Nuns, Communists and Witches: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2017

Another year has ended, and with that comes the deluge of end of year lists. It’s time for me to do my own, my favorite films I saw for the first time this year. As usual, some of these were reviewed earlier in the year here, but many haven’t been. This year, the list heavily on the comedy side, but there’s plenty of variety in time period. They are presented in chronological order.

A Woman in Grey (1920)

Actually a film serial, A Woman in Grey was reviewed in full here. Considered one of the last adult American serials, it is a smart mystery that keeps the audience hooked. For anyone curious, it’s the perfect first serial to try. Expertly filmed in real Pennsylvania mansions, it’s just as good looking as it is compelling and mysterious. 

Zaza (1923)

The full review of Zaza from earlier this year can be found here. It’s a great introduction to the talent of Gloria Swanson in her prime. She gives an amazing wild performance, playing all the comedy to the hilt. A fight scene between her and Mary Thurman is a highlight that won’t be forgotten by any who see it.

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)

For classic film fans, this an especially fun Laurel and Hardy romp. The duo show up at the reading of a will, hoping to con the family into thinking Stan is the heir to a Laurel family fortune. But the dead man has been murdered and they are forced to stay at the house with the family until the killer is found.

What follows is a great sendup of the old dark house films. It has every element you need: the unsettling butler, creepy portraits, family members disappearing one by one. It plays like a more over-the-top version of The Cat and the Canary, with all the parody elements in overdrive. There’s a great chase sequence involving a bat, giving Laurel and Hardy a chance to put their original stamp on the proceedings. The ending in which the murderer and method are revealed is both a good satisfying twist and funny too. That is no small feat.

The Ghost Camera (1933)

This is a fun little mystery that shares a similar jumping off point as Blow-Up, except with an actual solution and no pretension (thank goodness). A man finds a camera and discovers that one of the pictures appears to depict a murder. From there, he must attempt to track down a woman found in the photos. Complications ensue and the mystery continues to deepen.

At just over an hour long, it’s a quick but satisfying mystery. There’s plenty of good British humor throughout, and all the twists and little mysteries pay off in a satisfying manner.

Service with a Smile (1934)

For fans of early Technicolor, this short is a must see. The loose “plot” centers around comedian Leon Errol creating a bizarre and comically over the top gas station. It’s all a backdrop for elaborate musical numbers with eye popping color. Whether it’s a fleet of dancers in bright green dresses or a number at a golf course, the color is bright and remarkable. Also looking gorgeous in color are the number of cars seen throughout. A rare look at vintage cars in vibrant color can’t be passed up.

The musical numbers are strong themselves, with the song “What You Gonna Do Now?” being particularly catchy. Errol’s cheesy jokes have some charm too. This overall package makes it one of the most entertaining and notable shorts of the period.

Climbing High (1938)

Climbing High is familiar territory for fans of screwball comedies. A wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) is supposed to marry a socialite (Margaret Vyner), but falls in love with someone without the social status (Jessie Matthews). Every bit of wackiness is to be found, from pies being thrown to wind machines knocking people around. The film does get credit for originality: it may be the only film where someone holds someone hostage until they sing opera.

What makes the film really stand out is Jessie Matthews. Perfectly at home with some fast silly comedy, she carries every scene with equal parts charm and befuddlement. And yes, she somehow makes singing opera with a madman funny. Matthews alone makes this above average fare that’s worth seeing.  

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another comedy duo horror movie on this list? Sure, why not. Somehow I’d gone all this time without seeing this classic mix of comedy and horror. It certainly lived up to the legendary hype. Abbott and Costello do exactly what you’d expect and do it well, but it’s the performances of the horror icons that stand out. Bela Lugosi especially is great playing it straight, and Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange play their parts well.

With all these stars (as well as Lenore Aubert playing the doctor) acting as if they’re in a classic Universal monster film, it’s all quite the perfect fun tribute to them. Horror and comedy have rarely mixed better, and it satisfies all you want from a Universal horror and classic comedy film.

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

The Trouble with Angels, simply put, is some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie. The story of two high school girls at a convent supplies plenty of good cheer and good fun. There’s hijinks to be had, resulting in plenty of light fun. The cast is stellar: Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, Mary Wickes, June Harding and Gypsy Rose Lee all play their parts well. A fun coming of age tale, you’ll be left in a better mood seeing this.

Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty’s epic chronicle of John Reed, Louise Bryant and the rise of communism is an unforgettable ride. It’s not just a biopic of a couple people. It’s an immersive chronicle into an important period of American and Russian history. Numerous notable historical figures play into the story, the roles performed by an all star cast (Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few).

Helping with the realism is the numerous appearances of real witnesses to the characters. They appear throughout in interviews, speaking directly about the real Reed and Bryant. In some cases, songs they sing end up as the soundtrack music to some scenes. This makes the rest of the film with the actors all the more real and raw. Reds feels like you’re in every part of that real scene, and you come away having learned a lot.

The Love Witch (2016)

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only modern film on the list has a decidedly retro feel. A tongue-in-cheek tale of a witch putting men under her spell, it’s worth seeing if only for now good the film looks. Shot in the style of the 60s or 70s, the film features gorgeous color and cinematography throughout. Luckily, it’s just as fun as it is visually pleasing. Fans of old horror should appreciate the modern retro feel.


A Tale of Two American Silent Serials

We’ve talked a lot about silent film serials on here this year, but we haven’t actually reviewed any so far. Finding silent serials, especially American ones, is no small feat nowadays. Plenty of famous serials exist in incomplete form. At best, those only give a little glimpse of what they were like. Foreign serials, considered the best of all, are more often extant: DVD releases of Fantomas, Les Vampires and House of Mystery are available. 

But what about the American serials? An important part of film history at the time, they deserve a compete and critical look. And so, we will take a look at two American silent serials that do exist in complete form. In some ways, these are the ideal two to look at, as they represent two different eras of serials. One, A Woman in Grey, is sometimes referenced as the last of the adult serials. With elaborate complex mysteries, it’s very much in line with the critically popular serials of the previous years. The other, The Mysterious Airman, represents the shift to more action based serials, something that continued into the sound era. 

A Woman in Grey (1920)

 If you’re looking for a good mystery, A Woman in Grey delivers in spades. It’s a well layered mysterious tale with a lot going on. A man inherits a house of a deceased relative, empty since her murder. A mysterious woman in grey called Ruth Pope (Arline Pretty) takes an interest in the home, while everyone takes an interest in her true identity. Both the murderess and the witness who put her in jail have a mark on their left hand, the hand Pope always keeps covered. Is she the murderer or the long lost witness? There’s also a fortune to be found in the home, one that can only be accessed by combining two codes. Pope has one, and the equally mysterious J. Havilland Hunter (Fred C. Jones) has the other. Frequent battles for the second code ensue.

Within those two major plot points, there’s several additional subplots and developments: romance, jealousy, more mysterious identities, surprising twists. While there are a ton of moving parts, it’s never hard to follow and stays mostly within believable realms. Part of what makes it so easy to swallow is that the mystery is grounded in only a few very real possibilities. From very early on, the audience knows there are only two real possibilities for Ruth Pope’s identity. That amount of information creates a unique type of suspense. There’s just enough info to make very educated guesses, while also being confident that the film won’t pull a dumb twist out of left field. 

That’s not to say the serial doesn’t have its problems. It did not need to be 15 chapters, for one. Cutting a couple out would eliminate some repetitive moments and cut out the film’s only weak subplot. But it still generally moves and works very well.

The entire serial is well directed and looks great, made even more impressive that this was an independent production–the company never even made another film. Filmed on location in Scranton, PA, all of the real location shots add to the film. There’s very few set pieces to be found. Real mansions were used, as were real scenes out of outdoor Scranton.

For a taste of what American serials were like at their peak, you can’t go wrong with A Woman in Grey. It’s got the right smarts and thrills to keep an audience hooked.

The Mysterious Airman (1928)

Unlike the previous serial, The Mysterious Airman is notable for who made it: the Weiss Brothers. From the early 20s and well into the 30s, the Weiss Brothers churned out dozens of serials. Many of these were of the western and jungle variety. And by the 30s especially, the were pretty cheap and not that good. But The Mysterious Airman is none of that. It’s just fun, action packed chapters.

