The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

October 17, 2017

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By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

King Vidor was “a little ashamed” of Bardelys the Magnificent, while John Gilbert considered it to be “Applesauce. With one John Gilbert providing the sauce.” It didn’t have the cachet of their previous films together, though seen today it’s a vibrant and funny film, one adapted from the 1905 novel by Rafael Sabatini. John Gilbert is the title character Bardelys, a womanizing adviser to King Louis XIII, he warns his servant to always let him know which husbands are in town before he schedules his assignations. But even when angry spouses drop in and challenge him to a sword fight, he flatters them so relentlessly (both their looks and their fighting skill), that they go away happy. Bardelys is such a well-known lover that almost every woman in town has been called “dark enchantress” and received a locket with a piece of his hair, meant to symbolize his devotion – they are assembled in bulk by his servants and dispensed with impunity.

The Comte de Châtellerault (Roy D’arcy) has no such luck with women. He was very publicly rejected by Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, to become Vidor’s wife after filming) before tripping over a precisely placed lunchbox and falling on his behind. The Comte becomes the laughingstock of Paris, and in a fit of pique, he makes an impossible wager with Bardelys – if Bardelys can get Roxalanne to marry him, he will receive all of the Comte’s wealth. And if he fails, Bardelys must give up his entire fortune. Bardelys is in no mood to marry, but accepts the bet anyway, as a test of his desirability. In order to win the anti-monarchy Roxalanne’s heart, Bardelys pretends to be famed revolutionary Lesperon. It is in this guise that Roxalanne’s reserve begins to crack, but soon Bardelys will have the King’s guards on his tale, and it’s more than money he has to put on the line.

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Vidor films with great agility, moving his camera in inventive ways, including dropping down with Bardelys out of a window. The most memorable shot is a ravishingly romantic one, of a canoe ride with Bardelys and Roxalanne, weeping willow branches drooping down over them like a caressing lover. King Vidor recalled the construction of the scene in his memoirs, as quoted in a post on TCM.com:

“I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?’ The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic.” Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. “They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression.”

Also making an impression is Bardelys’s wild escape from the gallows, a remarkably inventive bit of madcap action that has Gilbert springing around with uncanny mobility. In my favorite bit, he is trying to escape back up through a hatch, but a group of soldiers are thrusting their scythes into the opening below him. Taking this as an opportunity, when the scythes all clash together, it forms a kind of floor which Bardelys uses as leverage to leap up and out of the hatch. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft, and manages to display the wit of Bardelys solely through action.

Arthur Lubin, who plays King Louis XIII, recalled that the set was a happy one, and speculated that “I think the reason King was so well liked was that he left the actors alone.” That convivial atmosphere really comes across on the screen, though Gilbert himself expressed unhappiness with the whole production. He told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t want to be portraying this incredible ‘magnificent’ stuff. Whenever they talk ‘costume picture’ to me again, I am going to mentally translate all the characters into modern clothes and see how they would work out in say, Pasadena, today. If they don’t ring true, they are out.”

The film was a minor success, bringing back a profit of $135,000 on a cost of $460,000. But for all involved it was a minor affair, a diversion from the other work they’d rather be doing. MGM felt similarly, for when their rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, they destroyed the negative. The movie would have been lost forever if not for the miraculous discovery of that print in France. Thankfully, we can now see the film for what it is, an impressively mounted off-the-cuff adventure that could give Fairbanks a run for his money.

Party Girl: Nana (1926)

May 2, 2017

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

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According to Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the production company Films Renoir was incorporated on September 1, 1925. The previous month Nana had been announced. Renoir was still negotiating with the Emile Zola estate, but eventually paid them 75,000 francs for the rights to the story. In order to secure German funding, they needed to cast German actors. Through the help of producer Pierre Braunberger, the role of Count Muffat, Nana’s main suitor, went to Werner Krauss, known today as Doctor Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). They also cast the German actress Valeska Gert (The Joyless Street, 1925) as Nana’s maid, Zoe. This helped convince Delog Film Kommanditgesellschaft, Jacobi & Co. to pay for the costs of the German shoot, since there would be a built-in local audience. It didn’t pan out that way, but it allowed for the film to continue.

