The Silent Film Serial and Soap Opera Connection

In our last post, we talked about how the soap operas are kindred spirits with and have a connection to precode films. That’s not the soap opera’s only connection to classic cinema, though. One more important connection must be made: that to the silent film serials.

Long underappreciated in film history, the silent film serial not only made big business for the movie industry, but created many of the dramatic and soap opera tropes we are all familiar with now. Packed with melodrama, scheming villains and cliffhangers, the line from the serials to the soaps is clear. Even when the genres don’t quite match up, the material under the hood still remains the same.

The first American serial, What Happened to Mary? was even compared to a soap opera by Ed Hulse in the seminal book Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders. And it does indeed sound just like a soap:

Popular screen ingenue Mary Fuller took the title role of naive country girl Mary Dangerfield, whose greedy uncle (played by Charles Ogle) keeps her from the knowledge that she is an heiress. Upon turning 18, a defiant Mary leaves home and flees to the big city, where she has numerous adventures–and close calls–while making her way in the world. Although the situations in What Happened to Mary? smacked of what would later be called “soap operas,” they gradually shifted emphasis as the series progressed.

This series had more in common with soap operas than just melodrama and a similar type of storyline. It was also the first signs of the audience loyalty that are vital to soap operas. Mary’s character was so popular that it appeared in another soapy series, Who Will Mary Marry?, in which several suitors turned rivals vie for the hand of Mary in marriage. That audiences wanted more and more of Mary Dangerfield was a big deal, and it may be the most important aspect of soap operas. Soaps thrive on the loyalty of the audience, creating characters that the audience comes to know and love like family over time.

The Mary series started this trend. Pearl White, the queen of serials, took it to a different level.

perils-of-pauline-the-1914-2a3

White had her breakthrough part in serials with the smash success of The Perils of Pauline. While the series was more adventure than anything else, White did establish a strong female character not unlike what one would find in soaps and precodes. There she played a well-to-do woman who is an aspiring author.

What Pearl White did after The Perils of Pauline is one of the strongest examples of audience loyalty to be found outside of soap operas. What followed was a series of three serials that ran so continuously, it seemed more like one long series instead of sequels. White played Elaine Dodge in The Exploits of Elaine, The New Exploits of Elaine and The Romance of Elaine, alongside her lover Craig Kennedy. With audiences so attached to the two main characters, the series just had to keep on going, with plenty of melodrama along the way. By the end of New Exploits, it appears that Kennedy may be dead, but Elaine is determined to find him alive in Romance. It’s no wonder that White became known as the queen of serials. She brought a loyalty and familiarity that is the lifeblood of both serials and soap operas.

And that wasn’t even the longest running of all the serials. The Hazards of Helen far surpassed anything White ever made as far as length, running a grand total of 119 episodes. It’s sometimes not considered a true serial due to usually having standalone episodes, but that audiences became attached to the main character and loved her adventures cannot be denied. The series lasted so long that the main character was even played by two different actresses.

Yes, silent serials even dealt with the soap opera problem of actors leaving parts. The Hazards of Helen change looms large, but a big one appeared in The Romance of Elaine as well. Lionel Barrymore (who also appeared in the previous series), did not last until the end of series as the lead villain. He was replaced by Warner Oland, who went on to become a big name serial villain. Jumping periods of time and rapidly aging, a common joke about soap operas, can even be found in silent serials. Between the first and second episode of Neal of the Navy’s, eighteen years pass.

At its core,  the silent film serial looked to achieve the same goals as the soap opera. They are both contingent on building audience loyalty and love of the characters over a long period of time. Along the way, they also seek to keep the audience coming back through melodrama and cliffhangers that leave them begging for more. And when that is achieved, both serials and soaps are as compelling as entertainment can be.

 

 

The Precode and Soap Opera Connection

When Dynasty is revived later this year on the CW Network, it will become one of the rarest of all American TV programs: the soap opera. And while prime time weekly soaps like Dynasty do still pop up, the daytime soap continues to barrel towards outright extinction. Only four daytime soaps still exist on American television, and their long term future remains questionable. Those few soaps that remain can’t match the splendor of power of soaps at their peak, when the shows were big massive events that shot around the world for fun opulent escapes. The decline of the soap opera is bad for a number of reasons, including the death of one of the most effective forms of serialized drama. It’s also a bad turn of events for the classic film fan, since soaps have always been a descendent and close relative of the precode era of film. 


The most obvious connection to old Hollywood in general is the fashion. The looks of these rich, larger than life characters call back to the fabulous gowns and tuxedos associated with Hollywood glitz and glamour. Although much more recent than the classic films we associate larger-than-life style to, the style of these soaps still evoke that elegance that is mesmerizing to watch. But the soaps connection to precodes goes well beyond that.

