Film Noir Valentines, Volume 2: For the Hep Kittens and Non-Turnips in Your Life

Philip Marlowe striking a match on Cupid’s stony butt cheeks in Murder, My Sweet rather neatly sums up film noir’s irreverence towards the more delicate notions of love. Go home, arrow boy. You’d better come packing heavier artillery in this part of cinema.

And yet most of noir’s greatest hits are defined by romance, no matter how rotten at its core. In the volatile chemistry of noir attraction, the people who make you feel most alive are often the ones most likely to kill you.

Characters tend to love and/or lust like there’s no tomorrow. With their surreal badinage and doomed desires, these courtships come across as sick parodies of respectable romances. In its purest (or most impure) form, noir seems to say, “You wanna see what love really looks like? It’s not for the faint of heart.” The unhealthy eroticism of noir serves as a cathartic escape valve for the negative impulses lurking inside all of us—

Oh, I give up. Let’s dispense with the polite thinking, shall we? I just wanted to have a good time and make some more shoddily satirical noir valentines, so I’ll spare you the rationalizations.

My first batch of noir valentines in 2015 barely scratched the surface. So here are 15 more bitter little billets-doux with an emphasis on films and stars I neglected last time. Hopefully they’ll amuse you as much as they amused me. To paraphrase Alicia from Notorious, there’s nothing like a valentine to give you a good laugh.

Please note that I do not endorse toxic relationships, crimes of passion, eyelash-induced high treason, phony mentalism, or the overuse of first-person POV camerawork. You are strongly advised to seek help before embarking on any kind of partnership with a hot psychopath.

Stanton Carlisle deploys a classic play from The Homme Fatal Handbook in Nightmare Alley (1947).

Who wouldn’t be inspired by a hep kitten in a slinky black dress? Cliff the drummer gives Carol a suggestive musical tribute in the jive demimonde of Phantom Lady (1944).

Nobody understands sociopathic housewife Jane like sleazy crook Danny in Too Late for Tears (1949). And that’s why he has to die.

“Soulmates, huh?” Sam in Born to Kill (1947) is a vicious murderer, but, as it turns out, Helen is kind of into that. At least he’s not a total turnip like her fiancé.

International man of mystery Dimitrios Makropoulos leaves a trail of destruction in the wake of his luscious lashes and dangerous charms in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944).

Platinum blonde temptress Cora just might have an ulterior motive in wanting Tom to profess his undying love in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

What can I say? Lake and Ladd bring out a less cynical side of me. Especially with dreamy dialogue from Raymond Chandler in The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Maybe this one doesn’t totally make sense, but neither does the decision to shoot almost all of The Lady in the Lake (1946) from Marlowe’s perspective. We can be grateful for Audrey Totter giving us a masterclass in eyebrow acting, though.

Scheming Kitty March from Scarlet Street (1945) finds another way to dominate her hapless sugar daddy Chris Cross.

Sparks fly when Bruno meets Guy in Strangers on a Train (1951). This is clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

It’s Bogie and Bacall, so I guess we can forgive the warm and fuzzy denouement of Dark Passage (1947).

Perhaps no poor sap in film noir tugs at my heartstrings more than Steve Thompson in Criss Cross (1949). And looking at his gorgeous femme fatale ex-wife, Anna, one can’t quite blame him for his terrible choices.

Things get steamy for Lily and Pete in Road House (1948). Who knew that bowling lessons could eventually lead to this?

Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) may want a Valentino, but she’ll settle for Joe. He looks thrilled.

For my money, the real love story of Mildred Pierce (1945) is between the only two non-awful characters: Mildred and Ida. Galentines or valentines? Well, I’ll let you decide…

In the unlikely event that you want to send one of these to somebody, you can save the files (I think right-click and save should work), pull them into your device’s free image editing software, and type names in the To and From fields.

Just don’t blame me if the recipient blocks you… They clearly weren’t noir material.

Film HERstory: 75+ Classic Films Directed by Women (and Where You Can Watch Them)

ida_lupino
“The feminine influence is needed in film.”
This statement sounds like something you might read in a contemporary article, as Hollywood’s lack of opportunities for female filmmakers comes increasingly (and rightfully) under scrutiny.

In fact, the quote is from Lois Weber, who made the remark in 1921 and directed her first film in 1911.

Many believe that women directors are a relatively new phenomenon—although Alice Guy directed her first film in 1896, Lois Weber was one of the most acclaimed directors of the 1910s, and Dorothy Arzner directed films featuring major stars at Hollywood studios from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Too few viewers and film-lovers know these women’s movies, their stories, and even their names.

Last year, when fellow blogger Marya E. Gates, creator of A Year with Women, crowdsourced a list of essential films directed by women, I found the end result diverse and inspiring. Yet, it saddens me that only 7 movies made before 1970—and none made before 1935—got enough votes to make the list.

So, I asked myself, “What have I done to spread the word about women who shaped early and classic cinema?”

Not enough, I concluded. Nowhere near enough.

After I pledged to watch 52 films by women this year (sign up here!), I offered to give classic film recommendations to other people on Twitter doing the challenge. I was overwhelmed—and overjoyed—by the interest I got in response.

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I’ve decided to post this resource, even in its current bare-bones form, as a starting point for those who want to discover women’s contributions to cinema from 1896 to 1966. To create a space for today’s women filmmakers, we have to recognize the female filmmakers of yesteryear, discuss their movies, and break down the persistent myth of “directors were always men.”

