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. 

Marcel Perez: International Man of Mystery

No matter how far one dives into silent comedy, there’s always more comedic actors to unearth. Inevitably, they all seem to be talented actors who were box office hits. And yet, a number of factors make their stars not burn so bright now. Not the least of this is the lack of availability of films. Another one of those stars is Marcel Perez, a Spanish writer/director/actor with an incredibly impressive career. Thanks to the DVD release The Marcel Perez Collection, some of his films (ten in all) now have a wide release. Before we look at a couple of those films in particular, just who was this guy?
Although born in Spain, Marcel Perez’s career stretched across several countries and genres. Given his penchant for using different names often, he was almost like an international man of mystery. And perhaps that, it’s been speculated, is one of the reasons why his name has not lived on as strongly. Many of comedy shorts were done as a character called Tweedy/Tweedledum, and Perez’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits. Tweedledum is just credited as “himself.” His wife, Dorothy Earle, playing Tweedle Dee in the shorts.

Perez began making the Tweedie shorts in Italy in 1910. Amazingly enough, by 1912 he was already operating as a second character named Robinet. He ended up making far more films as the Robinet character, and the popularity was such that he was apparently widely known by that name instead of his real one. And yet, Perez didn’t even limit himself to comedy. In 1913 he starred and directed in the sprawling sci-fi epic The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farnadola (in fact, Perez directed essentially all of his work). It wouldn’t be his last time jumping genres.

In 1916, Perez headed to the United States and created yet another character, this one named Bungles. His co-star in this series was none other than Oliver Hardy. The Bungles shorts didn’t last long, instead opting to revive Tweedledum. In total, Perez churned out dozens of Tweedledum shorts, while all the while doing other directorial work.

Rubye De Remer, a brief big box office smash in the late teens and early 20s, worked under Perez twice: The Way Women Love and Luxury. Perez also became a regular director of Westerns, working on several over the span of many years. How many people directed westerns, mysteries, dramas and sci-fi films while also starring in popular comedies? Marcel Perez is probably the only person that fits that description.

Perez’s work slowed down in 1923 when his leg was amputated from cancer complications. While that mostly ended his acting career, the prolific filmmaker continued to direct in the years that followed. He eventually a short time later in 1929, at just 45 years old. That marked the end of a particularly remarkable and unique career in film, even if many then and now didn’t know just how incredible it was.

Can his anonymity and frequent shape-shifting be attributed to his lack of recognition? It’s very possible. After all, he regularly switched between often uncredited characters. Depending on which country you lived in, you probably knew the man by a different name than in other countries. And at the same time, he was doing even further work behind the camera. One of the most prolific and impressive careers of the time just happened to be a kind of shape shifter.

So what were his films like? Let’s take a look at two of the films from the collection.

~ ~ ~

A Busy Night (1916)

While it’s true that Marcel Perez kept his name off the credits often, this film is a very notable exception. In fact, Perez’s name is all over this one, thanks to the entire premise. Perez plays nearly every character in the short, an oft-used element in comedies. That he is playing all the characters is proudly announced at the start of the film, even showing Perez posing with tiny versions of his other roles on his arm:

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The gag goes on throughout, with the fourth wall being broken a number of times. More than once, credits interrupt the film, just so the audience can know these people coming up are also all played by Perez.  The intertitles even reference Perez as fighting “himself” on different occasions. It’s a remarkable overarching through-the-looking-glass film.

It is also very funny, along with being an impressive technical feat. Buster Keaton did something similar later in The Playhouse, but Perez takes it to another level by constantly interacting with himself. He chases himself around, fights with himself and has all kind of normal human interactions. It must have required a lot of cutting, and it ends up being quite the funny and wild sight.

You’re Next (1919)

The latter half of You’re Next is good but rather run of the mill fare: Perez’s character ultimately ends up causing hijinx on movie sets, a rather common silent comedy backdrop. But before he reaches that, Perez throws in some pretty out there and hilarious comedy.

The film opens with the news that a ton of tenants are being evicted from their apartments, including Perez. Unfettered by this, Perez decides to just make the street his apartment: after blocking off traffic he sets up everything just like it’s his normal home. He even hosts a poker game with his buddies, having a grand old time in his new outdoor home. The police soon stop him and throw him in jail, but he’s released after entertaining hardened criminals with his piano work. Even if from there it’s relatively unremarkable, Perez’s opening apartment is something to behold.