Gert would later describe Hessling as “an authentic Parisian, chic, capricious [who] used a outrageous amount of makeup, which, at the time, only Gloria Swanson was doing.” Hessling was an untaught talent, and had no intention of taking lessons, unless the Americans called. She told her friend Alice Fighiera that if they called, “it will mean I’ve got talent. If they don’t, none of it’s worth the trouble.” She is introduced rising above the stage on a winch, in one of the first dolly shots of the film. Renoir and his DPs Jean Bachelet and Edmund Corwin use the technique as a slow reveal, a setup and punchline. Catherine is raised but cannot descend all the way to the stage, a knot keeps her dangling frustratingly above solid ground. Her flailing struggles make her look like a puppet. After the show a few suitors are shown waiting at her dressing room. The camera slowly dollies backward to reveal that the whole floor and staircase is clogged with potential paramours.

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Only one manages to shoulder his way inside her room, the wealthy Count Muffat, who has enough cash to underwrite Nana’s career at the struggling theater. A blooming fetishist, Muffat becomes aroused by the hair stuck in her comb, and is at her beck and call the rest of the feature – by the end she has him on all fours barking like a dog. Like Charles Foster Kane, he funds her dramatic work, only for her to be laughed off the stage. Nana is completely without self-criticism, she truly believed her flouncy over-affected caricature could fly as a portrait of an upper class lady. When her life as an artist flops, she begins her second, more lucrative, life as a courtesan, with a group of lapdogs on her string. The other most notable victim is Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo), the last remaining scion of a distinguished family. He sullies his name in a poorly thought out racetrack swindle; to win Nana’s heart is through her pocketbook, or so he believes.

But there is no way to Nana’s heart, for even she doesn’t know the directions. Hessling plays her with an armor of artifice, always playacting to the room. One never knows what is authentic emotion or simply a flirtatious technique. Emblematic of her capriciousness is a shot where Nana wields a pool cue, lines it up against a fine piece of china as if setting up a shot, and then smashes it. Renoir would write in My Life and My Films that “In Nana she carried it [stylization] to the uttermost extreme. She was not a woman at all, but a marionette. The word, as I use it, is a complement.”  This doll crushes every man like that fine china, not that they don’t deserve it. Muffat is a dour married man who blows up his marriage out of boredom and a hair fetish. Vandeuvres is another of the idle death-wish rich, using Nana as an excuse for self-incineration. The only cad worthy of pity is a callow youth named Georges (Raymond Guérin Catelain), whose love seems innocent and true, and his delicate constitution can’t handle seeing Nana play pseudo S&M games with the masochistic Muffat.

Nana is surprised by her own emotions at the loss of two of her suitors, both of whom take their own lives. During an extraordinary sequence at a Parisian ball, Nana tries to recapture her previous decadence, losing herself in a feverish can-can, an attempt to sweat out her emotions. But she cannot stop them. Renoir ends the film with some of his most complicated and basic techniques. There are double exposures revealing ghosts of lovers past, haunting her with their modes of demise. Her body, unused to such feeling, shuts down. And without depicting a dramatic collapse, or giving her one last command performance, Renoir simply turns out the lights.

Jean Renoir: Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

April 25, 2017

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In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy.

The scenario for Whirlpool of Fate was written by Renoir’s friend Pierre Lestringuez, and was shot in and around Paul Cézanne’s property, La Nicotiere, in the town of Marlotte. Cézanne was a family friend, and Jean spent many afternoons there as a youth, counting his Sundays there “among my happiest memories” (as recalled in My Life and My Films). So he was intimately familiar with the grounds, and he gets a fairy tale beauty out of the streams running through the area. The film opens with a houseboat cruising down a waterway on a sun dappled morning, shot by cinematographers Jean Bachelet (who would later shoot The Rules of the Game) and Alphonse Gibory.

On board are Gudule (called Virginie in some versions, played by Heuschling), her father and her roustabout uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). The father dies in a freak accident, and Jeff squanders the family inheritance on booze, and often shows up drunk and physically abusive towards Gudule. So she runs away from home, and takes up with a small time crook nicknamed “The Weasel.” They travel the countryside together, nicking food from nearby farms when they can get away with that. Just when Gudule is acclimating herself to a new life, she falls down a steep quarry wall and loses her memory. The Weasel disappears, and instead she is cared for by Georges (Harold Levingston), the son of a bourgeois family who brings her food and drink to stay alive. Suffering from terrible fevers, Gudule begins experiencing severe hallucinations – or incredible lucid dreams, in which Renoir experiments with double (and triple) exposures, associative editing and random shots of lizards. Once she comes to, Gudule regains her memory, only to run into Jeff again. She can’t fully re-emerge into adulthood until Jeff agrees to let her go.