The plot all centers around some airplane Macguffins. An inventor comes up with new technology for one airline company only. This prompts plenty of tension from rival companies, as well as from a masked Pilot X who will shoot planes down if he has to. It’s all very silly, especially when it gets down to the specific unrealistic details. That just means it’s not a high brow deep story, but it is a lot of fun.

The fun really comes in from the action. Each of the ten chapters is all about daring airplane feats, and every episode delivers. The flying scenes look fantastic, surprisingly slick given what must have been a limited budget. Once these action scenes are going on, it doesn’t much matter that the story isn’t about much that important. It’s just an action packed great ride at those points.

At only ten chapters, The Mysterious Airman is the perfect length for such a light, breezy tale. There is still some plot intrigue, as the serial does a good job of building up who Pilot X will be. But mostly, you’ll just be happy to come along for another wacky and wild chapter. While the conventional wisdom of these latter serials is that they’re of lesser intellect quality, The Mysterious Airman is still plenty enjoyable while being action based. The “adult” serials may have ended, but both these serials are great in their own ways.

A Look at the Golden Age of Porn

Imagine if you will, a modern day version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. A lavish production that jumps locales, it’s punctuated by smart, funny writing and beautiful cinematography. What film are you picturing? It’s probably not an adult film, but that’s exactly what this is: The Opening of Misty Beethoven. Yes, this Radley Metzger film is as smart and well made as it sounds. It also happens to be pornographic.

Sometimes considered the high watermark of The Golden Age of Porn, Misty is perhaps the finest example of what the genre was capable of at the time. But as I’ve recently discovered, it’s called the Golden Age for good reason. It’s a period with shockingly good films that could match mainstream films. And the parallels to beloved precode films are numerous.

Specifically, the films of this time include smart comedies more mature than you’re likely to ever find in theaters. Metzger’s films are tightly packed with literary dialogue, for those paying close enough attention. In another one of his films, The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, the title character is consistently interrupted by a poll taker who asks her comically absurd “deep” questions. When finally asked why she’s there, the poll taker replies “I’m here to give the film socially redeeming values.” Two other films, Blonde Ambition and Jack and Jill feature parodies of famous works (Gone with the Wind and Romeo and Juliet, respectively) that would send any audience into laughter.

While it may seem shocking enough that these films have plots, the plots are often quite ambitious. Take Off is an adult version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The ageless leading man is seen through the ages in a series of vignettes, including a Casablanca-style scene. In Misbehavin’, God and the devil make a bet to see if someone will marry for love or money. While these ambitious plots may not always play perfectly, the attempt alone is admirable and impressive. And it’s also a sign that the films could have achieved even greater things if they were given time to grow.

And that is one of the many parallels to be found with precode films. In both cases, it’s clear that the films were bound to reach even higher levels if not brought to a close by standards outside of their control. In the meantime, they were taking big chances and making the most out of limited budgets. And in regards to taking chances, unpredictability is the flavor of the day in these golden age films, just like precodes. It always feels like anything is possible at any time, and neat happy endings are never guaranteed.

Some of these golden age films even have plots that could have been at home in a 1930s precode picture. Wanda Whips Wall Street echoes Female, with Veronica Hart in the Ruth Chatterton role as a ruthless businesswoman. Another film, Tropic of Desire, hits on the kind of gritty dark side of things you’re most likely to find in a precode film. The film takes place at a brothel that’s home a stopping point for World War II soldiers. In a surprisingly emotional scene, one of the girls learns that her husband has been killed in the war. In a film filled with period music and settings, it’s a dramatic and realistic touch.

While precodes were brought down by the implementation of the production code, video tapes brought an end to the Golden Age of Porn. With product needed faster and cheaper, there wasn’t any time left for budgets or grand plots. The quality quickly plummeted, as the medium demanded something different.

It’s impossible to know where these films would have gone next, but with more time and bigger budgets, the films would have likely reached bigger heights. And these films had an important place. At their peak, they were adult in the best sense of the word: smart, clever, mature films.

A Few More Bad Silent Films

A while back, we looked at a few very bad silent films, as “recommended” from some brutal reviews in Photoplay. Since there’s always perverse fun in watching some cinematic garbage, it’s time to check out a few more of these supposed bad silent films. This time, we’re even including an early talkie, since the Photoplay review is too good to resist. Remember kids, only a professional can get through films this bad. Don’t try this at home.

