Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gene Autry - 100th Anniversary

This Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of B-western hero Gene Autry.

From the official Gene Autry website, we have the following admission, “When Gene Autry went to Hollywood in 1934, he couldn't act, he couldn't ride, he couldn't rope and he couldn't shoot. But that didn't prevent him from becoming the screen's most popular cowboy star within just a few years, revitalizing the whole genre and paving the way for Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter and other Western warblers.”

That pretty much sums up his rise to stardom, that and one thing more. Gene Autry is also the only entertainer to have all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for records, radio, movies, television and live performances. The man knew how to diversify.

The plots of his films were pretty simple. The romances were chaste, the bad guys lost, the good guys won, and the comedy relief sidekick was always stupid but good natured. It was a winning formula for the 89 of Gene’s films made between 1935 and 1953.

His accomplishments extended as well to business and to philanthropy. The museums of the Autry National Center promoting Southwest history and culture are gems, and not to be missed if you’re traveling to Los Angeles.

Gene Autry’s acting style was a bit wooden. There are planks of wood out there at the Home Depot that are not as wooden as Gene. But when he sings, “Sioux City Sue, your hair is red, your eyes are blue, I’d swap my horse and dog for you,” well, you can’t get any more romantic than that. Gene played a good guy. Today’s filmmakers show us that nobody is all good or all bad, and while that is true, it sometimes seems there is nobody good at all anymore. Gene was good. He just was, and our confidence in his goodness made us care that he bested the bad guys.

The Encore Western channel is running a 100-hour Gene Autry marathon this weekend. Have a look, and at the official Gene Autry website as well (, for more on this old movie hombre.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

False Eyelashes

False eyelashes were evidently invented under the auspices of director D. W. Griffith. Obsessed with detail in his films, while working on his epic “Intolerance,” (1916) Mr. Griffith demanded that the actress Seena Owen, who plays Princess Beloved in the Babylonian sequence, have longer eyelashes to bat.

A wigmaker came up with some human hair woven into pieces of thin gauze, which were pasted to Miss Owen’s eyelids with spirit gum. According to actress Lillian Gish in her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” (Prentice-Hall 1969), one morning Seena Owen’s irritated eyes were swollen nearly shut. They discontinued use of the spirit-gum fused eyelashes after that until she healed.

It took another 50 years for false eyelashes to become fashionable for street wear. After improvements, of course.

For more on Hollywood fashion and glamour, take a look at Katie’s Old Hollywood Glamour at

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Johnny Belinda (1948) - Part 2

This is a continuation of yesterday's post on Johnny Belinda (1948) - see part 1 here.

When Lew Ayres first meets Belinda, she is raggedly clothed, with a dirty face, attending the birth of a heifer, tending to chickens and lugging sacks to the grist mill, consumed as much as her father and her aunt are in the endless drudgery of working just to eat. It is not a glamorous role for Jane Wyman, but as Belinda changes and cleans herself up to primp for the doctor, we see profound beauty in her, and in her studious dark eyes that dart over the faces around her, and in the lovely expression of her hands.

The film introduces sign language for a movie going audience which probably had not seen it before. It is conveyed in a simple and almost childlike way, as Belinda learns to sign “father” from the two signs of “man” and with hands to indicate he is holding a child. Even her father wonders delightedly at the fluttering fingers sign for “butterfly.”  He shows this to his sister, asking her if she can guess what it means. Miss Moorehead’s crushing and funny reply is, “It means you’ve gone looney.”

When Belinda is raped by Locky, the progress she has made is lost and she retreats back to a zombie state, frightened and repulsed at being touched. There is a nice scene when Ayres, frustrated at being unable to reach her, confesses his own loneliness to her. A softness returns to her inscrutable expression, and we see that they are the key to each other’s happiness.

It is a tight script, and several incidents build on each other. Some fine scenes are when Richardson must tell Belinda she is going to have a baby, when he confides in Aggie, who expresses horror at the crime and sympathy for her niece with whom she has always been sharp, and when he finally must tell Belinda’s father, who does not take the news well. Richardson eventually guesses that Locky is the father, and when the banns of marriage are read between him and Stella in church, Mr. Ayres’ sardonic expression, like Jane Wyman’s performance, is restrained yet tells us everything about his disgust and lack of surprise.