~ ~ ~

These two films, along with the other eight, show off just how strong the man’s comedic sensibilities. You owe it to yourself to check out Marcel Perez’s work. Few people were uniquely as talented as a comedy star and director. Just be careful that he doesn’t disappear before your eyes.

Review: Harry Langdon as a Director

After making Long Pants in 1927, Harry Langdon fired director Frank Capra and set out to direct his own films. What happened next is well known to film historians. He directed three films over the next two years, none of which replicated the critical and commercial success as his work with Capra. His major Hollywood star burned out fast, ending a very quick run at the top. It should be noted, though, that Langdon never stopped working even after his run as director flopped. Although he was never a major box office star again, Langdon worked right up to his death in 1944.

All of this leads to the conventional wisdom that Langdon failed on his own because he needed Capra, that he didn’t have the right vision for the character that Capra did. Capra himself even said so. We’ve been left that general description, even though there have been Langdon supporters to say otherwise. Luckily, we have a chance to find out what his work without Capra was really like.

Langdon’s first two directorial ventures, Three’s a Crowd and The Chaser, are now available on DVD. His third and final one, Heart Trouble, is a lost film. So while we cannot see his entire output on his own, there is enough out there to form a good enough opinion.

So, is the long held conventional wisdom true? Was Harry Langdon lost without Frank Capra? Let’s find out.

Three’s a Crowd (1927)

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Langdon plays a man who desperately longs for a wife and child to be with, especially after falling a bit too heavily for his boss’ spouse. He finally does get a chance to change all that when a he finds a woman sleeping outside his apartment building. She has left her husband and is pregnant, leaving Harry ready to jump in and take on new responsibilities.

Three’s a Crowd contains many elements that are true to Langdon’s other work: he is the same oblivious man-child, and much of the humor is surreal and odd (he takes a shower through pulling a string on a plant waterer). In fact, the whole opening scene of Langdon getting ready in the morning gives the impression of a typical comedy for him. But as the film goes on, everything very much changes. It becomes much more of a drama with a spice of comedy thrown in, akin to the pathos of some of Chaplin’s work. The subject matter is indeed very serious and it is played in such a way. Even though Langdon is a buffoon, his more understated approach plays into the seriousness of the whole situation.

Whether trying to help with the birth or change a diaper, Langdon haplessly tries to assist his new female friend. While this is played for comedy throughout, the seriousness never leaves. Part of it is the way Langdon plays everything: he so genuinely wants to be there for the mother and child, and the tenderness is touching. Langdon manages to pull at the heartstrings and create tension while also making laughs, something that is no easy task.

To be sure, the film does have some flaws. The editing could stand to be a bit tighter at a few points–the penchant to linger on Langdon is even stronger here. And there a couple plot elements that could have been tied up or handled better. But to say that Langdon didn’t know how to handle his character or that he didn’t have the chops to direct seems totally off the mark. Visually, the film is something to behold. The apartment, from the wacky room he lives in to the immense number of stairs, creating a striking visual that Langdon uses to great effect. And while it is a generally more serious film, the gags that are dropped in throughout deliver laughs.

While a little rough around the edges, Three’s a Crowd is a stellar mix of comedy and drama. The story is one that easily plays to a number of emotions, providing laughs and harrowing moments along the way. When all of that is told in an artistic fashion, what you’re left with is a captivating and memorable film.

The Chaser (1928)

This time around, Langdon is married to a wife he usually ignores. Since he’s usually out at a club, his wife and mother-in-law want a divorce. The judge, however decides to rule differently, making a wacky ruling that gains publicity: Harry must switch places with his wife for 30 days, doing all her duties. This even includes wearing each others clothes, leaving Harry in a skirt while his wife wears a jacket and tie.

The premise is all really very silly, but it’s all done to set up what is (at least for a little bit) a typical battle of sexes comedy. For Langdon, this plays to his strengths well. His failure to handle domestic tasks falls perfectly in line with his usual slow and subtle realization of his gaffes. Most of this centers around him trying to prepare breakfast, and it’s a very solid sequence of Langdon-style comedy.

But since it’s a Langdon film, some less than typical elements to creep in. For starters, the debt collectors and milkmen that come to the house somehow don’t notice he’s a man. As a result, Langdon gets hit on by both, much to his dismay. That not one but two characters would believe this is all very ludicrous, but Langdon saves it enough with some killer facial expressions.