This list of over 60 films includes elegant melodramas, trashy exploitation flicks, avant-garde shorts, sophisticated comedies, groundbreaking documentaries, and gritty films noirs. There has never been only one “kind” of movie directed by women. Remember: with every film you watch, you’re reclaiming a bit of movie history and eroding a boys-only narrative that’s stood unquestioned for way too long.

A few disclaimers and caveats:

  • I have not seen all of these films—but I plan to! As I watch or rewatch them this year, I’ll probably add a few lines about each film. I look forward to discovering many of these movies along with all of you!
  • As far as I know, all films to which I’ve directly linked were made available legally. (If you own the rights to any of the films I’ve featured and want them removed from this list, please contact me; I will voluntarily take them down.)
  • Some of the films without direct links may not be available legally. I leave the search to you. I, ahem, suspect that you can find some of these films online without too much trouble. I consider that a last resort, though. If a film has a legit release, you should buy it. But if copyright owners want us to pay for movies, they should damn well release those movies! It’s ridiculous when anonymous Internet uploaders care more about sharing film history than studios care about monetizing that content. (I’m looking at you, Universal/Comcast. Get with it.)
  • This is NOT intended to be an authoritative list of movies made by women. I’ve limited myself to movies that are available to watch online for free or to buy (digital or hard copy) in the United States. If I’ve overlooked a film that you think should be listed here, and it’s available in the U.S., please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.
  • I do not necessarily endorse the content of these films. Some of them (like Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films) are morally repugnant to me. For better or for worse, they’re part of a larger body of work by women directors. Pretending that offensive films weren’t made would not only erase chapters of film history, but also deny viewers the opportunity to confront the evils of the past.
  • “Classic” is a difficult word to nail down. And, yes, 1966 is sort of an arbitrary cutoff. 1965 is a date that’s often mentioned as the end of classic Hollywood. Since this list includes foreign films, I went to 1966 because there were just too many amazing movies made by women in 1966 to cut it off before then.
  • You should also support recent films directed by women. History is important—but so is voting with your dollars to show the film industry that you want to watch movies directed by women now.

Thanks for reading the fine print. Now, here’s the list…

cabbagefairy

The Cabbage Fairy – Alice Guy – 1896

Watch it on YouTube.

Felix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube. (Note: Both the sound and the color are original. Alice Guy worked on many films that you could consider forerunners of today’s music videos.)

The Life, Birth, and Death of Christ – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube.

Falling Leaves – Alice Guy – 1912

Watch it on YouTube.

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Suspense – Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley – 1913

Watch it on YouTube.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial – Florence Turner – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Won in a Cupboard (a.k.a Won in a Closet) – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. (Note: This is accompanied by audio commentary. You can mute the video and play some ragtime music on YouTube while you watch, if you’d like.)

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Caught in a Cabaret – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube. (Sorry, I wish I could find better quality…)

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Assunta Spina – Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena – 1915

Available on DVD from Kino.

Hypocrites – Lois Weber – 1915

You can buy it to stream on Amazon. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

Eleanor’s Catch – Cleo Madison – 1916

Available on the same Kino DVD as Weber’s Hypocrites.

The Ocean Waif – Alice Guy – 1916

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

’49-’17 – Ruth Ann Baldwin – 1917

Available on the same Kino DVD as Guy’s The Ocean Waif. You can also stream it on Fandor.

Something New – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1920

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

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The Love Light – Frances Marion – 1921

Watch for free at the Internet Archive.

The Blot – Lois Weber – 1921

Available on DVD from Grapevine Video and The Milestone Collection.

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The Grub Stake – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Smiling Madame Beudet – Germaine Dulac – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed – Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch – 1926

Available on DVD from The Milestone Cinematheque.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty – Esfir Shub – 1927

Available to stream on Fandor with a subscription.

Suggested for this list by Keefe Murphy.

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Get Your Man – Dorothy Arzner – 1927

Ahem… let’s just say you’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

L’invitation au voyage – Germaine Dulac – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Women of Ryazan – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Sensation Seekers – Lois Weber – 1927

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

The Seashell and the Clergyman – Germaine Dulac – 1928

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Linda – Dorothy Davenport – 1929

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Wild Party – Dorothy Arzner – 1929

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

And Quiet Flows the Don – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1930

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Anybody’s Woman – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Sarah and Son – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Honor Among Lovers – Dorothy Arzner – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Mädchen in Uniform – Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Merrily We Go to Hell – Dorothy Arzner – 1932

Available on DVD from the Universal Vault Series.

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The Blue Light – Leni Riefenstahl – 1932

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Broken Shoes – Margarita Barskaja – 1933

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Eric of The Indie Handbook.

Sucker Money – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1933

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Christopher Strong – Dorothy Arzner – 1933

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Finishing School – Wanda Tuchock and George Nichols Jr. – 1934

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

The Woman Condemned – Dorothy Davenport – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Road to Ruin – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl – 1935

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Synapse Films.

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The Bride Wore Red – Dorothy Arzner – 1937

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Olympia Part 1: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part 2: Festival of Beauty – Leni Riefenstahl – 1938

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Dance, Girl, Dance – Dorothy Arzner – 1940

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.

