The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. All This and Heaven, Too (Anton Litvak)
  2. Joy (David O. Russell)
  3. The Wedding March (Erich Von Stroheim)
  4. Manhatta (Charles Sheeler/Paul Strand)
  5. Grass (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  6. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
  7. Chang (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  8. 3:10 To Yuma (Delmer Daves)
  9. The Golem (Carl Boese/Paul Wegener)
  10. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)

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1- All This and Heaven, Too is the perfect example of what was known as a ‘woman’s picture’.  Nothing pejorative meant by that. It was a particular genre that was extraordinarily popular at the time. Star-crossed romances, attractive tragic protagonists, luscious scores by Max Steiner. I guess things like the Twilight series are the diminished descendents of these films.  Since this starred the great Bette Davis, I was expecting a plot with a little more meat and a tougher heroine.  Still, it was fun enough.  I don’t get why Charles Boyer was such a sex symbol, but he was. Must have been the French accent.

2- I think that David O. Russell makes movies just for me. I absorb them effortlessly and with great satisfaction.  The quirkiness of the plots and characters is never condescending.  His stable of actors is immensely appealing. Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle were absolute delights.  Joy is also a joy.  He might be becoming formulaic, but it is such a tasty formula!

3- Each time I watch a Von Stroheim film, I am amazed that he succeeded in getting it made. The elaborateness of the productions, the penetrating psychology of the characters, the epic scope make you wonder how the studio heads ever agreed to his projects, especially since they were hugely expensive and perhaps not box-office smashes. I hadn’t seen The Wedding March in a long, long time, but it really holds up as an exemplar of what makes a Von Stroheim film so masterful. It is tragic that the second part of the film, The Honeymoon, was lost in a fire in Paris in the Fifties, but there are enough stills and information for us to piece together what the end of this melancholy story would have looked like.  The recent discovery of the complete Metropolis makes me take heart that The Honeymoon might be found in some European basement someday.  It is not like the missing reels of Greed which were deliberately destroyed by the studio, apparently.  This just seems to be a case of neglect. Keeping my fingers crossed.  Take a look at my survey of Von Stroheim if you have not already.

4- Bless TCM for their monthly perspectives.  This month, they are focusing on documentaries.  This gave me the chance to see three short films that I had always heard about but never had the opportunity to see. Manhatta is an astounding 11-minute silent film showing views of New York from highly artistic and interesting camera set-ups.  Grass and Chang are the products of Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, the boys who brought us King Kong. Granted, these are not documentaries in the strictest sense as many of the sequences seem staged, but just to imagine the difficulty that this kind of location filming presented in the 1920s makes these films even more amazing. Someone described Chang, set in the jungles of Thailand, as a ‘wild animal snuff film’. Cute, and somewhat accurate. But the anthropological details of the life of these people is so interesting. Grass is absolutely thrilling. It depicts the epic journey of the Bakhtiari people from central Turkey to somewhere in present-day Iran. They are fleeing the dried out fields of Anatolia for the lush grassland of Iran to feed their flocks.  Grass equals life here.  I was dazzled by the camera work and could not imagine how these epic set-ups were co-ordinated.  CGI has truly killed the thrill of this kind of cinema!

5- 3:10 To Yuma should be as regarded and as well known as High Noon.  When westerns are great, they are sublime, like The Searchers and Once Upon A Time In The West. When they are very good, they are very, very good, like 3:10 To Yuma. I am talking about the original here, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Don’t know anything about the remake.  Like most remakes, I question the wisdom of the whole enterprise. (Probably only John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon was the only necessary and transcendent remake!).   When critics talk about the greatness of later westerns, they usually focus on the psychological depictions of the characters.  Here, the cat-and-mouse between Ford and Heflin keeps the whole thing taut and involving.  And that last shot in the rain is gorgeous.

6- I was glad finally to catch up with The Golem.  It was one of the major German Expressionist films that I had not seen. I watched it since it was one of the films covered in the new podcast The Chosen Films created by two friends of mine, Aaron Midler and Rabbi Shoshana Conover.  They discuss films from a Jewish perspective and their selections are eclectic.  I don’t think this film is as majestic as others of this time (The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari, Metropolis or Faust, but it is fascinating for the weird but not demonizing portrayal of those medieval Jews.  See it.

 

7- The late 70s/early 80s were a heady time for ‘art house’ cinema.  Bergman, Fellini and Hitchcock were still active, and we were discovering new corners of the cinematic universe.  Most impressive was what was called The Australian New Wave.  Fascinating, accomplished films like Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Last Wave  and Gallipoli burst Athena-like, fully-formed and glorious.  My Brilliant Career was a film that I saw at the time and liked a lot, but had completely forgotten about.  I was glad to catch up with it again and see that it was even more satisfying than I remembered. And Sam Neill is gorgeous.