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The film is a charming travelogue of La Nicotiere, with a barely-there episodic narrative guiding Gudule through the wooded paths. Heuschling/Hessling was a great admirer of Gloria Swanson, and she applies her lipstick into a pert bowtie shape that mimics that of Swanson’s in Zaza (1923). She admirably underplays her melodramatic role, and her calm carries the film through it’s many twists and turns. Already Renoir was operating a film set like a family get together, emphasizing fun above all. Mérigeau writes that “A team was being put together, and with it one of the essential prerequisites of a Renoir film: Jean Renoir at the head of the gang, whose members constituted a kind of family, producing a self-organizing system.” It was shot at the familial locale of La Nicotiere and filled with friends and family, including painter André Derain, who plays a distressed innkeeper with a toothache.

What reputation the film has today rests on its dream sequence, which Renoir directed “in a studio where he had had a cylinder built and painted completely black so that a camera placed on a dolly permitted a 360-degree panoramic view and could follow a horse at a gallop. On the same roll of film, he next shot superimposed clouds.” This sequence has the charm of a Melies short in its analog magic. In its most abstractly beautiful section, Gudule is floating against a black sky, her translucent gown fluttering in the wind. Then she flutters back down to earth, emerging from a columnar set from which a lizard just poked out its head. It conveys weightlessness above all, appropriate for Gudule, whose body has brought her nothing but pain and sorrow thus far. An enterprising theatrical producer named Jean Tedesco would book programs of excerpts from feature films, essentially mixtapes of his favorite sequences. In 1925 he included the dream sequence from Whirpool in one of his programs. At first Renoir was annoyed at the bootlegging, but the scene was wildly applauded at the screening, which grew even louder when they saw the duo in the theater. This for a film that had received minimal bookings in Paris, to muted response. It was the same abroad. Tedesco continued to play the dream sequence in Paris to much acclaim.

Renoir considered Nana (1925) to be his first true feature, and I will write about that one next week, but Whirlpool of Fate is not worthy of disavowal, what with its inventive cinematography (both the natural light of the “realist” outdoor sequences and the madly expressionist studio dream sequence) and the laid-back brio of the performers. Renoir already seemed to have a knack for eliciting relaxed performances, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the Renoir family on this intimate affair.

HYPER HYPOCHONDIRA: FEEL MY PULSE (1928)

August 4, 2015

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Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.

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The story is prime nonsense. Barbara Manning (Daniels) is the heir to a family fortune, but her late, wildly eccentric father stipulated in his will that she be kept in a germ-free environment until she was 21. Her mild-mannered Uncle Edgar (George Irving) is to watch over her until that day. As the movie begins, Barbara could be knocked over by a feather, constantly ministered to by a flock of nurses. At the slightest cough she needs to lubricate her larynx with various tonics. But the destined birthday is around the corner, at which point her Texan Uncle Wilberforce (Melbourne MacDowell) is to take over the guardianship. Wilberforce is a cigar chomping Yosemite Sam type who tries to shock Barbara out of her passivity by shooting off his revolver into the ceiling. In order to escape this uncouth germ carrier, Barbara decides to decamp to an island sanitarium that is to be part of her inheritance. But the nuthouse has been taken over by a gang of rum runners led by Todd (William Powell) and his new protege Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen). They spend their days battling hijackers and shuffling casks of booze in and out of the former rest home. Wanting to keep their operation a secret from Barbara, they pretend to be running the sanitarium, with Todd the head doctor and the other gang members acting as patients. The absurdities build up as they desperately keep their illegal secret, and as Barbara hides out from her Uncle.

