Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Friday Film: Nothing Sacred (1937)

posterFredric March was a ladies’ man. Really.

We’re not talking a fellow with a dalliance here and there—we’re talking a full-time, notorious skirt-chaser of Don Draper magnitude. And March, whose shapely thighs seemed to make a supporting appearance in every esteemed period drama of the early 1930s, encountered a fair amount of success in his extracurricular adventures.

However, when he put the moves on co-star Carole Lombard during the filming of Nothing Sacred, she was anything but amused. Deeply in love with Clark Gable, our Carole wanted to send the message to Freddie: go prowl somewhere else.

And, being the master prankster of Hollywood, she dreamed up a wonderfully gross way to tell him to scram.

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Feigning a sudden amorous interest in her co-star, she invited him to come up and see her sometime. In her dressing room. Wink, wink. He didn’t have to be told twice. Boy, was he in for a surprise!

According to Warren G. Harris in Gable and Lombard, “as March’s hand started up under Lombard’s dress, he suddenly let out an astonished oath. He had grabbed a rubber dildo, which Lombard had strapped on herself before his arrival. The shock was too much for March. He never bothered Lombard again.” (83)

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Notice the expression of general unease on ol’ Freddie’s face…

I hope you realize that I’m sharing that delightfully obscene anecdote at the peril of getting some very questionable search term hits on this blog. Yet, I went ahead and included it anyway to illustrate the fact that the sorrows—and embarrassments—of life are the joys of art. Because the real-life hostile energy between March and Lombard translates into a match made in screwball heaven onscreen.

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In this blithely offensive Ben Hecht concoction, directed by William Wellman, a disgraced New York star reporter, Wally, longs to win his way back into the spotlight. He intends to do exactly that by creating a media circus around Hazel Flagg, a young woman who’s dying of radium poisoning. The only problem is, her hick doctor made a mistake. She’s not really dying… but she can’t pass up the chance to escape her little Podunk town in Vermont.

So, as New York City pours out its sappy, self-congratulatory love for the beautiful doomed girl, she’s drinking in the attention—and looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Wally, the fast-talking, hard-boiled reporter, has fallen hard for the girl he thinks has a few weeks to live.

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On a stylistic level, I love William Wellman’s flamboyant habit of obstructing what we most want to see with weird, incongruous objects. A big vase of funereal flowers makes a conversation impossible. A scary old woman’s whimple-like mourning hat blocks out most of Lombard’s lovely face. The most romantic kiss in Nothing Sacred takes place out of our sight, hidden behind a bunch of crates on the New York docks! This off-kilter visual sense imbues the film with a wacky, cartoonish quality that perfectly suits the plot contrivances and broadly comic premise.

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Nothing Sacred gives us a world of awkward silliness, a world so jam-packed with obstacles and ill-conceived objects that it would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even New York strikes us as a somewhat gaudy intrusion, with its jutting skyscrapers and its huge girders that serve as perches for burly workers eating their lunches.

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I’ve already mentioned that this movie is less than politically correct, but if it’s offensive, it’s offensive to almost everyone, as the title implies. No character escapes a good skewering by Ben Hecht. The prudish, monosyllabic denizens of the town of Warsaw, Vermont (very much like where I grew up) seem just as ludicrous as the hypocritical sinners in New York City.

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Carole Lombard absolutely glows in Technicolor—and I could start weeping when I think that fate never allowed her to make another feature in color. Her sweetly conniving small-town girl wins our hearts from the moment she shambles glumly across the screen, thinking she has weeks to live. Even more amusing, when she finds out she’s not going to die, she breaks into tears. As she sniffles, “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice—and each time in Warsaw!”

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We adore Hazel Flagg because, in spite of her charade, she’s actually the most honest person in the film—or perhaps the least dishonest. The people heaping goopy, sugary outpourings of pity on Hazel don’t really give a damn about her. She merely serves as a stimulus that enables them to feel like better human beings. They imagine that they’re moved by her misfortune, so they can all think, “Gee, I’m a real swell person, because of my empathy for that gorgeous dying girl.” At least Hazel never lies to herself, unlike her many phony admirers.

