The Art of the Bad Movie, or Why Ed Wood is Funnier Than Sharknado Could Ever Be

I know a thing or two about bad movies. If you follow me on twitter (@sbliss89), on any given night I’m probably livetweeting a complete stinker of a b-movie. Along with others, we riff on the movies, make jokes and and have a good time. This is not a strange thing. There is fun to be had in watching a “so bad it’s good movie”– that’s what Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it’s later incarnations are based on. It’s something that I genuinely love.

And yet, when everyone was watching Sharknado 2 last night, I took no interest in it. I didn’t watch it and probably never will. Why? Shouldn’t that be right in my wheelhouse? Not at all. To understand why, you need to know what I look for in a bad film. To get that information, you need to look no further than Edward D. Wood Jr.

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Very few directors have biopics made about them. Ed Wood is one of them. He has been crowned the proverbial king of bad movies, and he’s deserving of that title. His movies were genuinely horrible. All of the sets looks terrible. There was no decent line of dialogue to be found, and the lines were delivered by people incapable of showing emotion. The movies lack any structure, pacing or continuity. From a pure objective standpoint, Wood was an awful filmmaker who had no business ever being behind a camera. But he tried his best anyway, and that’s precisely why he’s so appealing.

When you watch an Ed Wood movie, you are watching someone who loved what he was doing, and tried to make the best movie possible. The same goes for most bad movies of yesteryear. You are watching what someone thought was good. Along with that comes all of their bizarre eccentricities and ideas. In the case of Ed Wood, that meant shoehorning people like Criswell and Tor Johnson into his movies. That meant needing to have Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space even after he was dead, to the extent that a stand-in who looked nothing like him was needed. That meant only from his mind could a movie like Glen or Glenda, with all it’s love of cross-dressing and angora, be made.

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Tom Mason, a chiropractor, pretends he’s Bela Lugosi while Tor Johnson, a Swedish wrestler, pretends he knows how to speak English properly.

Manos: The Hands of Fate is another legendary bad film, and why is clear– it’s the product of a fertilizer salesman with no directing or acting experience who thought he could star in a film of his own making. Because he had no money, the camera used could only film a minute at a time with no sound, leading to bad dubbing and jump cuts galore. A long, wordless opening driving sequence exists because he neglected to put in the planned opening credits. On top of that, it’s filled with nonsensical things like a villain with bulbous knees.
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These were people with no talent and no money. All they had was passion and an imagination. That’s what makes them so funny and charming.

Sharknado has none of that. It’s completely self-aware, a bad movie made to be a bad movie. The movie could not be any more self-aware. When I went to a Subway last week, every table had an ad featuring Jared from Subway eating a shark:

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Once you’re that self-aware, the charm and fun is gone. Jared is there because they thought it was funny. Criswell was there because Ed Wood thought a phony mentalist with no skills at reading copy would make a great narrator. Which one sounds more intriguing?

Someone sitting down to write the dumbest plot twist or most inane piece of dialogue isn’t interesting to me. On the other hand, someone who thought they were creating a great plot only to fail miserably is very interesting. A monster created to look stupid isn’t funny, but a horribly done serious monster (like The Creeping Terror) is very funny.

When I’m laughing at a bad movie, I’m laughing because of that lack of self-awareness. It’s funny that the monster is supposed to scary but looks ridiculous, that the dialogue is supposed to be serious but isn’t, that the special effects are supposed to look good but don’t. I’m laughing because this was the best they had to offer, and they had no idea it was terrible.

If you enjoyed Sharknado, more power to you. I’ll stick with my trusted source for bad movies– people who had no idea what they were doing.

3D in Movies: A Brief History

3D films and 3D technology are bigger than ever. Avatar became the first film to gross over 2 billion dollars, and in this decade the number of 3D films produced have continued to increase– a record 47 3D films were released in 2011. But those who know the films of yesteryear know that this latest 3D craze is nothing new, as 3D has been around for a long time. So, with that in mind, what was the year the first 3D film was shown?

The answer: 1915.

