Musical Revolution: King of Jazz (1930) Gets a New Restoration (and a Book!)

king of jazz posterWe classic movie geeks know a thing or two about suffering for what we love.

We grieve over the films locked away in studio vaults.

We watch dreary, fuzzy transfers of hard-to-find movies and fantasize about what the film would look like with some tender loving care.

We fork over whole paychecks to go to festivals where we try hard not to blink during screenings of sublime rare films, knowing we may never see them again.

So, good news—a lost film found, a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a buried classic, generous funding for archives—means a lot to this community. And some recent developments have made me jump for joy.

Universal is restoring The King of Jazz. Shot entirely in two-color Technicolor, this 1930 musical revue features toe-tapping tunes performed by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and spectacular production numbers interspersed with brief comedy sketches.

Film historians James Layton and David Pierce, co-authors of the sumptuous and fascinating Dawn of Technicolor, 1915–1935, are advising on the restoration. I got the king of jazz layton and pierce bookchance to ask Layton, manager of MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a few questions about the restoration, the film, and his and Pierce’s forthcoming book, King of Jazz: Paul Whitman’s Technicolor Revue.

If you’ve seen this elusive early sound milestone, you’ve probably seen a mutilated version. According to Layton, “No version of King of Jazz seen since the 1960s has been close to the original release version (which was first screened in New York City on May 2, 1930 at 105 minutes). The VHS releases and various 16mm prints floating around have had at least ten minutes missing and scenes in the wrong order.”

And, as if that’s not bad enough, the way those versions look could give anybody the shrieking fantods.

Early Technicolor’s restricted palette lent a refreshing, eye-popping vigor to trippy early musical sequences. But you’d never know that from the old transfers of King of Jazz circulating these days. With washed-out actors, ghastly dried-Playdough pinks, and heinous shades of blue, the VHS version I saw seems more like a horror movie. When I’m watching Bing Crosby’s first film appearance, I shouldn’t be thinking that he bears an alarming resemblance to Chucky.

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Honestly, squint a little, and you’d think the colorization folks had gotten out their big box of crayons and gone to town. Shudder, shudder.

(Note: most screencaps in this post come from a much prettier original trailer for King of Jazz, which you can watch at the Internet Archive, NOT from the awful feature-length version I saw.)

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If ever a film needed the royal treatment, King of Jazz is it. Heralded since 2012, when this blog was just a gleam in my eye, Universal’s restoration is finally on the verge of bringing all that jazz back to theaters.

The restoration primarily draws on a pristine but condensed camera negative, sliced down to a 65-minute version for a reissue in 1933. Compare that with an original running time of 105 minutes. (Pause for facepalm.) Fortunately, scanned nitrate prints from the Library of Congress and the Danish Film Institute can fill in the gaps.

As Layton told me, “I haven’t seen the finished restoration yet, but I can confirm it will feature footage that has not been seen by audiences since 1930.”

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He and Pierce had initially planned to write an article about King of Jazz to mark the restoration. “But as we were researching we kept finding more and more amazing resources that were too irresistible not to draw upon. We soon decided we had enough for a book!”

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will include many images never before published. For instance, reproductions of Academy Award-winning production designs by Herman Rosse “will form the backbone of the book.”

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Scanning one of Rosse’s production designs for the upcoming book…

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…and the design as it appeared in the film.

Layton and Pierce’s research is shedding light on how early talkie Hollywood continued to produce for foreign markets. Remember the Spanish-language Dracula? Well, Universal simultaneously produced 9—NINE—foreign versions of King of Jazz! Alas, all of these except the French version (preserved at the Gosfilmofond in Russia) are lost.

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A still for “Il re del jazz,” the lost Italian version of “King of Jazz.”

The studio chose a veritable “It’s a Small World After All”-worthy crew of international actors working in Hollywood to serve as hosts for audiences in foreign countries.

“We found extremely rare photographs of nearly all of the foreign hosts, including Nils Asther, Bela Lugosi, Tetsu Komai, Andre Cheron and Antonin Vaverka,” Layton says.

And, if you’re interested in how audiences from Portugal to Japan responded to this surreal riot of Art Deco pop culture—translated into their native tongues—the book will cover that, too. “We worked closely with Gosfilmofond, the Czech national film archive, Museo del cinema in Turin, the Swedish Film Institute, and a host of international film researchers to translate original articles from international newspapers and magazines.”

I asked Layton if he’d uncovered anything else surprising about King of Jazz. He explained, “One of the most eye-opening moments early on in our research was the realization that a lot of the musical numbers were not new to the film; they had been honed on the Broadway and vaudeville stage throughout the 1920s, and were then re-imagined for motion pictures by visionary director John Murray Anderson.”

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Indeed, King of Jazz strikes me as a thrillingly transitional film, sometimes bound to stage conventions, but more often innovative and cinematic, breaking out into an impossibly fluid space. For instance, the musical number “It Happened in Monterey” uses the potential of cinematic space to conjure up a nostalgic past.

The sequence’s “protagonist” (golden-voiced John Boles) starts out singing about his lost love while looking at her portrait in a small, confined room. The camera tracks in towards the painting—which dissolves into the subject of the portrait (Jeanette Loff)—then camera moves out to reveal a vast, romantic stylized vision of old Monterey.

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Sure, you’ll get wide shots of kicklines, as though you were plunked in the audience of a big Broadway theater. Yet, you’ll also get ethereal double exposures, oodles of tracking and crane shots, passages of fast, rhythmic editing, and animated musical interludes, all drenched in the psychedelic glory of early Technicolor.

My favorite shot of the film comes during the“Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, probably the best-known portion of the film, thanks to its giant piano and top-hatted Russell Markert dancers (a troupe we now know as the Rockettes). Yet, amidst all that extravagance, the image that lingers in my mind is this shot of a clarinetist.

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This low angle brings us into the intimacy of the performance and gives us a perspective that we’d be unlikely to encounter in real life. Towering against the glittering blue background, the clarinet player takes on the power of a shaman, channelling the magic of jazz into a new era of audiovisual stimulation.

