September 10, 2013

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Earlier this month Turner Classic Movies began airing The Story of Film, a 15-chapter documentary by Mark Cousins tracking the history of the moving image from 1895 – 2000s. Running from now through December,TCM will also air 52 movies that Cousins mentions in his work. To coincide with The Story of Film Chapter 2: 1918 – 1928, tonight TCM will air everything from Nanook of the North (1922, 8PM) to King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928, 2AM). While Nanook was recently issued on Blu-rayThe Crowd is only available on out-of-print VHS, so this airing is a rare opportunity to see it in a decent edition. George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog Marketing at WB, recently wrote that the home video future of The Crowd depends on the sales of Vidor’s The Big Parade, which comes out on October 1st. It was originally because of the The Big Parade’s massive success that Vidor was allowed to make the smaller, artier The Crowd, so maybe it will have the same effect on WB executives today. Like Murnau’s Sunrise (’27) or Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (’28), The Crowd depicts the trials of the everyday with expressionistic intensity, proving that the working man is as worthy of tragedy as royalty.

MGM producer Irving Thalberg asked Vidor what he would do to follow up the success of his WWI drama The Big Parade, and Vidor replied, “Well, I suppose the average fellow walks through life and sees quite a lot of drama taking place around him. Objectively life is like a battle, isn’t it?” He sketched out an original story with Harry Behn about the trials of an office worker who can never get ahead, but spent a long time searching for an actor who held the everyman qualities he was looking for. According to Vidor, he found  James Murray at the MGM casting office looking for employment as an extra. Murray had the hardscrabble background Vidor was seeking, having worked his way to California as a dishwasher and coal-shoveler. Though it seems Murray was plucked from obscurity, he had already secured lead roles in MGM’s In Old Kentucky (’27) for director John Stahl and the Joan Crawford drama Rose-Marie (’28). Regardless, he had a roughness that Vidor favored that he felt was ideal for The Crowd. Offscreen Murray struggled with alcoholism and depression, and following his soulful performance for Vidor, he descended into poverty, and was found dead in the Hudson River in 1936. Vidor was so affected by Murray that he attempted to tell his life story in a never-produced movie called The Actor as late as 1979.

In The Crowd, Murray plays John Sims, a tough-luck kid born into privilege but shoved into the underclasses after the death of his father. He moves to NYC with hopes of reviving his fortunes, and joins an advertising firm as a low-level accountant. That’s as far as he rises, having to scrimp and save to care for his wife and children. Tragedy lowers their income from precarious to poverty, and to Sims the world seems like an ever-tightening noose.


From the start Vidor depicts the city as a heaving mass, an active agent in thwarting Sims’ progress. When John learns of his father’s death, he is ascending a staircase, the camera pointing downward from a height, the crowd below a vertiginous blur. Height will be a destabilizing force throughout. When John first arrives in NYC, Vidor employs a series of superimpositions of traffic, crowds and trains that climaxes in a low angle of skyscrapers, sentinels staring down at the masses. In one of the most quoted shots in film history, Vidor than tracks the camera up the face of one of these buildings, with the use of a miniature, before plunging into a top floor window and peering into John’s new office, filled with ant-sized desks. The camera glides over the workers until it settles onto John, a member of the crowd for now, going with the flow. He coasts on this flow, even participating in the angles, he will peer up a doubledecker bus ladder up the skirt of the woman he will later marry.


He proposes marriage to Mary (Eleanor Boardman, Vidor’s wife) after seeing an advertisement on a bus saying, “You furnish the girl, we furnish the home.” His actions seem dictated by “the crowd”, his eagerness to fit in with an upwardly mobile society. But as soon as he takes those steps the world starts to conspire against him. It begins with everyday objects in his dingy one-bedroom apartment he shares with Mary. The Murphy bed won’t fold up and the bathroom plumbing springs a leak. The implied contract he signed with big city society is not being fulfilled – the advertisements promising a sun-filled “home” were telling lies. His initial joyousness at entering a loving relationship dissipates into bitterness, exemplified by a bottle of milk exploding in his face. The world is rebelling against him. It is here than he exclaims that “marriage is not a word, it’s a sentence.”

Separation is delayed by children. Both Mary and John decide to give their union another shot because of their son, and then their daughter. Their attempt is sincere, and Murray’s desperate search through a labyrinthine hospital to find his first-born is a nightmare of indifferent bureaucracy, the soulless efficiency of his workplace transplanted to a facility supposed to house his salvation. Murray pushes through a triangle of hospital beds to meet his wife and child, and the look of desperate beatitude on his face is heartbreaking.

Since their bond is with the child and not each other, John and Mary are always separated in the frame, until an untimely death shears them completely apart. In a funeral car they are pushed to extreme edges of the frame, eager to burst out of each other’s lives. Vidor struggled mightily over the ending, as seven were shot, and theaters were given two options to screen. One was a super-happy ending gathered around a Christmas tree, the other more ambiguous, with the family unit intact but still struggling. The latter is the one that survives in existing prints, with John crawling back into employment and buying his family tickets to a vaudeville clown act. The camera glides over the laughing crowd, ending by lifting straight up away into the sky, into the heavens the Sims can never quite reach. While it offers hope, it is a temporary one. For as the inter-titles state, “The crowd laughs with you always…but it will cry with you for only a day.” This laughter and this happiness, Vidor implies, will last only this night, until the hard work of living begins again.



July 2, 2013


“Directing movies — I’d do it for free, I like it that well.” -Allan Dwan to Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…

The 400 or so films that Allan Dwan directed are playgrounds for their actors, sandboxes of freewheeling experiment. Trained as an electrical engineer, Dwan was a technical innovator, but his flourishes were always in service to the specific talents of his performers.  In his self-effacing style, elaborate tracking and dolly shots never call attention to themselves, but only to the characters on-screen. Whether its suave Franchot Tone swinging off a saloon chandelier in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) or glamour queen Gloria Swanson fighting through a packed subway car in Manhandled (1924), Dwan found hidden reserves of athleticism and wit in his stars. They would need it to motor through the  scenarios of borders, doublings and makeshift families that Dwan was assigned, which he treated as complex logic problems that are always solved, from institutional separation (political or geographic) into personal bonds (lovers, friends). He oils these Hollywood mechanics through his attention to character detail and penchant for parody, able to pack pathos and the madcap into his unstable, gleefully entertaining concoctions.