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Meshes of the Afternoon – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

Watch it on YouTube.

The Private Life of a Cat – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

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Blue Scar – Jill Craigie – 1948

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

Gigi – Jacquline Audry – 1949

Available as an extra on the Blu-Ray of Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi.

Never Fear (a.k.a. Young Lovers) – Ida Lupino – 1949

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Outrage – Ida Lupino – 1950

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

olivia

Olivia – Jacqueline Audrey – 1951

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Hard, Fast, and Beautiful – Ida Lupino – 1952

Available on DVD from Warner Archive. You can also stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Talman-Holds-Gun

The Stranger Left No Card – Wendy Toye – 1952

Watch it on YouTube. Note: The Stranger Left No Card won for best short fictional film at Cannes in 1953.

The Hitch-Hiker – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

The Bigamist – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

Huis Clos – Jacquline Audry – 1954

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

simonandlaura

Simon and Laura – Muriel Box – 1955

Available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.

La Pointe Courte – Agnès Varda – 1955

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

Three Cases of Murder – Wendy Toye, David Eady, and George Moore O’Ferrall – 1955

Watch instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber.

Eyewitness – Muriel Box – 1956

Available on DVD from VCI Home Video.

Con la vida hicieron fuego – Ana Mariscal – 1957

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

truthaboutwomen

The Truth About Women – Muriel Box –1957

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

The Very Eye of Night – Maya Deren – 1958

Watch it on dailymotion.

Le Secret du chevalier d’Éon – Jacqueline Audry – 1959

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Nude on the Moon – Doris Wishman and Raymond Phelan – 1961

Available to download at the Internet Archive.

cleo5to7

Cleo from 5 to 7 – Agnès Varda – 1962

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The House Is Black – Forugh Farrokhzad – 1962

Watch it on YouTube.

We Joined the Navy – Wendy Toye – 1962

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

El camino – Ana Mariscal – 1963

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

Bad Girls Go to Hell – Doris Wishman – 1965

Available to stream on Fandor.

Le Bonheur – Agnès Varda – 1965

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Blood Bath – Stephanie Rothman and Jack Hill– 1966

Available on DVD from MGM.

Suggested for this list by Directed by Women.

Daisies – Vera Chytilová – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available as in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The Trouble with Angels – Ida Lupino – 1966

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star.

Wings – Larisa Sheptiko – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Feel free to make suggestions or let me know which films you’ve enjoyed most!

13 Barrier-Breaking Women of Early Cinema and Old Hollywood

ida“I do not hesitate to say that the average intelligent woman, gifted with the same sense of dramatic values as the average intelligent man, will make a better picture than he, for the reason that the woman, in addition, will have an eye for detail,” director Lois Weber remarked in 1921.

Such a matter-of-factly feminist statement from almost a century ago may sound startlingly modern, almost anachronistic. However, from the dawn of cinema, women have boldly taken on crucial roles in the film industry.

In fact, Hollywood is, in many ways, a more male-dominated environment today than it was 90 or so years ago. Scary, huh?

In order to perpetuate a culture where more women make movies now, we need to recognize the women who made movies in the medium’s formative years. Let’s take our editing shears and snip the “boys only” myth right out. It belongs on the cutting room floor.

Now, I’ve written about some of these women in previous posts, and I hope to write about more of them in the future. For now, though, I content myself with enumerating a few of the pioneers who inspire me to speak up in the hope of encouraging other women to do likewise.

Please note that I’m presenting only a very limited selection of the hundreds of brilliant women who’ve enriched the wonders of classical cinema. If you’re interested in the history of women in the film industry, I highly recommend Columbia’s Women Film Pioneers Project or Ally Acker’s book Reel Women (both of which I gratefully acknowledge as sources).

aliceguy

Alice Guy (1873 – 1968) actress, director, writer, and producer

We’re talking about the world’s first woman filmmaker here, folks. She ran production at Gaumont in France, then moved to the United States and started her own studio—years before women could vote in either country! Like Méliès and the Lumière brothers, she directed hundreds of movies and shaped what the cinema would become in the crucial years between 1896 and 1916… basically from the inception of the medium.

Her best-known legacy is probably her insistence on an acting style suited specifically to cinema. However, her films abound with innovation, from integrating the special effects we associate with “trick films” into narrative to using close shots for maximum emotional impact.

Where to start with her work: Le piano irresistible (1907) in which the sound of jamming music motivates all sorts of people to start dancing. Madame a des envies (1907), about a pregnant woman on a rampage, is also a hoot. For a more nuanced, melancholic sense of Guy’s work, I’d recommend Falling Leaves (1912) or The Ocean Waif (1916).

loisweber

Lois Weber (1879 – 1939) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Not only was Weber a filmmaker of great skill, acclaim, and box office power, but she was also a true auteur, as Anthony Slide has noted. Many of her often allegorical films tackle tough social issues that continue to trouble us today, including class tensions, religious hypocrisy, and the plight of women in poverty.

Where to start with her work: Suspense (1913), a harrowing, stylish thriller that incorporates split screens, a keyhole matte, and disorienting close-ups, serves as a concise introduction to Weber’s substantial gifts. Then move on to one of her thought-provoking dramas, like Hypocrites (1915).

junemathis

June Mathis (1887 – 1927) – writer

After touring in vaudeville during her youth, Mathis shifted to screenwriting at Metro. Many of the most acclaimed actors of the day were soon clamoring for scripts by Mathis, and the studio rewarded her talent by promoting her to head of the scenario department.