In a similar vein, look at this overhead shot of the violins section in Whiteman’s orchestra.

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I know what you’re thinking: it looks sort of Busby Berkeley, right? Well, King of Jazz hit theaters in the spring of 1930. And Whoopee!, the first film on which Berkeley worked as a dance director, premiered in New York City on September 30 of the same year.

King of Jazz is both a rip-roaring good time and a key film in the development of the musical as a genre. And for many years it’s been something of a “missing link.” I look forward to learning more about it.

For more information about Layton and Pierce’s new book, check out their Kickstarter and consider backing it. Support film scholarship!

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Now, you might be wondering, how can cinephiles see the restoration? Well, I’ve got more good news.

The restored King of Jazz will premiere at MoMA as part of upcoming series focusing on Universal’s years under the reign of Junior Laemmle.

Often ridiculed as a brash baby mogul, Junior received studio control in 1929 as a 21st birthday gift from his father, Universal founder Carl Laemmle. (And you thought My Super Sweet 16 was wild!) However, Junior’s term as general manager bequeathed to us some of the greatest and most enduring films of the 1930s, including Universal’s cycle of horror films, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life.

Junior’s contributions to film history, especially during the no-holds-barred pre-Code era, deserve wider recognition. (Even if he did allegedly think that Bette Davis had the sex appeal of Slim Summerville. We all make mistakes.)

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According to Layton, the Junior Laemmle series, programmed by Dave Kehr, “will include premieres of many new restorations and preservations from Universal’s restoration department.” MoMA will announce dates soon.

(And here’s hoping that these dazzling restorations will make it onto DVD and/or Blu-ray. Seriously, Universal, don’t make me publicly rail against your home release record. Again.)

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If you can’t make the MoMA series, may I interest you in Capitolfest?

This festival screens rare silents and pre-Codes in a 1928 Moorish style movie palace. Believe me, it’s even better than it sounds. King of Jazz poses a special challenge.

As Capitolfest’s Facebook page reports, “unfortunately, there will be no FILM prints [of King of Jazz]. There will be a DCP (digital) print available, however, though we are not equipped to show this at the Capitol. And so, we have decided to show this as our regular weekly attraction at one of the small cinemas next door to the Capitol, from August 11-15.”

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So, two guesses where I’ll be on August 15, 2016.

When it comes to restorations, I usually only see the “after” in the “before and after” process. Having witnessed the wan, chopped-up King of Jazz, I’m especially excited to discover the restoration. I’ll get to observe not only the changes in the film, but also the changes in my reactions to it.

Stay tuned! And don’t let creepy, faded Technicolor Bing Crosby haunt your nightmares.

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My pal Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has also written about the restoration and done a great interview with James Layton. Highly recommended reading!

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Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Dead Perfection

leavehertoheavenposterIt seems fitting that Gene Tierney should share a “birthday” with Technicolor.

Engineer Herbert Kalmus incorporated the company that would become synonymous with lush cinematic entertainment on November 19, 1915, exactly 5 years before little Gene Eliza made her entrance into the world.

Technicolor loved Gene Tierney, showcasing not only her enchanted, flowerlike beauty but also the currents of thought and passion pulsing behind that exquisite mask.

Vincent Price called Tierney “our most underrated actress,” and John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven abundantly supports the claim.

Playing a psychopathically possessive wife, Tierney delivered her greatest performance (if I’m arguing) in this Technicolor outlier—a modern psychological thriller made in an era when the costly color process was typically reserved for musicals and historical epics. This paradoxical Technicolor noir gives us the chance to see the 1940s in a color palette of taupes, eggshell blues, and amber-browns instead of the remote elegance of grayscale.

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I can hardly think of a more underplayed, chilling portrayal of evil on film than Tierney’s Ellen Berent. She wells up with crystal tears of self-pity at the slightest perceived encroachment on her territory. Yet, in the face of other people’s pain, she exhibits the hard composure of a porcelain doll.

She wields that soft, unnaturally smoke-lowered voice of hers to do as much damage as possible. Notice how it catches slightly at the ends of sentences, making an inconsequential remark sound like both a proposition and a threat.

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And those eyes. Eyes the color of water. Fickle eyes. Eyes that send one thumbing through a dictionary for underused words like verdigris and eau-de-nil.

Eyes that sparkle like empty fishbowls when she gapes in incomprehension at the meanness rising from within her, at the difference that cuts her off from normal human feelings. Icy eyes that balance her fiery red lips. Eyes that tell the truth when those lips lie.

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Evil Under the Sun

Tierney’s incarnation of wickedness forms the centerpiece of Leave Her to Heaven’s cruel, vaguely surreal beauty. The film’s toxic glow, its peculiar brand of unreality, contrasts with the studio-set whimsy and pageantry of color musicals or period dramas. Sequences shot on location in Leave Her to Heaven present us with a world that bears no marks of expressionist gloom yet fills us with foreboding. The film’s universe, like its protagonist, basks in sunny indifference to human suffering.

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Commenting on the oppressive ambiance of Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said he wanted to give his film the menacing aspect that a commonplace room would suddenly assume if you knew there was a corpse behind the closet door.

Leon Shamroy’s pellucid Technicolor cinematography for Leave Her to Heaven accomplishes something similar. Its uncanny perfection signals to the audience that something is very awry. No corpse behind the door, though. Just a succubus at the breakfast table, wearing blood-red lipstick applied so crisply that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s tattooed on.

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The movie’s interiors suffocate you with their chic, premeditated quaintness—down to seafoam sofa cushions and potted cacti and bibelots you only notice on repeat viewings—as though the characters had invaded a decorating magazine layout.

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Outside, vines cling caressingly to trellises and columns. Flowers grow in harmonious bunches clearly arranged by God’s florist. Cerulean skies, complete with Magritte-wallpaper clouds, choke the frame, overshadowing the characters with backdrops of blue ether and picture-postcard mountains. Wide spaces become perversely claustrophobic.