Yes, 1915. And by that time, the technology responsible for it was already around 15 years old. 3D dates back almost as far as film itself, although it took nearly a half century until it became a hit with the public.

The first patent for a 3D ready camera came in 1900, a few years after a prior 3D patent. The earlier patent was completely impractical, as it required two different screens as part of the process. Frederic Eugene Ives’ two lens camera didn’t require that. It would still be another fifteen years before the first 3D film was shown.

It was an early film pioneer that brought about the first 3D screening. Edwin S. Porter was an early innovator in narrative films, most notably The Great Train Robbery. He put together the first showing in 1915, which was made a red-green anaglyph without any glasses for the audience. The test showing included a portion of a previous Porter film, rural scenes and other test footage. There were no other showings at the time.

No other 3D films were shown until The Power of Love in 1922. The camera responsible for this film was created by Robert Elder and Harry Fairall. Their system required both two cameras and two projectors, and was only used for the purposes of this film. It was also the first time audiences wore glasses to view the film. The glasses themselves brought a gimmick: depending on which side of the glasses the audience looked in, they saw a different ending. It never ran outside of Los Angeles and was released widespread in 2D under the name Forbidden Lover.

Prizma Color, mentioned in the last post as an early color innovator, were also at the forefront of 3D. In fact, they were part of a rash of companies releasing 3D films in 1922. A new company called Teleview (started by the creator of the Hammond organ) created a highly impractical system that required special rigging to each individual seat. Ives himself created films with his system. All three produced short films only, with Ives being the most successful. His films had a two year run up to 1924, but afterwards 3D films stalled again.

MGM became the first major studio to get in on the 3D action in 1936. Both of those were Pete Smith specialty shorts. Polaroid also developed it’s own filter system, one that presented it’s own challenges. This required two different prints to be synced correctly. A few shorts were produced, but nothing else. By this time, it had been over 15 years since the only 3D feature film. The entire decade of the 40s went by without any further interest in 3D.

By the early 1950s, the corner was finally turned in terms of popularity and production. The technology itself hadn’t changed. Polaroid filters were still the driving force, but this time it fully caught on. Bwana Devil was the first in 1952, and soon nearly everyone followed. Films of every genre from horror, western, animation and sci-fi created 3D films. Even Alfred Hitchcock was compelled to make one, Dial M for Murder, although it would be hard to tell from how it was shot that it was in 3D. That proved to be for the best, as most audiences never even saw it in 3D. By the time it came out in 1954, the 3D bubble was already bursting.

Much of that had to do with the same problems with the Polaroid system, which hadn’t been improved on much. Syncing two prints presented all kinds of technological problems, and increasingly theaters opted to show 2D versions of films like was done with Dial M for Murder. By 1955, the big wave of 3D was already gone.

In the ensuing decades, particularly the 70s and 80s, it still didn’t appear all that frequently. When it did, it was largely as a gimmick for horror films. The 1990s saw it become more of a special attraction in IMAX theaters, all of this leading to the huge surge of popularity in the past several years.

But is it here to stay, or just another fad like in the 50s? Evidence indicates that it may not sustain perhaps due to over saturation. Although 2011 was the peak year for films produced, the films made less money than the year before. In addition, in some cases the 2D versions drew comparable or even better audiences than the 3D version.

3D has almost always been around, but we are only in the second period of great public acceptance of the idea. The technology is better than it’s ever been, but whether it will ever remain popular this time remains to be seen.

Color in Movies: A Brief History

“Black and white movies allow you to focus on what’s going on in the story more clearly.” -Robert Osborne on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast

After making that statement, Osborne and Gottfried went on to have a further discussion (which can be heard in full here) about the benefits of black and white films over color. In addition, they also talked about how colorization of black and white films, particularly noir films that were meant to be dark, greatly hurt them.

Black and white films still serve as a stylistic choice for some directors, albeit on a very rare basis. Just within the last few years, The Artist (also a silent film) won best picture, and Nebraska won critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations. The latter film being shot in black and white was met with much resistance, however. Director Alexander Payne had to shoot it in color and change to black and white in post-production, as the studio wasn’t convinced it was the right move.

