):

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It was surprisingly hard to come up with something romantic for Harry Lime (Orson Welles) of The Third Man (1949) to say. But I think this is pretty heartwarming.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth are fools in love in The Lady from Shanghai (1947):

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Maybe Bogie loves Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he won’t play the sap for her!

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Ava Gardner explains to Burt Lancaster that she has some emotional baggage in The Killers (1946):

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Outlaw lovebirds Peggy Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy (1950):

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The ultimate in noir tragic coolness, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947):

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I couldn’t help but get a little mushy over my favorite noir screen team, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942):

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Gloria Grahame recites some melodramatic script lines to express her despair over losing Bogie at the end of In a Lonely Place (1950):

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Dana Andrews seems a tad too fixated on a portrait of a dead dame in Laura (1944):

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 Happy Valentine’s Day to all you femmes and hommes fatals!

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bob Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scary Funny: Dwain Esper’s Maniac (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers awesome amounts unintentional humor through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films made contemporarily to Hollywood’s golden age affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.

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

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

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

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

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

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Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ‘2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

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At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!'”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.

Just Dandy: The Art of Max Linder

maxyHe was the first international movie star. The man Charlie Chaplin called his “professor.” A visionary writer-director.

And in 1925, Max Linder—sickened by war wounds, maddened by post-traumatic stress, and increasingly neglected by the audiences he had once delighted—died by his own hand. It was a very sad end for a very funny man.

Linder deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for refining that curious alchemy that we now recognize as great screen comedy. His cocktail of uproarious pratfalls, farcical situations, surreal gags, and wistful, tender humor was utterly unlike anything that came before.

Over the course of hundreds of film appearances from 1905 to 1925, many of which he directed, he developed a signature mischievous, urbane style of physical comedy. In a 1917 interview, the comedian himself commented on this intentional, yet intuitive mix of high and low: “I prefer the subtle comedy, the artistic touch, but it is a mistake to say I do not use the slapstick. I do not make it the object; I do not force it; but I employ it when it comes in naturally.”

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Max Linder shows his affection for cats of all sizes.

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At five-foot-two, Linder looked tiny even in his splendid high hat. His dainty features, his fussy feline mustache, his spindly legs, and his glistening immaculacy of dress all gave the diminutive comedian the aura of a pretty wind-up toy. Such a comedic creation, a dapper, accident-prone bourgeois, could easily have fallen into the sort of frivolous comedy that sours as quickly as cheap champagne. However, Linder endowed his Max with a romantic fire and a befuddled enthusiasm that transcend time.

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Linder understood that only a proper man could ever truly be improper. In his full regalia, he dazzled viewers with head-to-toe elegance at the beginning of his films—and wound up sullied almost beyond recognition by the end of the reel. He didn’t look like the sort of man whose shoes would catch on fire, who would end up sharing a cage with a lion, or who would get trapped on the fender of an automobile. Which made it all the funnier when he did.

Unlike raffish Chaplin, woebegone Keaton, or boy-next-door Lloyd, Linder infused his onscreen persona with an upper-class whimsy. He does what he does not necessarily because he has to, but often because he damn well feels like it.

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Max wants to be a bullfighter? He grabs a rug hanging out to dry nearby and brandishes it like a matador, imagining an unlucky oncoming cyclist as his bull.

Max wants to woo two women? He does—and somehow in the process punches a friend, clocks a stranger on the head with a rotten apple, and starts a duel.

Max wants to take a bath? He can’t get the huge tub into his room, so he deposits it in the lobby of his apartment building, scandalizes the other tenants, and ends up fleeing the cops with the porcelain tub on his back like a turtle’s shell.

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Linder’s screen Max is a miraculous bungler, a sprite, a magical creature who happens to frequent mundane places of respectability. In his top-hatted silhouette, seemingly on equal terms with the Eiffel Tower in “L’anglais tel que max le parle,” we recognize a kind of transitional icon, the bridge between chivalry and modernity, between the 19th century gentleman and the 20th century superstar.