With a shrewd sense of popular appeal, Mathis sculpted poignant, dramatically intense movies with plenty of spectacle and sex to win over the masses. Mathis’s discernment made her one of the most sought-after and well-paid professionals in the industry.

She also used her power as a studio executive to support directors’ right to actualize their personal visions. If Mathis had had her way, Von Stroheim’s masterful Greed (1924) would most likely have survived in a more complete form, rather than the largely mutilated version that remains.

Where to start with her work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), since Mathis not only distilled Ibañez’s complex war novel into a crowd-pleasing romantic epic, but also insisted on casting an obscure young actor in the lead role. His name was Rudolph Valentino.

francesmarion

Frances Marion (1888 – 1973) – actress, writer, director, producer

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: only about 11% of movies made these days are written by women, whereas over half of movies made before 1925 had female writers.

The most prominent of old Hollywood’s lady screenwriters, Frances Marion began by working for Lois Weber, scripted a number of Mary Pickford’s most popular vehicles, and joined the retinue of top MGM writers. Marion excelled in nearly all genres, from gritty prison dramas like The Big House (1930) to boisterous comedies like Min and Bill (1930) to passionate literary adaptations like Camille (1936).

Where to start with her work: The Champ (1931), the much imitated, never equalled macho tearjerker that won Marion an Oscar.

anitaloos

Anita Loos (1888 – 1981) – writer and producer

Loos started her film career in 1912 at the tender age of 24, writing original stories for D.W. Griffith. When sitting through Griffith’s colossal Intolerance (1916), you can enjoy the varied linguistic textures of the intertitles, written by Loos.

Most famous for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos also made a name for herself in the talkies by writing witty screenplays and original stories, frequently centering on conflicted, brassy heroines trying to overcome their shady pasts.

Where to start with her work: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Yes, that’s right, Loos wrote the scenario for what some consider to be first ever gangster film.

Although multiple writers worked on the wild Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman (1932), much of its ditzy-genius dialogue sounds in tune with Loos’s nothing-sacred sense of humor—and it comes with my hearty endorsement!

marypickford

Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) – actress, writer, and producer

Don’t let the ringlets fool you. A founder of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pickford was a formidable self-taught businesswoman and a damn sharp producer.

Arguably the most popular and influential star in the history of American film, she rose from obscurity to give joy to millions and played an integral role in creating Hollywood as we know it.

Where to start with her work: For a short taste of Pickford at her sassiest, check out the empowering role-reversal fantasy The Dream (1911), a one-reeler she also wrote, in which a nasty husband imagines his wife turning the tables on him. As for her features, I’d recommend starting with Sparrows (1926), a taut Southern Gothic fable that Pickford produced. It’s one of the great treasures of the silent era.

lilliangish

Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) – actress and director

Fetishized onscreen as the waifish ideal of 1910s femininity, Gish in real life was anything but frail. She directed only one film, which has sadly been lost, but she was actively involved in almost every aspect of her career, bringing the cameraman Hendrik Sartov to D.W. Griffith’s attention, for instance.

Once she joined MGM’s stable of stars, she enjoyed unprecedented artistic control and lobbied to make meaningful, morally challenging films like The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). Gish picked her director, Victor Seastrom, and her leading man, Lars Hanson, for both films. She also had to clear the adaption of Hawthorne’s novel with women’s organizations around the country, because the studio feared that her public would object to such a racy story! Without Gish’s efforts, at least two masterpieces of the late silent era wouldn’t exist.

Where to start with her work: Her influential performance in Broken Blossoms (1919) will break your heart. Grab a box of tissues (and a good friend) and weep away. Then dig up a copy of The Wind (1928); without giving away too much about the plot, I’ll just say that The Night of the Hunter isn’t the only movie to feature a gun-toting Gish…

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Mae West (1893 – 1980) – actress and writer

It seems strange to group Mae West with women who made their film debuts decades before she did. Born the same year as Lillian Gish, West created a name for herself in the theater, writing and starring in plays so scandalous that she was brought to trial for indecency.

Although the Hays Office warned studios against hiring West, Paramount ignored the edict. West’s bawdy brand of comedy—and she wrote her own fantastically quotable dialogue—raked in huge box office profits, saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Her ribald, confident persona appealed to Depression-era audiences. Better yet, her frank sexuality and proudly independent attitude appalled the censors.

Where to start with her work: She Done Him Wrong (1932), and remember it’s spoofing melodrama.

mabelnormand

Mabel Normand (1895 – 1930) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Mabel Normand, exploring the largely uncharted territory of screen comedy. In her own words, “Since all previous laughs had been achieved through the spoken word, and in our early days, through slapstick hokey, I had to cleave a path of laughter through the wilderness of the industry’s ignorance and inexperience, I created my own standard of fun.”

Where to start with her work: You’ll enjoy the spirited hijinks that Normand directed in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). I also recommend the cheeky feature-length romp Mickey (1918), which she produced.

dorothyarzner

Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979) – writer, director, and editor

The only woman director working at a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner specialized in movies focusing on the struggles of driven, headstrong female protagonists. She directed Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929), and interesting vehicles for the top female talent of the day, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Maureen O’Hara, among many others.