Another good scene is when Belinda’s baby, called Johnny, is born and Aggie wearily tells the worried expectant grandfather, “It’s hard to get born and it’s hard to die.” When Johnny is born, we hear only his infant cries. Belinda cannot even whimper much less scream. Just as affecting are her crying scenes, particularly when Richardson tells her he must go away. Her expression is anguished and her tears are silent, and all the more powerful for being so. Black MacDonald’s tears are silent, too, as he sits in the dark, waiting to be told if mother and child are well.

The trial is a bit melodramatic, but movie trials tend to be. The stalwart Canadian Mountie is positioned like a product logo for Canada in several shots to remind us the Dominion is just and fair, even for unwed deaf mute mothers who kill people.

Back to the musical score for a moment, at each tense scene, such as the Belinda’s difficult labor and the struggle between Locky and her father that results in her father’s death, we hear the scratchy fiddle sound that Locky made on the violin he stole to trick her into coming close enough to him for him to grab her. The sound is a harbinger of doom and a reminder of violence. It’s a small element, but very effective.

Johnny Belinda rode the crest of an era of post-war socially conscious films. It was a powerful film for its day tackling uncommon subjects, which director Jean Negulesco keeps from descending into lurid sensationalism by his attention to detail of everyday life in the village, on keeping this primarily a character study, and through the intelligent playing of a complicated girl half her age by a very talented lead actress.

This slide show from “Johnny Belinda” was recently placed on YouTube. Here you get a nice chance to listen to Max Steiner’s score.

For more tributes on Jane Wyman, see J.C. Loophole’s entry on The Shelf , and Laura’s post at Laura’s Miscellanous Musings and by Jaime J. Weinman at Something Old, Nothing New.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Johnny Belinda - Part 1

The recent death of actress Jane Wyman calls to mind one of her most famous roles, the role for which she won the Oscar as the deaf mute in Johnny Belinda (1948). It’s an interesting film, and quite unexpectedly beautiful.

The character of Belinda is isolated from the small Nova Scotia community by her deafness and by their prejudice. A lot happens in the film, most notably her rape and resulting pregnancy, and afterwards she goes on trial for murder. With such a forlorn character in such harsh surroundings and grim events, one would think the film could be as lurid as the sensational movie poster advertising the film, with its menacing shadow of a man over a cowering Belinda. The unusual inclusion of rape, a taboo subject in those days, was enough to attract publicity. There are indeed a few menacing shadows in the film; one can pick out film noir influences here and there, particularly the table level and floor-to-ceiling camera shots. However, the film comes off as gentle and kindly, and almost uplifting.

Max Steiner’s lilting score that seems to echo Belinda’s innocence may have something to do with this, and perhaps that most of it is shot out of doors, against a wide sea and a majestic sky. But a lot of the credit for the hopefulness and gentleness of this film lies with Jane Wyman.

Miss Wyman reportedly studied at a school for the deaf and learned, along with sign language, to use her eyes to convey how Belinda learns about the world; in effect, to listen with her eyes. Her expression, and her whole body language, is curtailed and without any exaggeration. It is a minimalist performance. She stiffens at the presence of others, like an animal relying on its instincts. She has adjusted to her world, but is lost in the world of others. She is classic case of a handicapped person who has been dismissed by others, and she has adjusted to being dismissed as much as to her deafness.

The film tells us right off what kind of world this is. We see immediately the working harbor, the fishing boats unloading their catch. We see the weather-beaten cottages and straggling fences, the peeling paint, the laundry that hangs limply in a wet ocean breeze. We see this is a hardscrabble existence. This is a poor community, but not an indolent, depressed and out-of-work community. Just the opposite; everyone is working as hard as they can at whatever they can to do survive. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no time for pity even for someone like Belinda, who works as hard as an indentured servant on her father’s struggling farm and grist mill.

We also see immediately how the principle characters are established. Locky, played by Stephen McNally, is bullying, selfish and a charmer. Dr. Richardson is preoccupied, aloof. We see that Stella, played by Jan Sterling in a small but important role as his young housekeeper has a crush on him, but is courted by Locky because she is to inherit an uncle’s property. Locky needs the money to pay off his debts. We see Pacquet, the posturing, arrogant store owner to whom Locky, and many in the village, owe money. The villagers make the film. They are realistic and create a caste system we can easily follow.

Agnes Moorehead plays Belinda’s aunt, in one of her best roles. Miss Moorehead is feisty, curt, no nonsense, humorless, with a charming Scots burr.

But it is Miss Wyman’s film, and not just because she has a soap-opera heroine type role as an uber-victim. Her Belinda, curious and kind, blossoms under the attention of Dr. Richardson. He teaches her sign language, and by the end of the film even we know enough to understand her signing The Lord’s Prayer over the dead body of her father, and her confession of love to Dr. Richardson.