Most infamous in the film is Langdon’s prolonged attempt to commit suicide. Dark comedy is clearly not for everyone, but there’s not much to fuss and complain about: it’s handled in a light way and is pretty hilarious. Midway through the sequence, an obvious punchline is set up. It pays off eventually, but Langdon does take a bit of time to get there. That’s just his slow style, which isn’t for everyone. For my part, it is a just great bit of dark comedy.

The film also ends with a very clever bit of strange comedy, but the problems arise before we reach that point. Rather randomly, Langdon escapes and ends up at a golf course with plenty of women around. This leads to some run-of-the-mill slapstick that isn’t unfunny, but doesn’t fit in at all with anything that comes in before or after. The film gets dragged to a halt before finally picking up again for a nice ending.

Just like with Three’s a Crowd, editing is the main culprit of any trouble. The Chaser is pretty funny, taking a common concept and throwing in some bizarre and dark elements. With the sidetrack taken out, it would probably be a gem of a comedy. As it stands, it is a solid and enjoyable feature.

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 So what conclusions can we draw about Harry Langdon as a director? Even among contemporary reviewers, there can be sharp divide over the quality of the films. As mentioned, there are most definitely flaws in both of these films. Some more careful editing could have served both films, and perhaps that could be attributed to Langdon being a novice. There were some obvious growing pains.

But in my opinion, the assessment that he was woefully inept and didn’t know what he was doing is ludicrous. Langdon’s comic timings are still present, as he knows how to work his different slow-paced style. In that regard, the same kind of quirkiness can be found in both films. Langdon even pushes the envelope a bit further, going for strange and sometimes dark ideas.

With The Chaser, he takes a somewhat tired and obvious plot premise and puts a Langdon spin on it. Meanwhile, Three’s a Crowd shows that he was capable of going beyond just a typical comedy. It was a lofty goal, combining the comedy with Chaplin-esque pathos. And in many ways, it does work. Three’s a Crowd manages to be both amusing and touching, something that is no easy task and that not many can pull off. Small hiccups aside, it shows what Langdon was capable of behind the camera.

Nevertheless, it is true that Harry Langdon’s films as director just weren’t popular. Why was that? There are few possible explanations that stand out. It is very possible that Langdon’s character had more of short shelf life than others, given his odd style. His comedy was always different, his pacing odd. The expiration date may have passed, or more people got turned off when his ideas got even more wilder (trying to kill his wife, suicide attempt etc.) And they just might not have had an interest in Langdon taking a more serious turn. It’s also possible that that these editing problems are about a bigger issue: he was better suited for shorts and not features. While he does have very good features, all the runtimes are short, and by The Chaser he seemed to be very clearly padding out the plot.

To me, it does seem like Harry Langdon has been misunderstood all these years. He didn’t nosedive his career because he had no talent as a director or didn’t know how to use his character. Harry Langdon was an immensely funny and unique comedian. He stayed that way with the films he directed, and it’s too bad he didn’t direct more.

Review: Harry Langdon’s Classic Films

The career trajectory of Harry Langdon has been discussed here before. Depending on which camp one may fall into, He could be considered a comic genius, someone propped up by Frank Capra’s genius, or somewhere in between. What led to his quick fall after become a big star can be answered in different ways, but there is no doubt for a brief time this unique comic was a huge deal. We’ll attempt to sort through both periods of his work, when he was with Capra and when he was directing his own films. This post will focus on the three films generally considered to be his peak, with the next post reviewing two films he directed afterwards (a third directed by him is now lost). While opinions will always differ, this will serve as good primer of Harry Langdon’s work, and just how good it was.

A general note with all of these reviews: Langdon’s character is unique, and generally lends itself to a different style and pacing of silent comedy. Langdon usually plays a boyish man-child, wide eyed and innocent to the world around him. The films usually also work at a slower pace less reliant on slapstick.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

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Harry Langdon’s first feature was directed not by his well-known collaborator, but by Harry Edwards. Capra, however, did serve as a story writer. Langdon stars as the son of a poor shoemaker, in desperate need of money so they won’t be evicted. Although Langdon is initially more worried that he won’t be able to buy a bike, he eventually understands the situation and vows to get the money. The solution he finds: become the winner of a cross-country walking competition, with a big prize for the winner. Along the way, he seeks to win the love of a woman he’s smitten for (Joan Crawford).