The Love Light (1921)

The Photoplay review:

There is something decidedly wrong about a Mary Pickford picture when the best thing you remember about it is a caption entitled “stewed chicken” followed by an action scene in which an inquisitive hen, drinking wine from an overturned cask, is seen to float back to its coop with that ludicrous uncertainty of movement associated with the modern gentleman full of the neighbors’ brew. Yet that is about all I recall of The Love Light.

It’s surprising that the drunk chicken is all the reviewer remembers of The Love Light, although they can’t be blamed for forgetting everything that happens in the film. For while the film starts out looking like a light Mary Pickford comedy, it transforms into a constant pitfall of absurd tragedies. Let’s lay out all the things that happens to Pickford in the film: she takes in a deserter from the war, trusting his story of being an American. He’s actually a German spy, and in sending him an “I love you” message from her lighthouse, accidentally sends out a message that leads to her brother being killed. The German spy husband falls off a cliff, after which she has a child from him. She loses her child after nuns take them away from her. And when her kidnapped child is stranded at sea, she must light her house on fire for the boat to see land. Oh, and her other brother goes blind in the war.

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Got all that?

I sure hope so, because that takes place in about 40 minutes or so. It becomes comically absurd how many times Pickford throws her head back and screams into the void. Not to mention that the whole problem started because she somehow got fooled into thinking a German spy actually sounded like an American. Given everything else that happens to her, it’s a miracle that she didn’t accidentally set herself on fire while setting the house ablaze. Overall, The Love Light is such a poor vehicle for Mary Pickford, who loses all her charm in a sea of absurd tragedy.

The Claw (1927)

The Photoplay review:

Evidently this was produced just to make the contract players earn their salaries. We still have the wealthy papas endeavoring to make great big he-men out of their sons. To Africa they are set for rejuvenation. And between cannibals and jungle animals the hero wins out.

In fairness, The Claw really isn’t all that bad. It’s just not very good either. A decidedly minor effort,  it’s a mostly forgettable romp with plot elements so obvious they could be seen from space. Claire Windsor plays a woman bored by her supposed wimp husband (Maurice Stair), while she crushes on a brave explorer and Major (Arthur Edmund Carewe). But to the surprise of no one, her husband proves to be the real brave one while on a dangerous African expedition.

The film does contain one interesting wrinkle that is unfortunately never fully followed up on. Carewe is harboring a secret wife and child, which should have at least set up some over-the-top melodrama. Instead, it barely becomes a factor in the rest of the film. At under an hour, the film just keeps cranking along with no real depth.

Don’t look for much excitement in the jungle scenes. Like everything else in the film, it’s perfunctory and rushed. Don’t look for much with The Claw, the cinematic equivalent to one of those ambient noise machines.

Riders of the Purple Sage (1925)

The Photoplay review:

We were looking forward to this latest Tom Mix vehicle, but for some reason or other we were disappointed. Perhaps we expected too much. The popular novel by Zane Grey had plenty of action but not so much with the picture. Of course Tom can always be relied upon to prove himself the hero and save a young lady, who in this case happens to own a ranch and is robbed by rustlers. Fine photography.

Photoplay has it about right. Tom Mix was always an ideal western star, and his presence and personality does help this adaptation of Riders of the Purple Sage quite a bit. And it is indeed well directed with some great stunts as well. As for the content of the film and how compelling it is? Well, that’s a whole different problem.

One intertitle sums up the whole problem with the film. It notes that Mix has “outwitted them at every turn.” That point couldn’t have been any clearer if he was wearing a Harlem Globetrotters jersey. There just isn’t much drama and suspense, as Mix disposes of all adversity in practically the blink of an eye. Don’t look away, or you could miss him disposing of a series of villains in seconds flat. Even Warner Oland’s final dastardly plan is introduced and disposed of quicker than a hiccup. While there’s still some fun to be had, the one sided nature takes a lot of the interest out of it.