It is a simple message from the start, as Richardson, played by that master of kindly doctors, Lew Ayres is told by Black MacDonald, Belinda’s father, played by Charles Bickford, “If people would only learn to let each other live, it’d be a different world.”

More here in part 2 on Johnny Belinda.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wyler's Moments of Silence

This is a reprise of an entry originally posted March 27th, and included here as part of the Goatdog Wyler-thon celebrating the films of director William Wyler.

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 Frederic 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.

For more interesting blogs about William Wyler, please visit Goatdog's Wyler-thon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

St. Louis Blues - Handy's Haunting Tune

As noted in the essay on “King Kong” (1933) this week, Robert Armstrong has a scene where he briefly whistles a bit of “St. Louis Blues.” This is a follow-up perhaps to his remark, “Blondes are scarce around here,” when it is noticed that the natives are fascinated by Fay Wray. The song’s lyric, “If it wasn’t for powder and her store-bought hair, that man of mine wouldn’t go nowhere,” is possibly the cue for his cavalier whistling of this blues song. Kong is clearly taken by Wray, more than she is “taken” by him.

The song “St. Louis Blues” with its famous first line, “I hate to see evening sun go down,” has been featured in a number of films, most effectively in “Ladies They Talk About” (1933) where it is played against the opening credits and at the end, and sung by Etta Moten in the prison sequence to evoke hard-bitten women of loose morals and rough lives.

Possibly first featured in a 1929 short called “St. Louis Blues,” the song is sung and dramatized by legendry blues singer Bessie Smith, reportedly chosen by its composer W.C. Handy for the job. It features an all-African American cast, and bit of it can be seen here. Miss Smith’s rendition is raw, tortured, and though the rest of the cast in the café sing with her, they do not notice her pain. Only at the end we see the anguished expression of the bartender.

The song was also featured in the other films called “St. Louis Blues” made in 1939 and in 1958, both with unrelated stories. The last was a biography of Handy starring Nat “King” Cole and Pearl Bailey.

The tune is haunting, rhythmic, captures a time and a mood, and it’s interesting to see how many times and in how many ways it has been used in film. Can you think of any others?

Tomorrow, a special reprise of a blog entry on director William Wyler for the “Wyler-thon” going on at the GoatdogBlog site from the 21st through the 23rd. Stop by this site for other blogs on William Wyler’s films.

And, we’ll see you Monday. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Robert Armstrong

Robert Armstrong was the kind of character actor who left an impression. He seemed to invent types, rather than play them. Carl Denham, the pushy, greedy, but always imaginative impresario who dragged King Kong back from the South Pacific to exploit as entertainment, and Max O’Hara, who tried to work similar magic with “Mighty Joe Young” were fellows acutely identified with the nimble talking Armstrong.

A much less enterprising, but still out for number one kind of guy was his character in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). The brother of the character played by Fay Wray, who later played his discovery Ann Darrow in “King Kong,” Martin Trowbridge was killed off early in the movie but still managed to stand out as one of the highlights of the film. He is a drunken fool, who disgusts the disciplined if utterly crazy host Count Zaroff with his dissolute ways and casual attitude toward hunting. He invites Zaroff, played memorably by Leslie Banks (see entry March 29th ) to go hunting in the Catskills, where the guides “will make the deers behave.”

Mr. Armstrong’s acting career began when left college for vaudeville and a touring stock company, and eventually made it to Hollywood just in time for the waning days of silent film. His smart aleck snappy delivery and comic timing was perfect for sound film and he made the transition easily, though “King Kong” was probably the most notable role he had. He never got out of B-movie parts, though he played a role against James Cagney in “Blood On the Sun” (1945), an interesting look at Japanese military in the days just before Pearl Harbor. Armstrong improbably played Colonel Hideki Tojo, but through this and other roles, and his eventual TV guest spots, one gets the feeling that the intrepid and exasperating spirit of Carl Denham never left him, and was always somehow just under the surface. It was a role he was born to play.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

King Kong - Part 2

See part 1 of King Kong here.

The interesting paradox here is the film presents not just an implausible horror story about a giant gorilla loose in New York City. Except for the fact that King Kong is so large, everything else in the movie was realistic for its time. A good part of this world was still uncharted in those days. When the United States went island hopping after the Japanese Empire in World War II, most of those islands were previously unknown to us. As author William Manchester noted in his narrative history, “The Glory and the Dream: (Bantam, NY, 1975, pp.266-267), “The U.S. Navy started the war with obsolete eighteenth-century charts…the Marines had to survey King Solomon’s Isles as they went along…Most of what the public did know about the Pacific had been invented by B movie scriptwriters.” That might be astounding to believe in today’s world when people who travel no further than the grocery store have a GPS unit in their SUVs.