Langdon’s child-like charm plays a role in his love for Crawford, including a note where he simply writes “I love you” over and over again, before asking her to feel the same way. It also allows him to act in ways that could be seen as creepy by other characters–like adorning his walls with giant pictures of his crush. With him, it all seems normal.

Slow-paced throughout, the film largely relies on Langdon’s ample charm. There are, however,  two big moments of inventive and impressive comedy. One involves Langdon nailed to a fence over a cliff (okay, so it’s not very realistic) and a home hit by a cyclone. The cyclone scene especially is a technical feat, as good as anything you’ll see in a silent comedy climax. It’s something to marvel at.

Also interesting is the way the story is framed as a news event. The race is a major story to the general public, and at various points the story is told through faux news reel footage–as watched by Langdon’s father in a movie theater. Not only a unique way of framing the story, it also adds a bit more gravity to what Langdon is trying to achieve. There are a few other minor oddball parts of the film that won’t be mentioned as they are spoilers. There are certainly “different” elements to the film, though.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp can be uneven with pacing at times, but it is a fun breezy comedy. It is a story that relies strongly an engaging character, which Langdon supplies. Along the way, there are a couple big time blasts of comedy and some off the wall moments.

The Strong Man (1926)

Often heralded as Langdon’s finest film, it’s easy to see why. This is a film that very well captures what made him memorable. Langdon plays a solider returning from war who looks for his love when he returns home. His love is someone he’s never met, having only exchanged letters and a picture. But once he’s home, the hunt is on for the woman who helped get him through the war.

There is, once again, a great deal of focus on the innocent lens of love Langdon looks through. This is most hilariously on display when he falls in line with a less than innocent woman, culminating in a fantastic scene where he attempts to carry her up the stairs. It serves as a moment to really highlight Langdon’s gifts as a physical comedian. His innocent puppy love of Mary Brown (the lady from the letters) adds to his charm, and makes for an endearing love story.

Along the way, Langdon works for a strong man, leading to him taking center stage in front of a crowd. This builds to a raucous and wild finale that is another amazing achievement, both remarkable visually and in it’s comedy. It is wild frenetic comedy still framed around Langdon’s innocence, and it is a closing sequence that could be watched endlessly.

Overall, this is the best overall package of Langdon. It combines all of his charm and appeal with some side splitting comedy. A classic, this is one of those films where pretty much everything works.

Long Pants (1927)

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Langdon’s final film with Frank Capra, Long Pants marks a bit of a departure in style for him, one which he would further explore once directing his own films. He once again still plays a child-like figure to an immense degree. In the film’s opening scenes, his parents finally allow him to wear long pants for the first time, even if there’s disagreement about if he’s ready for them. With his newfound adulthood in pants, Langdon falls for a criminal girl who winds up in prison. Meanwhile, he’s expected to marry someone else who is much nicer.

Of great controversy is the dark tone of the picture, one that does absolutely catch the viewer off guard. Desperate to stop his wedding and get with the inmate he’s in love with, Langdon decides he should murder his fiancé. His fruitless attempts to get the job done are all played up for comedy, even as he quite literally is trying to shoot someone. And yet, even in this scenario, Landon’s innocence is still played up: a “NO SHOOTING” sign spooks him from doing the job at one point. It is an overall funny scene, but the sudden insertion of black comedy is a bit a jarring (and bound to turn off some viewers).

His association with the infamous criminal (including her escape and other exploits), get Langdon tied up in more dark and criminal activity. The tone can be a bit uneven in the latter stages, where he almost takes a backseat to dramatic criminal actions. All of that does, though, lead a funny moment in the latter stages of such darkness.

It’s not a surprise that this brought about the ending of the Langdon/Capra union. There were obvious creative changes being made, and Langdon was heading in a different direction with his character. Long Pants does still have some funny moments and the dark comedy works in spots, but it’s less of a complete package than the prior two features. It’s still a worthwhile Langdon endeavor, if only for those spots and the intrigue of the style.

Legend has it that Langdon fell off the proverbial cliff once he started directing his films. Did he really drive this darker vision over the edge? Without Capra, did his quality of work drop off that badly?  We’ll take a look at his next two films later in the week and find out.