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It’s how I imagine the world would look if you knew you were going to die soon: agonizingly alive, sadistically radiant, a world laughing at you because you have to leave it. A world that has you right where it wants you. The air shimmers with irony.

Blue Gazes

Ellen’s nature emerges through 3 key scenes, connected by the dominance of teal blue and the act of looking or exchanging glances.

From the first, Leave Her to Heaven defines Ellen by her aggressive gaze. When Richard spots Ellen reading his novel on the train, he looks her over and likes what he sees. When she drops her book, he picks it up, hands it to her—and attracts her even more fixed attention. As Richard lights a cigarette, Ellen stares at him.

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In the film, Ellen’s gaze makes Richard curious and mildly uncomfortable. In Ben Ames Williams’s source material, however, Richard grows downright angry, initiating and losing a staring contest with her. Although that reaction isn’t present in the film, it reveals the extent to which Ellen’s scrutiny threatens her future husband by reversing the traditional one-way structure of the male gaze.

He looks at her as an embodiment of his fantasy—a moment later, he’ll recite grandiloquent prose from his own novel to describe her—yet he quails when she returns his look and sees in him (we come to find out) an updated version of her fantasy object: her father.

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The cinematography and editing emphasize the unsettling persistence of Ellen’s stare. We get 4, yes, 4 shots of her—oddly immobile against the dancing, arid landscape seen through the train car windows—just looking at Richard. Deliberately awkward and protracted, this series of shots forces the audience into Richard’s position, making up excuses for this odd, gorgeous girl, desperately trying to rehabilitate the “meet cute” from its creepiness.

The train car’s color scheme accentuates these jeux de regards. The teal walls and deep blue-green curtains match the color of Tierney’s eyes. This is no coincidence. The entire decor amplifies the power of Ellen’s gaze, as though the setting were an extension of her, almost a huge eyeball, an apparatus for looking.

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To quote Nietzsche’s gift to psychological thrillers, when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back. In Leave Her to Heaven, when you gaze at the female fantasy object, she gazes back—and you become her fantasy object.

True, the close-ups of Tierney serve the actress up for the movie spectator’s gaze. Well, I’ve seen this with an audience, and, believe me, the focus on gazing and looking jolts the viewers, chastens them, and makes them wary, tainting the vision and reducing our pleasure to nervous titters in the dark.

Still Waters

The film’s most famous sequence, the drowning of Danny, derives its horrific impact from its refusal to look horrific or include the signifiers of doom that films have trained us to expect.

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The soaring Alfred Newman score makes no comment on the heinous crime. The quality of light doesn’t change to telegraph a major shift in Ellen’s trajectory—from thought to act, from jealous wife to murderess. Tierney doesn’t jubilate in her triumph. She sits emanating darkness, her pale eyes piercing through her tinted shades.

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As in the train car, blue-greens overwhelm the color palette: the bright grayish-blue sky, the deep green pine forests in background, and the glimmering, saturated navy-teal waters. When she whirls off her terrycloth robe to jump in and “save” Danny, Ellen reveals an aquamarine bathing suit. These colors tend to calm and soothe; they suggest refreshing coolness and peace. The shock of Ellen’s sin alarms us all the more amidst this consonance of teal shades.

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Again, eyes and the act of looking take on central importance. We can identify the precise moment when Ellen decides to eliminate Danny through the way her eyes narrow in a medium close-up. The pristine mountains and sky shine behind her, as though tacitly condoning what she’s about to do.

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As Danny struggles, burbles, and cries out for help, the act of gazing holds power over life and death. By casting herself as a spectator in the drowning that she’s effectively staged, Ellen tries to dissociate from her guilt. She puts on sunglasses, perhaps as a shield against the ugliness of her actions, but we can still see her light eyes peering out in anticipation (especially spooky on the big screen).

We watch her watch Danny die. And through the act of watching and consuming the beauty of images we symbolically share in her wickedness. Our bond with Ellen (a most unlikely heroine) rests on a surfeit of visual splendor. Feast your eyes, the film seems to tempt us, and be seduced.

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Dressed to Kill

Ellen escalates to the next level of violence by throwing herself down a flight of stairs, inflicting injury to her own body in order to kill her unborn child.

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In the previous scene, Ellen bemoans how pregnancy has changed her appearance, looking at herself in a bedroom mirror. We can see Ellen. We can see the glass of the mirror. But we cannot see her reflection, as though she, like a vampire, doesn’t have one.

Shortly thereafter, she seizes on the idea to stage her fall. Rushing to her closet, she carefully selects her costume for this performance, an alluring blue lace peignoir.

vlcsnap-2015-11-19-16h43m25s233 After a dissolve, Ellen is looking in the same bedroom mirror as before—but this time all we see is the reflection, not Ellen. She glides towards the mirror like a phantom and the camera glides in step with her. She dabs perfume on the curve of her neck and retouches her lipstick.

Although this shot doesn’t completely synch with Ellen’s POV (it stays in place as she moves away), it aligns the viewer with her perspective. It appears as though the spectator were standing in front of the mirror; she is our reflection.

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Tierney floats down the hallway in the icy blue nightdress, just a few shades lighter than the cornflower blue wallpaper all around her. These restful shades of blue, the swirling, gently suspenseful music, and Tierney’s slow progress to the edge of the stairs imbue the scene with an inappropriately dreamy, romantic vibe.

Just as the drowning took place against a background of idyllic sparkling waters and the wholesome outdoors, this crime toys with our emotions by contextualizing an act of brutality within a gauzy, delicate domestic setting.

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When Ellen steps to the top of the stairs, the camera moves from her to the staircase and the long drop, as though guided by her thoughts. Ellen pauses, digging one silk shoe under the ragged carpet to lend realism to her plunge.

She looks up; for me, this close-up represents the zenith of her beauty in the film, all eyelashes and cheekbones and lipstick. Since we haven’t seen this angle of her before, the shot strikes us as the face of a stranger, almost diabolical in its intensity.

