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.

A Classic Film Fan’s Holiday Gift Guide

With the holiday season fast approaching, there’s plenty of shopping to do. And while there’s always a wealth of classic films on DVD to purchase, there were a number of fantastic new DVD/Blu-Ray releases. On top of that, one site is offering a steal of a sale right now. Here’s a list of some of the classic film releases for that special person in your life, or yourself:

Kino Lorber Silent Film Sale (through 12/06)

As of this writing, there is only one more day to capitalize on an amazing silent film sale at Kino Lorber. In addition to plenty of single film DVD releases, the biggest bargains are the boxed sets. These include Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, Edison: The Invention of the Movies, German Expressionism and Gaumont Treasures. Also recommended is the innovative and engrossing French serial Fantomas.

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Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Regular viewers of TCM may have seen the television debut of this previously lost film. Either way, this is one well worth picking up, if only  for the historical reasons. William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes on stage countless times, plays him on film for the only time. Gillette’s portrayal also led to many of the physical traits commonly associated with Holmes. The print survives in a nice condition, making this DVD/Blu-Ray all the more worthwhile.

Accidentally Preserved Volume 3

Ben Model has done it again, producing and scoring long lost silent films. There are plenty of silent comedy shorts to be seen here, some of them with notable but forgotten stars of the era. This includes the then popular duo of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew and a young Billy Barty. The world of silent comedy is much bigger than is generally known, and this provides a look at some forgotten stars.

The Marcel Perez Collection

Speaking of forgotten silent comedy stars and Ben Model, this is another gem of DVD scored by him. Born in Spain, Perez was an international star and director of around 200 shorts. Now forgotten, this DVD of ten shorts is an introduction to one of the first non-U.S. based silent comedy superstars.

Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9

The long running series of Pre-Code films has another hit, this one with five films in all. There are plenty of big stars to be found in these films, including Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Ann Dvorak and Richard Dix. The full list of films: Big City Blues, Hell’s Highway, When Women Meet, I Sell Anything and The Cabin in the Cotton.

House of Mystery

Fantomas is far from the only stellar French serial out there. House of Mystery was lost to time, but thanks to a great looking DVD release, the ten part serial can be explored again. With plenty of fast-paced action, emotion and stunning visuals, this is a must-see.

The Apu Trilogy

Often heralded as the height of Indian cinema and some of the greatest films of all time, the award winning series has finally gotten a Criterion release. With that great treatment, there is now a chance for even more people to see a landmark piece of cinema.

How Television and One Man Saved the Legacy of Buster Keaton

Stop for a moment and think about your favorite Buster Keaton moment. There’s many things that may come to mind: the house just missing him in Steamboat Bill Jr., a train going down in flames in The General, just to name a couple. But it’s safe to say films like Doughboys and What — No Beer? don’t spring to mind many classic moments. And yet, Keaton’s lackluster MGM talkies were far more popular than most of what he did previously in his “classic” period. Luckily, times changed and Keaton’s greatest work became recognized in his lifetime. That Keaton now has the legacy he deserves can be credited to television, and the work of one man.

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Either through a desire or a need to keep working, Buster Keaton didn’t stop when his time at MGM came to a bad end. He kept on working, sometimes in foreign films, bit parts in Hollywood movies or in cheap short films. Perhaps most importantly, Buster Keaton found his way into millions of homes thanks to numerous TV appearances. In addition to his own local Los Angeles show, Keaton showed up time and time again on a bevy of shows: Rheingold Theatre, The Best of Broadway, Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater, Screen Directors Playhouse, The Donna Reed Show, Burke’s Law, The Greatest Show on Earth, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Route 66, You Asked for It and The Twilight Zone. Combined with commercial spots, Buster Keaton was everywhere on the small screen. A whole new audience became exposed to Keaton, an audience that never saw some people like the retired Harold Lloyd.

But that still didn’t expose audiences to Keaton’s classic silent film comedies. Raymond Rohauer is the man who changed all that.

Keaton still had many of his shorts and features in his possession, but without the rights to any of them, they were essentially useless. Upon their meeting, Rohauer set about to change all that. At the expense of high legal fees, he renewed copyrights and put the works back in with Buster Keaton Productions. Just as importantly, he transferred the works from unsafe nitrate film to more reliable safety film. Along the way, Rohauer also scoured the earth for copies of other Keaton films. The films were then re-released, allowing audiences to see Keaton’s classic work for the first time since their release.

It didn’t come easy, getting these films back in theaters. MGM, who claimed copyright over much of Keaton’s films, sued after The Navigator was screened. Many other court cases, injunctions and lawsuits would follow. Rohauer even clashed with Keaton over securing the troublesome rights to Seven Chances. Keaton, not a fan of the film, didn’t even want him to bother. But Rohauer persisted anyhow.