Dwan has never had the name recognition of some of his classical Hollywood contemporaries, and aside from Peter Bogdanovich’s essential interview book The Last Pioneer (1971), has had precious little written about his inexhaustible career. Some of this has to do print scarcity, as much of his silent one-reelers are lost, and his Republic Pictures films might as well have been due to rights limbo. That has all changed this year, with two major retrospectives (at MoMA in NYC and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna), and a flood of writing, from Frederic Lombardi’s critical biography Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios to the massive (free) dossier published by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, a labor of love with contributors from around the world (including yours truly). After viewing twenty-some of his films over the past month, I’m about to add more to the pile.

220px-AllanDwanAllan Dwan was born in Toronto on April 3rd, 1885 as Joseph Aloysius Dwan. He told Brownlow the name change was caused by teasing at school, “they used to say Aloysius to be a girl”. After graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in electrical engineering, he caught the eye of George Spoor of Essanay Studios, as he was working on a mercury vapor arc lamp, which was easier on actors’ eyes.  Dwan supervised their use on set, and eventually submitted stories to the studio when he discovered they paid $25. Lombardi sketches the exaggerated variants of Dwan’s origin story over the years. In 1920 he said he was merely inspecting the installed lights when Spoor met him, but in the 1960s he claimed to have developed the arc lamp himself.

In any case he was subsumed into the movie business, and stumbled into directing a few weeks into his job as a writer at the American Film Manufacturing Company. One of their film crews had gone AWOL, and Dwan was sent out to investigate why. He discovered that the alcoholic director had skipped town on a binge, and was given the job on the spot. He told Brownlow, “I just let the actors tell me what to do and I get along very well. I’ve been doing it now for fifty-five years — and they haven’t caught me yet!” He was an actor’s director from the beginning.

One of his early stars was Pauline Bush, whom he claims to have directed in over 50 Westerns for the American Film Manufacturing Company (or the “Flying A”) from 1911 – 1913 and 20 films at Universal Pictures between 1913 – 1915. In Charles Foster’s history of Canadians in Hollywood, Stardust and Shadows, Dwan says “she just came in off the street and told me she wanted to become an actress.” Born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1886, she had lit out for Los Angeles and was performing amateur theater before he discovered her. With Dwan she had risen to a modicum of fame, and used it to advance feminist causes. In a Feb. 1913 issue of the Chicago tabloid “The Day Book”,  a profile of her is headlined: “The Western Girl You Love in the Movies Is A Sure-Enough Suffraget [sic]“. She is described as an “ardent suffraget [sic], believing woman can and should do just anything a man can do. That is, she thinks a woman’s brain and ability ranks right alongside, not a few feet behind a man’s.” Dwan married her in 1915.

Dwan’s films are filled with assertive female characters, from the Gloria Swanson silents through Natalie Wood’s tiny truth-teller in Driftwood (1947) to the veritable matriarchy of Woman They Almost Lynched (1953). His ease with female power would seem to spring from this early relationship with Bush, which despite ending in divorce in 1921, remained friendly throughout the rest of their lives. Dwan sent her birthday and Christmas cards every year after their parting. Foster spoke with Bush in 1963, and she still valued Dwan’s directorial flexibility, saying, “He gave us a great deal of freedom in our actions and movement…we were all relaxed and he got the results he wanted.”

This freedom is evident in the earliest film I viewed in the MoMA series, his Flying A production The Mother of the Ranch (1911). Dwan’s films are filled with absent parents, and how the kids fill that gap, but this one regards a mother whose son is absent. He heads west to be a cowboy, but tires of the hard work and turns to cattle rustling instead. Undercutting the East’s romanticization of the cowboy lifestyle, it anticipates the comic Dwan-Fairbanks feature Manhattan Madness, in which city-boy Fairbanks brags about cowpunching skills and gets pranked by his friends. In Mother of the Ranch, the Easterner’s laziness gets him killed, and the mom arrives looking for her n’er do well offspring in vain. But in typical Dwan fashion, he doesn’t stoop to sentimental gloop, but installs her as a kind of Snow White to the remaining ranch hands, who lie to her about her son’s virtue, and take her on as their own mother. The image of Louise Lester perched atop a mound of beaming cowboys in the final shot encapsulates one of Dwan’s recurring themes, you take family where you can get it.


David Harum (1915) is a more straight-forward bit of rural Americana, embracing the virtues of small town life. Based as it was on a popular 1899 novel, that was then a hit 1900 play, Dwan was probably instructed to play it straight. The stage star William H. Crane reprises his role as the kindly banker David Harum, who attempts to nurse a fatherless cashier towards adulthood. Crane is a warm presence in constant rotund motion, and Dwan employs one of the earliest tracking shots on record to capture him. He placed a camera on a truck to capture his waddle down Main Street, looking down at him from a high angle, watching as the town comes to greet and ignore him in equal measure.


Before Dwan began his ten film run with Douglas Fairbanks in 1916 with The Habit of Happiness (Triangle Picture Co.), he had worked on female-centered films with Mary Pickford (A Girl of Yesterday, 1915) and with both Lillian (An Innocent Magdalene, 1916) and Dorothy (Betty of Greystone, 1916) Gish. It was the Fairbanks films that became blockbusters, though, irresistible entertainments that poked fun at popular genres. While Manhattan Madness parodies the Western, A Modern Musketeer (1917) does the same for the swashbuckler, with a D’Artagnan-adoring Fairbanks attempting to bring the chivalric code into the modern day, and running into the suffragette movement. Dwan remarked to Bogdanovich that he and Fairbanks tried to create, “plenty of suspense, but from the humorous side.” Audiences ate up these exuberant and lightly subversive takes on old favorites, which highlighed Fairbanks’ easy athleticism, in which which his legs seem spring loaded. Dwan would cut down the height of tables and barriers to make every Fairbanks leap look as easy as breathing. Even when Fairbanks actually played D’Artagnan in The Iron Mask (’29, their final collaboration), it was still light as a feather. When he leaps into heaven in the final reel, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.


When Gloria Swanson is on-screen it is impossible to ignore her, and Dwan elicits two of her greatest performances in Manhandled (1925) and Stage Struck (1926) (out of the eight films they made together, four survive). In both Dwan draws out her rambunctious comedienne, pushing her down the social ladder, from costume drama clotheshorse to working class striver. Dwan called the glamorous diva, “a clown if there ever was one”, and lets her loose as a destructive force upon the city. Swanson would later call Dwan her favorite director because of it. Manhandled opens with a tour-de-force of physical comedy, as her daily commute turns into a gauntlet of male girth. She is tenderized by the oceans of businessman in the subway car, squeezed up to the roof and shunted down to the ground. She manages to deflect serious injury through a kind of bruising ballet, wriggling through until she spots light at the end of the tunnel. For Swanson, surviving in a man’s world will take all she’s got. She plays a snappy store clerk whose beauty attracts rich suitors, and she is bemused by fantasies of wealth. She leads a double life, attending high-class parties and netting modeling gigs, while returning home to her tenement flophouse.

