Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Most Dangerous Game

“The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) makes the point that “less is more” in a film dependent on a little bit of psychology, a little bit of horror, a little bit of vodka, and a memorable journey in only 63 minutes.

The story of shipwreck survivors hunted for sport on the island “no bigger than a deer park” owned by a madman is by now well known and has been resurrected on several occasions.

It’s hard to discern just what alchemy provides the irresistible quality of adventure in this short movie, with a setting like a “Terry and the Pirates” cartoon. The hunter’s horn theme haunts the film, but what defines the study of hunters and the hunted, of civilization and savagery is illustrated in the most simple ways. The survivors share cocktails as they recount the harrowing tales of their shipwreck experiences to their mysterious but charming host, Count Zaroff, who entertains them with panache and dignity in his evening clothes. He is well educated, well read, and plays classical music on a grand piano in the great hall of his medieval fortress.

The movie really belongs to Leslie Banks, in only his second film, as Count Zaroff, who masterfully seduces the funny buffoon played by Robert Armstrong, the good guy and fellow hunter Joel McCrea, and the lovely Fay Wray, and most especially the audience. Miss Wray probably owned a patent on the damsel in distress role. Her trying to warn McCrea’s character of her suspicions about Count Zaroff, as she purposely knocks over a drink onto McCrea, “I didn’t realize the DANGER,” is suspenseful, but futile.

What I love best about the film are the small touches used to illustrate big things and big ideas. McCrea discovers the depth of Zaroff’s madness and attempts to escape, but not before he takes the time to put on his tie. He is civilized, after all. When he meets Wray’s character to sneak away from their captivity, she is wearing an evening gown. Evidently no tea-length day dress will do. This is going to be an heroic escape, and they have to look their best.

Actually, McCrea’s tie comes in handy later as a trip line for his laboriously constructed Malay Dead Fall trap, which doesn’t work. Other traps fail to catch Zaroff as well, and one wonders if Miss Wray’s method of just screaming and running isn’t the best line of defense. However, soon their faces are shining with sweat, their clothes are dirty and torn, which makes a terrific contrast to their natty appearance earlier in the film. We believe their wretchedness more than if they had started out in combat gear.

The terrific sets are evocative of a time and place lost to civilization, and many of the sets were used on RKO’s “King Kong,” which also starred Wray and Armstrong, released the following year. It was the Depression, after all -- waste not, want not.

The danger for McCrea is death, and for Fay Wray, rape. As Zaroff bellows his mantra, “Kill, then love. When you have known that, you have known ecstasy.” It is a perverted philosophy, but deliciously believable in a character who dresses in white tie and tails, strokes the nasty scar on his forehead (which is intended to indicate to us his madness), though in this black and white film, no blood is ever required. We know the stakes. We don’t need to be hit over the head. We hang on for the ride, and the surprising ending.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TV and the Movie Buff

Louis B. Mayer had no idea the DVD was coming. Jack Warner could not envision TiVo, and Cecil B. DeMille, for all his imagination, probably did not shoot “The Ten Commandments” (twice) with an eye toward how it would look on a 19-inch television screen, interrupted by commercials.

We never really know what’s around the bend. The film industry, which reverberated with ominous shudders of fear over the young TV industry as a competitor in the 1950s, would find its old material become gold on the airways. Movies made from the earliest days of the industry through the end of World War II normally would, beyond the occasional college town film festival, never be seen again by most of us were it not for television. The film buff, paradoxically, was created by TV, which not only brought the old forgotten films to us, but allowed us to view them over and over again.

The VHS and DVD recordings have allowed us to watch them over again and again at the drop of hat, whenever we feel like it instead of at the whim of network programmers.

For some older actors, probably for “The Three Stooges” even more than for others, the showing of their old films on television actually revived their stalled careers. Plunk a kid down in front of the TV on a Saturday morning with a bowl of cereal, keep him entertained and he’s yours for life. To point of being able to repeat routines at parties as adults, to the embarrassment of one’s spouse. That “The Wizard of Oz” has become an American icon is due largely to television. TV became the world’s biggest neighborhood movie house.