 

 

Imps, Gold Diggers and Roller Disco: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2015

Yes, it’s that time of year again. As 2015 draws to a close, everyone wants to let you know their favorite movies, TV shows and Tumblr posts of the year. Being a classic film blogger makes the task a little bit different. These sorts of lists focus on films that aren’t new at all, but are new to the author. I compiled one of these lists last year, and it’s time to do so again. Some of these films won’t come as surprises, seeing as I’ve gushed over them in previous posts. But since I don’t do many reviews on here, some of these haven’t been mentioned before.

The following ten films are presented in order of their age, and there is a recurring theme: three of them are musicals. Everyone needs to see more musicals, after all. Take a look, and maybe you’ll find some new films to love too.

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The Black Imp (1905)

In our last post about Santa Claus in early film, we touched about a common at the start of the century: the stop-motion camera trick. Accomplished through freezing a spot in the film and resuming the shot with new items in place, it was one of George Méliès’ favorite trick techniques. This short is all about that trick shot, and it’s played to perfection. The plot is simple enough: a devil-like figure wreaks havoc on a man through many tricks. Not only does he appear and disappear, but many other objects do as well. The highlight (seen above) involves a wealth of chairs popping up from every direction–and then going away just as quickly. At just over four minutes, the bit doesn’t overstay its welcome. Short and to the point, it is both a mesmerizing technical achievement and an amusing watch.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

As mentioned in our holiday gift guide post, 2015 gave us a chance to see some previously lost films. Most notable of all is this Sherlock Holmes adaptation, one of great historical significance. It’s finally possible to see the legendary stage actor William Gillette play Holmes, and it is quite the treat. This may be a runaway candidate for best film version of a Sherlock Holmes story.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Why The Phantom Carriage is such a fantastic film was covered in this review. The praises cannot be sung highly enough: this is a haunting, jarring film that will stay with you for a very long time.

Murder! (1930)

We touched on this Alfred Hitchcock film a bit earlier this year, when talking about the multiple language versions of early sound films. This is both a departure for Hitchcock and familiar ground all at the same time. A rare straight mystery, it also combines the common elements of dark humor, the wrong man and suspense-packed conclusion. It’s an under the radar Hitch film, but one well worth seeing.

Girls About Town (1931)

If any introduction was needed to some amazing Precode film personalities, this film would serve as an excellent choice. Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman play two women with a goal of swindling lonely businessmen of their money. Of course, things get more complicated when one of them (Francis) falls in love with the one rube. With that combination, it’s both a light fun comedy and a heartbreaking tale at times. The two leads could not be better in their complementing roles. Francis plays all serious moments to the hilt, while Tashman provides a lively shot of humor.

Le Million (1931)

Directed by René Clair, this French musical just exudes joy and fun. The fact that it is an amazing technical marvel as well is an added bonus. From the very start, the film moves at a frantic fun pace that never lets up. Given that this is an early sound film, that makes the wild and rapid camera movements all the more impressive. It even has an almost operatic feel, with almost constant singing and with some form of a chorus present. The actual plot revolves around finding a million dollar lottery ticket, but that’s all secondary to the fun unleashed throughout.

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Man Wanted (1932)

That’s right, it’s another Kay Francis film. More than anything else, this year served as a great personal introduction to just how wonderful Kay Francis is. And this is most certainly a tour-de-force performance from her. In one of the most progressive films you can find from in this era, Francis plays a highly successful magazine editor who takes on a male secretary. Naturally, there’s romance involved, with some Precode activities thrown in too. Francis is again perfect in this web of romance and seduction, and delivers an all around memorable performance.

Down Argentine Way (1940)

This was also a year of discovering Carmen Miranda, and many of her films could have made this list. Down Argentine Way is special, though, thanks to an unbelievable cast of talented performers. In addition to the musical stylings of Miranda, there’s much else to enjoy. The Nicholas Brothers show why they are some of the best dancers ever to appear on film, even if they were sorely underused. The same can be said for Charlotte Greenwood, usually cast as second fiddle comedy. But her dancing is put on great display too. Throw in Don Ameche and Betty Grable, and this is musical gold.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (also known as Mad Wednesday) is another film reviewed here earlier this year. The final film of Harold Lloyd, and the only film he made after his initial retirement, it is a testament to his abilities. Just as adept at sound as he was in silents, Lloyd delivers a great screwball comedy with a trademark wild climax. Who knows what other work he could have done if he hadn’t retired?