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In Stage Struck Swanson is a meeker animal, cowed by her man crush grill cook Orme, for whom she does laundry and pines wistfully at the window. The film is a story of her self-actualization as a lustful woman, enacted in a series of close-up inserts of a home-made makeover. She takes a scissor to her floppy hat and leather shoes to look the part of a flapper, and tears up at every eyebrow pluck, a thoroughly de-glamorized vision of glamor. Her sexual will-to-power eventually throws off these outward signs of beauty and opts for pure aggression, as the next group of close-ups will be at a fairground boxing match, where Swanson lays down a beating while still having time to spout verse. It is both absurdly funny and a character’s statement of purpose – her willingness to look absurd a proof of love. Pathos and pratfalls, together forever in Dwan’s effortlessly entertaining art.

In two weeks, Part 2 of this article will attempt to discuss Dwan’s sound features.


November 20, 2012

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The 2012 holiday season is also Alfred Hitchcock season, as studios have been looking for various ways to earn your master of suspense dollar. Universal released a brick of new Blu-rays, HBO aired The Girl, a drama about the Hitch-Tippi Hedren relationship, and Hitchcock, the dubious-looking fiction about the production of Psycho, opens in a limited theatrical release this Friday. The most exciting Hitch development won’t cost you a thing, however, as the three extant reels of The White Shadow (1924) are now free to stream on the National Film Preservation Foundation website. Part of the cache of rarities discovered in the New Zealand Film Archives in 2010, along with John Ford’s UpstreamThe White Shadow is the earliest surviving film that Hitchcock worked on. He was assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director, the second of five films on which he was the jack of all trades for director Graham Cutts. The White Shadow was a critical and box office failure, even leading to the dissolution of its production company, but what remains is an essential document of Hitchcock’s artistic maturation, containing themes of doubling and mistaken identity that would re-emerge and deepen throughout his career. Along with The National Film Preservation Foundation, great thanks are also due to David Sterritt for his informative film notes and Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath, whose For The Love Of Film Blogathon funded the recording of the fine score by Michael Mortilla.

Alfred Hitchcock started his career in movies when Famous Players-BeLasky opened up an office in Islington, London in October 1919. He applied to become an illustrator for silent film intertitles, telling Francois Truffaut, “For instance, if the line read: ‘George was leading a very fast life by this time,’ I would draw a candle, with a flame at each end, just below the sentence. Very naive.” He was hired in 1921 and quickly rose up the ranks, from head of the title department into the editorial department, where he would re-write scripts. After Famous Players shuddered the studio, an enterprising production company, Balcon-Saville-Freedman, moved in. They hired Hitchcock as an assistant director, and it was on his first film with director Graham Cutts, Woman to Woman (1923), that he met his future wife and collaborator, Alma Reville. The melodramatic WW1 romance was adapted from a hit play by Michael Morton, and with the casting of popular Hollywood star Betty Compson, the movie version was a success as well. The Daily Express called it the “best American picture made in England”, which was a high compliment considering the popularity of Hollywood films at the time.

Rushing to capitalize on the film’s success, The White Shadow was fast-tracked into production, with the same team in place. Betty Compson would again star, and another Michael Morton work was used, but instead of a hit play, they adapted an unpublished novel titled Children of Chance. It was distributed in the United States by Lewis J. Selznick, whose son David would later bring Hitchcock to Hollywood. The “white shadow” refers to the human soul, which Nancy Brent (Compson) is definitively missing. She is a hard partier, taking after her alcoholic father Maurice (A.B. Imeson) instead of her delicate mother Elizabeth (Daisy Cambell) or kind twin sister Georgina (also Compson). Nancy catches the eye of the dashing American traveler Robin (Clive Brook), but she slips both his and her family’s grasp and disappears into the smoky underworld of London. Maurice searches for her – and never returns. Desperate to hide the truth, Georgina pretends to be Nancy in the presence of Robin, and they both fall deeply in love. When Nancy and her father are found in a dissolute nightclub, lies are unraveled and souls are bestowed.

It is the first half of the film that survives, which contains some fine sun dappled outdoors scenes outside of the Brent estate, as well as the high-vaulted ceiling interiors, which makes the estate seem more like a mausoleum than a home. It is nothing more than a well-photographed Victorian melodrama though, until the riveting nightclub scene, which roils with anxiety as identities are on the cusp of being revealed. Nancy is a habitue at The Cat Who Laughs Cabaret, a two-tiered dive presided over by a statue of grinning feline with satanic horns, a playfully devilish image likely designed (or procured) by art director Hitchcock. It’s a self-aware logo, mocking the do-gooders’ stereotype of their lifestyle, and  thus does so for the rest of the film’s Manichean view of good (Georgina) and evil (Nancy). The club is filled with hot-stepping revelers, who stop and yell “Get out!” to any newcomer. If they ignore the request, then they are welcomed with open arms filled with booze. It’s a strange and hilarious bit of business, again displaying The Cat Who Laughs denizens to be an ironic, intellectual lot who are far more fun than the banal world of proper society that the story is navigating Nancy back towards.

Compson is shown at the club in a seductive close-up at a poker table full of men, wearing a rakishly tilted flowered hat and smoking her cigarette in a long, stylish holder. Her sly smile shows a sense of comfort and control with her environs not seen in proper society. Graham Cutts’ camera is frustratingly static, but it’s a sequence where Hitchcock’s art design and screenplay displays his subversive humor, revealing the freedom with which emotions are expressed in the demonized zone outside of polite society.  When Georgina finally locates the cabaret, she demurely sits alone in her long skirts, trembling with anxiety. She doesn’t recognize her father, now a filthy beggar, while Robin (whom she is to marry while still pretending to be Nancy), is sitting across the room. Everyone in the room has either hidden their identity, forgotten it, or been deceived by it. Then the real Nancy makes her entrance, strutting down the main staircase with the brazen erotic energy of Mae West. It is at this point where the film cuts off. And this is probably for the best, for, instead of leading the room in a orgiastic party rejecting her former life, the plot description says she returns to a life of traditional morality, in which Nancy must be punished and Georgina martyred for their sins of being women. But in the room of The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the sexual violence that animates Marnie and the misshapen identities and obsessions of Vertigo. Inside The Cat Who Laughs, one can sense the future of the medium.