Carl Denham’s world was the world of real-life adventurer Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck. It was the world of real-life wildlife photographers and naturalists Osa and Martin Johnson. It was the world when boys read the adventures of Jack London and were transported to a world far more dangerous and imaginative than any young boy today playing with a video game. Only, Jack London was real.

Another paradox is that what is unreal about the film, i.e. King Kong himself, which we know is not a real gorilla but a series of models, mechanics and stop-motion animation, even this unreality is successful and appropriate. Monsters aren’t meant to be realistic. The more fantastic they are, the more horrible they are. Monsters are largely creatures of our imagination. If we rationalize them, they lose their mystique.

Kong holds Miss Wray like a doll. Oh, wait, that is a doll. It is remarkable that Miss Wray never played a scene with him, only pantomimed against a plain backdrop.

The dinosaurs Kong must fight are also creatures of the imagination. Though we know they existed, we have never seen a photo of one. The Brontosaurus lifts his head eerily out of the water and he attacks the men on the expedition, chomping on the body of one and tossing it away. His swamp seems to be the same Fog Hollow of “The Most Dangerous Game” only there is no Zaroff with a rifle. When Kong fights the T-Rex over Fay Wray, it is as exciting as a match between James J. Braddock and Max Baer. Kong fights off a snake as well, which nearly chokes him, and a pterodactyl. In all this we see that he is trying to protect Miss Wray. His struggles earns our respect and we begin to wonder for the first time not what will happen to Fay Wray, but what will happen to him?

All through his battles we see his terrible rage and his unexpected tenderness. We’re still not sure of what he is a capable of doing to Miss Wray. Beyond tugging a part of her gauzy dress off (a bit of pre-Code sauciness), we are not sure what danger he represents to her. He did put a native in his mouth, but spit him right out, so we don’t even really know if he’s carnivorous. Gorillas usually aren’t, but this isn’t a nature film.

Finally of course, Kong is captured and put on stage, where the marquee tells us the tickets are $20. Pretty steep when you could have seen Helen Hayes on Broadway for around $6. But then, she was only five feet tall.

There is continuous action in the movie, we are hammered with it, and with the Beauty and the Beast message. Lots of extras get work that day in the New York scenes, where Kong plays to a packed house, and then escapes and steps on, grabs, flings, and scares the socks off everybody. He swats their trains, climbs their buildings, and in a sickening foreshadowing of what the now crazed Kong could do to Fay Wray, he pulls an unknown woman out of a hotel window and dashes her to the ground to her death. He then finds Fay, and grabs her.

You know where they end up. Another paradox is that the symbol used to illustrate man’s pinnacle of modern achievement, the Empire State Building, was only two years old when this film was made, but it was buzzed by comparatively anachronistic World War I biplanes. In another eight years, we would be going to war again only with B-52 bombers, a B-25 Mitchell would become embedded in the Empire State Building in a fog in 1945.

“Confound this fog,” Carl Denham had said on ship. The Empire State Building was real. The B-25 was real, and fourteen people were killed. Yet when we think of the Empire State Building we think of a fictional monster and a different tragedy, as enduring a symbol of our innocence more than of the terrors of our imagination. And that is the reality to which we choose to cling.

Monday, September 17, 2007

King Kong - Part 1

David O. Selznick, who produced such successful, but overladen hits like “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and “Since You Went Away” (1944) also produced a much leaner “King Kong” (1933), which has the distinction of being remarkably fast paced, imaginative, and as evocative of a place that never existed as any film of a place that did.

Reckless, driven movie director Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong, is the film’s catalyst. He is Ahab to Kong’s Moby Dick, but Carl Denham is less righteous and haunted than Captain Ahab. He is really more like Daffy Duck, pursuing a mound of jewels with dollar signs in his eyes. Mr. Armstrong gets to deliver the famous last lines of the film, “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” But he also gets other lines just as telling of his character and of the Depression era of this film. Warned that he must be careful with a movie actress in the wilds of his location shoot, Denham responds,

“I suppose there’s no danger in New York? Listen, there are dozens of girls in this town that are in more danger than they’ll ever see with me.”

Denham laments that his true-life adventure films are dismissed by the Hollywood critics. “Isn’t there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?”