Skatetown USA (1979)

One of these ten picks is not like the others (hint: it’s this one). How does a cheesy disco filled rollerskating movie make it on a list of genuinely great films? As I explained earlier this year, 2015 opened my eyes to the fun of the roller disco subgenre. Sure, films like this aren’t likely to win any awards, but they are incredibly fun. Of the bunch, Skatetown USA may be the most fun. It’s even lighter on plot than some similar films, but is even heavier on wackiness and out of nowhere surprises. The music and dance numbers are legitimately good, there’s a pretty impressive cast and there’s fun and weird things around every corner. Sometimes all you want is fun with a film. Skatetown USA delivers that in spades.

Santa Claus in Early Cinema

For well over a century,  Christmas and Santa Claus has become a part of popular culture. Although the imagery and traditions can vary in different parts of the world, depictions of Santa are everywhere. This, of course, includes film, which has given us many iconic depictions of Santa (most notably Miracle on 34th Street and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). But Santa has been seen in films perhaps earlier than most people would expect. In fact, Santa has been a part of the film world from the very beginning.

The timing in the United States worked out perfectly. By the time the first films were being created, many of the conventional features of Santa had already been established. Thomas Nast’s first familiar drawing appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, and his drawings continued to popularize Santa imagery in the ensuing decades. Although the 1930s Coca-Cola ads provide an even more familiar Santa look, Nast helped give us a lot of Santa we know decades earlier.

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By the time the film world was only a decade old, Santa was already a fixture on the screen. And some of cinema’s heaviest hitters were in on the act from the start. The director of Santa’s first film portrayal in Santa Claus Filling Stockings (1897, Biograph) has been lost to the ages, but the 1898 film Santa Claus is notable for a number of reasons. Directed by early pioneer George Albert Smith, it’s not only an early portrayal of Santa but an example of Smith’s impact. Multiple exposures to “insert” someone into a scene were one of film’s earliest special effects, and Smith was one of first to use it (along with George Méliès). In this short scene, Santa appears first in a bubble, presenting him outside on the roof, before popping into the children’s room to drop off presents. By shooting this way, Smith portrays parallel scenes that eventually converge. As for Santa, the look is a little different. The Santa here is clad in what is essentially a hooded robe, and is much thinner than he would later be. These differences could be attributed to this being a British production.

Smith was far from the only notable early director to take on Santa Claus. Edwin S. Porter, known now mostly for The Great Train Robbery (1903), made two such films for Edison’s company. This included the first film adaptation of The Night Before Christmas in 1905, complete with intertitles from the written story. Telling a now familiar tale, Porter also used another common film technique at the time. Santa waves one hand and a fully decorated tree appears in the room. Most often used by Méliès, this technique involved essentially “freezing” a scene and the actors in place and ending filming. Filming resumes once the new object is in place, and when spliced together, it appears that the object has jumped right into the scene.

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Porter’s next film, A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907), and D.W. Griffith’s A Trap for Santa Claus (1909) both represent a shift in the Santa narratives. With the mythology well established on the screen, the stories began to advance and build upon the knowledge of the character. The latter Porter film involves a boy trying to convince a girl that Santa does exist, a common theme that exists in Christmas films to this day. A sort of gamesmanship exists in the plot too, seeing if Santa can be caught and seen. Santa’s look here is still slightly different, sporting something resembling a wizard’s hat.

Griffith’s film takes the game of catching Santa and adds a further level of complexity: that sometimes the person in the suit isn’t Santa at all. Certainly the most complex plot in a Santa film to that point, there’s a lot going on. The children decide to set up a plot to catch Santa. The man who enters the house isn’t Santa, but rather their long gone father  who is seeking to rob the home. Their mother takes pity on the man and lets him dress as Santa to surprise the children. Robbery is also a theme in the 1914 The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus, where a robber attempts to gain access to homes by dressing as Santa.

Examining these early films goes a long way to not only understand how Santa Claus in media has evolved, but how film technology and techniques evolved. Early special effects were perfect for these kind of stories involving a mythical figure. And the films followed the general trajectory of these earliest films: the products were first more simple in plot and shorter in length. As time went by, plots in general became more layered and complex, just like these Santa films. Perhaps, then, we can see not only the evolution of Santa stories through these films, but the evolution of film as well.