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The basic setup for Daniels’ performance is that Barbara believes herself to be a delicate flower, when in reality she has a physical prowess that reveals itself in moments of high stress. When Wilberforce shoots off his revolvers, she leaps to the ground with alacrity, and when her medicines fall out of a speeding car, she hurls herself down to the road and chases after them with the spring of an Olympic vaulter. She doesn’t know the power of her own body, or how to relate to the world outside. Most of the gags are built off of her alienation from the world. She doesn’t know how cars work, and drinks rum as if it were a new healing tonic. One of the funniest bits involves her sitting with an old drunk, trading belts of hooch, while they mangle the lyrics to “Sweet Adeline” (i.e. “You are the hower of my flart”).

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While at first Todd seems like a lovable kind of criminal, he reveals himself to be a ruthless and abusive operator. William Powell, in a fetching curly moptop and bushy ‘stache, uses his natural charisma to hide the grim calculus going on inside his head. On one late night, under the ruse of a regular checkup of Barbara’s health, he proves himself to be a predator, Powell raising his lips to reveal his incisors in a vulture-like grin. Barbara has not yet recognized her own physical strength, so she lets Wallace bail her out of that threatening situation. Wallace is the sympathetic rum runner, with a gentle All-American corn-fed handsomeness (he has a Tom Brady thing going on).

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The film builds to a fever pitch when hijackers attack the sanitarium just as Barbara realizes the truth about her hosts. An enormous brawl of non-stop pratfalls erupts, as if the Keystone Kops were drafted into Upstate New York bootlegging wars. It is here, finally, where the body and mind of Barbara align, and she begins to realize her own power. In the aftermath of the fight, Barbara is being chased by the remnants of Todd’s gang, whereupon she flips out. Her body turns into a weapon, a flailing, whirling dervish of pain that knocks out the entire rum gang. She knocks them out with their own barrels of booze, as well as a handy bottle of chloroform she finds on a shelf. In the most brilliant gag in the film, she smashes the chloroform on Todd’s head, and La Cava uses extreme slow-motion to represent the gang’s slow descent into oblivion. It is so slow that is acts as an analytic breakdown of a pratfall, as each man collapses in a ballet of unconsciousness. One man does a header towards the camera, while Powell does a controlled, slow slide down, suave even while blacked out.

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Barbara’s Uncles then come rumbling up the stairs with some cops, only to encounter Barbara’s still roiling defense mechanisms. After she has expended her energies smashing a few officers, the film gets down to business of wrapping up the Barbara-Wallace romance and send the audience home happy (which I most certainly was). What would make me happier was greater access to Bebe Daniels’ silents. Also in 1928 she acted in The Fifty-Fifty Girl, which the New York Times wrote involved a man and woman jointly owning a mine, and as “Kathleen has ideas about the equality of woman with man, so our two friends make an agreement that she is to do the leading, he is to follow with all ‘the courtesies’ ordinarily given to the fairer sex.” Though this feature is said to end with the man regaining control, Bebe Daniels is clearly cultivating an image of New Womanhood in this period, testing boundaries before bowing to the conventions of the period. Along with Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks, Daniels was redefining the image of women onscreen in the 1920s.

SILENTS ON DEMAND: FLICKER ALLEY’S MOD DVD PROGRAM

March 31, 2015

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreak True Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelay The Marriage Circle (1924).

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This past December Flicker Alley began an IndieGogo campaign to raise $5,000 for their MOD program, ending up with $7,510. In their initial push, they explained the reasons behind their turn to on-demand DVD: “The unfortunate reality of our current home-video market…necessitates a high initial investment for the mass production of each individual title. These upfront costs mean that Flicker Alley can only afford to mass produce a limited selection of films each year. Meanwhile, more and more previously-published gems of cinema history are currently unavailable.” Take a film like Griffith’s True Heart Susie. It has been released on DVD before, but is now out-of-print. With its market already diminished,along with the fact it’s a lesser known Griffith title,  it would be difficult to release at the minimum numbers required for regular manufacturing of authored discs. But it deserves to be available, for it contains a Lillian Gish performance of sublime tension. She is an innocent country girl playing at being an innocent country girl, believing it to be the clearest path to a stable, comfortable life. But when she notices her presumed fiance eyeing a worldly perfumed woman from Chicago, you can see her crumble and reconstruct herself before your eyes, under the impassive close-ups lensed by DP Billy Bitzer.