Interesting use of the word “flapper” carried over from the 1920s. Denham goes first to one jungle to find the girl for his film, New York City, and we see Times Square lit up at night. We meet the lovely Fay Wray whose haunting dark eyes explore the camera’s gaze from under the brim of a battered cloche hat.

“I’m on the level. No funny business,” Armstrong as Denham tells Miss Wray, and she, and we, immediately accept that he is being truthful. The amazing thing is, he is being truthful. He is a man obsessively wedded to his work. If he were not, he could never bring back the Eighth Wonder of the World.

For a love interest, Miss Wray is given instead the wooden Bruce Cabot, who is at first brusque and falls in love reluctantly. It’s nothing personal he tells her, it’s just that she’s a woman. We get the standard “Terry and the Pirates” stock images of a stereotyped Chinese galley cook, and Denham on board ship in a yachting cap and a white suit, to be replaced by a tropical kit, and a slouch hat that make him look a cross between Indiana Jones, Curious George’s Man in the Yellow Hat and Christiane Amanpour reporting from the field. But this is quite wonderful in a way, because this is Depression-era South Seas adventure, and if Denham didn’t look like The Great White Hunter, we’d be wondering exactly what he was doing there.

I get a kick where after their first wary encounter with the natives of the lost island, Denham flippantly whistles a chorus of “The St. Louis Blues.” And he remarks at their torches lighting up the black night in their ceremonial dance to pay homage to Kong, “Looks like the night before election.”

He has some terrific sets to get lost in, mostly left over from the previous year’s “The Most Dangerous Game” and Miss Wray, truly the best screamer in Hollywood as his bait for Kong. When she practices screaming in terror for Denham’s screen test of her on deck, we get an ominous sense of dread when Bruce Cabot’s character wonders, “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?”

See Part 2 of King Kong here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fay Wray - 100th Anniversary

Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Fay Wray. Miss Wray holds a place of warm regard among fans of classic films, unusual for someone whose career was brief and made up almost entirely of B-movies. “King Kong” (1933) was her claim to fame, and throughout her long life she bemusedly gave credit to the big gorilla for making her famous.

Miss Wray began in silent films in the 1920s, in bit parts as maids and shop girls, and eventually appeared in many westerns as the damsel in the distress. She played the damsel with spirit, however. She also came to known as the “Queen of Scream” for her ability to belt out a blood curdling screech at the first sign of danger.

Her characters in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) (see entry March 29, 2007) and in “King Kong” were spunky girls, ready for adventure, but invariably terrorized by forces beyond her control. One was a madman and one was a big ape. The big ape was actually nice to her, but that didn’t keep her from screaming every time he tried to pick her up. Maybe he needed a better pick up line.

They were striking movies, and Miss Wray played a most human character in the middle of the impossible, standing in for us. We were anxious for her. Now, we cannot help but remember her fondly.

After her death in 2004, the Empire State Building, where her boyfriend King Kong toppled to his death, dimmed its lights in her honor. How many Oscar-winning top film stars were afforded such respect as this B-movie actress?

The 2005 remake of “King Kong” was dedicated in memory of Fay Wray, and she is referred to early in the film as one of the actresses Carl Denham, now played by Jack Black, wishes he could have gotten for his new project. Her career was evidently longer and carried more weight than even Miss Wray realized.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Movie Luggage

These days we have soft luggage made of lightweight material, with shoulder straps, a million zippered pockets, and quite often on wheels. We still struggle with our bags through airports (where our luggage is sometimes reduced to a clear plastic ziplock bag), struggle with jamming overstuffed suitcases in the ever-smaller trunks of cars, and drag on gummy wheels “pilot’s cases” on sprints through subways and train platforms.

George Bailey wanted a “great big” suitcase in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) to take with him on the wonderful adventures he was never to have. It was a hard boxy second-hand thing with no retractable handle and certainly no wheels. One wonders how far he could have gotten anyway.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen hustle to catch a train in “White Christmas” (1954) and lament they must leave behind their trunks. Their trunks? Their trunks with no wheels? Can you imagine traveling these days with a trunk? John Candy, maybe, in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Nobody else would dare.

Actually, Laurel and Hardy tried to take off with a neighbor lady in a trunk, twice -- once in “Unaccustomed As We Are,” (1929) and once in its remake of “Block-Heads” (1938), but didn’t get very far either time. Too unwieldy.