Thank heavens and three cheers for Turner Classic Movies, which seems to be the culmination of all that dross and gold and the desire for film buffs to watch and study, scrutinize and enjoy, whether the film may be good or mediocre. How really funny that millions of dollars of new technology is keeping alive by turning celluloid to digital, the artistic efforts of a generation that said “swell,” “oh, raspberries!,” and “let’s make whoopee.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Wyler's Moments of Silence

Director William Wyler is often described as being without a particular trademark or style, compared to directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra, whose films resonate with their favorite themes or gimmicks. There is one aspect to Wyler films which I think is little discussed, but fascinating. Some of his most dramatic scenes are shot without dialogue.

The sinister indecision of Bette Davis as she contemplates murder-by-refusal-of-heart medicine to her husband in “The Little Foxes.”

The sense of anticipation of the dual shot of Greer Garson and Teresa Wright in “Mrs. Miniver” sitting together, watching the top of the stairs for son and husband to reappear from an upstairs bedroom, a shot so meaningful that it is showing from their backs as well as on their faces, while no dialogue is exchanged. The air raid scene when the Miniver family huddles amid the horrific blasts and shaking of the flimsy iron roof of the shelter in their backyard, with no words exchanged.

The nightclub scene in “The Best Years of Our Lives” when a distressed Dana Andrews interrogates Teresa Wright on the inappropriateness of their continuing to see each other. She hesitates to answer, and the sexual tension in that hesitation is heightened when he waits, more patient than the audience, for an answer as she grows more uncomfortable. In the same film, when Fredric March confronts Andrews over a booth in a bar on his intentions towards his daughter, the camera settles for an agonizingly long time on Andrews’ face as his character struggles with the failures of his life and a seemingly hopeless future.

The scene in “Roman Holiday” when Gregory Peck kisses Audrey Hepburn impulsively after they have both escaped the press by leaping into a canal, and then the camera lingers on their aching reticence to do it again. The final scene of that movie, when the camera follows Peck’s long, measured walk away from the princess after the press conference, making us think that any minute he will rush back to her, but never does.

These scenes illustrate a wonderfully realistic quality by stretching a moment and pulling the most out of it. The action stops, but the clock doesn’t. Wyler does not use the cut and paste technique of other directors. Rather than going the proverbial extra mile, he goes that extra minute.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lukewarm Reviews of Classics

Bosley Crowther, film reviewer for the New York Times, thought the weakness of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was its sentimentality. He decried the film’s “illusory concept of life,” and thought Henry Travers as Clarence the angel “a little too sticky for our taste” (NTY, December 23, 1946).

Sixty years later most people have at least heard of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” if not having seen it several hundred times, but probably have not heard of Bosley Crowther. Time is a great leveler, indeed.

Frank S. Nugent, also of the Times, while applauding the efforts behind “The Wizard of Oz” painted the film merely as “well-intentioned” and “genial.” He takes a bemused and avuncular sort of attitude about good witches in giant soap bubbles and flying monkeys (NYT, August 18, 1939). Mr. Nugent clearly had no idea that generations of kids watching the annual television screening of “The Wizard of Oz” would be seriously freaked out by those monkeys, and that the whole production would inspire toys, games, cartoon sequels, and a couple of different Broadway musical incarnations. Clearly, the story may have gotten under our skin, but to Mr. Nugent, “The Wizard of Oz” was kid stuff and only another assignment.

When the film industry was still comparatively young, it must have seemed impossible that a movie would take on a life of its own. How ironic that they took their product so seriously and yet not seriously at all. Perhaps no generation has control over what a future generation will call classic.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mrs. Miniver and Propaganda

Reviews of “Mrs. Miniver” almost always mention the word “propaganda” in the first line. I find this odd, since just about every film made during World War II that mentioned the war was propaganda of a sort. This includes films made not only by the United States, but by every nation with a film industry at the time.

Made after World War II began in Europe, but before the United States became involved, “Mrs. Miniver” was supportive of the Brits against the Nazis and included the stock characters of plucky but somewhat buffoonish under classes supporting the noble, good looking and well-lit upper classes, nothing unusual in films of the time. What was dangerous for the industry was the taking of sides.