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It is a performance of impeccable control, the supreme model for what Griffith was attempting when he said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” As James Naremore wrote in Acting in the Cinema, Gish employs “a variety of acting styles, creating a complex emotional tone within Griffith’s otherwise simple story. Thus, although Susie may be a ‘true heart’, her identity…is created out of disparate, sometimes contradictory, moments, all held together by a name, a narrative, and a gift for mimicry.” Naremore uses one reaction shot as an example, occurring in the blink of an eye in an early schoolroom scene. There is a spelling bee, and Susie and her boyfriend William (Robert Harron) are competing. Susie looks girlish and oblivious, her head cocked to her right, mouth pursed open in a pose of oblivious boredom (i.e. cute). Then William is asked to spell “Anonymous”, and struggles. In a shot-reverse shot from the teacher back to Susie and William, her expression changes radically. Now her head is held straight, her lips pursed thin, and eyes cocked skeptically at William. In another cut that knowing, condescending gaze is again replaced by cutesy posing. But it is a tell. Susie is constructing herself according to William’s concept of womanhood, letting the mask slip only when he’s otherwise occupied. Tom Gunning has described Gish’s “soliloquy of facial expressions” in moments of disappointment – when William turns out to be less than she had hoped, and when her sturdily built concept of femininity (plainness > perfumed; country > city) is challenged from within and without. Griffith and Bitzer were credited with popularizing the close-up, but it would have been forgotten if not for the gradations of feeling that Lillian Gish could convey with the flutter of an eyelid.

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“My desire was to create a story that would reflect life as it is lived by thousands of married couples — just everyday people you meet all around us.” Though it still sounds like him, you are no longer in Griffith country, but with the cosmopolitan Ernst Lubitsch as he discusses The Marriage Circle, his hit comedy from 1924, the second film made in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s conception of “everyday people” differs just a tad from Griffith’s. Instead of rural farm life we get bankers and doctors and their garden parties. Though he operates in a different class milieu, Lubitsch was after similar things as Griffith – he wanted to slow things down and emphasize the presence of his actors. It’s instructive to compare the rather stately pace of The Marriage Circle to the manic machinations of his Berlin comedies like The Doll or The Oyster Princess. Scott Eyman wrote that, “Before, the audience could only see Lubitsch’s characters move; beginning with The Marriage Circle, we can see them think.”

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In December of 1923 Ernst Lubitsch viewed Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and detected something new. He said it was, “a great step forward…It did not, like many plays I see, insult my intelligence. So often in pictures one is not allowed to think by the director. But — ah! — in  A Woman of Paris we had a picture that, as you Americans say, left something to the imagination.” The major action in The Marriage Circle occurs behind closed doors, under the sheets, and between the ears of the characters. It is a minuet of marital dysfunction following two couples: the already miserable Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) and his wandering eyed wife Mizzi (Marie Prevost), and the initially lovey-dovey duo of Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his devoted spouse Charlotte (Florence Vidor). Their situations are sketched in shorthand by the objects that surround them. One of the first shots is a close-up of the hole in Josef’s sock, his big toe wriggling free. One of the next is an empty drawer filled with collars but no shirts. Nothing quite fits together in the Stock household, a mishmash of parts they bitterly try to match together. The Braun home is one of harmony, with Charlotte playing Grieg’s “I Love You, Dear” on the piano while each spouse’s wardrobe is elegantly, meticulously arranged. Then there is a chance meeting of Mizzi and Franz in a hansom cab, and both couples are enmeshed in a circle of affairs, pseudo-affairs and jealousies that unravel both marriage bonds for good.

The model for every Lubitsch comedy to come after, emotions give themselves away despite the characters’ best efforts to conceal them. There are masquerades, impostors, and impossible coincidences. The world conspires against the Braun’s love – until it doesn’t. Their affection is charged through gestures and objects – in the destiny of a straw hat, the impulsive arrangement of a seating chart, and the refusal to believe in a stolen kiss. Their love is a beautiful delusion, so the Brauns choose to believe what they must to keep it going – and they will be the happier for it.

MISSING REELS: A NOVEL OF SILENT MOVIE LOVE

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Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.