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We get a POV shot of the bottom of the stairs, again strengthening our association with Ellen’s perspective, then another close-up of Ellen. As her nerve and excitement mounts, her eyes widen until a tiny spark of malice gleams there.

The foot steps into nowhere, and we hear a scream. Ellen lies at the foot of the stairs, her unconscious figure fragile and sad, like a lily snapped off its stalk. The images won’t relinquish their willful loveliness. The yawning disconnect between hideous deeds and onscreen perfection stays strong.

The viewer has witnessed all the scheming behind this tragedy concocted by Ellen, yet we can’t escape the aesthetic victory she’s masterminded—carefully costuming and choreographing her murderous leap.

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Leave Her to Heaven was a smash hit for 20th Century Fox in 1945, and it resonates with an encouragingly large audience today. When I post a picture, a GIF, or an observation related to the film, it often goes haywire. Why? Because we love pretty surfaces? Because we’re attracted to the dysfunction underneath them? Or because the film itself asks those questions, confronting us with our allegiance to aesthetics over morality?

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I would argue that the enduring popularity of Leave Her to Heaven comes from its challenges to viewers and their gazes. This Technicolor noir interrogates the sinister beauty that reels us in, noting how we make excuses for beauty and for our own appetites for beauty. The film suggests that even the act of being caught looking at things you ought not to want to see contains a frisson of forbidden delight.

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Most of all, Leave Her to Heaven eschews easy answers and reassurance. It offers no pop Freudian jargon to assuage our fears over Ellen’s crimes and neatly pinpoint the etiology of her jealousy. It shows how people ignore blatant danger signs because of love and fear and loyalty. It illuminates a world of blinding beauty where evil can break loose at any moment. A world very much like our own, in fact.

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This post is part of the Gene Tierney Blogathon hosted by The Ellie Badge! Click the banner below to check out all of the other entries!

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Brides of Dracula (1960): Dandy of the Damned

bridesofdracula_posterThe elegant man in gray stands on a high stone parapet, poised as if about to take a death leap. Suddenly, from the balcony above, a woman cries out to stop him. “No, don’t do that!”

And so the spirited but naïve Marianne first meets the dashing and dangerous Baron Meinster in Terence Fisher’s Brides of Dracula. Under other circumstances, it might be called a “meet cute.” In this case, it’s more like a meet deadly.

If this scene sounds familiar—even to those who haven’t seen Hammer’s underrated follow-up to Horror of Dracula (1958)—that’s because Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) brought its hero and heroine together in almost the exact same way. On the cliffs by the Mediterranean, Joan Fontaine’s nameless slip of a girl calls to Maxim de Winter, pulling him away from the edge… and plunging herself into a frightening love affair.

Perhaps this parallel is accidental. Perhaps not. In both films a young woman obsesses over pleasing a mysterious aristocrat and nearly pays with her life. However, whereas Rebecca rewards its self-effacing Cinderella with some semblance of happily ever after, Brides of Dracula drives a stake right through the heart of the Gothic fallacy—the myth of “I alone can save this misunderstood man.”

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I was lucky enough to discover Brides of Dracula in epic fashion: screened from a vivid 35mm print at the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York. The heady, luminous Technicolor cinematography of Jack Asher—awash in ripe burgundies, ominous grays, and borderline cadaverous shades of pastel violet—converted me to the glories of Hammer horror (with which I’d never previously felt much of an affinity).

Just to make sure it wasn’t the big-screen effect getting the better of me, though, I watched Brides on DVD shortly thereafter. Twice. In three days. It really is that good. If the Hammer films were burning and I could save only one, this would be the one.

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A sumptuous cautionary tale, Brides of Dracula seduces then shocks, revealing the rancid dysfunction festering beneath the surface of Gothic romanticism. As the title suggests, the film largely focuses on women, in particular the grave consequences of socially-sanctioned female fantasies. An integral mother-son relationship also gives the plot a Freudian depth of depravity and enhances its subtle critique of women enabling irredeemable, monstrous men.

Instead of simply resurrecting Dracula, this enclosed entry in the Hammer canon creates a daringly different kind of vampire, a disciple of the Count with his own shadowy backstory. As incarnated by David Peel, Baron Meinster is a spoiled, manipulative, sexually ambiguous rakehell who recognizes and ruthlessly exploits the images that women project onto him. He’s the Prince of Darkness in Prince Charming’s clothing.

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The Brides script went through a long and complicated development, yet it manages to clip along at an exciting pace, evoke a sense of familial tragedy, and include several memorably unsettling scenes of the dead rising and attacking. No small feat!

Traveling through the Carpathian Mountains for an appointment as a schoolteacher, lovely Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) ends up stranded at Castle Meinster. The sinister Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt, at her regal and unhinged best) tells the girl about her “mad” son, whom she keeps a virtual prisoner.

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Her Pandora instinct aroused, Marianne frees the apparently sane and and impossibly beautiful Baron Meinster. And, as you might imagine, all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Doctor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, one of few actors who can ever make me root for the good guys) happens to be passing through the area to continue his mortal battle against vampirism.

From here on in, there be major spoilers, friends. 

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Newfangled Bad Boy

What could’ve been Brides of Dracula’s greatest weakness—the fact that the iconic vampire mentioned in the title doesn’t show up in the film—turns out to be its greatest asset. (No disrespect to Christopher Lee, whose Dracula performances all stand the test of time and chill me to the bone. I merely appreciate that Hammer took the vampire concept in an unusual direction here.)

The literal and figurative fair-haired boy of his noble family, Baron Meinster departs from the dark and brooding vampire paradigm set up by previous Draculas. On the most basic visual level, David Peel’s classically handsome Anglo-Saxon features and wig of frosted blond locks endow the Baron with an angelic aura.

Meinster lacks Dracula’s grand reach and authority, yet the intimate scope of his agenda and his stealth approach inspire a more relatable fear: mightn’t we all fall for such an ingratiating personification of evil? Beyond his imperative to stay alive, Meinster also displays a refined, psychological strain of sadism. Deceit isn’t a means to an end; it’s part of the thrill for Meinster. And, unlike Dracula, he can muster the disarming façade needed to deceive.