Director William Wyler frankly stated his support for US involvement in the war and that making this film was his contribution to that effort. By the time the film was released, the United States was at war, with no further need for the industry, politicians or public to be squeamishly neutral. Perhaps what sealed “Mrs. Miniver” as propaganda for all time was the famous “Wilcoxon speech” penned reportedly by Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played the vicar, who delivers the speech at the end of the film. The speech was championed by President Franklin Roosevelt, broadcast on radio, printed in magazines, used to define our mission. Winston Churchill lauded the film. Had the politicians not taken the film to their hearts, perhaps “Mrs. Miniver” would have come down to us only as a sentimental movie of the British home front, and not branded with that loaded title of “propaganda.”

If most English housewives did not apprehend Nazi soldiers in their kitchens like Mrs. Miniver did, there were still many homes on the European continent where such soldiers were equally unwelcome, but not so easily subdued. We sometimes forget today, and perhaps younger film buffs never realize, that the angst depicted in those films was real. Fear breeds chauvinism, which breeds propaganda. Any mention of war is apt to be viewed as political. Even documentaries can be slanted. But, these films were never intended to be documentaries, only stories reflective of their times.

These days the US has been at war for four years, and there are very few films out which address this situation, even in passing. The danger again, just as it was before we entered World War II, is appearing to take a political stance. By even mentioning it, we are seeming to take a viewpoint, which carries risk. It is easier to say nothing. One wonders what film buffs sixty years from now will learn about our era in a time when war fills the nightly news, but not the movie theaters.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Broken Blossoms

“Broken Blossoms” (1919) is a fascinating look at what was best about the silent film era, as well as some of its nagging questionable attitudes. D. W. Griffith’s film, based on a story called “The Chink and the Child” covers everything from child abuse to prostitution, racism, an inter-racial love story, religious hypocrisy, murder, and suicide. Lillian Gish is Lucy, a girl in her early teens whose brutal father, played by a scary Donald Crisp, routinely beats her. Richard Barthelmess plays a Chinese immigrant who tries to help.

The claustrophobic sets illustrating London’s Limehouse district seem to entrap both the leads who are victims of their separate circumstances. It is a wretched story; there is nothing happy or escapist. Wonderful irony is displayed when a minister proudly tells the gentlemanly Chinese man that his brother is going to China to “convert the heathen,” to which Barthelmess with wry expression replies, “I wish him luck.” He is far too civilized to point out that he has seen much in the Limehouse district to question the Anglo-Saxon’s ability to civilize anybody else.

Lillian Gish’s wide, expressive eyes and intense body language are a marvel. She moves almost like a dancer. It was a common trait for silent film actors, in an effort to pantomime, to use their whole bodies when conveying emotion. Actually, Barthelmess’ deeply hunched posture in an imitation of humble supplication throughout the film must have left him with a terrific backache.

Particularly striking is the scene where Gish, who locks herself in a closet to get away from her father in a rage, tears around the confined space like a crazed and desperate animal, terrified and screaming (silently of course) as Crisp hacks away at the door with a hatchet.

Stumbling about the dark, narrow alleys after being beaten with a whip by her father, Lucy collapses in the shop owned by the Chinese man. He gently cleans her wounds and cares for her. In the narrative, Griffith refers to the Chinese man as “the Yellow Man,” and Lucy calls him “Chinky.” Neither Lucy nor Griffith have bothered to learn his real name, though his shop window says “Cheng Haun.”

Griffith clearly intends to represent this Chinese character with deference and respect, yet he is always referred to by his skin color and not his name, and the character is played not by a Chinese actor, but by a Caucasian. Like Lucy and Cheng Haun, perhaps Griffith is also snared by his circumstances. “The Yellow Man” treats Lucy with love bordering on adoration, but in one scene his passions get the better of him. He resists his desires in the end, and as the narrative tells us, keeps his love for her “pure and holy.” Is his propriety based upon his judgment that Lucy is too young, helpless and traumatized? Or, is it because she is white? What is the reason for his forbearance that makes him noble in Griffith’s eyes and in the eyes of the audience of 1919?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Gag reels and bloopers

For the huge number of films produced in this country in the early decades of the 20th century, there are very few bloopers that have been preserved, compared to that enormous mileage of footage that was kept.