February 1, 2011

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“If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” -the epigraph to Upstream

This past Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image presented a screening of John Ford’s Upstream in NYC for the first time since the film’s debut over 80 years ago. Long thought lost, a nitrate print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in early 2009, part of a cache of 75 titles now being preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restoration work on Upstream was performed by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, under the direction of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. The U.S. re-premiere occurred last September 1st at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and has been slowly touring the country since.

Upstream is an effortlessly delightful comedy set at a rooming house for struggling show people. It’s as if Ford populated an entire film with Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hams from My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. The main blowhards are Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe), described as “the last and least of a theatrical family” (the beginning of the John Barrymore gibes), and the Castilian knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers), although the inter-titles wryly note he was born in the midwest as Jack. These two-bit entertainers stumblingly woo Gertie (Nancy Nash) to be their partners in acts and in the bedroom. Ford fills in the edges of this triangle with even more colorful types: the “star boarder” played by Raymond Hitchcock as a flirtatious monocled dandy; the aging, earnest dramatist Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard); the permanently tipsy tap-dancing duo Callahan and Callahan; and the pushover landlady/fading Southern Belle Miss Hattie Breckenbridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus).

This setup, adapted by Randall Faye from Wallace Smith’s story, “The Snake’s Wife”,  indulges John Ford’s obsession with staging the chaotic joy of communal rites (his wondrous dances, parades and church-raisings). The film opens on a raucous lunch at the boarding house, as each member is stirred from their dingy apartment rehearsals by the bell. In its fevered bits of business and subtle revelation of character, it reminded me most of the dinner scene in The Searchers, after Ethan first returns home.

Through some snappy parallel editing Ford introduces all the main players and offers a thumbnail sketch of their personalities. In the first sequence Brasingham is shown cheek to cheek with Gertie in front of a chintzy tropical backdrop, in his favored nose-up profile attempting to convey the throes of romantic love. Then a knife flies in off-screen, flipping right in-between the actors. Ford pulls the camera back slightly, revealing the flophouse room beyond the backdrop, as well as Jack brandishing his tools. Here we get Brasingham’s empty pretension, Gertie’s doe-eyed infatuation with him, and Jack’s mulish aggression. This one shot encapsulates all the action to come.

Ford continues by cutting back and forth between the tenants in their rooms, the bellboy walking down the hallway  in a backward tracking shot, and then the guests sitting down at the dining room table. Mandare is shown disregarding his rent notice, but immediately latches on to a skull-shaped match holder to recite Hamlet. A medicine show huckster is shown brewing his swill (the same gig as the Mowbray character from Wagon Master), a mother-daughter “sister act” clomps out a high-kick routine, the “Soubrette” flaps her eyelids down the staircase, and the Callahans tap the ceiling plaster onto the dining room table. During the meal, the “star boarder” slides all the way down his chair in a vain attempt to play footsie with the Soubrette, as Ford cuts to an under-the-table angle of softshoe misdirection. This madness comes to a close when a theatrical manager comes to the door, stunning the loudmouths into a panicked titter. Ford then pans across their elastic faces in a long take across the table, marking the end of this extraordinary sequence.

This opening indicates a mastery of late silent Hollywood style, with the swift parallel editing of Griffith married to more exploratory camera movements. It was initially supposed that Upstream would reflect the influence of F.W. Murnau, who had wowed the Fox technicians during the filming of Sunrise, and whose expressionist style became evident in the chiaroscuro of Ford’s Four Sons of 1928. Ford had also visited Murnau in Germany after the completion of Sunrise, returning to the States in April 1927, according to Tag Gallagher.  Gallagher and Bill Levy both list Upstream’s release date as January 30th, 1927, which would put its production dates before the production of Sunrise, released later in ’27, and before his trip to Germany. Doug Cummings comes to a similar conclusion at his blog Film Journey.

In any case, the evidence is on-screen, with naturalistic photography throughout. There is no effort to emotionalize the space, aside from a few trick shots of superimposition that act to speed the story along rather than as poetic gestures. One example occurs after the theatrical manager hired Brasingham to play Hamlet in London:”it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible actor, we just want the name.” Upon hearing the word “Hamlet”, he blocks out the rest, simply staring at himself in the dusty mirror behind the manager, his self-actualization as an insufferable narcissist, rather than as just a pitiable one. It is during the queasy moments before his premiere that Ford employs a visual trick that Cummings compares to the final scene of Nosferatu. As Brasingham tries to remember the lessons that Mandare taught him, a spectre of the latter emerges in a superimposition, a ghostly reminder that makes both a flashback or an inter-title unnecessary. This presence expresses Brasingham’s inner turmoil quite succinctly on its own, a conjuring of past education and emotion.

This ghostly image though, rhymes with one in the final scene, when Brasingham, now an international sensation, returns to the boarding house for a publicity stunt. But the day he arrives Jack is finally marrying Gertie (“How would you like to throw plates at me for the rest of your life?”) in another great communal scene, and Brasingham assumes the cameras are for him. A group photo is being taken, one in which the preening “Star” and Mandare both inch toward the center, blocking the bride and groom. When the flash goes off, and the smoke fills the room, Ford uses another dissolve to Brasingham’s silhouette etched into the smoke, his face coming into focus as it dissipates. This time Brasingham is the ghostly figure, a foolish specter disappearing into his own image.

From the few films I’ve seen from this period in his career, it ranks right with Three Bad Men (1926) as one of my favorites, and it’s truly a cause for celebration that it’s been found and restored.

The screening I attended also included a fragment from the trailer to the Strong Boy (1929), which was also restored, although the rest of this Ford film is lost. It starred Victor McLaglen as a hot-headed train valet, aka “baggage smasher”. The fragment contained some dangerous looking fight scenes and the kind of knockabout comedy Ford would insert in everything he made.


November 23, 2010


The wheezing, rickety looking vehicle you see above, silently mocked by the parallel oil pipeline, is desperately straining up the incline, hoping to reach the space outside the CinemaScope frame. Why the hurry? Because they’re trying to….Escape From Zahrain! This 1962 Paramount adventure film is being released on DVD by Olive Films on December 7th, and it delivers the ragtag-group-on-the-run goods. At age 51, it was director Ronald Neame’s first Hollywood production, after a lifetime in the British system.

An assistant cameraman on Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), he became a highly sought after cinematographer for 12 years, and worked frequently for David Lean (This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit). After moving to producing duties on Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, he segued into directing with the 1957 relationship drama Windom’s Way (1957). It wasn’t until the success of Tunes of Glory (1960), and its Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, that Paramount came calling. He’s mainly remembered now for The Poseidon Adventure‘s disaster theatrics, but his career seems to warrant further investigation. I’m sure there are readers out there more well-versed in Neame’s work, so please send recommendations my way.