That a studio would want color over black and white should not come as a surprise, especially given the history of color in film. From practically the very beginning of film, even before sound existed, the film industry was working to put color into films.

As 1900 began, landmark films in terms of plot and camera work were emerging. Some of those same films also were among the first to put color into films. A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery are two of the earliest examples of hand coloring, which is exactly like it sounds–people hand coloring the film frame-by-frame. As this was a undoubtedly a long and tedious process, it wasn’t used by everyone and was often used only in select moments. In The Great Train Robbery only used this in select scenes:

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On the other hand, Meliès went all out for A Trip to the Moon, employing several people to make very detailed hand coloring:

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But were either one of those the first? No. At least one film predates both of them, Cyrano de Bergerac, from 1900. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it’s not only hand colored but also featured sound on cylinder as well. Because of this fact, it may be the first film to feature both sound and color. It wasn’t released in the United States until eight years later, without the soundtrack.

A much more common practice was color tinting, the monochromatic dying of the print to a certain color. Use of this carried on into talkies, and it was effective for situations like night scenes:

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All the while, more attempts were made to create color, some of them not successfully. Kinemacolor was one of the successes, and was actually the first color process used successfully (outside of tinting and hand coloring). This process didn’t require anything new to be done with the film itself. The films were just projected between green and red filters. This required the projectors to be specially altered, which ended up being the main reason for it not being used wider. If the two filters didn’t match up correctly, it led to a haloing effect, another drawback to the process. It’s success largely came in England, where nearly 300 theaters were equipped with the correct projectors. 54 films total were produced in England, with only four made in the US. DW Griffith later bought out the Hollywood studio of the company. The company’s run ended up being from 1908 to 1914.

At the same time Kinemacolor was coming to a close, Prizma Color used mostly the same principles starting in 1913. By 1918, that was abandoned for a new process– filming two strips side by side, one green and one red. The two were then printed together. While this eliminated the halo problem, a seam was always present since strips were filmed side by side. The technology did have some success and was used in a few pictures. By the time it sued Technicolor in 1922 for using the same technology, their output was slowing down. They lost the lawsuit, and only produced a couple more films after that.

Technicolor, the name synonymous with color technology, was indeed exploring similar types of methods for creating color. Process 1 was essentially the same as Kinemacolor, two filters on a specially made projector. Only one film was made this way before they abandoned it.

Process 2 worked on some of the same principles as the Prizma Color process, which ended up being the subject of the lawsuit. The Technicolor camera eliminated the seam Prizma had, but had it’s own problem the two sides of the print often not being in focus together. The prints were also more easily damaged by cupping, parts of the film bulging out after repeated use. Still, the process was commercially successful and was used in such major films as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera:

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Process 3, debuted in 1928, was made to fix those problems. It used a dye transfer process, dying the red print green and the green print red. This eliminated the focus problems of the two separate strips and proved to be popular with audiences. But with only those two strips, the full colors of the spectrum couldn’t be shown.

As part of budget cuts, less color films were produced as the 1930s began. But that was soon to change, as Technicolor debuted a new camera to show all the colors, process 4. Using a beam splitter to control the light as well as several filters, this was the advancement that brought more full scale color as the decades wore on.

Technicolor held the monopoly on color for many a year, until Eastman Kodak presented an easier way in 1950. A dye transfer process was still required by Technicolor, which involved sending the negatives to the company and cost a lot of money. Eastman didn’t require that, which spelled the end of the dye transfer process and eventually Technicolor.

So yes, the process to color was indeed a long journey. But each new technological advancement helped bring about the color we see in classic films.

Ben Turpin: Unique Star and Success Story

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There was once a time when Ben Turpin had one of the most famous faces in all of Hollywood. It was so famous that it continued to give the silent comedian short, easy work even when many faltered with the advent of talkies. Now his name is little mentioned, but Turpin had one of the more successful careers of any silent film comedian.