What bloopers that do remain probably would not amount to a decent gag reel. How ironic that today sometimes the funniest parts of a film comedy are not the movie, but the bloopers. These segments are so entertaining to today’s audiences that sometimes a DVD release of a film will include among its extra features, a gag reel. Going one step further, a spoof, purposely-filmed set of made up “bloopers” was even attached to the end credits of the animated feature “Toy Story 2” (1999), which really was very funny.

Old Hollywood, for all its corn, would have been appalled at the idea of producing a gag reel. They wanted their products to be as glossy as they could make them. Mistakes were to be left on the cutting room floor. The film industry of the day and the studio system, run very much like a factory, was heavy into quality control. Our enjoyment of “Gone With the Wind” probably wouldn’t be much improved by clips during the end credits of Ashley cursing after a flubbed line, or Rhett dropping Scarlett on her head when he carried her up the stairs.

Nor did they spend much effort at merchandizing their films, as we do today, begun on a mass scale probably with the first “Star Wars” films and its toys. There were few merchandizing efforts in old Hollywood, at least when it came to toys. An occasional paper doll set or two, a few Snow White trinkets, nothing like what we come to expect today. Perhaps if McDonald’s had been around in 1939, there might have been a Rhett Butler Happy Meal toy, but I doubt it. Kitsch, like bloopers, was not dignified for a young industry desperately wanting to be taken seriously.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Previews and Playing to the Audience

The film industry in its early years was extremely sensitive to audience reaction. This sometimes went as far as changing the movie they had just finished if an audience viewing a preview didn’t like the ending.

At the end of “The Champ,” Wallace Beery lost the fight and died. At least, he was dead until the preview audiences saw, were horrified, and wrote as much on their questionnaires. The studio, horrified, released a new version. Wallace Beery won the fight, lived and everybody was happy.

Keeping the audience happy was more important than what might be defended today as artistic integrity. Actually, artistic integrity is not always terribly common today, either. A bit more business is sometimes added to films today to bring an otherwise G-rated film to a more sophisticated audience and to what the producers may feel is a more acceptable film to today’s paying customer.

Making the film more acceptable to the paying customer back then required sometimes the opposite effect: making things nicer, not nastier. Gene Kelly played such a rat in “For Me and My Gal,” that audiences couldn’t stand to see him paired with Judy Garland. They felt such a nice girl was much better off with a swell guy like George Murphy. But, since Kelly was the actor the studio wanted to showcase, they re-vamped his character and made him a hero at the end of the film. This took some doing, because his character maimed his hand trying to dodge the World War draft, but Hollywood always has a way of making things better.

Gary Cooper, at the end of “Meet John Doe” was supposed to jump off a building in protest to Edward Arnold’s group of big-business fascists trying to take over the country. The preview audience again intervened, not liking one bit the idea of Gary Cooper splattered all over the pavement. The film was released with the version of Barbara Stanwyck stopping him in time, and Cooper carrying her off the rooftop in his arms, with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony swelling in the background.

Hollywood of the time is sometimes mocked for its happy endings, but it evidently gave the customer what the customer wanted. It was the audience that wanted happy endings.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Best Years of Our Lives - PT 4

“The Best Years of Our Lives” was made in the first year of the Baby Boom, and now the first Boomers are preparing for retirement. Their parents’ generation could be no better represented than by Harold Russell, who enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, and later lost his hands. Two of the many Academy Awards won by that film were won by him. As a senior citizen, he sold them both in 1992, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. Retirement, as the Boomers may learn, also has its horrors.

We can only imagine what lay in store for the characters. There is no hint of the space race, the Civil Rights movement, or Vietnam, and perhaps it is just that very perspective knowing what we know now about the peace after the war, where we have succeeded as a nation and where we have failed, that adds a certain eeriness of hindsight that matches Hugo Friedhofer’s music.

There are no sure happy endings in this film. We are never told if Al is going to get a grip on his reaching for a drink in an awkward situation, but we know Milly will be there to support him. We see Homer marry his sweetheart, but his triumph in adjusting to civilian life is tempered by the real knowledge that he will never be able to turn a doorknob or button his own shirt. He will always need a little help with some things.