The epigraph to MISSING REELS

Ceinwen (pronounced KINE-wen) is a young escapee from Yazoo City, Mississippi, scraping by as a sales assistant at a vintage clothing store. She is something of a film obsessive, but not so much of the collector kind (always more of a sweaty male pursuit). She embraces it as a lifestyle, trying to model her behavior and fashion off her favorite stars (Jean Harlow, especially) in order to distract herself from the daily grind of her existence. She lives in a flat on Avenue C with two gay roommates (Talmadge and Jim), who tolerate her particular strain of movie madness. Things start percolating when Ceinwen becomes fascinated with her buttoned-up old neighbor Miriam, whom she is convinced has a Hollywood past. Then Matthew enters her clothing store. A British mathematics postdoc at NYU, he ambles in looking for a gift for his Italian girlfriend, and an on-and-off whirlwind romance ensues. Ceinwen pursues both Miriam and Matthew, though when she discovers that Miriam did star in one forgotten silent, The Mysteries of Udolpho (invented for the book), she is hell bent on finding a surviving 35mm print. Both the print and Matthew seem to be equally elusive.

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The book’s early stages take time to establish the precariousness of Ceinwen’s existence. She often doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from. Chapter two begins:

It was Wednesday. Payday was Thursday. The rain started soon after Ceinwen arrived, and there were few customers. When Lily told her to go to lunch she laid her assets on the counter and totaled them up. $1.28 in small change and half a pack of Marlboro Lights. As expected, Ceinwen was broke.

Afterward is a precise breakdown of how she can stretch that cash – with a coffee cup and a buttered roll, and the possibility of a handout from Jim. Ceinwen has loving names for all of the elements in her discounted life. There is the “Smelly Deli” (self-explanatory) as well as the “Busted” coffee, a pseudonym for Bustelo, a particularly gritty coffee familiar to underpaid New Yorkers. But though she can barely eat, she is able to maintain a glamorous vintage wardrobe, partly through the help of Talmadge’s light fingers. Nehme is adept at describing the materiality of her clothes, their texture and fit. Here is a descriptive passage of a dress she is to wear with one of her first dates with Matthew:

Sleeveless, dropped waist, obviously from the 1920s. The fabric was silk velvet, a greenish bronze that shimmered even under their dim lights. The neckline was deep and the skirt was gathered a bit in front, the ham cascading down to about mid-calf. No lace, no trimming, just the gleam of the fabric.

The clothes allow Ceinwen to traverse different worlds, to a feel a part of something outside the Smelly Deli, and connect to a lineage that runs through Harlow’s stockings.

The author Farran Smith Nehme

Though Ceinwen had watched classic film since she was a child, she is no match for the obsessives she meets in her journeys. The most generous is Matthew’s department head, Harry, who has the enthusiastic generosity of a true believer (and who would make an ideal blogger). Here he is making rapid-fire recommendations for Ceinwen’s viewing schedule:

“There was a French New Wave series at The New Yorker, they needed to see Breathless and The 400 Blows and Le Bonnes Femmes. How about Walsh, how about Wellman, check out Ophuls, how much Lubitsch have you seen, how about this Fritz Lang. See here Matthew, you want macho, I’ll give you macho. Sam Fuller. Anthony Mann. John Huston double feature at Theater 80.”

Nehme lovingly details these real and long-gone rep houses, from the shoddy rear projection at Theater 80 to the wobbly floors at the Thalia. They were landmarks for Nehme’s heroic age of moviegoing, and all had disappeared by the time of my arrival in New York City. I can’t help but feel deprived. The book is as much about the death of a certain kind of moviegoing in NYC as anything else. There are still wonderful rep houses in NYC, but just not nearly as varied or cheap or disreputable.

The central thread of the book deals with Miriam’s secret life in film, and the ultimate fate of her doomed feature The Mysteries of Udolpho, an erotic melodrama directed be self-destructive German by the name of Emil Arnheim (a nod to early film critic Rudolf Arnheim). During the search Ceinwen uncovers an entire production history, the kind of original research necessary for any kind for film history or criticism, or in this case – narrative. Nehme skillfully balances the film plot and the screwball romance one, bouncing them off each other as equally tangled mysteries. Both the existence of a film print and Matthew’s emotions are impossible to gauge. The plot curlicues are never less than crisp and engaging, but I value the book the most for its evocation of a time and place – and the rather understated way in which it states how film history, and especially the effort put into discovering this history, has an intrinsic value. It recaptures a past – one that Miriam may want to forget – but a past that would have disappeared without Ceinwen’s efforts. And now those efforts can be built upon by future fictional scholars, wackos and obsessives, in the novels hopefully in Nehme’s future.