The plot of Escape from Zahrain essentially re-locates Stagecoach to a made up Middle Eastern country, throwing together conflicting personalities into a tight space. Sharif (Yul Brynner) is the stoic imprisoned leader of a revolutionary group in Zahrain advocating the expulsion of the corrupt U.S. oil company. A student cell led by Ahmed (Sal Mineo) leads a bold jail-break scheme, springing Sharif as he is being transferred to another city. As they race away from government thugs to the border, they have to deal with the other inmates in Sharif’s car. Huston (Warden) is an arrogant American embezzler, while Tahar (Anthony Caruso) is a murderous, shifty local. When this suspicious group needs a new ride, they kidnap Laila (Madlyn Rhue) and her emergency vehicle in their rumble towards freedom.


Neame utilizes the CinemaScope frame to alternate sweaty cab interiors with epic long shots of desert and horizon, often bisected by jutting diagonals. These graphically unbalanced shots echo the shifting power relationship between the cranky travelers. Sharif stares bullets into the windshield while everyone else jockeys for position. Huston never shuts up but has his uses fixing cars, while Ahmed’s idealism smacks up against Laila’s humanist pragmatism, and Tahar is just an asshole. The actors are relaxed within the streamlined narrative, with Jack Warden especially resourceful as the cynical ugly American. The rest of the actors compare chest hair (Sal Mineo finishes last, James Mason wins in a landslide in his hilarious cameo), while Madlyn Rhue is appropriately confused. With taut storytelling, companionable characters and the expressive images, it’s a diverting gem from the waning days of the studio system.


He Who Gets Slapped (1924) marks another Hollywood debut, this time of the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom, now on DVD from the Warner Archive (it’s also the first film produced under the MGM banner, and so the first to use Leo the Lion). Sjostrom’s Name the Man (1924) might have been filmed ahead of it, but Slapped beat it to screens. The film is in pretty rough shape, with shaking frames, heavy scratches and an overall softness, but at least it’s better than the version that’s streaming at Google Video.

Sjostrom was one of the pioneers in developing a language for narrative cinema. His Ingeborg Holm(1913) is a powerful melodrama about a family left destitute by the death of the father. But it’s important not just for its social conscience, but for the masterful way in which Sjostrom choreographs his actors in the frame, shifting the centers of action. David Bordwell has a brilliant post on this at his blog. He continued to have a brilliant career in Sweden, churning out outdoor adventures like The Outlaw and his Wife (1918) as well as the supernatural fable of The Phantom Carriage (1921), probably his most famous work. There he played with camera tricks, including the most complex double exposures seen up until that point, which probably caught the eye of MGM.

His visual experiments continue in He Who Gets Slapped, another monstrous melodrama starring Lon Cheney, a year after The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s adapted from a Russian play by Leonid Andreyev of the same name, about a brilliant unknown scientist whose discoveries (and girlfriend) are stolen by an evil Baron. As a cruel joke, the scientist, named Paul Beaumont in the film (Chaney), becomes a clown in order to laugh at his own bitter destiny. Soon he falls in love with the new acrobat Consuelo (Norma Shearer), who is also courted by the Baron who had betrayed him all those years before.

It’s scaled to the same tragic clown heights as Pagliacci, both protagonists subject to their own humiliating emasculation. But the grand emotions of the opera are not scaled down for the screen, and what is emotional when sung by a virtuoso becomes caricature and stereotyped when filmed as drama. The movie is populated with inert grotesques, with no shades of ambiguity or plausible motivation. Sjostrom imaginatively amps up his visual presentation, patterning large crowds as faceless mobs of judgment (as Fritz Lang would do in a few years later), but they are illustrating a story not worthy of his images. Despite this, Chaney manages a superb performance of a masked, bubbling breakdown, the only human element amid the burlesque, and one can see why it was one of his favorite performances, and one he recalls for his role in Laugh, Clown Laugh (1928).

Sjostrom would go on to make the magnificent The Wind (1928), another outrageous fugitive from home video. Also an MGM title, hopefully the Warner Archive can add it to their release schedule, and fill in another gap in the career of one of the great unsung directors in film history.


November 2, 2010


Flicker Alley has just released a monstrously funny box set of all extant shorts that Charles Chaplin made at the Keystone Film Studios. It is poetically titled CHAPLIN AT KEYSTONE, and is now available for your perusal. The sketches housed therein are mean-spirited little scenarios of controlled chaos. Chaplin swats down the elderly and the teething with equal aplomb, playing drunks, con-men and resentful working class joes. Bricks are the weapon of choice, available in suspiciously convenient abundance. There is plenty of interest for those looking for evidence of his artistic development, from his control of narrative to the introduction of pathos to his work, but the real joys here are tumbles down stairs and unexpected blows to the face. The Keystones were the JACKASSes of their time.

The ringleader was Mack Sennett, who when Chaplin joined his company explained the Keystone method: “we get an idea, then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase which is the essence of our comedy.” That is, there was no script, just a concept strung out with with improvisational business to get to the chaotic close. This was, as biographer David Robinson notes, not reassuring to Chaplin , who was “accustomed to the months of polishing that perfected the teamwork of a Karno sketch.” Fred Karno was Chaplin’s previous employer, a music hall peformer and director who formed “Fred Karno’s Speechless Comedians”, a hugely popular pantomime act that also produced Stan Laurel. They workshopped their sketches on the road for months until every last gag was milked for maximum hilarity. Now here he was in Hollywood with Sennett, completing a film in an afternoon with little time for tweaking.

It’s little surprise Chaplin clashed with his directors. On his first film, Making a Living, Chaplin was outraged at Henry Lehrman for cutting out some of his favorite gags, and he was famously chuffed at having to take orders from the younger Mabel Normand on some outings. Eventually his need for Karno-like perfection inevitably led to his taking the directorial reigns. His growing control of the material, and introduction of more dramatic elements, can be seen in The New Janitor (1914), in which Chaplin’s bumbling custodian almost tips out of a window but still manages to foil a robbery in progress and catch the eye of the secretary in distress. There is a dramatic and emotional arc to this piece absent in the earlier work.

But mapping an evolutionary arc on this point of his career would be a mistake. His development as a dramatic artist is not better, but simply marks a different path in his career. For pure comedy, I prefer the early fly by night Keystones, jury-rigged giddy contraptions of pure id. Later this week at Movie Morlocks David Kalat will single out Kid Auto Races at Venice, California (1914) as one of his favorites, and I concur whole-heartedly. It’s the first film in which audiences saw the “tramp” costume, although Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed first it hit theaters later. The Keystone team often filmed bits around live events in town, and for this scene Chaplin cavorts next to the second annual “Pushmobile Parade”, a children’s car race held on January 11, 1914. Allegedly filmed in 45 mintues (according to Jeffrey Vance’s DVD notes), it finds the Tramp continually blocking a news camera’s view of events as it pans right, variously posing and taunting the director of photography. His casual incursions into the frame build and build until he gives the lens the stink-eye in an extreme close-up.