We are never clearly told when the “best years” were, if it was before the war, during the war, or the years yet to come. The title is ambiguous. There is no fairy tale ending for Fred and Peggy, either. Fred is the last one of the three to take off his uniform, when a job offer in construction is finally made to him, and he symbolically puts the war behind him by stripping off his bomber jacket to go to work.

When Fred and Peggy finally embrace at the end of the film he tells her that it won’t be easy, that they will have to work, “get kicked around.” It is the last line of the film, and not very romantic. She beams a radiant smile, wondrous at only the positive side of his double-edged declaration, completely ignoring the warning. We see the warning. We are still imagining their uncertain future sixty years after the first year of the big peace.

This ends a four-part series on "The Best Years of Our Lives." See you on Monday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Best Years of Our Lives, PT 3

In this film, the women the three men have come home to are not diminished; is it their story, too. Al’s wife Milly, played by Myrna Loy, and his daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright, display heartsick fears and frank desires. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is Fred’s nightmare, when a drunken Fred is put to bed by Peggy, a young woman he met only hours before, suffers a nightmare from what today would be called post traumatic stress, and is comforted by Peggy, in her bed, yet there is nothing sensationalized or exploitive about it.

It is a movie whose musical score, composed by Hugo Friedhofer did not produce any catchy pop tunes, but captured each moment of conscience the way a shadow follows a body. The otherworldly sensation of Al’s first waking in his own bed after years of jungle is punctuated by the musical score; the delicate strains of the refrain that opens the film and reprises through every moment of tenderness or tension, a piece of music unnamed but unmistakable, captures the moments and meanings that makes mere lyrics inarticulate. The astonishing burst of brass ripple that begins the airplane engine noise as Fred sits in the nose of a trashed plane, experiencing a wartime flashback, all these musical incidents are by turns touching, and devastating.

More on Best Years tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Best Years of Our Lives - PT 2

The minor actors in “The Best Years of Our Lives” tell us even more about the three veterans. Fred’s father, played by Roman Bohnen, has a very brief but exceptionally moving scene as he reads aloud his son’s war citations. Homer’s younger sister, not uncomfortable with his hooks, stares openly fascinated at them as children will. Ray Collins is both pompous and subtly sinister as Al’s hypocritical boss. Hoagy Carmichael plays the easygoing Uncle Butch, who gives Homer a sense of perspective.

It is left to the minor characters of Butch and Al’s son, Rob, to introduce the post-war world for us by discussing the atom bomb. The central characters are too preoccupied with jobs, and fitting into their families and fitting into their clothes to care about the new geopolitical realities. Rob refers to the recent enemy as “Japanese” with a delicacy that eludes his veteran father, who persists in referring to them as “Japs.”

Wyler, with subtle observation even manages to put a toe across Hollywood’s color bar by training the camera’s eye on the African-American ex-GI who waits to go home just as Al, Homer and Fred must wait at the ATC depot. A black soldier brings his family into Fred’s drug store and is seen buying candy for his two children. The man standing in line next to Fred at the unemployment office is an African-American. It is as if Wyler hints there is a parallel story here to the one of Al, Homer, and Fred, but we only get a peek.

Another legacy to us comes from the man with the flag pin on his lapel who challenges Homer to consider that a left-wing conspiracy brought the nation to war. Al, played by Oscar winner Fredric March, chides the stuffy bankers at his welcome home banquet of their suspicion of “do-gooders” and “radicals.” Today, these salvos between right and left have been diminished to a clich√© about blue states and red states. We are a nation at war today, and many of us wear flag pins on our lapels, or magnetic ribbons on our cars, but the civilian population has not been called upon to make sacrifices. Only civilians who have loved ones in the military have made sacrifices. The rest are untouched, and uninvolved. It was not so in World War II.

More on "The Best Years" tomorrow.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Best Years of Our Lives - PT 1

Sixty years ago tomorrow on March 13, 1947, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” won a basket full of Academy Awards. This week is devoted to that film.

It was a film made in 1946, and was essentially about 1946, illustrating a year ironically more tenuous than celebratory, in a victorious nation etched with anxiety about its future. The year 1946 means a little less to us today, except as the start of the Baby Boom. We are fairly egocentric about things like that.

