Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Remembering the Movies, Oct. 1 - 7

Friday, October 1, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Oct. 1 - 7

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.

An enslaved gladiator asserting his liberty, a deformed "freak" clinging to his dignity, a masked avenger lurking in an ancestral castle...and an anonymous prop man who would become Hollywood's biggest star. Oh, and lest you stop reading before the post is over, a 1910-era trickster whose shapeshifting stymies the fuzz (not to be missed!). Appearances are not what they seem as we begin the month of Halloween on "Remembering the Movies."

Share your own thoughts below: Have you seen these films? What did you think? Do you remember their original run? Any historical anecdotes to share?

Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past.


10 years ago...

Mysterious Object at Noon; premiered at Vancouver Film Festival, October 2, 2000
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Story: Ever played the game where one person begins a story, then passes it on to the next person, and the next person, and so on ("The Exquisite Corpse")? Weerasethakul plays this game with a camera and microphone in hand, traveling the Thai countryside and interviewing random people.

Mysterious Object at Noon is part fictional storytelling, part documentary, as it observes the narrators in their everyday environments. The central conceit is great (there's a lot of unexplored cinematic potential with this idea) - and if anyone can fuse the imaginative with the day-to-day, transforming the latter by the former (or discovering the former in the latter), it's Weerasethakul, who goes by the name of "Joe," at least when talking to tongue-tied American reporters. Werease - er, Joe's Syndromes and a Century was one of the best films of the past decade (Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours have even more adherents), so between his presence and the intriguing gimmick, Mysterious Object has a lot going for it...it's all on You Tube (see below) so check it out if you haven't seen it yet (I'll be following my own advice shortly). The film earned wide praise. In an otherwise reportorial piece, the Village Voice takes a moment to commend the movie: "Its Thai title, Dogfar in the Devil's Hand, could refer to the type of overwrought, underproduced, and impossibly clichéd melodramas that have historically made up the bulk of Thai cinema, but there's nothing archaic about the way it superimposes bits of local television dramas, pop songs, daily-life dilemmas, and improvisatory Thai theatrical conventions over the deranging pretext of André Breton's old party game, the Exquisite Corpse."

Watch the film.

20 years ago...
Avalon; October 5, 1990
starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Elizabeth Perkins, Eve Gordon, Joan Plowright, Kevin Pollak, Aidan Quinn
written & directed by Barry Levinson

Story: A man arrives on the shores of American in 1914, and the film follows his family's saga over the next several decades.

Flush from Rain Man, Levinson did what so many have done before him: he took advantage of a big budget to give visually lavish treatment to a personal story - and then watched it fall from the sky like Icarus (Avalon earned only $15 million at the box office). Nonetheless, the film received generally good reviews and fit well with a nostalgic mood sweeping the post-Cold War West, with its "end of history" mindset encouraging a refreshed look at said history. It was as if the great (European) immigration project had concluded after several generations, with various ethnic clans more or less fully integrated into American society. Now the grandkids and great grandkids of the immigrants could look back on their ancestors' experience with a kind of a glow, seeing it with a fresh sense of novelty now that enough time had passed (and perhaps a clearer eye could be cast on mistakes made along the way). On "Siskel & Ebert", the duo gave thumbs up, after some initial hesitation on Gene's part. Roger: "The film was able to surprise me; it doesn't end the way you might think, and indeed its end is poetic and elegiac, thoughtful and a little sad." Gene: "In the last hour and a half the attitude started to creep in...and now I began to want to get into the family and say, hey be nice to each other..."

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
The Elephant Man; October 10, 1980
starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud
written by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch (from Sir Frederick Treves' & Ashley Montagu's books)
directed by David Lynch

Story: John Merrick, severely deformed at birth, has spent years as a circus freak, but with the help of Dr. Frederick Treves he is given something closer to a normal life.