What is equally interesting to the loose improvisation of the film is to watch the spectators reactions to the Little Tramp, whom they are seeing for the first time. Their reactions range from non-plussed to confused towards the shoddily dressed maniac who nearly avoids getting clipped by a toy car and incites a mini-riot with the newsreel crew. It is a loose, brilliantly executed bit of slapstick as well as a documentary depicting the birth of Chaplin’s skeptical but curious worldwide audience.

A similar routine is run through in A Busy Day, which was directed by Mack Sennett. This time they film in Wilmington on April 11, 1914 during a dedication ceremony and parade celebrating the Los Angeles Harbor expansion (from Vance’s DVD notes). Chaplin cross-dresses as the rather ill-tempered young wife of Mack Swain, who has a gigantic wandering eye. But she begins by obstructing another camera crew, posing mock seductively until someone tries to forcibly wrench her away from stardom. Her dream is forever deferred as she executes some limber kicks against these evil interlocutors before being tossed against the bandstand. Then her ire returns to her husband and a battale royal escalates to the pier and a final somersault into the water. From the start Chaplin is playing with ideas of fame, which he would wait to fully explicate until Limelight (1952).

While structurally something like Dough and Dynamite is a masterpiece, I found the blunt insanity of The Fatal Mallet to be more my style. A fever dream of male jealousy, Chaplin and Mack Swain battle over the hand of the always delightful Mabel Normand, at least until another guy comes along to divert their wrath. There are no character details beyond the cliche of their physical type, and it is structured around endless brickbats to the head. In its insistent refusal to acknowledge physical reality, it is both hilarious and sublime, a fusillade of cinderblock poetry. The men move to deathly lengths to subdue the others, as Normand looks on with increasing disinterest.

It is a box set to savor, for the minor moments of improvisational genius (like how he uses pliers to tip a girls head his way in Laughing Gas), as well as the gains in narrative and spatial coherence that clearly point to his feature length greats. Essential viewing.


August 31, 2010


For a man who toiled in the studio system for close to 50 years, cranking out genre quickies and prestige productions with equal aplomb, Raoul Walsh’s work remains astonishingly coherent. My grab-bag syle of viewing has made this resoundingly clear. This week I watched his earliest work, Regeneration (1915) and The Thief of Bagdad (1925) through two films he made in 1953: The Lawless Breed and Gun Fury. The above still is from Along the Great Divide, a spare, Oedipal Western from 1951. All of them, in one guise or another, deals with Walsh’s major concern, the benefits (freedom) and costs (self-absorption, loneliness) of individuality.

In Along the Great Divide (available from the Warner Archive), men are subsumed under vaulting rock formations, isolated and doomed. Kirk Douglas, in his first Western, plays a neurotic U.S. Marshal intent on protecting a cattle rustler accused of murder (Walter Brennan) from his would-be lynchers, and on bringing him to justice. He pushes his deputies as hard as his prisoners, eventually alienating all of them over a harsh drive through the desert. Douglas represses his world-devouring charisma into a bottled-up rage, unleashed only when a bemused, sardonic Brennan starts incessantly humming a tune, “Down In the Valley”, that the Marshal’s Dad used to sing, triggering unwelcome memories.

Filmed in the emptied out High Sierras and the Mojave desert, Walsh shoots his actors in long shots against the alien landscape, reduced to motile dots during shoot-outs. When he comes in close, people are breaking down. The group’s loyalties are in constant flux, and love affairs fall apart on the second half of a shot-countershot. After cooing over a sunset, Virginia Mayo turns a gun on Douglas, eager to save her father (Brennan) from the noose. Everyone acts out of base self-interest, and it is revealed that the Marshal’s obsessive fealty to the law is merely his guilt-ridden reaction to his failure to protect his father. There is a complete interpersonal breakdown, with every man and woman looking after their own interests. As Renoir famously said in the The Rules of the Game, “everyone has their reasons.”

The faces are the landscapes in his debut feature Regeneration (on DVD from Image), a raw urban melodrama of gang life on the lower east side of NYC. Walsh told Peter Bogdanovich:

…I got a thing called Regeneration, a gangster picture, which is right up my alley because I knew all those bloody gangster kids and everybody in in New York. …I went down around the waterfront and around the docks and into the saloons and got all kinds of gangster types, people with terrible faces, hiding in doorways.

In his autobiography he said that, “There were enough bums and winos around to cut down on extras.” Equipped with these authentic visages, Walsh produced a downbeat piece of  social realism that runs underneath the stock drama, a mixture of fiction and documentary that is being mined today by international auteurs like Lisandro Alonso and Pedro Costa (Dennis Lim has a fine overview of this contemporary trend). It tells the story of John McCann (the immortally named Rockliffe Fellowes), a kid whose parents abandon him to fend for himself on the poverty-stricken streets. He turns into a brutal young hood, who softens only under the glare of social worker Mamie Rose (Anna Q. Nilsson), who tries to reform him. As a Walshian hero, though, McCann can never entirely be domesticated, the lure of dissolute freedom is too great. For Walsh, it was a natural decision to use “real” people to fill the cast, a cost-cutting maneuver that also allowed him to film those “terrible faces” which attracted him so much.

Previously employed as an actor by D.W. Griffith, as John Wilkes Booth in A Birth of a Nation and a host of Biograph shorts, there is a strong influence in Regeneration from his mentor. Walsh remembers that he learned “not to allow leads to ‘eat up the scenery’ by overacting’ from him, and describes one of the final sequences of the film:  “I had the camera move in for a close-up in the best Billy Bitzer style.” The close-ups are extraodinary, intimate portraits that impede the story, unnecessary to the action but essential to understand the time and place. More is revealed in a shot of a tattered t-shirt on McCann’s drunken stepfather than any inter-title could convey. Poverty is portrayed matter-of-factly, without condescension or embellishment, and it is this oppressive sense of reality that lends Regeneration its sizable force.

The Thief of Bagdad (streaming on Netflix Instant)was a mega-production, and while it’s more of a triumph for set designer William Cameron Menzies and Douglas Fairbanks’ chest, it continues Walsh’s interest in outsiders, albeit in a brighter, more rakish tone than Regeneration or even Along the Great Divide. Fairbanks’ thief is a charming rogue, but a solitary one, getting tips from a variety of magical grotesques, but his feats of strength and wit are all accomplished alone.