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High Voltage (1929)

The Photoplay review:

A stupid, morbid movie that’s suspiciously like “The Sin Sister”–and nowhere near as good. Three blondes, a banker, a truck driver and a dick are snowed in for a week in a country church. It’s intended to scale the heights of human drama, but due to clumsy direction, it is utterly vague and ridiculous. The usual charming William Boyd smile is hidden behind a week-old beard, and anyway, Bill’s losing his girlish figure, or so it seems.

High Voltage is actually an early complete talkie, but with a “stupid, morbid” lead in, this movie just sounds so tempting. Unfortunately, High Voltage couldn’t have a more misleading title. Well, except that audiences probably feel like they’re being subjected to a real Milgram experiment while watching it.

As an early talkie with Carole Lombard and William Boyd, it could actually have a lot going for it. Instead, the film only presents just over an hour of some of the dullest and most lifeless dialogue ever put on screen. Trapped on a bus and a church, these characters just spout trite dialogue endlessly. It somehow feels to go on much longer than the short run time, more like the length of time it took for continental drift to complete. Only recommended if you’re looking to torture someone.

A Few Words About My Father

As you can no doubt tell, this post won’t have anything to do with classic films. Back when my father passed away in April, I wrote a brief post about his own film fandom. That, of course, was a wholly inadequate look at the man himself. So on the date of his birth, we’ll part aside films for a moment to tell a little bit about his story.

Tell his story is no easy task. To define my dad by his career, he would have first mentioned his over thirty years working at the airport. One of his greatest thrills in life was to guide back the airplanes. But even that is an incomplete portrait of his career, since he usually worked two or three jobs at one time, ranging at various points from unloading trucks to being a bartender (intoxication engineer, he called it). He was also incredibly proud to have served in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.

And as for stories about his life, well, that could take a long time to. He loved to tell colorful stories of his life, seemingly movie-like tales like trying to hitchhike across the country and nearly getting run over by a boat somewhere in Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve committed some of these to writing, and will do more of that later. But for now, we’ll keep things a little briefer.

My dad can probably best be understood through two things: his relationship with my mother, and how he handled his illness in his final years.  To know these things is to know a lot about him and his character. So please, indulge me for a moment as I tell a little bit about Daniel M. Bliss.

~ ~

Of all my dad’s stories, none can match the love story of Daniel and Janet. It began a way that sounds almost too far-fetched, too fictional. But every bit of it is true. To my dad, Janet was truly the girl next door, since they were neighbors. Their families lived right across the street. My dad was close with his future father-in-law before he really even knew my mom, walking the very short distance to watch football games. Maybe that’s the key to a successful marriage: scope out the potential in-laws first. Eventually they started dating, and remained together nearly 39 years later.

Although their interests were often different, my parents’ marriage thrived on one thing more than anything else: talking. When still living separately with their parents, they would stay in the kitchen talking until all hours of the night, using the stove as a feeble light once all were asleep. (Don’t try that at home, kids. Just use your cell phones for illumination.)

Talking for hours was not always an option during my dad’s illness. He often couldn’t stay up very late, feeling tired, fatigued or in pain. But they did have one more night together like that, just weeks before he passed.

The day before, we had all gotten the bad news. Chemo just wasn’t an option any longer, as my dad wouldn’t be able to handle it any longer. Things were too severe and his pain was too much. All that was left was to wait. He was given heavy pain medication, a hope to make him more comfortable at home. Lately the pain had become so bad he could hardly move.

The next day, my brother and I went as planned to a baseball game. When we stopped at the house after, sometime after 10pm, we expected to go upstairs and see dad, where hopefully he was now feeling able enough to still be up, watching a movie. Much to our surprise, he was still in his chair in the living room, talking to my mom. “We wanted to wait up for you guys,” he said.

In the three years of his illness, my dad had rarely been like this. Even on his good days, he still usually found himself too fatigued at the end of the day. But thanks to the medication pushing all of that pain to the back burner, he was more like himself again. He didn’t feel any pain. And the whole time we were gone, the two of them had talked, just like the old days. In all the shock and sadness of the previous days and weeks, my parents were so happy that night. For one final time, they were just the same as they were 39 years ago.

Only months before his death, my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, one of something he did when he became very serious about my mom, when he knew she was the one. He wanted to surprise her with something, a bit of a cute gesture. And he had just the right idea.