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Christopher Lee played Dracula as “monarch of all vampires,” the title bestowed upon him by Brides’ prologue: somber, domineering, and attractive, certainly, but animalistic. Lugosi accentuated the seductive magnetism of the Count, but nevertheless exuded a debonair creepiness that initially prompts Mina to mock his accent and bearing.

In essence, Dracula is an outsider. You might be drawn to him, but you’d also be on your guard around him. Potential victims don’t tend to suspect that he’s a 500-year-old bloodsucking demon until it’s too late; then again, most don’t wholeheartedly welcome him into their lives either. Dracula makes no pretense of courtship. He simply takes what he wants. The emotions of his prey are as meaningless to him as the squeaks of a field mouse to a hungry hawk.

The Gentle Art of Vampirism

By contrast, the Baron comes across as a dandy in the Baudelairean sense: “These creatures have no state of being other than cultivating the beautiful in their appearance, satisfying their passions, feeling, and thinking.”* Even the costuming choices confirm Meinster’s dandyism. No austere black cape for him—a dove gray cloak is so much more becoming.

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The Baron elevates his search for sustenance to an artistic pursuit, one that he goes about with the dedication of a collector. Referring to Marianne, he comments, “What a pity such beauty must fade… unless we preserve it.”

Meinster clearly derives pleasure from winning his victims’ trust, which makes his hunting technique inherently dandyish. As Baudelaire wrote, “Without ardor or caprice, it becomes a repugnant necessity.” Now, dear Charles was talking about love (and all that love implies), but substitute “blood” in there and you have Baron Meinster’s guiding maxim of vampirism.

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Our vampire dandy also displays a downright artful knack for beguiling any woman who crosses his path. He effortlessly presents himself as a wronged and tortured heir during his first face-to-face encounter with Marianne. The Baron drifts out of the shadows, strategically reveals his Adonis beauty, and sighs, “So, you’ve come to help me, have you? Well, no one can do that, mademoiselle.”

The viewer realizes the truth of his statement—there’s no cure for what Meinster is—but he knows that emphasizing the hopelessness of his case will only intensify Marianne’s desire to save him. Chained to the wall, Meinster draws Marianne nearer and nearer with his words, as the yearning violins of the musical score evoke the mood of a love scene.

By this point in the film, the intoxicating jewel tones of Castle Meinster and the delicate shadings of light and dark have swept the spectator into a mindset close to Marianne’s. Nevertheless, unlike Marianne, we know that we’re watching a vampire movie, so we can fill in the dramatic irony.

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Terence Fisher and company keep up a clever double game of dizzying romanticism and creeping dread. You’ll certainly notice some warning signs. Meinster stares just a few degrees south of Marianne’s face, and a crimson lampshade casts a baleful, blood-red glow on the wall over the Baron’s left shoulder.

However, only after Marianne darts off to rescue the dream boy in the tower do we get a close-up of his smug triumph. The cunning devil has ensnared his own Pandora and seems awfully pleased.

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Once the Baroness discovers that Marianne has stolen the key, the imposing dowager chases her frightened guest into the castle’s main hall. The girl barrels down a flight of stairs and runs straight into the Baron’s arms. The camera whirls into Meinster’s dreamy face with a flourish—portraying him as just the sort of romantic hero he wants Marianne to take him for.

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“There, there, don’t worry,” He coos to the terrified Marianne. “She can’t harm you now. You have nothing to fear.” A noted radio actor, David Peel drawls each line of Meinster’s double-talk as though he were tasting it, rolling it over his palate. I can’t think of any other vampire who would say such a thing, who would savor the irony of reassuring his intended victim.

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Every significant female character in Brides of Dracula fawns over Meinster. His mother admits that she encouraged “his wildness” and procured girls for him to drain even during his captivity. Meinster’s childhood nurse Greta essentially serves as his Renfield. She crouches over the grave of one of the brides, guiding the vampiress out of the ground like a midwife might coax a newborn out of the womb.

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The concept of vampirism as a kind of rebirth also connects Meinster’s sins with those of his mother. The script explains that the Baron harbored a cruel streak from childhood, indulged by the Baroness and brought to fullness by the wicked circle of friends he sought out. In other words, Meinster emerged from an interplay of nature and nurture. Yet, had his mother stood up to him, the film implies, this horror story would’ve ended in the home long ago.

Meinster perpetuates the vicious cycle of dysfunction that made him a monster (or failed to prevent him from becoming one) by creating new monsters—his children, in a sense. The product of a bad mother, Baron Meinster, in turn, becomes a bad mother… and in more ways than one.

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In addition to triggering misplaced maternal devotion in the Baroness and Greta, Meinster fits into the unhealthiest sort of romantic fantasy. Marianne’s student teacher colleague Gina develops an immediate crush on Meinster—he’s a Baron and he looks like Prince Charming, that’s enough for her. After learning of Marianne’s engagement, Gina envies her friend. All alone, following a congratulatory session of girl talk, she examines her face in a hand mirror and laments, “It should have been me.”

Then she feels a chill in the air and goes over to close the drapes. The icy blue of her peignoir against the orangey floral pattern of the curtains hits the eye like a danger signal. The audience knows that poor Gina is about to have her wish come true in a way she never bargained for.

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The brilliance of Brides lies in such varied examples of how women lose their identities by giving power to a man and making him the focus of their lives and goals. A mother becomes a ghoulish enabler and accomplice, a servant becomes a slave, and a young teacher becomes a mindless conquest. Meinster craves absolute interpersonal control and leaves wrecked people in his wake.

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In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentlemen.” That observation suggests the outward urbanity of wickedness as well as the privileged social position occupied by the devil—both aspects of evil that Baron Meinster knows quite a bit about.

Not only does Meinster seek a degrading abject power over his victims, but he also exercises his drive to dominate in a more conventional class-bound way. When leaving the girls’ school where Marianne teaches, for instance, he can’t resist a threatening jab at the headmaster (a tenant of the Meinster estate), hinting that he had better show respect or he’ll be paying a higher rent.