On the whole, soap operas are the most fun when portraying over the top (and often absurd) melodrama. The crazier it gets, the better, and the scenarios can plunge to crazy depths. This heightened sense of melodrama is so in tune with precodes that is a wonder soaps just didn’t directly copy the storylines. The celebrated precode Three on a Match contains enough material to cover months on a soap opera, including affairs, kidnapping and gangsters. Blonde Venus rivals any soap for pure melodrama, Marlene Dietrich suffering through so many travails that even Victor Newman might feel sympathy for her. 


The character types and tropes are also incredibly similar. Both precodes and soaps are littered with utterly amoral characters: people always putting their self preservation first, no matter what the cost to others around them. In some cases, we’re even found rooting for these people of shaky morals, hoping that they’ll get away with their actions. And in these shows and films, there’s always a chance that they will.

Because of these amoral characters, there’s always scandalous and shocking behavior to be found in both. Affairs, scandal babies, blatant crimes and various sexual improprieties are always occurring, often without consequence. Employees’ Entrance is the perfect combination of amoral characters and actions, featuring a cutthroat and reprehensible boss you can find in almost any soap.

And finally, the importance of strong women in both cannot be overstated. The most progressive films of old Hollywood can be found in precodes, films in which female characters are more powerful and complex than they would be for decades to come. With the powers of their job, personality or physical allure at their disposal, characters like Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face are of the same cloth of leading soap actress: able to change things and get one over by any means necessary. Norma Shearer’s turn in The Divorcee as a woman scorned should remind viewers of Augusta Lockridge in the soap Santa Barbara: a woman who can give as well as she takes.


Characters like those in Man Wanted (Kay Francis) and Female (Ruth Chatterton) are executives and bosses, running well oiled machines. They are fully prepared for everything and are in control, whether it being professionally or personally. Seeing these characters evokes the legendary Dynasty character Alexis, played by Joan Collins. The head of a company, she’s always a step ahead whenever in business or at home. Chatterton, Francis and others played the precursors to such a character. If Alexis Colby were dropped into a precode film, she’d fit right in–and she’d be running wild. 

Overall, the precode and soap opera offer the same kind of programming: wild and unpredictable. These are worlds where anything can happen, and usually does. Nothing is too over the top or too scandalous. With characters of little or no morals, they’re willing to do anything at all. And if they do, they just might get away with it. What can happen next unknown, but it will always get crazier.

And that’s precisely what makes both precodes and soap operas so fun. It’s a great escape to a different and even crazier world. And that’s why they’re both similar and invaluable.

Films and My Father

I should consider myself lucky. Most budding Old Movie Weirdos don’t have as an ideal of an upbringing as I did. Yes, I grew up with a family where my grandmother could alert me that The Big Clock was about to come on; a family where if my brother came home at midnight and saw me watching Anatomy of a Murder, he’d get hooked and finish watching the film with me.

And there was no greater film fan than my father. From the very beginning to the very end, films were such a joy to him.

When he was a child, he would spend entire days just watching whatever was showing in the theaters. The love of going to the movies never stopped, just as his love of films in general never stopped. To him, there was no greater invention than the portable DVD player. This always amazed him as a marvel, and when he was done working his two jobs for the day he always put a film on at the kitchen table. I highly doubt my collection of DVDs could ever surpass the cornucopia he amassed over the years.

After my father became sick in 2014, we enjoyed more films together than we ever had. No longer was it such a singular type of viewing for him. Sitting around watching TCM, it was something we experienced together often (that, and plenty of Seinfeld episodes).

Our tastes in film never totally gelled–he adored westerns more than I ever could, and I never had a chance of getting him to watch a silent film. But more often than not, our tastes overlapped. There was nothing he loved more than a Woody Allen comedy or an Alfred Hitchcock film (Dial M for Murder and The Birds are two of the last films we watched together).

And he was always, especially in these last years, eager to share a film or film moment he loved. The calls to gather around for a favorite scene of a film were common. He was especially eager to show George C. Scott’s version of A Christmas Carol. Never someone to cry often, that performance got him every time.

My father passed away on April 22, 2017. In the time to come, I know I’ll find solace in the same way he did: in front of a good film. And when Christmas comes around, add George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol to your viewing rotation. It comes highly recommended from a man who would know. 

A Few Bad Silent Films

With most silent films gone, film viewers today are always looking through a limited prism. Precious few have survived, and even fewer have been properly preserved and restored. As such, we’re most often exposed to the best silent films there are to offer, the true classics. There’s not a treasure trove of awful, bottom of the barrel silent films out there now. But they existed, of course. There were bad films then as there are now. We just haven’t seen most of the truly bad ones.

Let’s change that. Let’s see what some of the worst of the worst may have looked like.

Options are limited, but there’s still some choices out there. Old Photoplay magazines are ripe with brief, blistering reviews that tear apparent awful films to pieces.