One of the iconic images of “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) was Dana Andrews’ hauling around an overstuffed army suitcase through the entire movie. It is with him at the beginning when he arrives home from the war, and at the end when he bitterly decides to leave his hometown. It is one of the few times I can remember where a suitcase actually looked heavy. He clearly struggles with it, leaning to keep his balance as it bangs against his hip. Usually the luggage carried in old movies looks light as a feather. The characters carry their worldly belongings and never seem out of breath.

That is, of course, because the suitcases are actually empty. The prop guy made sure Dana Andrews’ bag was stuffed to the gills. Even Gladys George won’t let him leave without an additional sweater.

Charlie Chaplin sometimes carried everything in a bandana tied to the end of his cane. Holds about as much as a clear plastic ziplock bag, so you can see how far we haven’t come.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Slapstick to Screwball

Silent film director D. W. Griffith enthusiastically announced of this new art form, “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a Universal language.”

Some ten years later, Buster Keaton took a pratfall as his car was demolished by an oncoming train.

Griffith is quoted in the autobiography of one of his most famous stars, Lillian Gish, who affirms that he believed “we were taking the first tiny steps in a new glorious medium that had been predicted in The Bible and called the Universal Language. That when it could be brought to its full power, it would bring about the millennium.”

And so it came to pass that Harold Lloyd hid from bullies by crawling up inside laundry hanging from a clothesline.

Charlie Chaplin cooked and ate a boot.

And anybody in the scene took a pie in the face.

The glorious medium that Mr. Griffith had believed was predicted in the Bible and would bring about the millennium reflected almost obsessively on the common lives of common people, but with a little bit of exaggeration. Mr. Griffith specialized in drama, not comedies, and so perhaps his view of the purpose of film was a bit more serious than Mack Sennett’s. Griffith’s hope that silent films would bring about the brotherhood of man fell short of ending warfare for all time. But he was right about the universality of silent film. He was also right about predicting the success of Mack Sennett. Sennett was his protégée.

The universality of silent films was lost when sound pictures came on the scene. Even dubbing into different languages does not have the same effect of universality of meaning. Not everything translates well. Even the titles of films are changed to mean something different.

But pantomime goes beyond mere words, and in comedy films, mere pantomime found embellishment in slapstick. Slapstick evolved into the purest form of film comedy, a gag requiring only a little setup, or sometimes none at all. Afterward, nothing needed to be explained.

There had been physical comedy since the Renaissance, and some early 20th century vaudevillian stage slapstick launched the careers of some famous film comedians, but the slapstick was not so intricate, so carefully plotted, and so technically sophisticated as it became on film. With special effects, physical comedy reached its zenith on film. One could not be witty or acerbic in a silent film. Comedy could be represented successfully only in its broadest terms, and so the Keystone Kops formed a bumbling brigade that raced through the city streets, tumbling off the running boards of the “paddy wagon.”

In yet another ten years, Laurel and Hardy were taking a piano up a flight up stairs, dropping it and being run over by it as they ushered slapstick into sound film. However, sound allowed slapstick to meld into screwball. The dinosaur skeleton model may have tumbled into a heap in “Bringing Up Baby,” (1938) but the film is as much noted for its banter between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as for the tear in the back of her dress at the party.

Carole Lombard’s comic prattle in “My Man Godfrey” (1935) begins to overshadow her talents at physical comedy, and all the pratfalls taken in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) take a back seat to Preston Sturges’ witty script. Witty could be just as silly as slipping on a banana peel, but it required more understanding. Never again would comedy be so simple, and so universally understood.

If Mr. Griffith was right about silent films being the Universal Language, then pantomime was its grammar. Slapstick was its exclamation point.

This entry is also part of the Film of the Year Slapstick Blog-A-Thon. Please visit this site and the other blogs taking part for more on slapstick comedy.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Becoming Janeite

“Becoming Jane” the latest Jane Austen film, has inspired the usual controversy among “Janeites” for taking liberties with certain facts and making up others. From the details of the courtship between Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen, based on research, to the end scene where she is an older woman and yet not wearing a day cap, the film has its share of inaccuracies. But, I’m still glad they made it.

The producers of the film purport that this version of the romance with Tom Lefroy was possible. It is also possible that Jane Austen invented jet propulsion and discovered penicillin, but it is not likely that she did. If the film’s producers had concentrated on what was likely and not what was possible, we might have a more interesting film. Miss Austen was an interesting person.

Films like this, however, have a wonderful purpose which even disgusted Janeites must allow. They bring newcomers to Jane Austen’s work.