In a film industry that had come to embrace a factory system mentality, Arzner was a rebel. She’d direct the film her way or not direct it at all. As she said, “My philosophy is that to be a director, you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio.”

Where to start with her work: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an acidly feminist take on the seedy world of burlesque and club dancing. It was also Arzner’s penultimate film.

margaretbooth

Margaret Booth (1898 – 2002) – editor and producer

When we talk about influential women in film, the temptation is to focus on directors, writers, and producers. However, editors literally piece movies together, setting their rhythm and contributing a vital interpretative component of filmmaking.

Starting out as a “cutter” on Griffith films, Margaret Booth moved on to MGM and rose to the position of editor-in-chief, supervising the assembly of hundreds of movies. In fact, Irving Thalberg coined the phrase “film editor” to describe Booth and to eliminate the unskilled connotation of “joiner,” “patcher,” or “cutter.”

Where to start with her work: The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which displays her knack for creating tension through dynamic, rapidly-paced passages of editing.

virginiavanupp

Virginia Van Upp (1902 – 1970) – writer and producer

One of the few women to hold a leadership position at a major Hollywood studio in the Golden Age, Van Upp was appointed executive producer and second-in-command at Columbia by the notoriously hardboiled mogul Harry Cohn.

Starting out as a screenwriter, she was instrumental in defining the public image of Rita Hayworth. Van Upp supervised two of the most lush and enduring of 1940s films noirs: Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Where to start with her work: Cover Girl (1944), a vibrant musical with plenty of wisecracking dialogue for undaunted career woman Eve Arden… saying what we imagine Van Upp would say if she were in the movie. One suspects that she wrote herself into her own script!

idalupino

Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Groomed as a potential replacement for Bette Davis at Warner Brothers, Lupino projected a wounded, soulful toughness during her prime as an actress, even in the most insipid films. But she longed for more and, after picking up the fine points of direction by observing the likes of Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, she formed an independent production company.

Lupino made low-budget films with surprisingly ambitious subject manner. As Ally Acker wrote, she “chose controversial, socially conscious issues for the themes of her movies: rape, bigamy, polio, unwed motherhood.”

Where to start with her work: The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a nail-biting, ferocious cautionary tale of two dudes in distress held hostage by a serial killer.

Who am I forgetting? Which pioneering woman from film history most inspires you?

No Pain, No Gain: Search for Beauty (1934)

searchWell, folks, I finally found it: for my money, the most cheerfully indecent, blatantly prurient film of the pre-Code era.

No—not The Story of Temple Drake.

Not Red-Headed Woman.

Not even Baby Face.

I announce the winner: Earle C. Kenton’s Search for Beauty, which could easily be retitled The Search for Booty. This quasi-fascist beefcake fest provokes more utterances of “What the…?” per minute than any other flick made before 1934. And this camp Holy Grail includes more head-scratching moments, for that matter, than most movies made since. No matter your taste, gender, or orientation, this film really hedged its bets. You will probably be both offended AND turned-on at some point of the show.

You want giggly male fantasy Toby Wing and a super-young platinum blonde Ida Lupino dancing on top of tables in silky nightclothes? You got it.

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Ultra-buff Buster Crabbe changing out of an Olympian swimsuit and getting into the shower onscreen? Yep.

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Four bare male bottoms in one frame? Look no further, my friend.

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Lithe female athletes in terry-cloth gym suits dragging Gertrude Michaels out of bed to join an exercise chain gang? Sure thing.

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And, most egregiously of all, a final shot of James Gleason’s atrophied keyster in gym shorts? Oh, would it weren’t so…

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If this gallery of offenses doesn’t leave you gobsmacked, how about the fact that Picture Play magazine declared, in their review of Search for Beauty, “Here’s a picture unreservedly recommended for the whole family.” How the hell did the reviewer miss the nudity? The near-nudity? The groping? The five solid minutes of soft-core flexing? Was he sitting behind a woman wearing a triple-decker hat? Was he on dope? Or was he pulling a prank on all those parents who were going to have to answer some mighty tough questions after the movie?

I don’t know about you, but I’m agape.

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Even the plot of Search for Beauty was built with raunchiness in mind. A bunch of con artists (sassy Gertrude Michaels, skinny James Gleason, and burly Robert Armstrong) zero in on a get-rich-quick scheme. They buy a bankrupt magazine, Health and Fitness, with the intention of turning it into a porno mag.

However, to shield themselves from the censors and the law, they pass the publication off as an exercise guide. The crooks also recruit two bright-eyed Olympians, Barbara and Don (real-life 1932 gold medalist Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino in her American debut), to be the honorary editors and unwitting spokespeople for the scandalous rag.

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Unaware of their partners’ skullduggery, these two good kids stage a publicity stunt to promote fitness and increase magazine circulation: Don tours the world looking for “perfect youths.” [Cue the montage sequence of gratuitous flexing and grinding workout routines here!]

Meanwhile, back in New York, Barbara is getting progressively more disgusted with the immoral stories and illustrations that the magazine is publishing—all under the stamp of her 100% pure name. So, when Don gets back with his crew of beautiful bodies, they start a fitness camp and try to break away from the magazine—despite the shysters’ attempts to turn the workout camp into a bordello. Of course, Barbara and Don thwart the salacious scheme. Virtue triumphs and so forth.