There is something heroic in the quixotic desires that stir him. And life imitated art. We’re talking about a man who wore three different suits per day and travelled with 46 trunks of clothes and accessories. Who fought a bull in Spain—and won to the joy and amazement of ecstatic crowds. A man who, although he could’ve avoided military service, volunteered for his country during World War I and had to be practically blown up, frozen in an icy bomb crater, shot twice, and reported dead before he would accept his honorable discharge.

His beautiful impracticality, his slavery to caprice, his cavalier courage all make him a true dandy and a great artist.

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Stand in front of an oncoming train? Pas de problème. Wear ugly boots? Quelle horreur!

In his pre-WWI short films, Linder already showcased a guillotine-sharp knack for conceptual, innovative gags. In “Le roman de Max” (1912), for instance, our man-about-town arrives at a hotel resort at the same time as a beautiful woman. We feel the electricity between the strangers as they wordlessly walk side by side up a series of staircases and lodge in adjacent rooms. However, no sooner do they place their dirty boots in the hall and close their doors than these shoes come to life.

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In an early example of pixilation (the animation of an inanimate object on film), the pointed toes wiggle and rub against each other in a strikingly erotic kiss. This trippy courtship image could never exist on a stage; it both mocks and poetically celebrates the intimacy of the film medium. It’s a trick borrowed from another early short, of course, but Max frames it and milks it for all its tenderness and charm. The next day, Max and the mysterious belle are hilariously drawn to each other by the insistent magnetism of their soles.

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Max Linder was likewise one of the first comedians to explore the humor of dream logic and the possibility of recreating it through editing. In “Max asthmathique” (1915), our little gentleman sojourns in the Alps and decides to do some skiing. Once he gets to the top of the slopes, he comes speeding down with such celerity that he careens over the mountain peaks, over the ocean, over the rooftops of Paris… only to wake up in his bed. The trick backgrounds and Méliès-ish editing as Max “flies” on skis over various terrains foreshadows Buster Keaton’s montage frolics in Sherlock Jr.

chaplinlinder1918Although the great silent comedians who followed Linder were pioneers in their own right, their debt of gags and comedic “grammar” to the Man in the Silk Hat isn’t hard to discern. Consider Max’s burlesque attempts at suicide (though less funny in retrospect) in “Max in a Taxi” (1917), Linder’s first film made in California.

Disowned by his father for bad behavior, the prodigal fop decides to end it all by lying down in front of an oncoming train. We see the train approaching in long shot, far away. Max, sartorially obsessed even in the face of death, flicks some of the dirt away from the train tracks and lies down. The train chugs forward—and turns onto a different track at the last possible second. Cut to: a very disappointed and outraged Linder in close-up.

If this description triggers a sense of déjà vu, that might be because Harold Lloyd famously included an almost identical sequence in “Haunted Spooks” (1920). Lloyd’s bespectacled boy loses “one of the only girls I’ve ever loved” and plunks himself right in the path of an oncoming trolley, with his back to the streetcar… which promptly veers in the other direction. Cut to: a medium close-up of Lloyd looking dazed. Certainly, Lloyd adapted the gag to his own particular tone (it’s part of a long sequence of suicide attempts), but one can detect strong echoes of Linder’s concept and timing. Keaton would also film a variation on this scene in “Hard Luck” (1921), in which the oncoming trolley backs up, leaving hapless Buster no choice but to find another way to off himself.

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The perennial richness of this routine seems all the more impressive, given that Max was forced to stay in a sanatorium for a relapse of his lung troubles shortly after the making of “Max in a Taxi.” And all the more sad, given the way some critics panned the film.