Walsh made two westerns with Rock Hudson in 1953, which deal with opposing visions of masculinity. In The Lawless Breed (on Wesley Hardin escapes the religious strictures of his father, only to fall into the  life of an outlaw. While in Gun Fury (on DVD) Hudson is an upstanding type, a fumbling fiance forced into vengeance when his wife is kidnapped.

The Lawless Breed seems like a dry run for The Tall Men a few years later, as Hardin has a dream of owning a farm and living the quiet life, while his dancehall gal is skeptical. The same dynamic is present between Clark Gable and Jane Russell in the later film, but what they make playful and flirtatious is rendered stolid and melodramatic here. The creaking script makes excuses for all of Hardin’s murders, straining visibly to whitewash his character into a spotless hero. This pushes against Walsh’s instinct to problematize the heroic instinct, and the resulting film is an intriguing failure. The shootouts are crisp and well-staged, but there is no tension or shading in Hardin’s character, with little of the ambivalent violence of Gable, who is a shown as a thief in the opening shot of The Tall Men.

Hudson made Gun Fury with Walsh the same year, which was shot in 3D. It has the most inventive use of 3D technology I’ve seen, mainly in the use of depth effects, which he was already a master at in the lowly 2D format. But here images in the foreground gain a new solidity, with dust kicking up in front of our eyes as a horse cuts through the back third of the frame. There’s a density and volume to the images that is absent from the recent 3D cycle, achieved through the constant interplay between background and foreground that elasticizes the screen space.

Hudson plays Ben Warren, left for dead by a brutal gang who abscond with his wife-to-be Donna Reed. Warren is no fighter, getting gunned down while futzing with a shotgun, and accepts the help of a former member of the gang, and a Native American who had suffered at their hand. The narrative is sleek and focused, pushing Warren forward even when he’d rather not, an accidental hero who’s not very good at his role.

For now, this will be my last post on Walsh, and it’s been nothing less than a revelation for me. His “invisible” style is never less than expressive, from the heights of Manpower to the lengths of the ‘Scope Tall Men, he has an instinctual touch for how to pack his frames for maximum dramatic impact. His heroes are bruised, his women are cynical, but when Walsh alights on a rich vein of dialect (Me and My Gal, Strawberry Blonde), he can be downright hilarious. He’s a shifting target, but I’m in the beginning stages of tracking him down.

BEST OF THE DECADE: 1900 – 1910

December 8, 2009


The decade is almost at a close, and a deluge of film lists has started the conversation about who were the vital movie artists over the past ten years. All of them are worth scrolling through to stoke some self-righteous anger or gratifying head nods, but before I pull together my chin-scratcher about the end of the oughts, I thought I’d take a look back at the first decade of the previous century. This is the period where cinematic language was transitioning between what Tom Gunning famously termed the “cinema of attractions”, which favored spectacle over story, and the emotionally motivated narratives of D.W. Griffith.  Consider this list a  work-in-progress, a wish for more suggestions and thoughts on this wondrous period, when the future of the art was up for grabs. I ended up with twelve films of varying lengths and complexity, but all of them are valuable not just for their place in history, but their vibrancy as moving images. These are unranked, in chronological order.


How It Feels To Be Run Over (1900, Directed By Cecil M. Hepworth)

A forty second joke based on an experiment in point-of-view and audience expectations. The camera is set at a low angle on a country road, and when the first horse-and-buggy turns the corner, one expects it to crash right into us, since we’ve been cued by the title to take the POV of the camera. But no, Hepworth, with a dry sense of humor, has it drive right by for a simple actualité, something not out of place in a Lumiere retro. Soon, though, another carriage comes hurtling towards the lens, and this time it doesn’t stop, busting straight over the camera (and us), before one of the earliest uses of intertitles flashes on-screen over our blackout: !!! Oh Mother Will be Pleased.” And it’s the end.

With its misdirection, canny use of the camera as audience surrogate, and slapstick sense of humor, it’s a compact little masterpiece.


What Happened on 23rd St. New York City (1901, Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming)

Another documentary scene that then explodes into fiction. On 23rd St. near the Flatiron Building, New Yorkers pass by the camera and look in sheepishly, or glance quickly and then scamper away. It again has the feel of an early Lumiere brothers picture. But Porter, the pioneer of narrative filmmaking, couldn’t help but slip in a little slip of a story: thus, the dangers of the air shaft are proven underneath the billowing waves of a young woman’s skirt. Yes, she steps over the shaft and shamefacedly shows the world her abundant undergarments. A direct ancestor to Marilyn Monroe’s scene in The Seven Year Itch:


Jack and the Beanstalk (1902, Edwin S. Porter & George S. Fleming)

Another early triumph from Porter, this lucid re-telling of the fable displays adept use of double-exposures and theatricalized space while maintaining continuity from shot to shot, in one of the earliest instances of sustained storytelling. But the joys here are beyond such historical accomplishments. There is real unpolished magic in the hop-skipping cloth cow, whose exuberant jig tips over a prop rake before he’s sold down the river. There’s a delight in performance here that’s impossible to resist . Then there’s the set design, which goes from cardboard cut-outs to densely layered fantasy in the final shot, a child’s paradise of sailboats, pinwheels, and dense (plastic) jungle undergrowth.


A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Melies)

No more words need be spilled on this immortal work of film magic, just watch and awe at the moon’s grimacing face. There is no cinema without Melies.


The Great Train Robbery (1903, Edwin S. Porter)

Essential to view with the proper tinting and coloring, but even in sub-par YouTube versions, it’s essential. My favorite scene is in the dance-hall, where a group of locals whoop it up, even employing a revolver or two to goose things along. It has the ritual feel of the dance sequences in John Ford’s work.


The Georgetown Loop (1903, American Mutoscope and Biograph)

Ladies and gents wave their hankies at the camera as a train wends its way through Colorado. Absolutely hypnotic, for the undulating lines of the camera, which piggyback on one of the first “tracking shots”. The passengers are brazenly, confrontationally happy, thrilled with the advances of technology and the nearness of their hankies, which they wave out of the window with reckless abandon. The patterns these fluttering white blobs create is often breathtaking.


Coney Island at Night (1905, Porter)

Sensing a theme here? Porter rather owned this decade. This is one of the documentary subjects he churned out, but it also just happened to be uncannily beautiful. Tracing the arcs of the lights in Coney Island in pitch-blackness, the camera slowly pans around the flow of electricity. A serene, melancholy oddity of devastating effectiveness. It presents Coney Island in an abstracted, incredibly pure state: just a blast of illumination to bring us all back to our childhoods: pure dreamland.