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In this movie’s defense, I will note that it impresses me by objectifying the male body almost as much as the female form—pretty unusual for Hollywood. We sense an avid female gaze inscribed on the screen in lingering shots of Buster Crabbe and his rock-solid compadres.

Search for Beauty attributes a robust leer to both genders. It’s all about equal opportunity lechery. For instance, the first time Gertrude Michael’s character sets eyes on Don Jackson, the swimmer, we get a POV shot of her turning her binoculars downwards to get a view of, well, his swimmers.

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There’s also a hysterical scene in which that same shady lady convinces a whole bunch of women at the hair salon to enroll in fitness camp—after she “accidentally” drops a whole packet of glossy photos of Buster and company in various Adonis poses. A woman playing procuress to other women strikes me as a rare occurrence even for pre-Code Hollywood; we detect something modern in how these women unabashedly drool over the nubile dudes, presented solely for their enjoyment.

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When Gertrude Michael asks the coiffeuse, “Think any of your customers might give him a tumble?” the hairdresser replies, “Tumble? If they were anything like me, they’d give him a double summersault!”

Meanwhile, in a swanky bar, James Gleason is peddling pictures of girls in fitness suits amidst a bunch of lascivious, but comical extreme close-ups of ears and mouths. Earle C. Kenton’s lurid attention to expressions of lust translates out to a visual “Yuck!”

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If the two scenes parallel each other, the women certainly come across way better—more genuine, articulate, and sincere even in their objectification of men.

I also give this film a lot of credit for anticipating—and mocking—its own critics’ arguments. In one scene, we listen to two vapid pre-Code working girls talking about the smutty stories that get published in Health and Fitness. One girl longs for a life of vice, but notes that the women having fun in the steamy adventures always end up in trouble. Her companion dismisses such slap-on-the-wrist endings, saying that the writers just make that up as a moral excuse. In real life, she insists, the wages of sin are pretty darn generous.

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Girls! Shame on you! How dare you read that smutty magazine that I endorsed!

Now, how many pre-Code films follow exactly that formula of wanton pleasure… followed by some unconvincing punishment or redemption in the last reel?

And, what’s more, Search for Beauty sure fits that formula! It’s not just smut. It’s meta-smut. But that self-referential irony also explains why the film strikes me as so vaguely unsettling: while we’re encouraged to identify with the perky protagonists, we’re also watching the exploitation of those kids.

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In fact, Search for Beauty represents the culmination of a gimmicky real-life worldwide quest for beautiful youths, orchestrated by Paramount, which garnered a great deal of attention in fan magazines of the time.

A 1934 issue of Picture Play magazine described the search as “One of the most colossal stunts ever used to publicize a picture… [T]he promotion idea was the holding of beauty contests in every English-speaking country—Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, et cetera—the winners being brought to Hollywood and put into the film.”

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The more cynical Photoplay magazine referred to them as “raw material for the cinema mill,” just so much fleshy fodder to get ground up by the Dream Machine. The 30 studio-selected winners from around the globe were given five-week contracts at $50 per week and rewarded with dubious onscreen exposure time (in more ways than one).

If these chosen kids were expecting an Ella Cinders style discovery, they were holding out in vain. A reviewer of the time observed, in Motion Picture, “What one sees of the winners in a health drill, as well as at closer range, may cause you to question their superiority to your favorite life guard or hat-check girl, but you won’t begrudge them the trip to Hollywood, nor the return home of all but six. You will agree that they will be better off there.”

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To my knowledge, only one of the “winners” made the big time, so keep your eyes peeled for Clara Lou Sheridan—whose name was wisely changed to Ann Sheridan—the Oomp Girl, our Dallas Beauty Winner.

Even as Search for Beauty lampoons the exploitation of innocent youngsters by crooked sex fiends, the movie basically sponsored the same kind of large-scale exploitation! I don’t believe that the Paramount execs brought this gaggle of beautiful people to Hollywood merely for an infusion of talent. Photoplay punctured this theory by crankily noting, “Maybe there is a potential Garbo or Gable among them, but it seems to me the chance is just as good, if not better, of finding a potential star among Hollywood extras.”

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Indeed, the film medium itself gleefully participates in the less-than-aesthetic contemplation of idealized bodies. During one montage sequence, the news of Health and Fitness’s search for talent spreads around the world; men stack piles of magazines for distribution, crying, “Up! Up!” Cut to a photographer snapping naughty photos of one of the magazine’s pin-ups as the cameraman instructs the curvaceous ingénue to pull up her skirt, “Up! Up!” Get it?

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The business of posing and creating publicity shots also serves as a target for Search for Beauty’s satire of the “sex sells” mentality. In one memorable scene, James Gleason presides over a whole group of women, each with one ideal feature. The photographer in the room hopes to take pictures of their beautiful individual body parts and then composite them to make a non-existent perfect woman.

This practice may sound primitive and laughable. However, the glossing over of “bad traits” and the creation of an unattainably flawless image foreshadows our generation of stressed-out women, constantly comparing themselves to Photoshop-slimmed, impossible dream girls.

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On the one hand, by going behind the scenes to make fun of beauty magazine tropes, Search for Beauty helps to break them down and show viewers what a sham they are. On the other, this paradoxical movie reveals the sleaziness behind the same kind of global beauty pageant that the studio perpetuated by producing and promoting it.