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Linder transitioned gracefully into comedy features. In Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife, both made in 1921, comedy set pieces flow harmoniously into each other as the slightly sanitized Max curbs his roving fancies and tries to win just one dream girl. The better-known of the pair of films, Seven Years Bad Luck features Linder’s famous mirror routine, in which one of his servants tries to cover up the breakage of a mirror by pretending to be Linder’s reflection. You might have seen it… in Duck Soup, made over ten years later.

Be My Wife features a similar act of doubling, a scene in which Max, hoping to impress his lady love’s disapproving aunt, stages a fight behind a curtain. Pretending to fend off an unseen criminal, Max becomes a brawl of one. He even goes so far as to put another pair of boots on his hands and walk on all fours, giving the impression of two men tussling. However, the funniest part isn’t that Max is basically beating himself up. What’s most amusing is that he feels the need to do it in character—jumping from spot to spot, playing both the bad guy and the good guy with a flamboyant theatricality just for his own benefit.

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Linder’s life of comedy came to a tragic end. As he had observed, “They are closely akin—the tears and the smiles.” He explained shortly after returning from the war, “This great sadness has made me wish to bring more joy into the world. I want to make people laugh as never before.”

And 130 years after his birth, he is still doing exactly that.

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Absolutely no article on Max would be complete without mentioning his daughter, Maud Linder, who has tirelessly worked to preserve her father’s film legacy and to restore his place in cinema history. She is doing amazing work and everyone interested should buy the DVD “Laugh with Max Linder,” which showcases a few of his shorts and Seven Years Bad Luck in gorgeous condition.

As for the offerings you can find on YouTube, here are my recommendations for those just getting started on Linder’s brilliant filmography:

1910 – Max prend un bain

1912 – Max reprend sa liberté

1912 – Le roman de Max

1916 – Max entre deux feux

1917 – Max in a Taxi

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Blue Blood: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

postRevenge is a beautiful thing. Or so Western Civilization would on the whole suggest.

If there is only one evergreen subject in entertainment for the past, oh, thousand or so years, it’s the pursuit of vengeance, from The Bible to The Oresteia to The Spanish Tragedy to… well, I’d know if I ever went to the movies these days.

I’ve been wronged. I’m hurting. I plan. I kill. Happy ending optional. Why do audiences never tire of this pattern?

Fortunately, I shan’t essay the burning question at length, though I surmise that we prefer to identify ourselves as victims (not victimizers) when we fantasize about eliminating our enemies. I will likewise note that hundreds, probably thousands, of successful plays, films, and television shows have cribbed this paradigm. Some have been insightful. Most have been bloody. Nearly all of them have been as dark as Hamlet’s pantaloons.

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Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is far too well-bred for any of that. Airy, genteel, and soothing as tea in a summerhouse, this witty foray into Edwardian vengeance illustrates the truth of Thomas De Quicey’s argument in  “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. 

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The puckish style of this black comedy from Ealing Studios would seem at odds with the Golgotha ambiance that we tend to associate with acts of revenge. Yet, far from declawing the horror of murder, this little movie, cherished as quaint and so veddy British, deserves praise for its pervasively tense and acidic comedy. It manages to sustain its satirical tone—but never falls into out-and-out parody—over two hours of joyful wickedness.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. The plot, such as it is, does not require much explanation. Our sociopathic protagonist, Louis Mazzini (a lethally seductive Dennis Price) was raised by his disgraced aristocratic mother—exiled by her family for marrying an Italian opera singer—who taught her son to dream of reclaiming his birthright.

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Once grown, Mazzini does exactly that, variously dispatching the relatives, the D’Ascoynes, who stand between him and the Duchy of Chalfont. Alec Guinness, equipped with his spirit gum, kit of mustaches, and genius for mimicry, gives life to each of these stodgy eccentrics.

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The plot structure does not differ greatly from your average slasher film, in which, one by one, victims are bumped off in far-fetched and occasionally humorous ways. The film performs a delicate high-wire act between absurdity and genuine drama in a frilly parallel universe where, for instance, a pot of caviar might be loaded with explosives and a hot air balloon bearing a militant suffragette might hover precariously over London.