A beautiful movie, my first Lynch (I haven't seen it since childhood, but retain a strong impression, particularly - which is ironic, all considered - of Hopkins' cold compassion, conveyed in a close-up). Producer Mel Brooks was the big name behind this picture at the time and Lynch was a kid fresh off the strange side of the street. He was both the logical choice for this movie, and a strange one - considering how conventional its storytelling appears in light of his later surrealism. Most critics gave glowing reviews; except for Roger Ebert, who panned the movie while offering only tepid praise for Lynch, commenting, "The direction...is competent, although he gives us an inexcusable opening scene in which Merrick's mother is trampled or scared by elephants or raped (who knows?) and an equally idiotic closing scene in which Merrick becomes the Star Child from 2001, or something." He would go on to give an exceptionally scathing write-off to Blue Velvet and continued to resist Lynch for years, though by Mulholland Dr. even he had fallen under the filmmaker's weird spell.

Watch the trailer.

40 years ago...
Cover Me Babe; October 1, 1970

Story:A student filmmaker manipulates everyone in his cast, plays the hot-shot young wannabe Godard on campus, and films real life with a cynical eye (accompanying footage of a drowned girl with a laugh track).

From the sound of it, this film should have been a complete send-up of narcissistic student auteurs, yet every critic seemed to agree that it was incompetent and overblown as the scene it was (only supposedly?) critiquing. Latter-day commentators are not much more forgiving. The film used to play in a loop in a Fox Movie Channel (maybe it still does) and I was always intrigued, though looking at clips online it doesn't look especially promising. Still, as a time capsule it's got to have some appeal, right? This year, and this season particularly, probably constituted the zenith of the radical-youth-filmmaking cult - the previous month saw New York Film Festival screenings of Adam at Six A.M., Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition, and Comrades (based on its name, I almost included Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came until I looked it up - not so much). Mostly forgotten today, but the titles at least still intrigue. Of Cover Me Babe, Vincent Canby of the New York Times was scathing, calling it "the sort of movie that needs the words of a critic less than it requires the services of an analyst, displaying, as it does, a compulsive need to ridicule itself, to deny its basic intelligence and to fail. It accomplishes all of these things with an idiocy that should warm the neurotic heart."

Watch the first ten minutes.

50 years ago...
Spartacus; October 1, 1960
starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov
written by Dalton Trumbo, Calder Willingham, Peter Ustinov (from Howard Fast's novel)
directed by Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann

Story: Inspiring millennia of rebels and revolutionaries, Spartacus the slave breaks out from a gladiatorial camp and leads a slave revolt which soon threatens the whole Roman Empire.

The film's most infamous and stirring moment has been honored and parodied ever since, most notably in a Pepsi ad but most hilariously by a drunk my father once encountered on the set of a TV commercial. Trying to order coffee from a diner that was closed for shooting, the belligerent boozer was eventually seized by police; resisting arrest, he finally succumbed as they shoved him in the back of the cruiser...but not before, blinking and bewildered, he finally looked about him at the huge lights, crowd of technicians, and bulky camera and, realizing where he was, seized the moment - shouting "I'M Spartacus!" before the assembled cast and crew, who burst into appreciative laughter as he was whisked away.

Spartacus is a film in which several legends cross. It culminated the ancient epic trend which was all the rage in 50s Hollywood, providing one of its most profitable and acclaimed entries. It marked 32-year-old whiz kid Stanley Kubrick's first engagement with a big budget (replacing Anthony Mann on the set) and last endurance of meddlesome producers. And of course it marked Dalton Trumbo's return to screen credit (he'd been writing under pseudonyms for years) after a decade on the blacklist. (It should be pointed out that Otto Preminger's Exodus, which was not released until December, actually provided the first press for the screenwriter's coming-out.) The film received positive reviews, including one from Time, which praised it as "a new kind of Hollywood movie: a superspectacle with spiritual vitality and moral force." Any number of its aspects are worth paying tribute to today - the moving "moral force" (conveyed most powerfully in the film's early, silent scenes between Douglas and Simmons), the juicy decadence of Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton (who between them just about steal the picture), the stunning battle sequences which show Kubrick stepping out of Douglas' and Trumbo's shadows to put his own stamp on the picture.

Finally, before moving on, let's pay tribute to Tony Curtis, who passed away this week. A moment of silence for the very first man to declare it: "I'M Spartacus!"

Watch the famous scene.