I recall being about 14 when my mother suggested I read “Pride and Prejudice” because it was a classic and I might like it. Kind of like eat your spinach, it’s good for you. She had first become acquainted with the book while dutifully plowing through a high school summer reading list decades before. I read it. I liked it, but I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about. The language Austen used went right over my unsophisticated head, and I figured this book must be a classic simply because it was old, like classic cars were old.

It was not until some years later when I was in college that I encountered the “Masterpiece Theatre” production of “Pride and Prejudice,” the Elizabeth Garvie/David Rintoul version which was, I believe, the gold standard before the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth version came along. I enjoyed this production, shown, I think, in five episodes, and it made me realize something I didn’t realize when I was 14. Jane Austen is funny. The young woman was an acute, introspective, and intelligent observer of people around her, and her parodies were wicked. The woman was a hoot.

I immediately re-read “Pride and Prejudice,” which instantly became one of my favorite books, with a new perspective, and read all her other novels as well. I’ve become an Austen fan, but might never have been were it not for watching a filmed adaptation.

This goes as well for many classic films of old Hollywood, which were made of popular novels of that era. “Alice Adams” (1935) with Katharine Hepburn led me to the novels of Booth Tarkington, and “The Good Earth” (1937) introduced me to the novel by Pearl Buck. I read “How Green was My Valley” after seeing the 1941 film, and this goes as well for “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “The Grapes of Wrath,” (1939), “Lost Horizon” (1937), and “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Also, “The Little Minister” by James Barrie because of the 1934 film with Katharine Hepburn.

So, bring on the films about Jane Austen and her novels. I may watch them with a grain of salt if I have to, but enjoy them nonetheless.

Frankly, I’m not sure my mother was being completely honest when she recommended “Pride and Prejudice” to me based on it being a favorite from her old high school reading list. I’m not so sure it wasn’t the 1940 movie with Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier that made her a fan. For her, Greer Garson was the definitive Lizzie.

If young people who are fans of Anne Hathaway will head to the library because of this film, then huzzah for “Becoming Jane.”

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Pray, have a most delightful weekend.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Movie Myopia

This is a bit of an odd topic, but yesterday’s post on Chaplin’s “City Lights” calls to mind another interesting circumstance of that film. Virginia Cherrill, who plays the blind girl opposite Chaplin, was nearsighted in real life. This is exactly why she got the job.

Author Jeffrey Vance in his “Chaplin - Genius of the Cinema” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), recounts the situation and Chaplin’s difficulties on this film. Miss Cherrill had never acted before. It seems Mr. Chaplin had seen her at a public event and was struck by her beauty. He wanted her to test for his upcoming film. One of her qualities that endeared him and that first attracted him was her expression of some sort of wistful searching in her eyes.

Miss Cherrill was nearsighted, and in an interview in later years confessed that she did not like to wear her glasses in public. This was the era of Dorothy Parker’s “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Chaplin felt convinced that her expression, simply borne of nearsightedness, would perfectly convey not only the gentle spirit of the Blind Girl, but illustrate her physical blindness as well. He wanted to show her as blind without exaggerating her appearance, or, as Chaplin noted in his autobiography, “without being offensive.”

It is remarkable that a man of such perfectionist tendencies would literally pick from nowhere a woman with no acting experience for such an important role in his film. As it is, Mr. Chaplin became dissatisfied with her acting abilities. This film, in the scene where they first meet and she says, “Flower, sir?” hoping he will buy one from her, holds the Guinness Book of World Records for most takes for a single scene in any film. They shot 342 takes. Mr. Chaplin was not happy with her. He particularly did not like the way she handed the flower to him. Maybe she couldn’t see him.

This circumstance of nearsightedness inducing a dreamy expression could perhaps also extend to the wonderful actress Teresa Wright, whose searching glance over the faces of her fellow actors in some of her most tender scenes, something of a trademark with her, is possibly due to her being nearsighted in real life. Off the set, she wore glasses.

Contact lenses were new in the 1930s, and the only use they had in Hollywood at that time was probably by Lon Chaney, Sr., who used them to show disfigurement and blindness in his characters. They were not used to see better. In fact, they ruined his vision.

The most celebrated movie myopic is likely Mr. Magoo, whose world was nevertheless colorful for being vague. Much the same way Virginia Cherrill’s nearsightedness made her seem fey, wistful, and blind, it was all a blurry illusion.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

City Lights (1931)

“City Lights” (1931) is one of the most fascinating films of Charlie Chaplin’s career and of that era of filmmaking, on the awkward cusp between silent and sound. The Little Tramp evolves to a multi-dimensional character, no longer just the vaudevillian scamp, but an Everyman. It is also one of the last times we see him, because sound, as Chaplin himself feared, would be the end of this perhaps most recognizable icon of the young movie industry.