Director William Wyler shows the problems of three veterans: of Homer’s prosthetic hooks; of Al’s restless dissatisfaction with his bank job and his ready relief in drink; and of Fred’s disillusionment that the wife, home in the suburbs and good job he thought would be waiting for him after the war have fizzled out, one by one. Dana Andrews plays Fred, spending much of the movie lugging around an overstuffed army suitcase, trying to find “home.”

Wyler’s treatment of Homer, played by amputee Harold Russell, was sensitive and straightforward. Homer pulls his hooks out into view early in the film when he signs his name on a paper. We see Homer shaking “hands” repeatedly through the film, knocking on doors, drinking, eating, handling money in a billfold, never hiding his hooks but using them as naturally and as often as he would his hands, even playfully banging out “Chopsticks” in a piano duet. Wyler forces us to look at the hooks. In one splendid scene, Homer visits his uncle’s bar, and feeling at home with his pals and away from the nervousness of his family, proceeds to hold a conversation while pushing his sailor hat back farther on his head, handling a beer in a pilsner glass, shaking “hands”, and slamming his hook down on the bar as a man might slam his fist to make a point. It is stupendous for its very naturalness and simplicity.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Patricia Collinge - Two Supporting Roles

Patricia Collinge, a Broadway actress, and a writer, appeared in her first film in her late 40s and made only a handful of films. She created two of the most interesting supporting roles which illustrate not only her talent, but what must have been an amazing empathy for her characters, and for her audience.

These two roles were Birdie in “The Little Foxes” and Emma Newton in “Shadow of a Doubt.” In the first, her scenes as the gentle Birdie are riveting, especially her confession of alcoholism and her dislike for her abusive husband and smarmy son. She is truly heartbreaking. She could easily be a pathetic character, but she is instead the heart and soul of her family and of the film, though she may be continuously verbally (and sometimes physically) slapped down by rapacious relatives. She originated the role on Broadway. A few other cast members were also brought from the Broadway version to appear in the film. Indeed, the supporting cast is so strong in this film, that even the great Bette Davis is occasionally upstaged by almost everybody.

In “Shadow of a Doubt” her flighty portrayal of Emma Newton first comes off as comedy relief, but then as the audience comes to perceive the visiting Uncle Charlie as a threat to the family, Emma’s chipper motherliness leaves her open to becoming a potential victim. We begin to fear for her when at first we only laughed. Her flightiness takes on a different edge now. Her last scene, showing her brittleness and her sense of loss, not only for her brother but her own girlhood, is quite moving.

I’m not sure if that’s called making the most of a small role, or if it’s just a terrific knack that some supporting actors have of performing as if the story were really about their characters all along.

That’s all for this week. See you on Monday.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Non-smoking Guns and Western "B" Movies

It’s an interesting irony that despite the iconic image of The Marlboro Man of the cigarette ads of the 1950s and 1960s, there was very little smoking going on in the old Hollywood western B movies. Certainly none, I think, by the heroes of the films.

This is in contrast to an era when if it talked on screen, it smoked. All the heroes did. Smoking was supposed to be glamorous and sophisticated, rugged and sexy. Cowboys, I suppose, were not supposed to be either glamorous or sophisticated. If they were, they couldn’t be rugged, too.

Also, the western B movies of the day were nothing like the gritty anti-heroes of the “spaghetti westerns” of a later era. The B movies were for kids. Those kids might start smoking on the sly at 14, but at the age of 10 were still encouraged to live good clean lives, which included shooting straight, playing fair, and not smoking. Except for maybe a peace pipe. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers might go that far, but that’s it.

The teens were given a new message when they were old enough to realize it: smoking was what adults did and most teens desperately wanted to be adults. The tobacco industry and the film industry didn’t really have to go after the teens. The teens came to them. It was a more subliminal message, all that film noir lighting up, than those bullying radio ads of the day that insisted “9 out of 10 doctors” preferring Lucky Strike Cigarettes, but just as effective. Maybe more so. Humphrey Bogart was unwittingly a greater pitchman than the fabled radio ad’s “panel of smoking experts.”