The revival of the films paid huge dividends. Keaton found more steady work in big Hollywood films like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The accolades rolled in too: a George Eastman House award, a star on the walk of fame, a Sutherland Trophy from the British Film Institute, and a surprise honorary Oscar. The 1960s were his best decade since the 20s.

To this day, Keaton retains the legendary status he so rightfully deserves, with Sherlock Jr. and The General seen as some of the best films of the era. And to that, we owe a great deal of thanks to television and Raymond Rohauer.

The Battle Against Censorship in Early Sound Films

1929 was a huge year for films, a year of transition. Talking pictures were rapidly becoming the must-see attractions, putting an end to silent films very quickly. But with that transition came a lot of decisions, a lot of growing pains and a lot of uncertainty.

Take, for instance, the kind of technology that was to be used. Debate raged on as to what would end up being the preferable way of playing sound: sound-on-film, or sound-on-disc. So many aspects of technology were still in play in 1929, as well aspects like production costs, just as an example.

Another battle was fought in 1929 when sound entered the equation. This one, although not well known now, had major ramifications for free speech in early talkies. It also found its way into many courtrooms and state houses throughout the country. It is the issue of censorship of early talkie films, and whether or not the government could intervene in those matters.

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It appears that the first major instance of occurred at the start of 1929, with the release of Sal of Singapore. The film, released originally as a silent in 1928, later was re-edited to include new talking scenes. And that’s when the New York censors stepped in and tried to set quite the precedent. The censors tried to block the film, based on a perceived power to censor sound and dialogue in films.

Production company Pathé wasn’t about to let that slide, though. After getting a temporary reprieve from the censorship, they then sought to have a court battle over the issue—which they did, beginning that same month in January. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time Pathé went to bat for freedom of speech in film. Several years earlier, 1923, Pathé successfully won a Supreme Court battle stating that newsreel footage could not be subject to censorship.

For its part, the film industry offered unanimous support against censors wiping out dialogue. In quite the odd turn of events, even Will B. Hays was outspoken against the censorship. Hays, who was just a short a way from enforcing his namesake code that put a stranglehold on Hollywood freedom, said that “no reasonable person could claim there was any need for censorship.”

The result of this specific case in New York is a little hard to track down. Although it was a for a time the biggest story Film Daily covered, the forming of 20th Century Fox soon dominated the headlines, pushing this specific film censorship case aside.

But this was not the only battle for free speech in talkies that year. There were many, many more throughout the country. Also in New York, legislation to further regulate sound in films to pass. In Pennsylvania, a high court actually ruled in favor of more censorship control. Censorship laws also failed to pass in Kansas.

And the most interesting state of all in this battle may be Ohio. Much like in other states, legislation failed to pass in the state house. Specifically, the powers that be in Ohio wanted to be able to censor lines of dialogue as they wish. Although in most states it ended there, things in Ohio went to extreme measures. Of particular contention was a Clara Bow talkie The Wild Party. There were apparently some bits of dialogue censors wanted cut out. But since they didn’t have that power, in some showings the screen just went black. Whole scenes were cut out, since they couldn’t censor individual lines of dialogue.

Of course, this battle over the censorship of films didn’t continue on, and there was no need to. Hollywood’s own regulations thanks to the Production Code would soon get rid if the kind of content censors were wringing their hands over.

All the same, the battle that took place in the early days of sound is still important. These legal fights set an early and always important precedent: that government can’t regulate the content of film. And in this time of transition, the fight wasn’t easy–but it had the right result.

Recommend an Obscure Film: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

This is part of an ongoing series looking at obscure/little talked about good films.

Frequent readers of this blog are well aware of the fondness I have for Harold Lloyd. His films still stand out as some of the funniest and most charming of all time, and watching more of him only makes that more obvious. He made some successful sound films too, but ultimately chose to retire. Today we’re going to talk about the one film he made when he came out of retirement. It has a troubled history and is rarely mentioned now, but it shows just now talented Harold Lloyd was.

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If you happened to see The Sin of Harold Diddlebock around the time it came out, you probably know it under a different name, Mad Wednesday. That’s because the film as originally made was barely seen by anyone. Producer Howard Hughes panicked after early bad reviews and pulled the film from theaters quickly. It then took him years to release it under that different title, and with a shorter runtime. With a history like that, things aren’t looking good for this film. Add to it that the film when badly over schedule and over budget, and this sounds like it must have been a disaster.