Turpin’s journey into film followed the path of so many others at the time: he was first a vaudeville performer. It was here that Turpin’s eyes became crossed. As Turpin would always claim, after forcefully crossing his eyes that way for so long, the right eye became stuck that way. Other variations that sound less like old wive’s tales just say that the right eye became crossed due an injury onstage. This isn’t the only gray area in Turpin’s history–even at his death in 1940 his real age varied from newspaper to newspaper. What we do is that his left eye was not crossed, and was forced into place to match the other.

What did make Turpin’s journey from the stage to the screen unique was his age. By the time he made his film debut for Essanay in 1907, he was already 38 years old. In his time with Essanay, he didn’t have many roles and all of those were mostly quite minor. His most regular work didn’t come until 1914, as a regular secondary cast member in the Wallace Beery series of Sweedie shorts.

As 1915 began he appeared in more Sweedie shorts as well as several Chaplin shorts, again in secondary roles. It also appears that this was the first year he starred in shorts of his own, often as a henpecked husband. A Coat Tale looks to be earliest instance of him starring that year. 1916 saw him star in a series of shorts as a character named Bloggie.

The following year was when things took a major turn for him, as he joined Mack Sennett. Although he still spent a good deal of time the rest of the decade, Turpin came into his own as a star and was a huge deal by the time 1920 rolled around.

By that time, Turpin was already entering into his 50s. Even though he was older than most of his contemporaries, Turpin didn’t just rely on his face to get by. He was known, even as he got older, for his great acrobatic abilities. Most notable was his tumbling flipping fall he referred to as the 108. Throwing himself around without harming himself was something he started in vaudeville and continued in his films.

The combination of cross eyes and pratfalls had Turpin often in a buffoon type position, which was only accentuated by the positions he got put in. Sometimes he was parodying popular films of the day, like playing a bumbling sheik or an inept cowboy. Other times it was an ill-fitting profession like a lifeguard.

The formula worked. Turpin was so popular in the early 20s the shorts he starred in previously, like the Bloggie ones, were re-released to capitalize on his fame. Turpin would often proudly proclaim that he was making $3,000 a week at the height of his fame.

But some things, some by his own choice and others by unfortunate circumstance didn’t help him with continued success as the decade wore on. For one, Turpin simply didn’t make many features. This was allegedly due to him not liking the great deal of time it took to complete one feature, as opposed to many shorts. By the mid 20s, this was clearly against the grain as most other other major starts made the transition to features at some point or another. Turpin resisted and rarely did it. Married Life was the first he starred in in 1920, followed by A Small Town Idol in 1921. Following that, he starred in one more feature, The Shriek of Araby in 1923, and then would not star in another until 1928. (Note: Turpin did appear often in small roles in features during this time. This only refers to starring vehicles).

The other circumstance was the illness and later death of his wife, which came about in 1925. Most accounts state that Turpin retired at this point to take care of her, only to return after her death. It is true that Turpin announced his retirement from the screen at this time. But in actuality, Turpin films were still released. The illness only meant Turpin’s output went down–he released three starring shorts in the early half of 1925, and four in the latter part of 1926. Still, this personal tragedy did lessen the amount of work he put out.

1927 and 28 saw Turpin get back to producing a heavy amount of work, although it also meant the end of him in starring roles. Turpin never even made an attempt to star in talkie films, and in some ways that fits. By that point, he was hitting the age of 60, and he never much an interest in producing features anyway, which is what the vast majority of the films had become.

Despite retiring from starring roles, Turpin found himself a nice niche in the talkies, one which he would continue for the next decade up and until his death. As a star from days past with a distinct look, he was able to get regular work in parts or cameos in dozens of films. Sometimes it was only a quick seconds long gag, but Turpin commanded a $1,000 flat fee no matter what the length of the appearance. Already wealthy from his time as a star, this helped Turpin live even more comfortably, all the while keeping him in the public eye in fun roles.

Turpin was not only very talented and funny, but he is also one of the better stories from this era. In a period where so many struggled with sound, Turpin avoided all that. The huge star with great physical ability went out gracefully, finding a good place for himself in a changing cinematic world.