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Yet, I would argue that Kind Hearts and Coronets is so unreal and refined that it paradoxically achieves one of the most calculated and disturbing portrayals of violence ever captured on film. Virtually every encounter we have with celluloid gore and viscera leaves us that much more jaded, inoculated by aesthetic violence against the real thing. And the closer the illusion comes to the real thing, the more the real thing has been betrayed.

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By contrast, Kind Hearts and Coronets refines murder into an artful hobby, as fussy and picturesque as a doily on a parlor grand piano, to reveal how a killer can dissociate himself from the moral ramifications of his actions. We recognize how easily a ruthless mind can turn human lives into secondary concerns and seek refuge in “the alibi of art,” in the words of Roger Shattuck.

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After all, the vast majority of the film takes place inside Louis Mazzini’s head, as he puts pen to paper and writes his memoirs on the eve of his execution. Director Hamer and cinematographer Roger Slocombe endow almost each frame of the movie with the compositional harmony and attention to detail of a quintessential period lithograph or sketch. This gracious, elliptical carnage represents not necessarily what happened, but rather how Louis chooses to portray his succession of killings.

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That Renoir-esque boat, carrying two lovers, gliding past the camera towards a watery grave. That funny cloud of smoke coming over the garden wall which announces to Louis—and to the audience—that Henry D’Ascoyne has developed his last picture. That flurry of harp notes as Lady Agatha falls to earth from her balloon. All of these artistic touches romanticize Louis’s crimes, widening the gap between the beauty of what we see and the ugliness of revenge.

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Plus, much of the film’s hilarity comes from the fact that Louis has to kill off not merely a half-dozen different people, but rather half-dozen people played by the same actor. As much as Guinness invests each of these portraits with a specific set of uncannily apt foibles, it’s still the same guy. We know this. That’s why we laugh. As eight D’Ascoynes die, we realize that there’s just one person behind it all. This comic effect, however, exposes another feature of Louis’s derangement: by his own admission, he has dehumanized his victims. They do not appear to him as individuals, but as embodiments of the family that wronged him, as different variations on the same target. In this light, the decision to have Guinness play eight roles seems a lot less like a gimmick and a good deal more like an astute psychological statement.

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Indeed, Robert Hamer couches several important visual clues in the film’s opening that suggest the extent to which the humor and elegance of the murders are products of Louis’s warped intelligence and perceptions.

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The beginning shots of the film, as a paunchy executioner approaches the prison doors and waddles with a warden to catch a glimpse of his “client” who will be hanged by a silken rope tomorrow. These shots, with their stark lighting and sparse mise-en-scene stand out from the light-dappled beauty and eye-catching richness of the rest of the film, the parts controlled by Louis’s recollections.

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The executioner’s (and our) first peek at the mysterious murderer comes through a peep hole into his cell. There’s Louis Mazzini, sitting calmly at his desk, framed like a picture by a circular window. Then something strange happens—a jump cut without warning to a tight shot of the back of Louis’s head, straightening up, as though he intuited that he’s being watched.

Now, the first shot of Louis is a pretty clear point-of-view shot, but what are we to make of that second one, that puts us practically on top of Louis? In the cell with him? It might be a gruesome joke, a close shot of Louis’s neck, soon to be bound by a noose. I suspect that there’s more to it, though: an intimation of how the viewer will progressively enter Louis’s world and come to root for a multiple murderer.

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Louis’s edifice of rationalizations lulls us into interpreting his life story as just that—a story, an adventure, a personal narrative. Even his imminent death for a crime he didn’t commit fails to shake us out of our intoxication with his vision of lyrical revenge. Only at the last moment of the film do we fully comprehend that we were listening to a confession. The unresolvable cliffhanger conclusion snaps us back to reality. Louis took the lives of six of his kin, and a few bystanders to boot, with absolutely no compunction. Those are the bare facts, as anyone who discovered that manuscript would read them. Our anxiety on Louis’s behalf confronts us with our complicity in his crimes.