60 years ago...
Union Station; October 4, 1950
starring William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling
written by Sidney Boehm (from Thomas Walsh's short story)
directed by Rudolph Maté

Story: A kidnapping plot unfolds with a blind girl as its victim and L.A.'s Union Station as its nexus. A young woman observes two strange men, the police get involved, and a trap is set for the ransom drop-off.

Quite enjoyable noir in the Naked City mold (shot on real locations, even cribs Fitzgerald as a crusty, warm-hearted inspector!). It starts off seeming like it might be a bit impersonal, but the characters develop and the tension ratchets up along the way - there's even room for a little romance to grow (even so, it's pretty tight and more interested in procedure and set pieces than personalities). The above still was part of a campaign to promote Sterling - but her femme fatale pose has nothing to do with her role in the film, where she plays a floozy used and abused by Bettger's ruthless kidnapper. Great use of locations, particularly a catwalk near a slaughterhouse; one of the hoods ends up trampled by a herd of cattle in the middle of the city! What a way to go. Holden's great; it's hard for me to pinpoint why he's always so watchable, there's no Wayne- or Bogart-like immediately identifiable persona yet he always stands out. In 1950, Variety praised the performances and noted approvingly, "The production catches the feel of a large terminal and its constantly shifting scenes of people arriving and departing."

Watch the trailer.

70 years ago...
The Green Archer; October 1, 1940
starring Victory Jory, Iris Meredith, James Craven, Robert Fiske
written by Morgan Cox, John Cutting, Jesse Duffy, James W. Horne (from Edgar Wallace's novel)

Story: When one of the Bellamy brothers inherits his father's castle, the other sibling has him locked up - and then tries to kill his sister- and father-in-law when they try to find out what happened to the Bellamy wife. A masked archer comes in and out to assist the family in their struggle against perfidy.

A serial, beginning this week, which retains the reputation of being rather loose and wacky. I'd recommend reading the comments on the IMDb page - they all strike a similar tone of bemusement. From the sound of it, a fun way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon (we used to have VHS tapes of AMC serial marathons, back when they played Flying Disc Man from Mars rather than The Mummy - Brendan Fraser version). Reviews from the 40s are hard to come by, but latter-day serial connoisseur "Jerry Blake" at the authoritative Files of Jerry Blake calls this "definitely one of the looniest of all James W. Horne’s loony serials (I don’t say the looniest, since I hear that THE SPIDER RETURNS and TERRY AND THE PIRATES, which I have yet to watch, top all records in lunacy)...since most of the laughs come from the villains’ activities, the comedic bad guys take over most of the audience’s interest, which badly skews the balance of the serial and frequently leaves us quite bored with the ostensible 'good guys.'"

Watch the trailer.

80 years ago...
The Big Trail; premiered October 2, 1930
starring John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill
written by Hal G. Evans, Raoul Walsh, Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, Florence Postal
directed by Raoul Walsh, Louis R. Loeffler

Story: Breck Coleman makes his way west in a wagon train, all the while hunting down the ruthless killers who dispatched his friend.

A groundbreaking Western in many ways, not only because of Wayne's lead debut. It was shot on 70mm and while this may have hindered some of the intimate scenes, it provided a breathtaking scope for the geographical vistas. As Fred Camper puts it in the Chicago Reader, "The result is that the film creates a sense of the west as a vast, unconquerable, inhuman space, a land that can be traversed by humans with the requisite equipment and skills, but never truly occupied by them." The film flopped because few theaters could accommodate the correct equipment - or wanted to after the recent costly switch-over to sound. That could explain Wayne's disappearance into obscurity for nine years before Stagecoach finally made him a star - but I could've sworn I heard something somewhere about a fight with Walsh (or was it Ford?) that forced him to squander his twenties in B-land before being given another shot. Maybe I dreamt it? Wayne aficionados chime in below. Meanwhile...

Hear Raoul Walsh's recollection of meeting - and naming - Wayne (with clips from the film)

90 years ago...

The Parson's Widow; October 4, 1920
starring Greta Almroth, Einar Röd, Hildur Carlberg
written by Carl Theodor Dreyer (from Kristofer Janson's short story)
directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Story: A young man desperately wants to marry his beloved. In order to do so, he must become a parson. So he sets himself to the task but one more snag remains: the town requires him to wed the aged widow of the previous parson.