For those interested in watching Turpin, or reading more about him, there is some material. His shorts appear on some collections featuring many stars, and there’s also two dedicated just to him: Turpin Time and Ben Turpin Comedy Classics. There is also a biography titled For Art’s Sake by Steve Rydzewski.

Watch Ben Turpin in Ten Dollars or Ten Days:

TCM Silent Film Schedule: July

July is a great month for silent film fans through TCM. In total, there are 22 films (some shorts) this month, including some all time classics and a whole night of comedy shorts. Here’s the massive lineup:

4th
Wings: Notable historically for being the first film to win Best Picture, Wings is a spectacular war film. Even to this day, the war scenes look incredibly realistic. In addition to Clara Bow as the star, it features an early prominent role for Gary Cooper.

6th
Kiki: This comedy stars two actors you wouldn’t normally associate with this type of film–Norma Talmadge and Ronald Colman. It’s also directed by Clarence Brown, who would go to direct National Velvet and Anna Karenina.

11th
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: This film was not only the most popular film of 1921, it went on to being one of the top ten highest grossing silent films. Even more notably, this was the film that launched Rudolph Valentino to superstardom.
The Big Parade: Another World War I film, this film focuses on more of the horrors of war. One of the biggest films of the decade, some even estimate it’s one of the most successful silent films of all time. Helping the audience’s interest was the star combo of John Gilbert and Reneé Adoreé. King Vidor directed.

13th
The Trail of ’98: This gold rush film was also directed by Clarence Brown and stars Harry Carey. MGM experimented with a widescreen process called Fanthom Screen for this film only, before trying slightly different technologies afterwards.

15th
A Modern Musketeer: Douglas Fairbanks produced and starred in this comedy/adventure film. It fits in with the Fairbanks swashbuckling action style, along with some comedy. For decades, only a partial print was available, but TCM will be showing the full recovered Danish print.

18th
J’Accuse: This is yet another World War I film. Probably more realistic than most, some scenes were filmed on actual battlefields. The pacifist tone film was a huge hit in France, but had problems getting US distribution because of it’s tone.

20th
The Immigrant: This very famous Charlie Chaplin comedy features his regular partner, Edna Purviance. One of the more brilliant scenes to watch out for is Chaplin attempting to eat at a restaurant.
Coney Island: One of many shorts starring both Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, was shot on location at the actual Coney Island.
Never Weaken: This was the final short Harold Lloyd made before moving to features. It’s also a precursor to his later films– thrilling sequences, including another scene involving climbing a building.
Two Tars: Oliver and Hardy had numerous silent shorts, and this was one of them. Directing is James Parrott, a very prolific silent comedian in his own right.
The Gold Rush: Chaplin produced many features that are now considered all time classics, including this one. The highest grossing silent comedy of all time, Chaplin also considered it one of his favorites. It won an Oscar upon it’s re-release in 1942.
Court House Crooks: Ford Sterling is the star of this Mack Sennett comedy, but it also features Harold Lloyd very early in his career.
A Submarine Pirate: Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s half-brother, appeared in a lot of comedies (including his brother’s). Here he is both the star and the director.
Look Pleasant, Please: This short not only stars Harold Lloyd, but allows gives the opportunity to see little mentioned silent star Snub Pollard.
Captain Kidd’s Kids: Another Lloyd/Pollard short.
Take A Chance: Yet another Lloyd/Pollard film.

24th
The Kiss: The Kiss has a few notable first and lasts: the last silent film for Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel, while it was the feature film debut for Lew Ayres.

25th
The Better ‘Ole: This was the second adaptation of a very popular British musical comedy. Starring Syd Chaplin, it’s notable as being an early Vitaphone film.
Shoulder Arms: Yes, this is yet another World War I film, although this one is a little different. It’s a comedy, the second Charlie Chaplin made for First National.

26th
Metropolis: It goes without saying that this is one of the most notable silent films ever made. In the sci-fi genre alone, it’s a landmark film, and is a must see for anyone.

27th
Pandora’s Box: Louise Brooks stars in this film, one of her more memorable performances. This was the second adaptation of a German play.