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Nowadays, a sympathetic multiple murderer may fail to shock our blunted moral sensibilities (au contraire, it actually seems to be the key ingredient for a hit television show). However, in 1949, let us remember, a hero as villainous as Louis would not have been common onscreen, despite his distinguished literary antecedents, particularly in England due to the strength of censorship.

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Our voyage through the sunny consciousness of a psychopath proves so enchanting largely because of Dennis Price’s astonishing charm. Price, an underrated actor if ever there was one, grew up in an upper class family and invests Louis with an almost supernatural poise. He need only blink his impossibly long eyelashes at the audience and we know exactly what dastardly ironic thoughts are circulating in that superior brain of his. Consider the sly glance Louis barely avoids giving the camera when his employer, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, pulls out the family tree and proceeds to give him a lesson—when Louis could draw the whole thing from memory. In this movie, Price’s face is like a Paganini caprice played on a Stradivarius: dazzlingly, diabolically complex.

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In his own way, Louis Mazzini is a true aristocrat, more of a D’Ascoyne than all of the other D’Ascoynes put together. Traditional noblemen were not cuddly people. Today’s royals may warm our hearts with their stiffly magnanimous little waves and conspicuous displays of largesse, but the axe-wielding chieftains who won these privileges for them would hardly recognize their descendants. Kind Hearts and Coronets playfully hints at this discrepancy between past and present aristos in the scene where the Duke gives Louis a tour through the antique instruments of war that line the walls of Chalfont. Louis can hardly lift one grisly iron broadsword.

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The founders of great families acquired their power through unimaginable brutality or sickening crimes against their own flesh and blood. The film’s alternate title “Noblesse Oblige,” a phrase that encapsulates the duties and burdens of nobility, not only refers to Louis’s blue-blooded mien, but also obliquely alludes to the barbaric duties of this perfect gentleman.

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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 deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, film itself—or rather the film within the film—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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Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

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I live in the middle of nowhere. Hope it doesn’t shatter any illusions for you, dear readers, that I’m not sitting by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a Piña Colada.

I follow the screening reports of my blogger friends Will of Cinematically Insane and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen with interest and, if I’m honest, a fair dose of loving envy.

So, needless to say, when film culture comes to this sleepy neck of the woods, I do my best to be there.

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Each summer, writer-educator-composer-awesome-guy Jeff Rapsis enriches the little town of Brandon with a series of silent films and shows them as they were meant to be enjoyed: on a big screen with live accompaniment. Last night, Rapsis lent his musical talents to improvising along with Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances on his 70-pound musical synthesizer.

In a recent interview with the Rutland Herald, Rapsis likened his original performances to “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ for movies. When it works well, nothing is better—you can’t write down the kind of music you come up with when it’s working right. I don’t even know where it comes from sometimes, I sit there as amazed as anybody when it comes together.”

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It certainly came together in Brandon Town Hall last night. The best screen comedy continues to feel fresh and imminent even years after its release—as though the ending might turn out different every time, as if Harold Lloyd might not win the girl, as if one of those great big papier-mâché boulders really might wipe out poor Buster. Rapsis’s splendidly paced improvisations enhanced that sense of risky timing, creating the illusion that the gags and pratfalls were unfolding spontaneously.

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For several years, the town of Brandon has been restoring its majestic town hall, which Rapsis praises for its beautiful acoustics. This marks my third summer travelling there to watch Rapsis perform along with a varying selection of silent films, from The General to The Phantom of the Opera.