In reality, it wasn’t a disaster on film, even if it was a disaster in production and release. On paper alone, it looks like the film should work as a great comedy. After all, Preston Sturges is directing Harold Lloyd here. Indeed, it was Sturges that convinced Lloyd to come out of retirement for a loose sequel to The Freshman. Does the combination of these two working together turn out well?

It sure does. Sturges clearly knew how to create a Harold Lloyd-like film. It certainly feels like one, particularly with a typical zany, dangerous climax. The film has a tough act to follow considering it opens with the final ten minutes of The Freshman, but the material is strong enough to work.

And Harold Lloyd is strong enough too. As with his other talkies, this film makes it clear that sound different hurt Lloyd’s charm or abilities at all. Lloyd, still looking as youthful as ever, brings the same kind of presence and performance found in his silent films. In fact, the best extended scene in the film relies partially on Lloyd’s voice supplying a huge punch line. He’s still the same comedic genius, delighting as always. This film really hammers home how unfortunate it is that he chose to retire.

And it’s also unfortunate that Lloyd’s swan song has been mostly written off or ignored. While some stars met with sad ends where they didn’t have it any more, that is clearly not the case with Lloyd. What we have in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock is Lloyd proving to still be at the top of his game, all these years later. A couple more classic Lloyd moments can be found here, along with one final great comedy.

Roller Disco and the Unexpected Fun of Cheesy Films

I have a confession to make.

By now, I think my tastes in films are pretty well known. We’ve covered silent films and early talkies here extensively enough that it’s very obvious I have a great interest in that era. But my tastes aren’t that limited, though, of course. And everyone has their guilty pleasures in movies, music and TV. Now, let’s take a look at one if my own guilty film pleasures. It, can of course, only be one thing:

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Roller disco films!

Roller disco films skated their way into my heart when I first saw Roller Boogie. Sure, part of that was because Linda Blair was absurdly charming in it, but who wouldn’t be charmed by her in this film? It also helps that Jim Bray is incredibly talented and showcases his skills incredibly well. Because of that, the film features honest to goodness great musical numbers. The rest of it is just cheesy retro fun, and isn’t that just the thing you need sometimes? The vintage 70s fashion is sometimes wacky and sometimes adorable, and the songs to go along with it are fun too. It has just the perfect cheesy plot, too: young people wanting to save a roller rink as if it’s the most important thing in the world. It’s just cheesy fun that left a smile on my face the whole time.

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Next came the much maligned Xanadu. I came into this knowing that the film carries with it quite the reputation. And it certainly is a different experience than Roller Boogie, because Xanadu is just so out there. It sounds bizarre on paper, but it’s even more bizarre in reality. Above all else, it’s still very fun. The musical numbers are still enjoyable to watch, along with the added bonus that anything can happen at any time. And boy, does it ever happen. To me, the film’s out of left field weirdness is precisely what makes it so charming. It’s wacky and bizarre, and the whole time that just makes it very unique and fun trip.

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There was only one other entry into the Roller Disco Holy Trinity left: the never officially released Skatetown USA. And the fact that it will never be released is such a shame, likely due to a soundtrack featuring a bevy of hits. Although the film never strays far from the roller disco hall, it packs the same “bizarre around every corner” punch that Xanadu has. From a white Afro wearing DJ to a roller skating Uncle Sam, one never knows what sparkling surprises Skatetown USA will deliver next. In fact, it may be the most cheesy fun of them all, thanks also to an all star cast and total nonstop roller disco action.

By now, it’s obvious what all these films have in common, aside from just roller skating. The other common theme is that they’re incredibly cheesy and incredibly fun. Just as watching a swinging roaring 20s party on film makes me want to be there, so does a roll around the rink to an ABBA song. Everything from the disco tunes to the hair and the music is like stepping into a time machine. It’s a brief slice of life into a scene in the 70s, and every moment of it is pure up adulterated joy. Are these films good in many of the usual metrics at which we judge movies? Often, no. Does that make them any less entertaining? No.

Sometimes all we want from a film is a fun escape, something to put a smile on our face. That’s why I have always been enchanted by musicals in general, for the joy and pleasure they give when a spectacular musical number is going on. These roller disco films provide that same kind of fun– just with hot pants, roller skates and high socks thrown in the mix.

Give these films a chance if you’re so inclined. You might just find yourself dreaming of rollerskating too. In the meantime, I’m off to look for a satin jacket.

The Uncomfortable Moments in Classic Film, and Why We Need to See Them

Two of early film’s most popular, influential and important pieces are a little hard to watch now. These are films that cannot just be written off. They are, after all, integral pieces in telling the history of film. They also happen to have racist elements.