His silence, not the films being silent, but the character’s silence made him easily to identify with by people of different cultures all over the world. Speech would make him less universal, and Mr. Chaplin knew that.

Chaplin made a slight concession to the new sound film industry by adding a musical score he had composed for this film, and a few sound effects, but he drew the line at the spoken word. There was none of that to intrude on The Little Tramp’s world.

It is the story of how he befriends a blind flower girl. He also helps out a drunken millionaire about to commit suicide. “Be brave! Face Life!” Played by Harry Meyers, the character, An Eccentric Millionaire, is pals with The Little Tramp only during bouts of drunkenness. Sober, he doesn’t even recognize him. Chaplin exhibits his usual athletic grace while slipping on the waxy floor of a nightclub, and when he swallows a whistle, the blowing of the whistle is one of the few sound effects we hear.

When the millionaire takes off for Europe, The Little Tramp has no extra handouts to help him care for the lovely street flower seller, played by Virginia Cherrill. At their first meeting, she mistakes his character for a wealthy man, and he tries to uphold that image for her, lying to her and passing on what money he can to her. When she is sick, he gets jobs to help out her and her elderly grandmother, including a famous scene as a boxer when he takes on the champ for a share of the purse.

There are some cute bits in the film, such as when he furtively whispers to someone in the fighter’s dressing room and we are meant to assume he is asking for the men’s room, when he really only wanted was to get a drink of water from the water cooler. He sizes up his formidable opponent, and fearful he will be killed in the ring, he coyly tries to befriend the stern prizefighter, who sizes Charlie up and immediately retires behind a curtain away from Charlie’s prying eyes, to change for the fight.

An African-American fighter also makes ready to take on his next fight, and refreshingly there are no stereotype caricatures of the day for this actor. He is just another fighter waiting for his turn in the ring. Like many athletes, he has a good luck ritual before the contest, and allows The Little Tramp to use his lucky rabbit’s foot and horseshoe to get luck for his own upcoming fight. Charlie feels reassured after using the good luck charms, until the boxer returns unconscious, carried from the ring. Then Charlie’s heart sinks. Inevitably, he will also be carried off after losing his own boxing match.

Eventually, The Little Tramp unwittingly becomes accused of robbing the millionaire, but runs away and gives the money he has received to the blind girl, so that she may have an operation to restore her sight. He knows he will go to prison, but makes the sacrifice for her sake.

In the final scene, one of the most powerful Chaplin ever filmed, we see that his famous character is no longer just the smart aleck, lucky fellow who always lands on his feet. Here, he is just released from prison, downtrodden and his carefree attitude seems lost forever. He looks beaten and bitter. There is a chance meeting with the blind girl, now with her vision restored and the owner of her own flower shop. She takes pity on The Little Tramp, whom she does not know, and tries to give him a coin. When she touches him, she realizes it is her old friend, and the bemused pity she felt a moment before for an odd-looking stranger becomes a heartbreaking mixture of sorrow and gratitude to her friend.

Their roles are reversed; he is no longer the benefactor and she the object of pity. It is now the opposite, and both feel a sense of wonder and humility. His joy at discovering she can see makes his prison time worthwhile. His frozen expression of delight is priceless.

We get no wedding bells type of happily ever after from this movie, only that pure moment when two human beings cross paths, each of them reaching a personal, and yet shared, destiny.

Here is that final scene.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Laboring Stooges

To celebrate Labor Day here in the US, today we pay tribute to the hardest working men you’ll ever find. The Three Stooges. No, really.

From their first independent short “Woman Haters” (1934) in which they played traveling salesmen, the Stooges have worked in more occupations than most of us can in a lifetime. Even those of us who get fired a lot. They were medical students in “Men in Black” (1934), and had adventures as detectives and exterminators, artists, fire fighters, and as operators of a dog laundry.

They were waiters, prospectors, plumbers, and pharmacists. They were construction workers, and census takers. They were greeting card salesmen and fish salesmen.

They were tailors and tree surgeons. They were ice delivery men, merchant marines, and janitors.

They represented the every day working stiff, except for their colossal ineptitude and stupidity, but the boys were always well meaning and most certainly hard working.

Hats off today to all of us stumblebums trying to make ends meet. If you’re interested in learning more about the Three Stooges and their esteemed occupations, visit

And have a great Labor Day. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

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