THE PERILS OF COLLEEN: COLLEEN MOORE IN SYNTHETIC SIN AND WHY BE GOOD?

November 18, 2014

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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William A. Seiter was born in New York City in 1890, the oldest son of a prominent family who were co-owners of Higgins & Seiter, purveyors of fine china and rich cut glass.  He ran away from a steady paycheck to Hollywood in 1912. He made ends meet as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops and as a Western stuntman. He got his first featured part in the 1931 biblical short The Three Wise Men (1913). According to his daughter Jessica Seiter Niblo’s memoir Movietown Baby Grows Up, her father thought he was “so bad I just quit acting.” So instead he would crash movie sets with his friend (and future director) Sidney Franklin, pretending to be assistant directors. They faked it until they made it, and Seiter started directing comedy shorts in 1915. His first great success came with a series of comedies he directed for star Reginald Denny between 1924 and 1928. Dave Kehr described Seiter’s style in the Denny films as “a kind of domestic naturalism, with lightly comic sketches of middle-class young marrieds that anticipate the situation comedies of the Fifties.” Having learned every side of the business, he was an actor’s director. One of his actors Neil Hamilton would give Seiter the most practical of praise in Photoplay: “I cannot forget the treatment accorded me by Mr. Seiter. He is that rare personality in the business who does not believe in working after four thirty. Having been an actor himself once, he realizes that a day spent in front of the cameras, with one’s vitality being slowly consumed by the terrific heat of the lights, is no easy task.”

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The Family Secret (1924) is an odd amalgam of Victorian melodrama and sitcom slapstick. It was a vehicle for Baby Peggy (real name Diana Serra Cary), who had become a superstar at age five after making over 150 shorts for Century Studios between 1921 and 1923. Universal signed her to make features, and they chose to adapt the Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Little PrincessThe Secret Garden) novel Editha’s Burglar, a Story for Children. Margaret Selfridge (Gladys Hulette) secretly marries Garry Holmes (Edward Earle) against the wishes of her father Sim (Frank Currier). Sim bans Garry from his home, and then has him arrested for burglary when Garry tries to see his wife and newborn baby (Cary). All of the creaky melodramatics halt when the story shifts from the parents to the child, and you can almost sense the entire cast relaxing. The movie then settles into a string of comic set pieces as Baby Peggy undermines any attempt at a functional household. She skips a reading lesson from her nanny and hides in the flour bin; brings home a stray dog whose fleas infest the spinsters at a tea party; wanders onto the streets and bonds with the lower classes, learning how to steal fruit from street urchins and rib the cops. It is that last section that is especially affecting. Peggy has no conception of money’s use value since she lives with it as a given. So on the outside she trades her dress for a banana. Seiter builds scenarios around Peggy’s natural mischievous innocence, and shapes a rickety melodrama into something improbably affecting.

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Colleen Moore also exudes a mischievous innocence, but one that perpetually bumps up against the double standards that confront women. Moore’s freedom from restraint is alluring, but it is always in danger of becoming too alluring, in which case the movies pull back and reveal her to be a good girl after all.  Moore had long dreamed of becoming a movie star, and kept a scrapbook of her favorite performers – aspirationally leaving the last page blank for herself. She lived a few blocks away from Essanay studios in Chicago, and she appeared for them as a background extra. Her uncle Walter Howey, the managing editor for the Chicago Examiner, got her a screen test with D.W. Griffith, since Howey had helped Griffith get Birth of a Nation and Intolerance past the censorship board. The Colleen Moore persona is synonymous with that of the “flapper”, post-WWI women who flouted conventional gender roles by smoking, drinking and sleeping with whomever they wanted. This image was popularized in the 1923 Colleen Moore film Flaming Youth, in which Moore dallies with her mother’s ex-lover. Of that movie, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked, “I was the spark that lit up flaming youth, and Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” With her razor-sharp bob, bamboo-thin body and bowtie lips, she became the physical embodiment of the flapper ethos. Seemingly all elbows and knees, she was the ideal angular construction to dance the Charleston, and had the impish personality to give all that movement an air of subversiveness. Moore married producer John McCormick during the production of Flaming Youth, and together they would define what flappers looked and acted like to the majority of Americans.