Very few people probably saw Combat after that. Unfortunately, a large number of the dozens of films Photoplay reviewed every issue are not available now. There are, though, some lambasted films that are available to torture yourself with. How bad are these films? Let’s find out, fellow film masochists. 


Raffles (1925) 

The Photoplay review:

Crook stories usually keep one on the jump. But this one doesn’t, due to the draggy direction. House Peters as Raffles, the amateur cracksman, moves around so slowly that at times you just feel like crowning him. And then to make matters worse they cast Miss DuPont, who is utterly colorless, as the lady in the case. Nothing worth while.

Raffles is one of those plots that has been adapted over and over. Based on a popular story series of the time, seven different film versions were made between 1905 and 1939. And it is indeed a solid basis for a story. The title character is an elusive thief, stealing jewelry in cunning ways and then usually sneaking back the items later. He seems to be interested only the intellectual value of the steal itself, and getting the reward money donated to his favorite charity.

This would all be very entertaining, if not for how dense the people are that Raffles is swindling. Raffles is supposed to be relying on his superior intellect to pull off these heists, but anyone with a pulse could rob these people blind. The charm is taken out when it’s blatantly obvious exactly how Raffles will pull everything off.

Making matters worse, the film moves along at a glacial pace, taking forever to get to the obvious conclusion. A film that clocks in at under an hour is in big trouble when there’s still signs of dragging. Even with plenty of time to spare, the romance between Raffles (House Peters) and Gwendolyn (Miss DuPont) is  half-hearted, the two never showing any kind of chemistry whatsoever. There is simply nothing to get interested in or attached to with Raffles.


The First Auto (1927)

The Photoplay review:

In entertainment this can be compared with the first auto–missing on all sixes. The entire piece is slow moving and very tiresome. Of course it is interesting to see the first “boilers” that graded the highway–but that couldn’t make a picture.

The poster for The First Auto may say “a medley of laughs and tears,” but it only produces one of those. For a film that is allegedly at least a a partial comedy, The First Auto is a shockingly dire and depressing melodrama. Animals, humans and property are all either killed, nearly killed or destroyed throughout the film. All the while, many characters are constantly hurting due to the barrage of catastrophes and cars throwing everything asunder. Even the Marquis de Sade would find this too much to handle.

The First Auto is well made, but it is just wholly unpleasant to watch. The changes cars brought could be a compelling story, but not when it’s told in a heavy handed manner that hits you with absurd calamities so often. That just makes for a tough viewing experience that is a chore to get through.

The film does contain some early sound usage, but the use is so limited as to not be worthwhile. Aside from a couple utterances of “Bob!” nothing else is done with it. The cool looking cars certainly don’t make up for the dark contents. Only recommended if you feel way too happy and need to change that.

Lorraine of the Lions (1925)

The Photoplay review: 

When a ship goes down and everyone but a helpless little girl is drowned–you can imagine the rest. Lorraine lives alone on an island from twelve years, the idol of the jungle beasts. (No, it’s not evolution propaganda.) As if that weren’t too much to believe, some occult power leads her rich grandfather to her, he in turn leading Norman Kerry to capture her heart. Talk about the long arm of coincidence making this kind of double play! Now I ask.

The review above captures a lot of the absurdities of Lorraine of the Lions, and yet it somehow doesn’t capture all of them. There’s so much going on that is utterly ridiculous, things the viewer is supposed to take with a straight face. Within the first minutes, we’re casually alerted to the fact that Lorraine’s family is part of the circus. Even more amazing, Lorraine is an animal trainer at around the age of ten. It only gets wackier from there.

Lorraine of the Lions would fit right in during a cheesy b-movie double feature. Lorraine’s time in the jungle is a low rent attempt at Tarzan that always looks just awful. Her main pal in the jungle is a “gorilla,”  clowning around in a kitschy suit, doing some bad slapstick.

While it all sounds very campy and goofy, too many other apspects are too dull to be fun. Yes, there’s a master of the occult, but you’d sooner think he’s an accountant than a master of black magic. Lorraine of the Lions is bad, and it’s too half-baked to be entertainingly bad. 

Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927)

In this case, both the original full length Photoplay review and the shorter one are brutal enough to share:

This wins the hand embroidered toothpick as being the worst picture of the month. The former Tarzan series were enjoyable. But this is filled with such improbabilities that it becomes ridiculous. It is an insult to the human intelligence to expect anyone to sit through this. Need more to be said?

The original “Tarzan” stories were good. This is one of the biggest pieces of nonsense ever fed to a suffering camera.

As a story, Tarzan and the Golden Lion is more paint-by-the-numbers than a child’s art set. Sure, there are a couple oddities here: Tarzan has a wife and sister. Overall, it’s a pedestrian and predictable story. His sister gets kidnapped, but of course Tarzan’s animal friends help save the day.