The kids, even when they became teens, didn’t really leave the western movies behind, however. It was just the opposite: the westerns grew up and left the kids behind.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Music Box Steps, Stooges' Stairs

What the sidewalk in front of Tiffany’s is to Audrey Hepburn fans, so The Music Box Steps is to fans of Laurel & Hardy, and possibly also a similar set of concrete steps to fans of The Three Stooges.

Well, perhaps these two remote sites are not held with the same degree of reverence as Tiffany’s. Still, they both hold their own appeal. In an era when most films were shot on the back lot, it’s hard to find actual locations from classic Hollywood movies to visit.

Laurel & Hardy shot bits of “The Music Box,” their 1932 Oscar-winning short (Best Short Subject, Comedy), outside on a set of concrete stairs on Vendome Street in the Silver Lake section of LA, an area of steep hills. The steps are really just a vertical alleyway, a pedestrian walk linking Vendome to the top of the hill. Today, there is a sign and plaque marking the spot in this residential neighborhood. The site is a bit overgrown. There are a few houses that were not there when Laurel & Hardy had to haul an upright piano up those steps with the usual disastrous results.

Stairs from The Three Stooges’ “An Ache in Every Stake” (1941) are located on Fair Oak View Terrace, also in the Silver Lake district. They are slightly longer than The Music Box steps. The landscape here is also a bit overgrown, with a few more houses than were seen in the original short. You can’t see all the way to the street below from the very top as Curly did when he hollered down to Moe and Larry. No Oscar-winning film here (well, obviously), “An Ache in Every Stake” is the one where the boys are ice delivery men and they have to carry a chunk of ice up these steps. But the ice keeps melting to a mere fragment when Curly reaches the top. The boys finally devise a relay system.

These steps, unlike The Music Box Steps are unmarked, and it takes a die-hard fan to find them, but for such a fan, it surely can’t be less thrilling than having your picture taken in front of Tiffany’s.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Intro and Emil Jannings

This begins a new blog about old movies. How old is “old” I suppose is a matter of opinion, but any discussion on classic films boils down to opinion. The movies are subjective. They are filmed and acted and written in a subjective manner, and we watch them with our own viewpoints. For this blog, “old” is probably going to mean before 1960, give or take.

I’m pretty much going to resist reviewing the films or giving synopses of plots. Any serious old move fan has probably seen these films; and any newbie can find the synopses in any variety of sources far better than me. Instead, I’d like to discuss singular moments of film, particular scenes or events, technical aspects, context or consequences. If you have anything to share, please do.

Since we’ve just passed Oscar season, it is interesting to look back on the first Oscar ceremony and winner of the first award for Best Actor. Emil Jannings had a long and prestigious career in German cinema, and in the US, Paramount studio billed him as “the greatest actor in the world.” Not much about Hollywood could be considered modest, even back then. He won for his work in two silent films that year: “The Last Command” and “The Way of all Flesh.”

The award voting was tallied and announced in February 1929, but the celebratory dinner was not held until May. Jannings was not only the first actor to with the Best Actor award, he was also the first no-show at the ceremony.

Jannings, wary of sound film in the near future crippling his ability to get and play good roles with his heavy German accent, cut his Hollywood career short before anybody could get rid of him, and headed back to Germany where, after filming the classic “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich in her debut role, he flourished in German cinema, now controlled by Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Whether the desire to work as an actor or the desire to support Hitler’s ideology was stronger in him, or a combination of the two, his choice was a disastrously ironic one in light of the fact that he was Swiss, and his father reportedly American. After the war, it was useless to try and revive his career in a Hitler-free world.

Compare his actions with those of Conrad Veidt, probably best known for his role as Major Strasser in “Casablanca.” Though he played an evil Nazi (more than once his career), he was vehemently against the Hitler regime. Veidt also began his career in German cinema, but he left Germany in 1933, continued his career in Great Britain, became a British citizen, and eventually came to Hollywood to be a Nazi. More irony. Like Jannings, many of Veidt’s best and most creative roles, like in “The Man Who Laughs,” occurred in the silent film era, but if he feared that sound would probably limit his options in English-language films, he nevertheless embraced the new language and the new medium. A courageous move. For some people, there is no going back.