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By 1929 the flapper character was business as usual, but Moore was still packing them into theaters. Synthetic Sin is based on a 1927 play by Frederick and Fanny Hatton, produced by McCormick, and concerns a small town girl from “Magnolia Gap” who has dreams of becoming a legendary stage tragedienne. Though the feature looks fantastic (it was projected on DCP), it is missing most of the Vitaphone “soundtrack”, which added sound effects and popular songs of the period over the silent feature. Only the last reel of this audio remains.

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When hometown hero playwright Donald Anthony (Antonio Moreno) returns home to premiere a new work, every high school drama queen clamors to play the lead. Betty (Colleen Moore) and her sister Margery (Kathryn McGuire) are the most insistent. Betty is spazzy and unsophisticated, her audition more akin to a Saturday Night Live cast hopeful. It involves  a “mad Ophelia” scene of flailing limbs and swinging wig pigtails that nearly choke her out. The showstopper, for me anyway, is Moore’s impression of classical pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She dons an Einstein fright wig, applies a bushy moustache, and slams the keys like a proto-headbanger. Seiter is always interested in the clash between high and low – as in Peggy’s trip around the working class in The Family Secret.  One of his 1930s comedies, If You Could Only Cook, has an out-of work Jean Arthur convince car company president Hubert Marshall to pretend to be his husband so she can get a job as a maid.

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Betty continues to travesty the high arts in Synthetic Sin by interrupting her sister’s flouncy “Grecian dance” with a gruesome blackface shuck and jive routine that might keep this movie from ever getting released on home video. Donald is convinced just enough to give Betty the part in the play – but she flops, getting laughs instead of tears. Thinking she has not suffered enough in life to become a true tragic actor, Betty travels to NYC to get a taste of the fast life. Betty is something like the first method actor. So she checks into a fleabag motel and invites every hard-looking, gun-toting gangster into her apartment for carousing. In one impressive dolly shot, Moore walks down a busy street towards a retreating camera while trying on different expressions and poses, from haughty to flirtatious, hand implanted on hip. Her attempts at vamping are hilarious – she runs her hand through her mark’s hair, staring exaggeratedly into his eyes, before getting hair gel all over her fingers and disgustedly wiping them on his lapel. Betty doesn’t belong as a criminal or a super serious artiste. She was built to be funny, though instead of getting a farce all of her own, the movie ends depressingly with Betty declaring that the only career she wants is to be Donald’s wife.

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Why Be Good? proposes a different kind of conundrum. In this one Colleen Moore is well versed in the games of seduction, though deep down, the film promises us, what she really wants is marriage. Though the studio and screenwriters are still a little too wary of having a truly independent woman who can sleep with whom she wants, one look at Colleen Moore’s Charleston tells a completely different story. Moore plays the aptly named Pert Kelly, “an effervescent American girl” who is introduced winning a dance competition and then shutting everyone down with, “I’m naturally too hot for this old folks’ home.” Luckily all of the Vitaphone audio is present here to accompany her hot steppin’, and the track also has some pretty clever inventions, including a drunken rendition of “Sweet Adeline” interpreted by two muted, whining trumpets.

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Though Pert is a queen by night at elaborate nightclubs like “The Boiler”, which blows steam over its already hot dancers,  by day she’s a department store clerk who pines for the personnel manager Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). In an inspired bit of pantomime, she rests her head on his shadow behind an office window, and then draws his face on in lipstick. He is literally a marked man, and she will get him one way or another. The conventional ending of Why Be Good? is earned — she follows her desires and ends up with what she wants, and escapes the drudgery of department store work in the process. Of course her family just can’t understand her partying ways and interest in Peabody Jr. , but in an inspiring moment of flapper cinema, she explains to her father the whole point of this proto-feminist movement:

Pop, listen to me! This is 1929 — not 1899 — I contribute as much money to this house as you do — and as long as I think it is harmless, I’m going to wear what I like, and do what I like! …I want to go out, and dance, and have fun, as long as I can, as much as I can!

The fun ended for Moore with the coming of talkies. She divorced McCormick, her first sound films flopped, and she made her last film in 1934.