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Silents Are Fun

I was recently talking to a much, much younger work colleague about a movie I saw that I thought he would be interested in.  As I was describing it, he interrupted me and asked if it were in black and white. When I told him it was, he told me to forget it. He just couldn’t possibly watch it. It really threw me. A movie is a movie, I thought. Eventually,  I realized that there are certain art forms that present hurdles to those who are not familiar with them.  Opera is impenetrable to the uninitiated, a point I understand intellectually, but as a 40 year veteran of operamania, it just doesn’t resonate with me emotionally.  It has been so long for me since the conventions of opera and their attendant weirdnesses were new to me, that I find it hard to remember how it was (perhaps) difficult on first exposure.

This made me think of silent films.  Even people who consider themselves cinephiles often have a blind spot for silent. Having been devoted to film even longer than I have been devoted to opera, I get the conventions of silent films that might seem inscrutable or even ludicrous to the uninitiated.  The broader acting styles, the intertitles and the general ancientness of the whole genre require getting used to.  I also realize that the silent films that most people are exposed to are the silents  that are ‘important’,  the ones that are ‘good for you’.  For example, in any film appreciation class, people are forced to watch The Battleship Potemkin or at least the famous Odessa Steps scene.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the silent Soviet stuff. But it is interesting and not necessarily fun, as are most of the silents that people are exposed to.  The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birth of A Nation, Vampyr are all sublime in their own ways, but they aren’t fun, per se.

Realizing this, I decided to draw up a list of five silent films that are guaranteed pleasures to watch and would be a good entrée into a deeper appreciation of the genre:

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

Peggy Pepper (Marion Davies) meets but does not recognize Charlie Chaplin

1. Show People (1928) dir. King Vidor.   This delightful comedy tells the story of rich girl from the sticks who has designs on being a great dramatic film actress with the support of her loving but equally clueless father. The beauty of the film is the triumph of comedy, as our heroine realizes what her true forte is.  The film stars Marion Davies, a very talented comic actor who is nowadays unfortunately identified with the very untalented Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane. Davies was Hearst’s mistress much as Alexander was Kane’s, but the similarity ends there.  Davies knew what she was doing. She excelled in light comedy and this film is a good sampling her talents. Plus, for the film buff there are lots of inside jokes about the Hollywood figures of the time.

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

Promo for Foolish Wives emphasizing the cost of the production

2. Foolish Wives (1922) dir. Erich Von Stroheim.  What lamenters of the silent era lament most is the pinnacle of storytelling art that movies achieved before sound.  Once sounds began, the whole production seemed to be concerned about the placement of the microphone above everything, making a very static art form out of one that was thrilling fluid and visually sophisticated just a few years previously.  It took talkies a few years to catch up.  Foolish Wives represents silent filmmaking at its peak.  The director and star was the mad genius Erich Von Stroheim (see my previous post on his work). Watching this film has all the joys of reading a rich, complex and slightly perverse novel.  Stroheim pushed the limits in set design (building an exact replica of the casino at Monte Carlo on the back lot), story telling and naturalistic acting. It would be years before Hollywood would see a production of this caliber again.  The characters are nuanced, the humor is adult, the relationships are titillating.  Plus it has a terrific story.

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

Buddy Rodgers and Mary Pickford

3. My Best Girl (1927) dir. Sam Taylor.  During the silent era, no actress was more beloved or more powerful than Mary Pickford.  An extraordinarily shrewd business person as well as a magnetic screen presence, Pickford first specialized in heart-wrenching films about put-upon waifs and eventually graduated to adult comedy roles, of which this is among the best. Mary works in a department store with a charming young man who, unbeknownst to her is the boss’s son (the gorgeous Buddy Rodgers, soon to be Mr. Pickford) trying to learn the business from the ground up.  Her family is delightfully dysfunctional and she is trying to hold everything together.  Heaven will protect the working girl!  The perfect light touch of this film might betray the influence of the great Lubitsch.  It is a delight from start to finish.

one week

4. One Week (1920) dir. Buster Keaton.  Comedy is always a good way to ease into a new art form, and the films of Buster Keaton are a sublime way to ease into silent films. The jaw-dropping ingenuity of his visuals are enough to convert anyone. In this short, Keaton and his new bride try to build themselves a do-it-yourself house from a kit, but things gets complicated as his old rival appears intent on making sure nothing goes smoothly for the young couple.