At a local saloon sat a jukebox. My dad knew of an old song in there that he badly wanted to give my mom. How he knew about it, I don’t know. By this time it would have had to be over a decade old, and the song charted at #125. But boy, was it ever a fitting song to give my mom: “Just Across the Street” by the Del-Rios.

I’d sit and I’d watch from my window

Just wondering about a true love I’d some day meet

But I never thought the one I’d love

Lived just across the street

First, he offered the owner what the cost of a 45” would have cost then, and the owner wasn’t interested. The haggling continued, but the owner still wouldn’t budge. With no options left, my dad made an announcement.

“I’m going to leave $20 and I’m taking it.”

And so he did. It wasn’t the best financial decision, but sometimes other things are more important.

And now you are mine and I’m so happy

I feel I’ve got the world at my feet

And I thank the stars for sending me along

Just across the street

Yes, I have found my love

Just across the street

~ ~

It goes without saying that the three years of my dad’s illness were not easy. The tough moments or days were too many to name, but the good and special moments far outweighed them. We all knew how tough, resilient and courageous he was, but it was more apparent than ever in those three years. Those moments are the ones worth focusing on, and the ones to learn from.

After he starting chemo, my dad was determined to still work at his very physically demanding job. And he did: with the fanny pack that fed the chemo into his chest still attached to him. The idea of chemo possibly spilling all over him and his coworkers was more than a little alarming, but luckily biohazard was never called in. Only when he encountered a debilitating exploratory surgery a couple months in did he stop working. And even then, he still thought and hoped he would get back one day. It was over two years later when he officially retired with a heavy heart.

There was something else going on in those first few months too, the time before his big emergency surgery. As he trudged through lots of chemo and doctors meetings, he assured us that the cancer hadn’t spread, that it was isolated in the one spot. “We just have to be prepared for in case it does spread.”

But it already had. Just before the surgery a couple months later, we found out that it was stage four cancer, and had been the entire time he’d been diagnosed. My dad protected us from it, at least for a little while, not wanting to drop that news on us. All the while, he’d carried that weight alone. That he kept this information from us originally was never brought up to him, and he never spoke of it. There was no reason to. We already knew the reason why.

The surgery altered his life forever and ravaged him. Gaunt and under a hundred pounds, his doctor later revealed she only gave him two to three weeks to live. But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story in 2014. We were lucky enough to have a lot more time.

The road to recovery was long, arduous and seemed never ending. He still could hardly eat and being constantly dehydrated, he never sounded like himself. Slowly, changes started to happen. As he became able to eat again and get his voice back, his world opened up and he was finally able to live again.

And live he did. Every meal became a joy. He found a new favorite restaurant with a new favorite dish. He paid off the mortgage on the house, holding a cookout to celebrate (and many more after that). He mowed the lawn, walked the dog, painted inside the house. He bought a convertible (complete with fuzzy dice). He went on drives often, sometimes with my mom, and sometimes alone. He watched movies all the time, having discovered Netflix. He attended a final college football game, one of his most beloved activities. He saw one of his sons get married. He lived.

When faced with constant adversity, more medical complications to name and insurmountable odds, he lived. He found a way to live again and squeeze as much enjoyment out of life as he could. That’s a measure of perseverance and strength I’ll never forget.

This belief that you can fight through anything was most clearly shown to us then, but he always told us about it too. My dad always reminded us of what he’d been told back as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. I would be facing some obstacle that worried me, and he would always say “remember, you’re a member of the 101st. And what’s our motto?”

“We have a rendezvous with destiny,” I’d reply.

And then the day came when the roles were reversed.

It was probably some time in 2015. The first chemo he’d been on was no longer working, and it was time to switch to something else. This second chemo would cause him to lose his hair, although it would come back during later treatments. In a moment of raw vulnerability my dad didn’t often show, it became clear he was very worried about handling a new and possibly grueling type of chemo. I thought I knew just the thing to make things better.

“You’ll be okay,” I said. “Remember, you’re a member of the 101st.”

He rose to his feet, assuming a very proud and official stance. He saluted and said the familiar phrase, but then he added something that he’d never told me before. The way he explained it, whenever faced with a great form of adversity, they would all shout “airborne!” as a sign of strength and encouragement, that they could get through anything.