The excessive eye candy climaxes in a five-minute-long sequence that consists of nothing other than synchronized aerobic exercises performed by lines and lines of ripped men and women in skin-tight gym suits. Waving banners and flags. Marching. Leaping. Jumping. Lunging. To the tune of John Phillips Sousa-esque marches. This is an erotic spectacle. It’s Buns of Steel on steroids. There is no way around it.

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So, although Search for Beauty amusingly satirizes commercialized sex, the movie and its  publicity stunt also massively participate in that same commercial exploitation.

As I ponder this movie (and I might be pondering it longer than the producers did), the mise-en-abyme quality of its message or moral sucks me in. Speaking of mise-en-abyme, the opening credits show up over shots of beautiful girls in gym suits doing exercises in a mirrored room so that reflections and reflections of reflections stretch into the distance.

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In Search for Beauty, reality and parody blur and mingle. Aat times, the camera’s leer assimilates with our own implied drooling absorptionm and I don’t feel comfortable with that. I’ll leer when I want to. Don’t you dare tell me when to leer!

And yet, Barbara and Don emerge victorious, with help from a secret government agent dressed up as a priest (don’t ask). Not only do these plucky bodybuilders usurp the fitness farm compound, but they also hustle all the bad guys out onto the exercise field to punish them with a workout. No gain for the would-be pornographers and pimps—just a lot of pain.

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Of course, what really scares me silly about this film is that it was made in 1934. In 1935, Leni Riefenstahl decided to remake Search for Beauty—albeit played for a little less comedy—under a new title, The Triumph of the Will.

Obviously, I’m joking. I have no way of knowing if Riefenstahl ever saw this pre-Code fitness fetish romp. I’m guessing she never did. But the similarities between this and Riefenstahl’s propaganda opuses practically scream in your face and tell you to drop and give ’em thirty.

Just how tongue-in-cheek was this film meant to be? Are we supposed to side with the dirt-bags or the frighteningly determined Aryan bodybuilding police?

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I’m inclined to take the side of director Earle C. Kenton, the man behind perhaps the greatest horror film of the 1930s: Island of Lost Souls, based on Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. That courageous, grotesque movie foreshadowed the brutality of dictators that were rising to political prominence when the film was in production. The sadism of megalomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Moreau shifts our sympathy to the “monsters” which he torments and dominates with painful medical procedures.

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In his crazy schemes to transform animals into humans, Moreau sought to breed men without recognizing his own paucity of human traits like kindness and empathy. During the movie’s most famous sequence, the mad doctor, wielding a whip, forces his creations to recite “The Law” in an elaborate call-and-response ritual. The refrain “Are we not men?” spoken by a group of subservient, unnatural creatures rings out with bitter irony.

Just as Dr. Moreau’s obsession with evolving a new race of creatures parallels the eugenics movement, Search for Beauty’s emphasis on perfect, streamlined bodies and tyrannical fitness almost veers into fascism. In the finale of the latter film, as I watched the waggish cons dragged from their beds, coerced to engage in a group exercise, I could help but think of the line, “Are we not men?”

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In comparison to the bulky, rippling pecks of the male bodybuilders, James Gleason’s fragile frame looks woefully subhuman. We do giggle at his humiliation as these grade-A specimens haul him out to the playing field, but I think we also cringe a little.

As someone who was recurrently picked last in gym class (in spite of my superior strategic talent in Capture the Flag), I dread the thought that some day a bunch of physically fit loonies will grab me and make me atone for my sins with public perspiration. Society needs dorks, shysters, molls, runts, and rejects, too. And who’s to say what constitutes being a reject? (And if you said ‘having a blog,’ I will come and get you.)

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Most important, if you went to see Search for Beauty, you’re probably much more likely to relate to the venal con artists than to identify with the unattainably flawless protagonists. The barbarism of groupthink glints in the otherwise harmless display of just desserts at the conclusion.

Maybe we should we take it all in stride and emerge a little wiser to the evils of both extremes. If the pre-Code era had one virtue, it was the ability to make us aware of serious things, while refusing to be serious about them.

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So, watch Search for Beauty and chew on its moral tangle. Because I know you’re not the kind of reader who comes to my blog merely for ripped dudes and dames. Wink, wink.

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Well, let’s see what hunky dude Nitrate Diva’s writing about this week!

And if you find a weirder, raunchier, more problematic pre-Code movie than this one, I want to hear about it!

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Free Friday Film: The Ghost Camera (1933)

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Are you up for a quickie? No, not that kind. Wash your brain out with soap, you n’er-do-well. Today I’m tempting you with a quota quickie, a cheaply produced British B movie produced to satisfy English law.

In 1927, the Cinematographic Films Act required British movie theaters to exhibit a certain percentage (it rose to 20%) of British-made films in an attempt to lessen the influence of American culture, pouring into England through Hollywood films, like the Spanish Armada in celluloid form. Well, tempted by the guaranteed opportunity to have their films shown in cinemas, British studios churned out movies with insanely small budgets—about 1 pound per foot of film, according to the UK Guardian.

Rather like Poverty Row films, many of these quota quickies stank like gone-off Vegimite. However, plenty of them also offered burgeoning directors and actors Michael Powell, Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, and Ann Todd a chance to cut their teeth on their first cinematic experiences. And, what with necessity being the Queen Mum of invention, many quickies display creative stylistics and wacky plots—to cover up their budgetary shortages.