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The Baron also wields his privileged status as another lure for potential mates. After all, what is the Gothic romance if not the Cinderella fantasy gone very, very wrong? Marianne traveled from Paris for her job as a schoolteacher… yet she’s ready to sacrifice it to become the new Baroness. Sounds shallow doesn’t it? But who among us isn’t swayed, to some degree, by rank and appearance? Especially women brought up on fairy tales featuring an aristocratic stranger who fixes everything and rewards the heroine with the honor of being his wife.

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Close-ups of the Baron, both in and out of vampire mode, abound and seem to magnify his power. He fills the screen, dominates even the camera. It’s as though the cinematography were bowing to his will in the way a 19th century portraitist might have.

For instance, shortly after he “saves” Marianne from the Baroness, he transforms from gallant and sensitive to cruel and incestuous in seconds. We get not one, not two, but three close-ups of Meinster’s beauty—like an exquisite mask with furious eyes burning through the holes—as he beckons the Baroness to her doom. “Come here, mother,” he purrs.

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The first sight of Meinster in full bloodthirsty form strikes the audience as all the more grotesque in comparison to his earlier handsomeness. Framed by a doorway in long shot, he hisses at Van Helsing. A jump cut amps up the horror by jolting us with a ghoulish close-up of the Baron, his cheeks contorted, his eyes bulging.

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Another such close-up signals Meinster’s most disturbing assault on a victim, one I could hardly believe at first. Having strangled Van Helsing unconscious, the Baron pounces on him like a bat, raising his cape over the prostrate man. We don’t see the bite… but Meinster’s head rises from the lower edge of the frame and his fangs glisten with fresh gouts of blood. To borrow Bram Stoker’s words, he wears “a grin of malice which would have held its own in the nethermost hell.”

This savage bite scene left me rattled. Though tame as far as horror gore goes, it strikes at the audience’s deeply-held confidence and investment in Van Helsing. Watching Meinster triumph over the doctor overturns our sense of the genre’s rules and reminds us that, in real life, evil sometimes wins. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to cherished, recurring movie characters or to people we love, but they do.

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Even Dracula himself never got that far with Van Helsing! And when the Count does come close to biting his nemesis during the Horror of Dracula showdown, he approaches Van Helsing’s neck with a more adversarial intensity, eager to deliver the coup de grâce. Dracula wears the sneer of victorious rival. He doesn’t exalt in the depraved pleasure of violating an enemy, like Meinster does.

Fortunately, Van Helsing knows how to purify himself and, in another stomach-churning turn of events, cauterizes the bite mark with a red-hot branding iron and some holy water. I can’t think of another actor who could make this as convincing (and badass) as Cushing does.

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Killing Van Helsing apparently wasn’t even Meinster’s immediate intent, though. He returns a few minutes later, dragging Marianne in tow, and taunts Van Helsing with the exhibitionistic prospect of forcing the good doctor to watch her “initiation.”

Interestingly enough, the Van Helsing of Brides acquires his own mantle of romanticism. Reading between the lines, one senses a bit more chemistry between the doctor and Marianne than expected from a vampire-hunter and a woman he’s trying to save. If you don’t believe me, watch Cushing’s face when he hears of Marianne’s engagement and asks, “Are you in love with him?”

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In other words, Meinster’s pursuit of Marianne satisfies another facet of his sadism; he’s tormenting Van Helsing through her. The Baron may not be the most ambitious vampire, but when he sets out to do damage, it’s on the most personal and vicious level. His violent attack on Van Helsing strips away the refinement of the Gothic hero, showing us the brute under the ascot. Brides arguably confronts and crushes the oxymoron of a vampire romance before that idea even went mainstream.

Brides of Dracula is a subversive, rewatchable masterpiece of horror wrought from lavish jewel tones and Baroque shadows. (Never mind the plot holes. Or the awkwardly flapping bat. I find them endearing, frankly.) Its complex intermingling of social and sexual signifiers and its sheer amount of striking set pieces ensure that any post about the film has merely scratched the surface. I urge you to seek this movie out, whether you’re a Hammer fan or not—because you will be one by the time the credits roll.

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*Baudelaire, Le Peintre de la vie moderne.

Follow Thru (1930): Fore Play

_follow_thruRed and green, stop and go, naughty and nice: two-color Technicolor is literally made of opposites, of complementary colors that cancel each other out when combined in equal measure.

In pre-Code musical rom-com Follow Thru, the two-color palette, a riot of coral and mint, wages a kind of merry war, to borrow a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s best rom-coms.

This past weekend Capitolfest screened UCLA Film and Television’s 35mm restoration of Follow Thru, transferred from the original camera negative. Sitting in the fourth row, I felt as though I were devouring some rare confection, a peachy parfait of cinematic pleasure. Its two-color cinematography, not to mention infinitely hummable tunes by Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva, banished my blues (pun intended).

Based on a hit Broadway show of 1929, this now-obscure musical frolics through a flimsy plot about a lady golf champ (Nancy Carroll) fighting her fairway rival (Thelma Todd) for the affections of a handsome instructor (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers). Directors Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab embrace the toe-tapping whimsy of their source material and never lean too hard on the tension. It’s as though they opened a window in the Great Depression and let an insouciant breeze from the ’20s waft in.

Follow Thru shatters two unfortunately common assumptions about old movies, especially early talkies: first, they were all black-and-white and, second, they were dreadfully stuffy. Well, not only was this 85-year-old musical shot in dazzling color, but it also abounds with more innuendo and risqué humor than you’d find in most modern rom-coms.

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I’ve seen a lot of pre-Code movies, but there were a few lines in Follow Thru that made my jaw drop. For example, curvaceous Thelma Todd hurls herself at petrified millionaire Jack Haley, invites him to come and spend “a week of love” with her, and asks, “Then you will come?” Clearly, um, excited by her advances, Haley sputters, “It won’t be long soon.”