“Airborne!” he said and returned back into his chair.

Throughout my life, my dad was always trying to teach lessons to my brother, from the big things to the small things. Sometimes it was just a reminder of what his dad warned him about football games, and how the real game starts in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it was a reminder of the quote “time waits for no man” as a reminder to not put off your tough situations, to just get them over with. But he taught me his most valuable lessons in those last few years, even if he didn’t know he was doing it.

Faced with constant adversity, uncertainty and his own mortality, my dad never wavered. He continued to live every day as fully as he could. And he always put on his bravest face, ready to face and confront whatever waited him next. In seeing that, my dad passed along the most important lesson of all: that I can match his courage and face anything that confronts me. If he could do that, then I can too. And I’ll always be okay.



Review: A Trio of Silent Film Releases

Rejoice, silent film fans! It’s always good news when a nice, restored version of a silent film is released on DVD or blu-ray. The last couple of months have been a high water mark for big releases, with three films getting high quality releases from people who do silent films right. So here they, are a look at all three recent releases: The Lodger, When Knighthood was in Flower and Zaza.


The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Criterion Collection)

The Lodger was already readily available on DVD and online, but any film getting the Criterion treatment is welcoming news. That’s especially true for such a notable film, one that is usually called the first true Alfred Hitchcock film. And in many ways, that’s dead on accurate. Packed with suspense, the potential for a wrong man scenario is at the heart of it, along with a cool blonde (and an obsession with blondes) at the center. Many of Hitchcock’s early films are atypical in plot, but The Lodger feels very much in his wheelhouse.

And it’s also a little unique for him too. Hitch usually did not delve into actual murder mysteries–his suspense typically relies on knowledge the audience has, rather than through mystery. This is very effective here, though, and it still provides plenty of suspense even if the viewer already knows the outcome. Look for some unique ways of adding suspense in a silent film, like an overhead shot Ivor Novello (the lodger) pacing in his room above.

Novello, a romantic leading man of the time, plays a difficult role well. On the one hand, his romance with Daisy (played by June Tripp) is sweet. And yet, there’s always a big air of suspicion around him, thanks to some mysterious elements of his character.

The Lodger has been extraordinarily well preserved and the Criterion version is one of the crispest you’ll ever see of a silent film. The disc also contains another 1927 Hitchcock feature, Downhill. It, too, is of almost pristine quality. This is a flawless release of an essential film.

When Knighthood was in Flower (Undercrank Productions)

Unlike The Lodger, it’s been close to a hundred years since When Knighthood was in Flower has been widely seen. Now from the Library of Congress and Ben Model, this Marion Davies blockbuster can be seen again. And boy, is it ever worth it.

A big hit that helped establish Davies as a star, Knighthood is very big indeed. Playing a princess and sister to Henry VIII, Davies is in love with a commoner but must marry an elderly king. The production is a lavish one to behold, with massive set pieces throughout and exquisite costumes. The film itself is just as good. Often as funny as it is dramatic, Davies runs wild the whole film, bursting with personality no matter the situation. With this commanding performance, it’s no surprise this film was big for her career.

Another pristine print, the film is helped visually by well placed hand-tinting at the climax. As usual, Ben Model supplies the perfect fitting score. The film has not yet been released, but it can be purchased beginning on July 25th here.


Zaza (Kino Lorber)

Speaking of running wild, Zaza is the Gloria Swanson show and she goes full throttle the entire time. A charismatic showgirl, Zaza is determined to be with a debonair diplomat (H.B. Warner), although it proves to be harder than she ever realized. Whether on stage commanding a crowd or suffering a setback in her romance, Swanson plays it over the top to the point of it being highly comical. Only at the film’s climax do we get any real signs of sentimentality.

Over the top and comical is the order of the day for much of the film, down to the costuming. Swanson is constantly clad in elaborate outfits marked with a giant Z, at one point even wearing jewelry throughout her hair. The film’s high point in comedy is also it’s peak of wackiness: Swanson and Mary Thurman engage in a wild brawl that involves their clothes being ripped off.

Zaza won’t ever be confused as high quality dramatic entertainment. But as funny, goofy cinema it hits just the right spot. This print also survives very well, and is well accompanied with music from the original music cues.


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.


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.