The Consequences of Feminism (1909, Alice Guy)

A raucously funny comedy of the sexes, in which gender roles are reversed and the woman walk around with machismo sweating out of their pores. They drop their kids off with their husbands before heading the gentlewomen’s club to talk stocks with their tight knit pals. The ending reverses field, restoring the role of man and undercutting Guy’s social commentary, but the sheer joy in which she depicted these super-virile women gives her true motives away.


Le Printemps (1909, Louis Feuillade)

An oddity from the king of serialized conspiracies and violence, this is a cutesy short symbolizing the coming of spring in a variety of forms: from woodland sprites to cherubs to plain ruddy-faced angels. Shot with an oval masking so the film’s frame looks like a lover’s pendant, it contains stunning nature photography, verdant and shot through with dew.


Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy (1909, J. Stuart Blackton)

Totally bonkers, this  short finds a belligerent smoker conversing with the fairies living in his tobacco stash. One ducks under the cigar box, the other in his pipe. With ingenious use of gigantic props to convey the size difference, along with a mastery of special effects (double-exposures, split-screens, etc.), it’s  perhaps the first film to show the dangers of smoking – or at least the dangers of fighting with tobacco-nymphs.


Those Awful Hats (1909, D.W. Griffith)

A timeless subject – the evils of elaborate hats worn at cinemas – is turned into a delightfully surreal short by D.W. Griffith. A parade of flowery-hatted women enter a rather ratty theater, when the patrons get jumpy at their blocked view. It’s not until a jaws-of-life type deus-ex-machina disposes of the offending headwear that things start getting weird.


A Corner in Wheat (1909, Griffith)

A masterclass in parallel editing, as Griffith compares the plight of the poor wheat farmers as compared to the capitalist wheat king, whose stock speculations have sent his net worth soaring. With sterling cinematography from Billy Bitzer of the hard bitten life relentlessly cut with debauched parties with wide-eyed bozos, from breadlines to cocktail lines, it’s no surprise this finely tuned cinematic machine springs a trap for the spiritually poor Wheat King. A beautiful and devastating piece of work – and achieving a level of suspense far beyond Porter’s more linear technique.


June 23, 2009

With Industrial Light & Magic’s Hasbro commercial set to dominate movie screens over the next few weeks, I thought I’d recommend some humble robotic counterprogramming. Michael Bay’s curated set of boffo explosions and finely tailored cutoff jeans offers the not unwelcome pleasures of a 2 1/2 hour lobotomy, but the following, more handcrafted metallic killers have a charm that the Transformers brand will never be able to match. So, below the fold, a few lesser-known robots worth a few minutes of your couch time.

First on this (brief) survey possibly contains the earliest surviving footage of the robotic menace on screen: the Harry Houdini serial The Master Mystery(1920). Released last year as part of the box set, Harry Houdini: The Movie Star, it’s a 4 hour extravaganza of hair’s breadth escapes from the noose, hydrochloric acid, a torture wheel, the dreaded MADAGASCAR MADNESS and innumerable other death-doling contraptions. The most disturbing, is, of course, THE AUTOMATON, a kind eyed behemoth that wobbles like a weeble but has murder on its mind (mainly through its eye lasers that are scratched into the film emulsion). I must confess, however, that I work for Kino International, which released the DVD, and had a (very) small hand in the production of the Houdini set (most of the kudos should be directed Bret Wood’s way). So take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt, although it’s entirely sincere.

The plot of this thrill machine is beside the point, but I’ll make a brief attempt anyway. Houdini is a Justice Department investigator working undercover in the office of a patents company. One of the two partners who runs the joint buys up ideas and shoves them in his basement, never to see the light of day. He then cuts deals with the businesses these inventions would otherwise destroy. It’s a clever way to get crazy Rube Goldberg devices into the plot, but evil patent deals don’t really make the blood boil, do they? THE AUTOMATON is also lurking in the cellar, though, ready to wreak havoc on anyone getting close to unraveling the devious plot. He’s an awkward looking fellow, with his bug-eyes and stainless-steel love-handles, but he gets the job done, i.e. scaring the pants off of people.


“GENE AUTRY MUST BE CAPTURED!” -Queen Tika of The Scientific City of Murania

The next item is the 1935 Mascot serial, The Phantom Empire. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A singing cowboy’s (Gene Autry – in his first leading role) “Radio Ranch” is located on land with a large supply of radium, which a trio of evil scientists is eager to pry away. But thousands of feet below the earth lies the secret city of Murania, whose Queen is eager to rid her life of the “surface people” who cause them so much grief. Essentially: everyone is out to kill Gene Autry. All he has on his side are two remarkably resourceful kids (child star Frankie Darro and “World Champion Trick Rider” Betsy King Ross).

The amiable looking fellow to the left is all business (note the fedora). They do the dirty work in Murania, cranking open secret entrances, chaining up prisoners, and serving the quixotic needs of their Queen (a bitchy Dorothy Christy). They’re nice, hardworking chaps at heart, although they happen to be working for a insane despot. Such is the life of an automaton.

An impossible clash of genres, this western-sci-fi-musical jumps from Autry’s ingratiating barnyard tunes to Tika’s and the scientist’s plotting of Radio Ranch’s destruction. Back and forth between knockabout humor and meldromatic sci-fi, you’re liable to get (pleasurable) whiplash. Half of the cliffhangers have to do with Autry returning to the Ranch in time to do his show, when there’s an entire city arming for his demise under his feet. Marketing his hugely popular radio program trumps even the world’s destruction. Because if he misses one broadcast, the Ranch will get shut down! These contractual cliffhangers are spiced up with literal ones, as Gene, cars, and kids all tumble down a ravine at one inopportune moment after another.

Autry’s laid back performance holds the whole ridiculous contraption together, and it’s impossible to keep your eyes off it, from the ingenious technology (GPS, surveillance footage) to the continually insane plot twists. Luckily, the whole thing is available to view on YouTube, although in less than ideal quality (it degenerates into digital mush if you try to watch it full screen). Since the title has fallen into the public domain, there’s a slew of DVD releases available, none of them likely to be of stellar quality. In any case, I’d much rather see a restoration of Phantom Empire than a briefcase-sized box set of the new Michael Bay headslapper. I’d sign that petition.


Subjects for further research:

Undersea Kingdom (1936): Lt. Crash Corrigan crashes the city of Atlantis and an army of trash-can robots, the Volkites, reign unholy laser-aided terror. A Republic Serial.

The Phantom Creeps (1939): In this Universal serial Bela Lugosi tries to take over the world with his golem-looking robot giant.

And Metropolis, of course. But you knew that already.