Or consider the sequence where Haley and scene-stealing Eugene Pallette sneak into a locker room full of lingerie-clad ladies with the intention of retrieving a ring. After many shocking revelations for girl-shy Haley, the pair sneak out wearing ladies’ clothes. And, believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Eugene Pallette in a striped day dress.

Like those inscrutable marshmallow circus peanuts you can buy at dollar stores, the thrills in Follow Thru are cheap and possibly damaging to your health, but irresistible… and sort of orangey.

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Why, even the movie’s title turns out to be a double entendre (rather like Much Ado About Nothing, actually). At the end, Rogers and Carroll reunite with the promise of canoodling under some orange blossoms. The hero’s best friend drives away and mischevously calls out, “Follow through!” You get the feeling he’s not talking about a golf swing.

Some movies set out to make a point, some smuggle their messages in, and some have no particular agenda other than your enjoyment. Happily in the last category, Follow Thru pampers its spectators with visual indulgences that transcend its source material.

The film introduces its star, Nancy Carroll, 5 minutes into the runtime with a close-up so delicious that I’d swear it had calories. After taking a careful swing with her golf club, Carroll peers intently into the distance. Just as we’ve adjusted to the rapturous splendor of what we’re seeing, Carroll’s face blossoms into a smile and stuns us anew. The Capitolfest audience greeted Carroll’s face with a ecstatic round of applause.

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If Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus had dreamed up a movie star to showcase the beauty of the two-color process, he couldn’t have done better than Carroll, with her effervescent green eyes, auburn hair, and apple cheeks. That initial close-up revels in the startling sensuality made possible by technology. As a 1930 advertisement gushed, “The fascinating Paramount star… becomes a new personality under the magic wand of Technicolor—real, vibrant, convincingly alive!”

But that ad copy only partially gets the spell of two-color Technicolor right. Vibrant and alive? Yes. Real? Not by a long shot. That’s why I love it.

Unlike the full spectrum of three-color Technicolor, the two-color process denies us the soothing true blues, cheerful yellows, and sumptuous purples that we see in reality. Instead, early Technicolor plunges the viewer into a festive, askew universe reminiscent of peppermint candy and just as invigorating. Its charm lies in its unreal-ness.

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Due to the vagaries of film preservation and availability, if you’ve seen early Technicolor, it was probably in a short insert sequence, like the masked ball in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the “Singin’ in the Rain” number from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, or the charity gala scene in Hell’s Angels (1930). These splashy, arresting interludes often display excellent cinematography and color sense, but tend to strike spectators as novelties or flamboyant set pieces, understood primarily in contrast to the rest of the film.

When used for the duration of a feature film, however, two-strip Technicolor gains nuance through its many variations, from shot to shot, from scene to scene. And it’s a sadly little-known chapter of Hollywood history that more than a dozen early sound musicals (as well as some silents and talkies of other genres) were shot entirely in two-color Technicolor.

Follow Thru turns the limitations of the early color process into an advantage by using its restricted range of two opposite colors as a stimulant. The pairing of red and green parallels the madcap rivalries and commedia dell’arte-ish couplings of the film.

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Over the course of Follow Thru’s hour-and-a-half runtime, the piquant balance of reds and greens in each scene heightens the musical’s topsy-turvy charms. A stripe of emerald on a sweater here keeps a scarlet beret there in check. The sparkle of seafoam-colored beads and a spray of ruby feathers (and not much else) on Thelma Todd make an alluring counterpoise to the crimson velvet jacket and forest-green tartan kilt on Nancy Carroll.

The pinks, browns, and subtle celadon shades of outdoor outfits on over 200 extras keep the spring green grass of the Palm Springs fairway from overwhelming the viewer. And a luminous cyan studio backdrop complements the complexions of Rogers and Carroll in a cozy two-shot as they croon—what else?—“A Peach of a Pair” to each other. Covered in blush to register for the Technicolor cameras, the young lovers glow with a rosy flush, as though they share a risqué secret.

Indeed, Technicolor aids and abets Follow Thru’s healthy celebration of desire, courtship, and a new age of permissiveness. The film reserves its flashiest and most humorous use of color for the biggest production number, a playful ode to modern misbehaving. Zelma O’Neil’s performs “I Want to Be Bad,” backed up by chorines who transform from pallid, almost colorless angels to bright red devils… then back into angels.

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Though the number takes place on a stage of a country club (albeit one so opulent and vast as to strain my suspension of disbelief), the film medium stretches that space into something fantastic and thrilling.

A lightning bolt hides a cut and transmogrifies the heavenly choir into kicklines of alluring devils in red body suits. The camera pans across the dancers. Cuts between angles—sometimes abstracting the dancers into patterns of red on green—emphasize the hot rhythm of the music. There’s even a very Busby Berkeley-esque touch when a cherub pulls an alarm, prompting a celestial fire brigade to descend from the clouds and put out the blazing sinners, as flames spurt out of the stage!

Even though the racy dancers end up where they started, as subdued, smiling angels, the musical number exalts the joys of cutting loose. (A scene later Nancy Carroll will go a step further and confirm being bad as an effective relationship strategy when she wins Buddy Rogers back from devious Thelma Todd by gulping down cocktails!) As O’Neil belts out, “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, and shake your shoulders, and twist your hips, let a lady confess: I want to be bad!”

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The hyperbolic heaven-versus-hell aspect of the song not only ridicules the notion of badness, but also suggests that being a devil is a hell of a lot more fun. The irony, of course, is that none of what the perky comedienne sings about—makeup, dancing, staying out late, maybe some light vamping—is that terrible. It’s hardly brimstone material to “ask for more” out of life, as the lyrics say, right?

Yet, the sanctimonious moral guardians of the 1920s convinced plenty of people that hell is overcrowded with bad little girls who bobbed their hair, laughed at dirty jokes, and took a swig of gin every now and again. “I Want to Be Bad” even includes an allusion to such self-righteous party-poopers: “Some reformers say a warmer climate awaits you,” O’Neil teases, pointing downwards. When she sticks her tongue out at the camera, in many ways she’s really thumbing her nose at the people who were (and are still) threatened by young women making their own choices and enjoying them.