The film is not quite as bad as Photoplay makes it out to be. There’s a couple neat set pieces and the action scenes are mildly amusing. Well, at least they are until the repetition sets in. Tarzan and the Golden Lion doesn’t have a lot to offer, and you’ll get tired of what it does have.

The film’s biggest flaw lies with the man playing Tarzan, James Pierce. There is not a thing right about his look as Tarzan. Although he was only 27 at the time, Pierce is caked in so much makeup that you’d think they were trying to shield the age of an octogenarian. The only scenes where Pierce looks natural is when Tarzan is clad in a suit at dinner. He looks more like he swung on in from the wrong set, and he kind of did. Pierce was set to do Wings when Edgar Rice Burroughs (his father-in-law) convinced him to play Tarzan instead. If only he’d had a lion friend to save him from that decision.

A Few Words in Memory of Robert Osborne


Robert Osborne is the reason you’re reading this blog.

In fact, it’s safe to say the vast majority of classic film blogs exist because of Robert Osborne and TCM. If you know someone under the age of 30 (like me) who loves classic films, Robert Osborne is the reason why.

The future was never bright for the preservation and remembrance of films. Films of yesteryear have been destroyed, discarded or left in poor condition. Important and influential film stars still remain forgotten, their impact and legacy forever faded. With this track record, the idea that millennials and octogenarians alike would be enjoying old films now sounds absurd. That exact thing has happened, thanks to Robert Osborne and TCM.

I discovered Turner Classic Movies sometime during high school, and was hooked immediately. Each month, I’d go through the full schedule and write down every film I needed to see and record. Suddenly, a treasure trove of films appeared before me, and I needed to see all of it. All the while, the genial face of the network encouraged me to explore more of my newfound love. That is what Robert Osborne did best. It wasn’t that he knew everything about the films (and he did). It was that he loved them, and was excited to share that love.

And that is precisely why I’m here, and maybe why you’re here too. It is the reason why classic films are more alive now than they ever have been. Robert Osborne’s love of film has kept those films of yesteryear alive and thriving. And his knowledge and love of film has inspired others to share that love too. It sparked a desire to write, research and watch that I continue to act on.

I should say that I didn’t have a special relationship with Robert Osborne. After all, I only knew him from TV. But in a way, I did have a special relationship with him. We all did, those of us who owe our film love to the man. That is something special.

Robert Osborne lives on not just through those introductions I still have on DVD. He lives on through every person who passes on the same love of film he gave. He lives on with every enthusiastic sharing of a film, every introduction to a classic piece of cinema. Over the years, Robert Osborne breathed new life into long forgotten stars and unheralded films. In making classic films immortal, Robert Osborne is now immortal as well. 

See you at the movies.

Vamps, Dames and Porn Stars: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2016

A new year is upon us, and that means every self-respecting person is creating a best of list. This blog is always part of that too, although in a different way. No best of 2016 films will be seen (luckily for me). Instead, we’ll once again look at my ten top ten personal film discoveries of the year. As always, some of these films are obvious classics that I somehow missed before. Some, though, are ones more off the beaten path that deserve a look. They are presented in chronological order.

A Fool There Was (1915)

Just from a pure quality standpoint, the Theda Bara vehicle A Fool There Was is not the greatest film by any means. The story is plenty flimsy and the pacing leaves a lot to be desired, but none of that really matters. The scarcity of Theda Bara’s films alone make this an important and worthwhile film.

With so many silent films lost, there are some things that film fans can only read about but not experience. One of the biggest blind spots is practically all of Theda Bara’s career. An early sex symbol thanks to her vamp persona, Bara is still recognizable today thanks to striking publicity shots like this:


Those images are practically all we have now. Bara perhaps has the worst survival rate of any silent film star. All told, only three of her starring vehicles remain (she appears in another surviving film under her birth name). Of those, one is a later comeback vehicle when Bara was past her peak period. This makes A Fool There Was almost the only look we have about what he vamp character was like. Bara’s aura and presence carries the whole film. Even without much of a supporting cast to work with, Bara makes an otherwise dull film worthwhile. This may be a terribly small glimpse into one of our most unique early stars, but it sure is an important one.

A Busy Night (1916)

This Marcel Perez comedy was discussed here earlier in the year. Even though the idea of playing every role has been done elsewhere, Perez’s one man show may actually be more technically impressive than Keaton’s Playhouse. Perez’s reputation of cleverness is well born out in this film.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)

Also discussed here earlier in the year, Three’s a Crowd displays that the legend of Harry Langdon’s failure as director may be overblown. Not without its warts, Langdon’s directoral debut is an effective attempt at a comedy with some heart and pathos. Langdon creates some great visuals with a memorable set piece. Given more of a chance, maybe Langdon could have grown into a stellar comedy director.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Anchored by a perfectly cast Louise Brooks and a bevy of unsavory and unpleasant character actors, Diary of a Lost Girl is melodrama at its finest. Throughout the the film, Brooks is put through horrors almost too numerous to mention, all the while making the audience ache in pain. The film boasts the kind of ugly character actors long absent from cinema, vicious and heartless. This tale of lost innocence, motherhood and the absence of love is one mighty tearjerker.

Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match looks, at least for a few moments, like it could be some good light hearted fare. By the time the film plunges deeper into unsavory and dark territory, you’re both surprised and pretty well hooked.

As someone who loves separate lives and stories converging, Three on a Match was right up my alley. Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis play three former classmates who reconvene and discover they are now leading very different lives. Davis doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, but what she does is pretty interesting. She plays the lighter role you would usually expect from Blondell (including an obligatory revealing nightgown). Dvorak is the real star here, giving one of her best performances while getting wrapped up in extramarital affairs, kidnapping and gangsters. Three on a Match fits a lot into just over and an hour, and it never lets up.


Dames (1934)

Don’t let the mass of Ruby Keeler faces scare you. Dames may be a slight notch below some other Busby Berkeley films, but it still packs in a whole lot of fun. The comedy works, and Joan Blondell and Dick Powell especially deliver. Highlights include Blondell’s “Girl at the Ironing Board” and a just lovely “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Just hope that the dancing Ruby Keeler heads won’t cause any nightmares.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Long before creating a lavish wrong man film with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, Alfred Hitchcock told the same story with some major changes. And in some ways, the original version of the thriller might be the better one.

Sporting a much more tightly packed runtime, this original also has some major differences in tone. The Hitchcock British dry humor is much more prevalent, and yet it still feels a lot more serious than the remake. For one, this original boasts an intense and gripping shootout scene that is as impressive as anything else Hitchcock ever did. In addition, Edna Best is a far more compelling female lead than Doris Day. Part of that is because Best just has a lot more to do. Her character makes Day’s seem like a cardboard cutout in comparison. Best’s character is tougher and much more interesting. And she doesn’t sing the same song over and over again either.

The film’s strongest point is easily the performance of Peter Lorre. Getting a chance to watch him play a menacing villain is always a treat, and he delivers in his trademark cold manner. Lorre could have carried a lesser film, but with a witty and fast paced story alongside him, it adds up to an underappreciated Hitchcock gem.


The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Few filmmakers, if any, can make a musical as entertaining as Jacques Demy. It’s debatable  whether this film is better than The Umbrellas of Cherboug, one thing is for certain: this film is about as fun as it gets.

Visually, Demy uses color to create something that is almost unfathomably gorgeous. Practically every outfit worn in the film pops right off the screen with bright colors. The set pieces compliment the beauty of the outfits well, creating visuals that would be just as stunning as still life. On top of all that, the numbers have such a fun and elegance to them as well. And it goes without saying that Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac add a whole lot of fun to the mix. The Young Girls of Rochefort is a cure for any bad mood.

American Graffiti (1973)

Every film fan has their blind spots: time periods or genres they just haven’t watched much of. For as heavily I binge on everything 1930s or older, my knowledge of films from decades after is much worse. I’ve seen so few 70s films that admitting to some I haven’t  watched would cause my classic film fan credentials to be revoked.

This year, seeing American Graffiti finally got remedied. Any piece of nostalgia is right in my wheelhouse, so this film was an enjoyable time machine. There’s something universal and poignant about coming of age films, no matter what time period they take place in. A strong period piece with a killer young cast of future stars, American Graffiti proved to be a real treat.

Boogie Nights (1997)

The same could also be said about films from the 90s. Boogie Nights is yet another period piece, this one to the 1970s and the porn industry. It turkey is an all immersive experience. From the look to the tremendous soundtrack, it truly is an engrossing experience to a different time. The stellar cast list stretches on seemingly forever. Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore and Burt Retnolds are all superb, and and every player of the impressive supporting cast hits the right notes.

Most importantly, it proves not to really be about the porn industry at all. It’s one of those tales about life in an entertainment industry, and how it can raise someone up or drop them cold in no time. The specifics may be different, but it’s a tale that can resonate with anyone.

I’ll Be Seeing You . . . and Other Underplayed Holiday Films

We’re right in the middle of the holiday season, and that means there’s a lot of holiday films around to consume. Most importantly, you’re probably trying to avoid the endless barage of carbon copy Hallmark films, along with arguments about if Die Hard counts as a Christmas film (it doesn’t). There are a lot of true holiday classics out there, including gems that get people watching old films. There’s a lot more out there than just White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, though. If you’re looking for holiday films that are off the beaten path over the next couple weeks, here’s a few selections to tear people away from whatever shameful Christmas film Ed Asner is in this year:

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

A fair warning: enjoyment of I’ll Be Seeing You depends heavily on how much sentimentality  and melodrama one can take. The plot itself is a rather old and common one, including one that comes up later on in this list. Two people (Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten) are both only away from their confined spaces for a short time: Cotten is on leave from a military hospital, while Rogers is due back in prison in a short amount of time. When they meet, neither can bring themselves to tell the other the horrible truth. Instead, they separately decide to have a good Christmas together by keeping their secrets private.