Only Dreyer's second film, this comedy (!) nonetheless hints at more than a touch of pathos. And it would be no surprise if the director, who as an old man showed such compassion for young Gertrude, conveyed sympathy in his youth for an elderly widow. Not at the expense of comedy or the frisson of young love, of course. Sam Adams in the City Paper signed this declaration in Philadelphia (sorry): "Dreyer's clever fable also features one of the most erotic sequences silent cinema has to offer, where Söfren woos his beloved by passing his fingers through the weave of her loom. (At least that's what he thinks he's doing; the erotic turns comic when it's revealed that it's one of the widow's cronies on the other side.)" The film is available on Netflix, alongside several other early Dreyers; these films are often overlooked when celebrating the auteur (who's certainly in the running for greatest director of all time).

Watch a clip.

100 years ago...
Slippery Jim; premiered in U.S. October 7, 1910

Story: A cagey thief eludes his police captors by disfiguring his and their bodies, flying through the air, and moving through solid walls.

My last entry for this week was going to be the century-old adaptation of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which would have fit in nicely with the not-what-they-seem theme. No images or videos were available, which turned out to be fortunate as I discovered Slippery Jim instead. This absolutely delightful Zecca short applies Melies manipulation to the police chase, ratcheting the magic up to a level rarely seen in live-action, then or since. Masterful surrealism ensues, as the titular hoodlum turns into a stop-motion animated rope, flies through the air upside-down on a bicycle, and even chops one of the cops in half (don't worry, they reassemble him right before our eyes!). Feet - with limbs attached - become disembodied and move about the ground, while policemen caught behind opening doors are flattened like a pancake, rolled up, and tossed out the window. Must be seen to be believed. No reviews available except for those on You Tube, where mokora declares "this made me laugh so fuckin hard" and Phantanos proclaims, "A crazy film made 102 years ago! Wild special effects!" Ah yes, that "102 years ago" bit...the French premiere for this movie is hard to come by, but some estimates place it as early as 1908. So its inclusion here is a bit of a cheat. Nevertheless, I think it was worth the bending the rules - and I'm sure Slippery Jim would agree.

Watch the film.

9 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

The Elephant Man is really superb in acting, lighting, cinema, and my choice for the best David Lynch movie. I don't dismiss all his work, in fact, I love all of his work, but I think here he managed to touch my heart with the story of a society outcast, misunderstood and lonely, that finds happiness in the lives of the others. This one of the first movies I saw in english without spanish subtitles, so I regard it highly in my movie watching experience life.
About Spartacus, I'm pretty sure I saw it... but I don't remember much of it, I remember I liked it and I def need to see it again.
Hey! If you like serials, pass by my blog in some hours! I'll have a review of one.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Jaime - I really need to see Elephant Man again, it's been a long time. As for serials, I actually haven't seen much, but this week's post got me intrigued. I'll definitely check out the blog.

Gordon Pasha said...

Movie Man: You had me at “Avalon” and then knocked me over with Jan Sterling. I really like this cross section, having seen at least four. I love “Avalon.” I have said elsewhere that I am a Gentile who was raised in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and being enveloped in such a world during my youth has carried through my life. So “Avalon” rang true and recalled fond memories. (And it taught us to be cautious about when we cut the turkey.) It also taught us how fast a decade might go while sitting in a favorite chair. Another filmmaker might just as well have made the families Irish or Italian, for example, and it would have worked. Most of these European immigrant groups followed similar paths. Levinson seems to have lost his way in recent years but I am thankful that he has given us “Avalon,” “Diner” and “The Natural.”

My remembrance of “Elephant Man,” seen long ago, is somewhat akin to your own. I recall it as being very good but steeped in a sadness. It sets me to a tug of war with caution about Lynch and total admiration of John Hurt, who is very good in everything. As for Lynch, I am a “Twin Peaks” fan (the early episodes) but “Blue Velvet” makes me nervous. I was usually more in agreement with Siskel than Ebert but, in the matter of Lynch, I think my feelings correspond more closely with Roger.