The hall’s idiosyncratic projection system occasionally adds extra nail-biting tension to the screenings. When the picture started to skip and freeze during the poker scene in Dr. Jack last night, I nearly cracked under the pressure. Fortunately, the hall has no heating, and a pre-autumn draft quickly cooled me down. However, such foibles only make the experience more pleasurable and genuine. Today’s technical difficulties just substitute for the projection room mishaps of the 1920s.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-22h20m49s254I love that the packed audiences filling the town hall echo the crowds that a Keaton or Lloyd film would’ve drawn back in the 1920s—people of all ages, looking for a good laugh. I mean, I’ve watched silents in total silence with a pretentious crew of proto-Godard hipsters at the Cinémathèque Français, and I infinitely prefer the down-to-earth glee of Brandon’s audience members, who go because it’s fun, not because it’s trendy. It warms the cockles of my heart to sit there chuckling along with whole families, from toddlers to grandparents, at movies made almost 100 years ago. I frequently worry that silent movies will only become more and more distant to today’s public, but the screening last night confirmed the universality of silent comedy and dispelled my fears.

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Hey, Buster, lighten up! We all still love you!

Jeff Rapsis not only provided delightful keyboard accompaniment for each film, but also said a few words to contextualize the two comedies. Offering a brief plot summary of Dr. Jack, he explained, “It takes place in a little town… which I always think of as Brandon, Vermont.” Sure enough, when Harold Lloyd encountered a roadblock of cows (what we call Vermont gridlock), the audience roared with laughs of recognition. Now, if I can just find a reasonable Dr. Jack equivalent in my town to cure my ills…

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Although I’d say the audience howled equally at each film, Dr. Jack seemed like the revelation of the night. I could perceive viewer reactions shifting from “Harold Who?” to “I LOVE him!” Unfortunately Lloyd’s own sensitivity about how and when his films could be shown have kept his masterpieces in relative obscurity. As Rapsis noted, “He kind of lost his audience over the years, but now he’s being rediscovered by a new generation.” Thanks to the evocative music, spectators quickly got into the spirit of the proceedings. The first big laugh actually came in response to an intertitle, for crying out loud! 

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Rapsis channeled Dr. Jack’s charming blend of sly trickery and quaint goodwill. I marvel at how the live score alternated between creating ambiance, commenting on the action, and even taking the place of sound effects—as with the thundering chords to punctuate the football that lands Dr. Von Saulsbourg’s hat in his own soup. The music also amped up the frenetic humor of vampire-ish Harold Lloyd as “Humpy” the escaped convict and the manic hijinks of the household he terrorizes to “cure” imaginary invalid Mildred Davis.

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Throughout Seven Chances, the score included a number of funny variations of Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin. The upbeat tune, better known as “Here Comes the Bride” comically sounded out in ominous keys during James Shannon’s many marital strike-outs, as he rushes to get married in a matter of hours to inherit a fortune. However, when Buster finally walks off with the girl he loves, it was Mendelssohn’s joyful march that we heard. I was particularly impressed by how Rapsis sustained suspense throughout the climactic mob of brides chase sequence, which, just as it seems like it can’t get more absurd, somehow does.

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In a few weeks, on September 28, Jeff Rapsis will again be performing a live score for Seven Chances at the 21st Annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Buster’s birthplace of Iola, Kansas, so it was a real privilege for me to enjoy a taste, an intimate preview, of that wonderful event without having to fly across the country. Although he has provided a live score for the movie before, Rapsis told me that he specifically chose Seven Chances for the Brandon program far in advance, as an opportunity to “warm up” and “get the movie in my head” shortly before the big day in Kansas.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 5.25.59 PM The electric combination of a brilliant recorded performance and a pitch-perfect, astonishingly synchronized live performance not only impressed me last night, but also will doubtlessly make Dr. Jack and Seven Chances feel a bit more alive when I watch them next—albeit with less interesting scores! Screenings like those at the town hall were the first to help me understand why every movie theater needed at least a violin and a pianist to provide live music in the silent era. You haven’t really seen comedies like Dr. Jack and Seven Chances until you’ve seen ’em this way. So, last night the quiet little town of Brandon vibrated with laughter, proving that silent comedies were never really silent—and neither were their audiences.

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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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