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It breaks my heart to inform you that 60% of these movies are considered lost. But Martin Scorsese and the BFI are actively hunting for them. As it is, more and more of these are available on DVD and hopefully we’ll get a full-on quickie festival someday. Wait, that came out wrong…

So, in my usual roundabout way, I come to today’s sacrifice, The Ghost Camera, a 1933 mystery from debut director Bernard Vorhaus, a talented fellow whose Hollywood career was cut short by the blacklist. This entertaining, plot-packed thriller clocks in at about an hour, a refreshing feat in comparison to the bloated two-going-on-three hours spectacles that are showing at a movie theater near you nowadays.

The story follows John Gray (Henry Kendall), a bespectacled, preening intellectual who arrives home from his vacation to discover that someone dropped a camera in his luggage. Deciding to develop a picture in hopes of returning the camera to its owner, our hero discovers—gasp—a picture of a murder!

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Before he can show the image to the police, though, someone nicks it, but leaves the amateur detective with the camera and the remaining undeveloped negatives within. Piqued by the theft and up for an adventure, Gray decides to retrace the photographer’s steps by tracking down the locations where the pictures in the camera were taken. In the process, he meets the camera owner’s troubled sister, Mary Elton, stumbles across a jewel heist, and finally roots out the killer.

As with many quota quickies, The Ghost Camera gives us a glimpse into the before-they-were-famous careers of big names in cinema history. A charmingly baby-faced Ida Lupino graces the screen with her discreet magnetism as Mary, the lady in distress. As she accompanies the sleuth, she both seeks and dreads the truth about her brother and his camera.

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Unfortunately, the print of this film available on YouTube looks like it was strained through cheesecloth (which is why I didn’t pepper this post with screencaps). Nevertheless, the cinematography does shine. The director of photography, Oscar-winner Ernest Palmer, an American, shot the melodically lovely Borzage films Street Angel and Seventh Heaven, so it’s no surprise that he pulls out some bizarre visual poetry even for this cheapie. The scenes in the darkroom, almost total blackness except for a few starkly-lit faces, convey a spooky sense of dread that foreshadows the virtuoso lighting contrasts of mature British noir. Again, when the protagonist investigates an abandoned, ruined fortress, darkness prevails, plunging us viewers into a situation where we must stay riveted to the screen for the slightest flash of light or sound to know what’s going on.

Best of all, the great David Lean earned one of his first screen credits on this film as an editor. He later acknowledged director Bernard Vorhaus as a formative influence on his career. Indeed, combined with the cinematography, the editing here can only be described as audacious. For example, the movie starts with a low angle shot of a looming castle keep. The camera slowly tilts down and pans to a car on the road. Jump cut to the vine-covered walls of the ruin. Jump cut to the backseat of the car into which a camera tumbles. Where did it come from? Who dropped or threw it? Did the car pick it up on purpose or is the driver totally unaware? This pre-credit sequence leaves us intrigued, tantalized. Exactly what you desire from a mystery thriller!

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The first time I watched The Ghost Camera, its visual flamboyance stunned me. Shaky handheld motions, jump cuts, swish pans, and disorienting shifts of focus: you’ll see a lot of things here that we tend to associate with the “groundbreaking” movies of mature European art cinema, especially French New Wave. The jarring, unstable camerawork also awakens the audience to the foibles and strangeness of mechanical recording. That is, we realize that we’re watching a movie, a reality filtered through a camera.

The camera as a recording instrument itself carries an uncanny aura. Think about how many meta-thrillers and horror films revolve around some variation of a ghostly, anxiety-inducing camera or pictures: The Big Sleep, Blow-Up, Chinatown, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, to name a few. The Ghost Camera actually amplifies its slapdash, B-movie discontinuity, its jerky camera movements and warping perspective, to generate fear. The movie camera takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the film’s plot, in which developed images serve as clues, shows us how photography’s special bond with reality can bear an alarming witness.

The camera’s truth speaks in tongues, though—as the weird, vertiginous cinematography of The Ghost Camera suggests—that need to be interpreted by human reasoning.

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Mix all this innovative flair and love for the filmic medium with a droll script, really a parody of the whodunit, and you have a beguiling hour’s entertainment. Our mewling hero John Gray continuously treats us to his pessimistic, helpless commentaries. For instance,

“I really don’t know why I continue to go on holidays, Simms. They’re never adventurous. Just the usual people and happenings, unexciting, like myself. Man is an irrational animal, Simms, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent.”

At another vexing moment, he humorously exclaims, “Oh but this is absurd! We’re beginning to talk like characters in a mystery melodrama.” If only he knew…

So, watch The Ghost Camera and celebrate this testament to what wonderful popular art a bunch of clever people can cobble together out of basically nothing. It’s certainly one of the most enduring and satisfying quickies you’ll ever enjoy. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

N.B. I learned about the history of the quota quickie from these thoughtful sources. I didn’t pull those facts out of thin air and I gratefully and fully acknowledge these articles and their authors for their research and insights. I’m citing them informally, because this is a blog post, not a college paper!

“Fancy a Quickie?” by Matthew Sweet from U.K. Guardian Monday, 1 January 2007.

“In Praise of the Quota.” at British Pictures Article Archive.