Being iffy about Lynch, I hope I have not worn out my Comment privileges by also having mixed feelings about Kubrick. I like “Spartacus,” very much like “The Killing,” and thought “Barry Lyndon” was glorious. But I am in no hurry to watch again “Clockwork Orange” or “Eyes Wide Shut.” As to “Spartacus,” I have come to appreciate the recently passed Tony Curtis. And you are right about Laughton and Ustinov stealing the show, but that was their stock in trade, particularly as they grew older.

I remember Ustinov on a talk show (Susskind’s “Open End”?) ages ago speaking about when he was a boy. His parents had among their friends -- many of the European cultural elite, including well known theatre people and writers. He then expounded on the conversations he had overheard at table -- most of which were along the lines of: “I have to take my suit to the tailor” or “it looks like rain” or “are we having green beans for dinner?” Peter Ustinov.

Jan Sterling: we learned elsewhere that kneeling bagged her nylons. But in “Union Station,” stockings are not an issue. I love this actress. I agree, this is a very good tight movie. And we also get Nancy Olson as the featured actress. My brother worked in the Old Penn Station in New York in the 1940s when rail was still king and I was often there meeting him. “Union Station” captures those days for me. The ebb and flow of humanity all going somewhere. The city in its ignorance destroyed the building and kept the tunnels, the rails and the ticket counters.

Your comments on William Holden have him right. In memory, he always seems to me to have come later than I thought – but actually it was not all that much. He was making films in the very late thirties. Wilder, of course, brought out the best in him. I believe he was one of our very best. Best. Gerald.

MovieMan0283 said...

Epic comment, Gerald! No worries about Lynch & Kubrick, ha - though I would say I love most of what they've done (Wild at Heart & Inland Empire I'm not entirely warm too for different reasons and I don't think I like Blue Velvet as much as I'm "supposed" to but there's no other director that has as direct a visceral/emotional effect on me; w/ Kubrick I guess I'm kind of an Eyes Wide Shut skeptic, beautiful but flawed, not as keen on 2nd half of Full Metal Jacket like most others, but everything else...)

You've sold me on Avalon; I was already intrigued after doing this entry. I'm an absolute 100% sucker on stuff like this, generations, history passing, people growing older - probably nothing I find as endlessly fascinating.

That Ustinov anecdote is great, as for Holden - I don't read many show-biz bios these days but I read one on whom in the late 90s called "Golden Boy". Not sure how accurate it was but it laid out the pathos pretty acutely. Maybe it's that vaguely suppressed "trouble" that makes him so watchable.

R.I.P. Curtis - and Penn Station...

Sam Juliano said...

Geez, I know I need to come back here ASAP, Joel. I am a big fan of THE ELEPHANT MAN and a few others here. It's a fabulous time travel venture here.

1 said...

I'm not a fan of The Elephant Man or Lynch in general, but I do like Spartacus. Need to see some of those others.

MovieMan0283 said...

1, I wasn't sure whether to lead with a picture from Spartacus or The Elephant Man (there's a great one from DVD Beaver with a poster for the freak show). Eventually I went with the former simply because of the Curtis connection (I had to take a screen-cap from You Tube to get that pic). Just seemed a nice way of paying tribute as well as putting the most famous film on top.

Joe Thompson said...

I've seen "The Elephant Man." I was surprised when I learned that Mel Brooks was the executive producer. John Hurt was good. I've seen "Spartacus," but not the most recently restored version. It's probably the best Roman-era epic I've seen. The ending of Union Station is very suspenseful, and Barry Fitzgerald is good as a leperchaun-sized tough cop. I haven't seen "The Green Archer," but I'd like to. I enjoy movie serials. Victor Jory has a remarkable voice. I grew up reading nasty comments about "The Big Trail," but when I finally got to see if on AMC years ago, it was good. Beautiful compositions in early wide screen. "Slippery Jim" was fun. I saw it on a DVD set, perhaps the Houdini...

MovieMan0283 said...

Sounds like you've seen a good selection of these, Joe! Is there a more recent restoration of Spartacus than the famous one (i.e. the one where Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Olivier's voice for the famous snails-oysters dialogue)? If so, I don't think I've seen it either...

On Slippery Jim, before watching it I read something that said it may have been inspired by Houdini. Needless to say, it took its inspiration quite liberally, for the better!