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5. Un Chien Andalou (1929) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.  Nothing before or since has been like this surreal masterpiece. While at the Magritte exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, I realized that one of the things that makes the surrealists so appealing is that, in addition to being really creepy, they are howlingly funny.  It’s all here.  The slit eye, the priests tied to dead donkeys, peripatetic armpit hair, everything that makes the surreal the surreal. Twenty-one minutes of controlled insanity to a rollicking tango and Wagner score.

P.S.  It premiered on my birthday (well  not on my actually birthday but a few decades before.)

So watch these five films and let me know what you think.  Then you’ll be ready for the Soviets, I promise.


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Have You Tried Von Stroheim?

Norma Desmond, the silent film star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard who has retreated into the dreams and confines of her Hollywood-Baroque mansion, is forgotten by the world. The shocking thing to realize is that the coming of sound, that event that severed the world of Desmond and Valentino and Fairbanks and Pickford from the ‘today’ of the film’s 1950, happened little more than 23 years before. Yet, the sundering of the two worlds is complete and final. The legendarily glamorous hey-day of the Silent Era seems as distant to the contemporary characters as the French Revolution.

Consider what was in theaters 23 years ago. Ghost, Home Alone and Pretty Woman hardly seem like relics of a distant past. Even the films released 23 years prior to that, such as The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde are still highly accessible and seem to be of our time.

The Silent Era is even more remote to us than it was in 1950. The giants of the era, such as Garbo, are remembered for their Sound Era films only , if at all. Yes, the silhouette of The Little Tramp is immediately recognizable, and we all have seen Harold Lloyd hanging from that clock in Safety Last, but the vast body of silent films are unknown.

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In the ensuing 86 years since the advent of sound, the vast majority of filmgoers have lost the skill of watching silent movies. There will be the obligatory viewing of The Gold Rush or Battleship Potemkin (alas, only the Odessa Steps scene) but no one knows classics like The Big Parade and Sunrise or even delightful, fluffy entertainments like My Best Girl or Show People.

My recommendation for activating an appreciation of Silents would be to watch and revel in the films of Erich Von Stroheim. Born to a lower middle-class Jewish family, Stroheim remade himself into a fallen Austrian nobleman, picking up the aristocratic ‘Von’ somewhere between Europe and Ellis Island.

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He learned the craft of filmmaking by working as an extra and assistant director to D.W. Griffith, and came of age as a director in the mid-1920s, the zenith of the Silent Era. He is best known for a film that no one alive has seen in its entirety. His ten-hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ realist classic Mcteague, shot under the title Greed, was continually whittled down by the studio until only about two hours of film remained. Not too long ago a reconstruction of the ‘complete’ Greed was created by splicing what remains of the film together with a treasure trove of recently discovered production stills. This, however, is ‘caviar to the general’ and will hardly be pleasurable for the Silent novice.

Instead, your starting point should be the stupendous Foolish Wives. Made in 1922, it is the perfect example of MGM luxury and glamor combined with Von Stroheim’s obsession with accuracy. It is said that his mania for detail even extended to insisting that his characters should be wearing correct underwear, even though it never appeared on screen! A full-scale replica of the casino at Monte Carlo is just one of the things that pushed the budget of this film past the one million mark, a first in film history.

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MGM made a virtue of necessity by bragging in the ads for the film that it was directed by Erich Von $troheim.

Foolish Wives is the story of an innocent American wife abroad, prey to the decadence of European aristocracy manqué. It is a strange theme for a film of 1922 since World War I had all but annihilated the very world that Von Stroheim was critiquing. The film is novelistic in its portrayal of character and plot. The fascinating Austrian Count Karamzin (Von Stroheim) and his ‘cousins’ inhabit a seaside vipers’ nest from which they cynically and ruthlessly prey on anyone naive enough to cross their paths. Watching their gleeful amorality and inevitable downfall is as satisfying as reading a big juicy 19th Century Novel by Trollope or Dickens.

The Austrian aristocracy also comes in for scrutiny in the heartbreakingly beautiful film The Wedding March starring a pre-King Kong Fay Wray.

Stroheim’s directorial career came to an abrupt end when Gloria Swanson had her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy shut down the production of the film Queen Kelly she was starring in and Von Stroheim was directing. Swanson finally had enough of the demands of this mad director and took exception to the creepy fetishisms of the film. Queen Kelly survives as a fragment and it is fascinating. An extra level of creepiness is that it is the film Norma Desmond is showing to Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. In a queasy-making confluence of fact and fiction, the butler Max von Mayerling, who is acting as film projector, is played by none other that Von Stroheim himself.

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So, please dig up a copy of Foolish Wives and let me know what you think. There is a nice edition on Kino that also features the interesting documentary The Man You Love To Hate. Then try The Wedding March.