It’s a smaltzy story on paper, and is even more of a sentimental tearjerker in execution. And that’s precisely what makes it so much fun. I’ll Be Seeing You is more of an emotional rollercoaster than most holiday films, all told with the corny and sentimental tone you’d want for a film of the season. Something a little hokey is good around the Christmas season, and I’ll Be Seeing You delivers it in such a charming way.


Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Okay, so this film isn’t that unknown. It’s on TCM every December and is a popular holiday DVD release. And yet, Christmas in Connecticut still doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves as one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. Watching it, it’s easy to wonder how it doesn’t get played more during the season, getting as much praise an airtime as the other films of the period. Christmas in Connecticut brings with it that hallmark of the period: the screwball comedy. Few things can bring more comedy than wacky misunderstandings and cockamamie schemes falling part. Throw in a Christmas setting, and you’ve got a great set up for a film.

But what really makes the film work is the incredible cast. Barbara Stanwyck plays a phony food columnist, forced to serve up Christmas meals she can’t prepare for a war hero (Dennis Morgan) at the behest of her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet). Stanwyck is perfect in the middle of the madcap hurricane, doing things like failing to cook and trying to change her (fake) baby. Greenstreet plays the perpetually befuddled man well, and the supporting cast is rounded out with the always amusing character actor SZ Sakall. As the bound to get together couple, Morgan and Stanwyck have a chemistry that is at times adorable and other times downright sultry. With this cast and plenty of hijinx, Christmas in Connecticut brings an incredible amount of fun.


Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Beyond Tomorrow also can be classified as sentimental, but it does have something you’re not likely to see elsewhere: a couple of unique plot elements. It opens with three rich older men thinking of a way to have some company on Christmas. They throw wallets onto the street, wondering who will go to the house to return them. A young man and woman arrive and hit it off. When the three men die in a plane crash, they return from beyond the grave to make sure the people they set up stay together.

Even more of a redemption tale than a Christmas film, Beyond Tomorrow does a good job of fleshing out all the major players involved. The three elder men aren’t just vehicles to bring a couple together at Christmas. They’ve done things wrong in their past, and bringing the couple together after their death serves another role of redemption. They also don’t have much time to accomplish this before they are called away from earth forever. The cast may be unassuming and it may be a somewhat minor tale, but Beyond Tomorrow has an intriguing hook and enough heart to make it well worth it.


One Way Passage (1932)

I know, I know. One Way Passage has nothing to do with Christmas. There is, though, a December holiday that fits into the film: New Year’s Eve. While almost all of the film takes place outside of New Year’s, this romance classic really does fit the bill for an end of the year film.

Without giving away spoilers, the one ending scene on New Year’s Eve couldn’t be more important or powerful. You’ll probably need some tissues handy for it. But more than just New Year’s itself, One Way Passage is about the power of love, new beginnings and endings. William Powell and Kay Francis play two star crossed lovers on a ship, both knowing their love can’t last as death soon awaits them. Neither one can tell the other that truth (there’s that plot again), and they agree to meet again on New Year’s Eve, something that just can’t happen.

Powell and Francis light up the screen and tear at the heartstrings, but the story of their beginning and ending isn’t the only one to be seen. There’s also a highly entertaining and sweet subplot that explores if a criminal and a cop can come together when love strikes them.

Simply put, One Way Passage is one of the unabashedly romantic films ever made, and perhaps one of the greatest films ever. The connection to December holidays may sound tenuous, but it’s really not. And by the time the film reaches New Year’s Eve, you’ll be plenty emotionally invested in the holiday. 

A Classic Film Fan Holiday Gift Guide (2016 Edition) 

It’s that time of year again. As the holiday season arrives, it’s time to go shopping for fellow classic film fans (or as always, yourself). 2016 has brought about another fine collection of new releases that would be great for any classic film fan (hint hint). Here’s a few selections from this year to put under an #OldMovieWeirdo’s tree:


Napoleon

It’s finally here. If there’s a silent film fan in your life, odds are you already know about the blu-ray release of Napoleon. The epic film is not only considered to be one of the silent period’s best films, but perhaps one of the greatest films ever. Long seen only at or poor releases of various lengths, the BFI has remastered the most complete version of this long sought release–five and a half hours in all. This is the one release to get the classic film fan, if they haven’t scrambled to get it already.


Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10

The Forbidden Hollywood series always delivers a great collection of precode films, and this one is no exception. This time the set features two Warren William vehicles, as well as appearances by Kay Francis and Barbara Stanwyck. One can never go wrong with a slate of edgy precode films, which is why this isn’t the only set worth getting . . .