The Jazz Singer features Al Jolson performing in blackface, something that was part of his regular routine. It would be easy to ignore the film for this fact, if it weren’t for the significance of the climactic scene and the whole film. The man in blackface is singing on screen in the first talking picture, one that would very quickly lead to a seismic shift in the world of film.

The Birth of a Nation is even more egregious, so profoundly racist in its portrayal of African Americans and the KKK that it caused great controversy when released. But it also just happens to be the biggest blockbuster film up to that point in movie history, and also a landmark film in terms of complexity and directorial/narrative structure.

Both of these films, particularly The Birth of the Nation, clearly contain elements, or even whole plots, that would be unacceptable today. But they can’t just be written off or ignored, in large part because of how important they are to the history of film. On anyone’s chart of film’s most important points, these two films would stand out as bold, huge events.

Because these are such important films, they aren’t ignored, censored or swept under the rug. And as a result of that, meaningful discussions about the racial elements of the film are always ongoing. We’ve continued to look at these films and have learned a lot about our history and our culture.

And that is how we should look at all classic films, unedited and unapologetic, discussing and learning from them. If we can do it with The Jazz Singer and The Birth of a Nation, we can do it with all other classic films as well.

That is the optimal way to handle it, as any classic film fan knows it’s hard to avoid unpleasantness of the past. Blackface was once hugely popular as a performance style in the United States, and that’s not even including the common practice of white men playing Asian stereotypes in early films. Classic films with racist and sexist elements are all over the place, with examples and instances too numerous to name. If we remove these elements, what are we really removing? Only the opportunity to understand, learn and discuss.

Editing out blackface from film, for example, tries to erase what was a strangely mainstream and common practice for a number of decades. It’s jarring and shocking to see to see Bing Crosby saunter out in blackface in Holiday Inn and other films, but trying to act like it didn’t happen doesn’t help us understand why it happened.

It’s easy to romanticize and idealize the past. In fact, most film blogs such as this one are guilty of that to a certain extent. But not all things were better then. The truth of the matter is that African Americans, women, Asians, Italians, Jews and all other kinds of groups were often portrayed horribly and offensively in films of yesteryear. And while it’s especially horrible to see now, erasing these ugly parts does not fix anything. It erases a look at an unfortunately all too true part of our history.

Films are, after all, more than just entertainment. They are a cultural scrapbook, a time capsule of who we are, who we were and where we came from. That includes not only the good things and the beautiful things, but the ugly and shameful things as well. Those awful things tell an important story too, of how far we’ve come and grown.

Much like our own world history, we can’t only choose to remember the good parts of our film history. That doesn’t tell the whole story.

Recommend an Obscure Film: The Last Performance

This is the first in a one week series highlighting lesser known great films. There’s also the possibility this could be adapted into a podcast, so if you’re interested in that format, let us know!

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THE LAST PERFORMANCE (1927)
Directed by: Paul Fejos
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin

We’ve previously talked about Paul Fejos’ classic Lonesome on this site. When that film received the Criterion collection, along with it were a couple of other Fejos selections–including The Last Performance. While the former may be a touching, moving love story, The Last Performance conveys a whole different set of emotions: horror, shock and terror.

Conrad Veidt stars as an unsettling magician, one who has entered a relationship with a much younger woman. When she falls in love with the new apprentice, it’s only a matter of time before Veidt finds out and decides to get even.

Although no spoilers will be given here, viewers will likely figure out where this is headed once Veidt springs into action. That does not lessen the impact of what follows. The film’s climactic scenes are not only unsettling and unnerving, but almost scary as well. The inevitable path it heads on only adds to the tension. The viewer knows things will only get worse for the characters in this love triangle. It’s just a matter of when.

Making the film all the more unsettling is the harrowing performance by Conrad Veidt. In a way, Veidt was almost the prototypical silent film actor: an expressive an unforgettable face. The anger and torment in his eyes tells a greater story than most actors ever can.

Much like Lonesome, which also came at the end of silent films, The Last Performance later got a touch of sound as well. It appears the partial talkie version may have been released in 1929, but the film was released on a staggered schedule over the course of a couple years. It wasn’t until 1930 that it was finally released everywhere. Interestingly enough, Bela Lugosi dubbed Veidt’s voice in the Hungarian version.

While The Last Performance is somewhat predictable, it only makes the film all the more harrowing. You’ll be able to see what’s around the corner before it happens–and you’ll be hoping that you’re wrong. The Last Performance further shows that Paul Fejos was a master at whatever emotions he wants to tackle. He makes you smile in Lonesome, and in The Last Performance, he’ll make you squirm in your seat.