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As Ben Hecht explained in his autobiography, he had a real beef with what he saw as the public’s need to live their lives through others, instead of seizing on any kind of private, first-hand pleasure. With this in mind, Nothing Sacred still levels a relevant criticism at today’s society—it’s easy to get so involved in hyper-publicized feuds, drippy human interest stories, and celebrity trivia that I forget who I am and what I believe as an individual.

The desire to be distracted by someone else’s problems and the craving for undeserved fame feed on each other, fueled by mercenary media moguls. Sound familiar? Nowadays, you can find a zillion neo-Hazel Flaggs—people trying to get famous for their plights and sob stories—with a Google search. And that’s why Nothing Sacred remains fresh and droll more than 75 years after it was made.

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But, back to the story and our squabbling stars. In spite of the fact that Freddie and Carole disliked each other, many of their scenes together exude a charming tenderness. We watch this cynical journalist melt in the presence of the outwardly naïve girl whom he brought to New York, basically as a freak show. I adore a little scene where he takes her away from the ugly publicity, on a sailboat up the Hudson.

Even better, we get to savor Wally’s mixture of outrage and relief when he finds out that she’s not dying—and has been fooling him all along. Love, in my mind at least, is an unmasking. It’s when you discover the worst about a person and realize that it’s all the same things you feel guilty about yourself. In this case, Wally discovers Hazel as a brilliant, brazen, sensational faker. Just like him.

The most famous scene in the movie, the “boxing match” between Lombard and March always cracked me up—and does so even more now that I recognize that it seethes with genuine antipathy.

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Leave it to Ben Hecht to depict the battle between the sexes literally—a fistfight that proves the congruence of love and hate. Does it hurt to watch a woman getting socked in the jaw by a man? Um, yes. But it is completely worth it to watch Wally getting knocked out cold by Hazel.

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Oddly enough, only when Hazel and Wally have knocked each other out (at different times) do they run to the other’s side with a remorseful kiss. In other words, love implies an oscillation between snuggliness and rage, with very little middle ground.

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“God, how I love you when you’re totally unconscious!”

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If this film has one fault, it’s that Carole Lombard doesn’t get enough to do. In the role of an invalid, she lacks the opportunity to rip into her usual slapstick antics until the very end of the film, but she compensates with some of the most splendid facial expressions in cinema history. My personal favorite is the grimace she makes when she receives the key to New York, has no place to put it, stuffs it down her shirt—and gets caught in the glare of a cameraman’s flashbulb. Priceless.

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 More great facial expressions, brought to you by the inimitable Carole…

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I also chuckle to myself watching her rubber face react to all the goofy ways New York chose to “honor” her: forcing her to play muse to a brooding poet, treating her to ten seconds of mopey silence at a boxing match, and, most egregiously, calling her up on a stage of showgirls to complete a flashy line-up of famous historical women.

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Nothing Sacred also features Walter Connolly chewing scenes as an apoplectic newspaper owner, prone to making threats like, “I am sitting here, Mr.Cook, toying with the idea of cutting out your heart, and stuffing it, like an olive!”

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Tough-guy Maxie Rosenbloom also makes a memorable appearance and adds his dummy charisma to the mix. If you dig burlesque, stay tuned for a nightclub show featuring half-naked “Heroines of History” from Lady Godiva to Hazel Flagg—hosted by the spectacularly unfunny Frank Fay, Barbara Stanwyck’s ex.

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Best of all, I encourage you to bask in Ben Hecht’s and William Wellman’s iconoclastic disdain for everything usually considered comic taboo: schoolchildren, kindness, charity, romantic love, and death. Indeed, absolutely nothing is safe and nothing is sacred.

So, check this one out. If you haven’t totally sold your soul to the doctrine of political correctness and good taste (whatever that is), you will laugh. And if you don’t, this is my response to you:

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Walt Disney Company, Hollywood’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, and the restoration laboratory Cinetech of Valencia restored Nothing Sacred so that it looks absolutely beautiful, compared to the blotchy DVD copy I first watched. You can read about the restoration by clicking here. It’s one of the earliest feature films made in three-strip Technicolor which offered a much broader range than two-strip. In this movie, the hues add to the comedic impact of scenes with their startling, exaggerated intensity.

You can watch this YouTube version (also below) in 720p HD, which I definitely recommend.

Since the film has fallen into the Public Domain, you can also download it at the Internet Archive, although the quality is inferior to that of the version embedded here.

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