Wheeler and Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Volume 2

For some more light hearted precode affair, look no further the second collection of Wheeler and Woolsey films. With a combination of fast ribald talk and musical numbers, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey forever remain one of the best comedy acts of their time. This edition of the set also represents the time before Wheeler and Woolsey worked as partners. This set includes one each of them solo, along with four films as a team. For the dedicated fan, more releases of their work is a welcome addition. And for those unfamiliar with the duo, now it’s even easier to get educated. And that’s not the only comedy collection on the docket this year . . .

Buster Keaton: The Shorts Collection 1917-1923

There are many other Keaton collections out there, including shorts from 1920-1923 and an even bigger (and absurdly expensive) edition that includes that set and his classic features. For a more economic and also more comprehensive shorts collection, this one is the way to go. Unlike the previous shorts blu-ray, this one also includes the shorts Keaton made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. And the edition of those is not just a drop in the bucket: that accounts for 13 more shorts. This is the most complete Buster Keaton shorts collection yet.


Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage by Robert S. Bader

Finally, a new book recommendation. There is never a shortage of Marx Brothers material, and the books covering their careers are numerous. This book, though, is a little bit different. Instead of covering the film career we know so much about, the author focuses entirely on their stage career before hitting the silver screen. For a deeper dive into the early and formative years of the Marx Brothers, this is one to get.

The Greatest Films of All Time, According to 1923 Audiences

Lists of the greatest films (or music, TV shows etc.) are unavoidable. As December  rolls around, the year-end lists are bound to pop up everywhere. From IMDB’s top 250, to AFI’s series of lists, and every film blog in between, you can find endless “greatest films of all time” lists. Creating a list like that now is bound to be a perilous task: with well over a 100 years worth of films to choose from, any list will have glaring omissions bound to make a comment section grumble. And it turns out, those kind of lists are nothing new.

In the winter of 1923, Screenland sought to find out what the greatest films ever made were. The magazine solicited lists from film industry professionals (mostly writers, with some actors and producers as well) and fans alike. Over several issues, the results were published, listing favorites of 19 professionals and 16 fans. Most of the results aren’t terribly surprising. Many of the films that would come to mind first are there. There isn’t even a huge difference in the two sets of lists. But it is quite notable that while the industry professionals kept their lists mostly homogeneous, the fans were not very much in agreement.

Below are the top ten lists for the two separate groups. Thanks to ties in the number of votes, each list features multiple entries in the number ten spot. Included in parentheses is the percentage of lists the film appeared on.

Industry Professionals

  1. The Birth of a Nation (79%)
  2. The Covered Wagon (68%)
  3. The Kid (68%)
  4. Tol’able David (56%)
  5. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (42%)
  6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (37%)
  7. Robin Hood (37%)
  8. Passion (aka Madame DuBarry) (37%)
  9. Broken Blossoms (32%)
  10. The Miracle Man/Intolerance/Nanook of the North (26%)

Fans

  1. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (63%)
  2. Broken Blossoms (56%)
  3. The Birth of a Nation (56%)
  4. The Covered Wagon (56%)
  5. Passion (50%)
  6. The Kid (38%)
  7. Tol’able David (38%)
  8. Orphans of the Storm (31%)
  9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25%)
  10. Foolish Wives/A Woman of Paris/The Miracle Man/Way Down East/The Prisoner of Zenda/Blood and Sand (19%)

For the most part, the differences come down to the order of films. Eleven films appear on one list but not the other, (Robin Hood, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nanook of the North, Intolerance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Orphans of the Storm, Foolish Wives, A Woman of Paris, Way Down East, The Prisoner of Zenda and Blood and Sand) thanks to logjams at the bottoms of the lists. But there are some interesting differences.

The professionals were largely in agreement, especially at the top of the list. Only four voters left The Birth of a Nation off their lists, which should come as no surprise. The mythology of that film as a landmark picture didn’t grow only in later decades. Clearly, the aura of the film was already huge. The Covered Wagon and The Kid also dominated the vast majority of all lists.

The fans, however, liked some films a lot more than the professionals. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse tops the list and does significantly better, as does Broken Blossoms. And although The Birth of a Nation is again towards the top of the list, it appears on far fewer ballots. That’s because there is so much more variety on the fans’ lists: 41 different films appear on only one list. These fans have their own personal favorites that vary wildly from other fans. These include films we are quite familiar with like Safety Last and The Hunchback of Notre Dame , along with films you aren’t likely to hear about now, such as Peg O’My Heart and Jazzmania. One fan even compiled a special list of films he “liked a great deal better than most million dollar productions that I have seen.” See, the lovers of indie films were always there.

A couple other items of note: The Kid fared well on both lists, and Charles Chaplin landed a second film on the fans’ list. It’s an unexpected choice, his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris. Reports are that Chaplin’s attempt at a dramatic film was a critical success but a flop at the box office. So it is interesting to see that it had at least some fans at the time.