As it happens, the same gaggle of fanatics and censors that the song mocks would make a movie like Follow Thru impossible just a few years later… Fortunately, the film survives in all its irreverent glory. And if it’s naughty to love Follow Thru, then, darlings, I want to be bad!

Alas, Follow Thru is not available on a legit DVD. The screenshots I’ve used in this post are pale and inadequate representations of the film, but I figured they were better than nothing. You can find it online without too much trouble, but all the prints I’ve seen out there are pretty bad.

My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée.

Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, the Warners shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all their own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that one of them is a murderer. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors?

Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude.

Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman.

Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of the weird.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!

 

A Dream Remembered: Watching Gone with the Wind on Blu-Ray

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Why do we like Scarlett O’Hara?

Perhaps some moralizing readers will interject here, “Well, I don’t.” And there might be something to their reservations. Indeed, in his treatise The Mask of Sanity, psychologist Hervey M. Cleckly used her as a fictional example of sociopathic personality traits!

But I seriously doubt that, as Scarlett raises her fist towards an amber sky and vows never to be hungry again, anyone in the world wouldn’t root for her, whether knowingly or not. The enormous popularity of Gone with the Wind—and it still holds its place as the all-time domestic box office champion—rests on her slight shoulders and her even slighter sense of decency. Audiences love Scarlett, even if we’re often at a loss to explain why.

However, as I watched the saga on a new Blu-Ray, released with the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition set, Gone with the Wind began to make sense for me in a way it hadn’t before. The crystalline sharpness and vibrancy of the colors, especially those triumphant oranges and flourishing greens, reminded me of the film’s viciously determined protagonist.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The exaggerated, beautiful palette gives the cinematography a prideful flush, an odd glow of vanity, as though the movie had pinched its cheeks just for us. If Gone with the Wind had been made in black-and-white, I suspect that we wouldn’t like Scarlett, at least not nearly as much as we do.

Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie all praise Scarlett for her will to live, a will so resilient and powerful that most of the other characters survive only by gathering around her, as if to warm themselves on the fiery blaze of her character. Scarlett’s formidable life force pulses through the Technicolor visuals, sumptuous even when portraying misery, defeat, and violence. And those visuals have never looked so sumptuous on my own television screen.

I first watched Gone with the Wind at age 11, on that still-new wonder, DVD. Budding film critic that I was, I found the landmark film grand, stirring, but above all really, really long. The word “overrated” just might have passed through my mind when it was all over. I grew to enjoy the movie more over the years since, but first impressions aren’t easily overpowered.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

By contrast, after I popped in the new Blu-Ray a few days ago, all 238 minutes flew right by. The burnished shine of silks, the downy radiance of individual complexions, the breathtaking range of colors drew me into the drama, heightening the impact of each scene. This time when the film ended, it was the word “revelation” that passed through my mind.

Scarlett’s amorality excluded, perhaps the most enduring criticism of Gone with the Wind focuses on the its relative lack of grittiness or realism. Orson Welles, for instance, praised one masterpiece, Keaton’s The General, by hyperbolically dissing another, saying that the earlier film is “a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone with the Wind,” because the silent film caught the true Matthew Brady-esque look and grain of the Civil War. I adore Orson (and The General, of course), but I think he missed the point.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

From the first, Fleming’s and Selznick’s vision of the old South tells us exactly how to interpret it: as “a dream remembered,” in the words of the text preface. That is, as a double fiction, a nostalgic panorama largely filtered through the experience of a seductive, single-minded heroine. With its sweeping vistas and jewel box of colors, Gone with the Wind coaxes us into committing Scarlett’s grave error: falling in love with something that doesn’t exist. What might seem like mawkish imagery on a DVD becomes an intentionally unreal journey through American history when viewed on Blu-Ray. I don’t pretend to know the difference between banality and insight, but image quality and definition can surely tip the scales where movies are concerned.

For instance, at the conclusion, the somber, light-absorbing blacks and foggy grays jolt us back to reality, bracing the intoxicated spectator for the final blow to Scarlett’s bizarre combination of ruthlessness and optimism. The transition from the mournful colors of Scarlett prostrate on the burgundy staircase to that strange, congratulatory tracking shot over Tara always rang false to me. With this viewing, however, the contrast acquired a deeper meaning that never occurred to me before.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I realized why we like Scarlett: not only because she clings to dreams, but also because she can negotiate with reality while keeping it at bay. Whether it’s the Yankee she just killed or loss of the man she loves, she’ll clean up the mess now, but never really pick up the pieces (and notice that she makes similar remarks on both occasions). The coping strategy that rules her life is a paradox, but one we all depend on to survive.

In other words, as I rewatched this monument of classical American cinema on Blu-Ray, I felt that I was seeing it for the first time—that the colors could finally tell me their story. During that last shot, we bask in the golden apogee of Scarlett’s escape into herself, an escape that parallels the audience’s own craving for celluloid fantasy and a happy ending.

Yesterdays and tomorrows don’t appear to us in the hues of reality; we want to believe that they’re better than they were or will be. Gone with the Wind does cast aside the sense of photographic verisimilitude that we might expect from a Civil War movie. Instead, it exalts romanticism as cynicism, idealization as pragmatism, demonstrating how myths and dreams sustain us through ugly reality—a Hollywood speciality.

In 1939, millions of Americans could relate to Scarlett, absolving her selfishness because of the beauty of her dreams and the pain of her buried regrets. 75 years later, not much has changed—except that I can watch this film in its glory from the comfort of my living room.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

I strongly recommend the new box set of Gone with the Wind, which includes oodles of special features about the production and its stars, unseen footage from the Atlanta premiere, as well as some delightful memorabilia for the film’s anniversary. If you’re interested, you can also watch my unboxing video on YouTube:

I would like to thank Warner Home Entertainment for providing me with a review copy of the 75th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

All images used in this post ©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

©2014 Turner Entertainment Co. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.