Also of note is that the lists skew towards newer films. All but five of the films are from the 1920s, with five selections coming from 1922 alone. As a result, many of the top grossing and most acclaimed films of the 1910s are absent from the list. It appears that placing a lot of weight on more recent films has always been the case.

So while the overall totals don’t reveal some unknown or forgotten classics, there is good news: with the exception of The Miracle Man, all of other films listed above are extant. There’s no excuse to miss out on these gems of the silent era, making these lists a good beginner’s guide. And each individual list, particularly those from the fans, provide a great opportunity find more quality films. The lists are crowded with lesser known films worth exploring. Maybe single vote getters like Zaza or Broadway Rose could become new personal favorites.

The full lists can be viewed in issues at the Media History Digital Library. Screenland’s issues from November 1923-January 1924 contain the entirety of the lists. If one takes umbrage with the list of a fan, Screenland did go to the trouble of listing their full names and addresses. Then again, it’s probably not a good idea to direct angry letters there now.

 

A Glimpse at The Day the Clown Cried

It could be considered the holy grail of unreleased films. For decades, film fans have pined to see Jerry Lewis’ infamous The Day the Clown Cried. It was even discussed here previously. Lewis’ staunch standing that it would never be seen has not only added to the intrigue, but also to the certainty it would remain unseen. Much to everyone’s surprise, Lewis gave the film to the Library of Congress last year, on the condition that it wouldn’t be shown until 2024. But getting a glimpse of the film came a lot sooner. Today, we finally have footage of the infamous clown holocaust film. 

Thanks to a German documentary, a fan has edited together a 30 minute version using the film footage now available. So, what does this most notorious film actually look like?


One of Harry Shearer’s statements on the film was that Lewis “tried to do it real . . . he’s trying to do it straight,” and that is pretty much right on the money. From the footage here, it’s pretty clear that there were lofty goals with this film: a stark and depressing portrait of concentration camps, and the power of laughter when there’s tragedy. And just from a technical standpoint, the film isn’t a disaster at all. Always a strong director, Lewis creates a very fitting bleak atmosphere. All of the actors are pretty good as well, although Lewis could be accused of going a little over the top at times. 

Those are the good things. The rest of it is just so, so wrong.  

Early portions focusing on Lewis’ alcoholic clown are nothing to write home about. And yes, there is a little bit of cute charm to the antics that he performs for the happy children. Shortly thereafter, the film hits the most infamous scenes, the ones that seem so bad on paper. In execution, they’re all the more worse. Over and over, you just think “please don’t do that,” just before that very thing happens. Take, for instance, the scene where Lewis is beaten by Nazi guards in front of the children. That description alone tells you it’s not going to be a good scene to watch. Seeing it is so much worse, considering how strangely it’s done.


As the guard strikes Lewis the first time, he actually takes a comedy pratfall, an exaggerated stagger and drop. All of the kids laugh, and given the way it looks, one is left wondering if the audience is supposed to laugh too. They also laugh when he comically (?) bows before the guard, who beats him with a club. This upsets another man, who ends up getting shot. The kids watch the whole thing and stare in shock. From the worst comedy placement to the children watching brutality, the scene is all kinds of wrong and uncomfortable.

And then there’s the big climax, where Lewis accompanies the doomed children to the gas chamber, trying to make them feel good one last time. This ending is the most notorious of all the scenes, but the descriptions don’t truly explain what it’s like. For one, it feels like it goes on forever, getting more unbearable my the minute. Lewis simply doesn’t lead them into the gas chamber. First he accompanies them on the train ride, works hard to get them off the train, receives a long explanation for why they’re being killed, and then finally performs his last task. All the while, it gets harder and harder to watch.

Part of what makes the ending sound so bizarre is the idea of Jerry Lewis making children laugh on the way to their death. In reality, there isn’t much of that. Lewis dawns the clown makeup, but spends most of these final excruciating minutes in shock. While it sounds downright odd in description, a grim faced Jerry Lewis leading a group of children (and himself) to their deaths just makes you feel like you need a shower. The final moments of walking inside aren’t present, but Lewis taking the hand of a smiling girl is there.


It’s certainly not fair to judge a film based on only a portion of it. But after decades in the dark, looking at these fragments is a must for many. Some of the fascination and mystery can be peeled away–at least we can see some of it now. And now that I can see it, it’s both exactly what I expected and not what I expected. Of course, this film is going to be hard to watch and misguided. It’s Jerry Lewis as a clown in a concentration camp. There’s only one outcome to that, and that’s a wrong and misguided film. 

But it’s also not bad enough to be funny. Going in, there’s the idea that it will be such a weird trainwreck that it will be amusing. Instead, it’s competently made with a cringeworthy plot. That’s just the right combination for an unfortunate, unpleasant watch. 

Don’t say Jerry didn’t warn you.