Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Oct. 29 - Nov. 4

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

Welcome to Halloween weekend, when masked men, manmade monsters, and ghosts (friendly or very much otherwise) wander those darkened streets - and darkened movie theaters. Most of the films here could be tied at least loosely to the holiday, even though only the silent horror picture is an outright creature feature. Yet we also have a traumatized visionary haunted by supernatural hallucinations, a junk yard filled with the despairing outcasts of civilization, and a memorable thriller villainess who terrorizes the family she works for. With a little stretching, even the Jimmy Stewart comedy could fall into the "trick or treat" category (his winning lottery ticket begins as a treat, and turns into a trick). By the way, if you're thirsty after pigging out on M&Ms and tootsie rolls, why not wash that candy down with an Italian soft drink (and then just try to get that jingle out of your head!). Enter if you dare...



10 years ago...
The Legend of Bagger Vance; November 3, 2000
starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Charlize Theron
written by Jeremy Leven (from Steven Pressfield's novel)
directed by Robert Redford

Story: A traumatized World War I veteran takes to the game of golf, helped by a magical, mysterious caddy who's full of wisdom and practical advice.

Redford's film would be his last for seven years, and when he emerged with Lions for Lambs it was savaged by critics. Bagger Vance was not quite so brutally jumped, but its sun-dappled postcard beauty, its feel-good sports film tropes, and especially its use of Will Smith as an aw-shucks helpful ghost-cum-caddy (often cited as an example of Hollywood's love for the "Magical Negro" stereotype) didn't do it any favors. Spike Lee savaged the film, tying it into his portrait of racial stereotypes in the just-released Bamboozled (see Remembering the Movies 9/17-9/23): "Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon's golf swing!". Most critics found plenty to criticize, and even as they allowed some admiration for Redford's skill, they expressed an impatience with his sentimentality. One exception was Roger Ebert, who praised the film and particularly Redford's direction: "I watched it aware of what a delicate touch Redford brings to the material. It could have been punched up into cliches and easy thrills, but no: It handles a sports movie the way Billie Holiday handled a trashy song, by finding the love and pain beneath the story." The film did not do well at the box office, failing to make back its budget.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...
Jacob's Ladder; November 2, 1990
starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello, Jason Alexander
written by Bruce Joel Rubin
directed by Adrian Lyne

Story: A traumatized Vietnam veteran endures terrifying visions - are they supernatural visitations, psychological fallout from chemical warfare, or something else?

I recall seeing the advertisement for this film in the newspaper and then reading a capsule review. I was confused because I expected it to be about the Biblical story it referenced in its title - the notion that the title of a movie could be allusive rather than descriptive was somewhat new to me (in case you're wondering what was wrong, I was seven at the time). As you can note from the plot summary above, this is another film about a war veteran haunted by his experiences - but it is decidedly less cheerful or optimistic than Redford's film. The movie led to a contentious argument between Siskel & Ebert despite the fact that they both gave the film a thumbs-up. Gene called it "a mostly mesmerizing thriller, only disappointing at the end," adding that "director Adrian Lyne has a better eye, I think, for individual shots than for a whole narrative, but I found the journey of Jacob Singer worth taking." But this cautious praise was not enough for Roger, who challenged his partner: "In other words, you wanted the ending to be more simple-minded." The following exchange ensued:
Gene: "I'd like the ending to be, um, maybe less complicated than it is because I think the story's fascinating."
Roger: "Gene, I think the ending is transparently clear what it's trying to say and I think I like this movie as much as you do but I think I like it for what's there on the screen, whereas you seem to criticize the very strenghts of the movie."
Gene: "And I don't know what you're angry about, because I enjoyed this film very much."
Roger: "Yeah, but you enjoyed it and then you criticize the best parts of it!"
I saw the film a while ago, and remember being somewhat disappointed after having high expectations; I'm not sure why but I think, among other reasons, I found the ending a bit pat - and, like Siskel, found Lyne's direction a bit too slick and superficial. I think I wrote an IMDb comment about it at the time but alas, it seems to have sadly disappeared into the haze of cyberspace.

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
Ho fatto splash!; October 30, 1980
starring Maurizio Nichetti, Angela Finocchiaro, Luisa Morandini, Carlina Torta
written & directed by Maurizio Nichetti

Story: A child falls asleep in the 1950s and wakes up in a cobwebbed, decayed room 20 years later. He wanders into the lives of several female housemates and together they come up with the advertising slogan for a popular drink.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this series is stumbling across movies I never would have encountered through any other method. This one's a bizarrely wacky but very intriguing-looking neo-Rip Van Winkle parody from writer/director/actor/songwriter Maurizio Nichetti. Nichetti is a popular Italian comedian (here's his website) who lent his voice to the Fantasia-style 1977 Italian cartoon Allegro Non Troppo which set animated sequences (a bit dirtier than Fantasia's apparently) to famous music. Allegro Non Troppo is available on Netflix, though none of Nichetti's directorial work is (Ho fatto splash! is actually available in its entirety on You Tube, a great quality video too, but unfortunately for monolinguists like me it's only in Italian.) But that's not the only way to sample the film. When perusing possible selections, I like to look for accompanying clips if possible - this one had a video, and it's a doozy! I strongly suggest you check it out. And then try to chase that song out of your head... I was able to find one review on a Nichetti fansite. The writer praises Nichetti's technical work (click on the link to see a detailed diagram of the camera movement in question), very awkwardly translated by Google as follows: "Funny the mirror scene, the camera 'enter' in a mirror and rotates 360 degrees. The scene was made entirely in the studio and demanded the creation of two sets are identical, but mirror. The film also contains the 'sequence shot' Nichetti longer than I've ever made: five minutes into the film seamlessly." (For those who speak Italian: "La scena è stata realizzata interamente in studio ed ha richiesto la realizzazione di due scenografie identiche, ma speculari. Il film contiene inoltre il 'piano sequenza' più lungo che Nichetti abbia mai realizzato: cinque minuti di film senza stacchi.")

Watch the scene.

40 years ago...
Dodes'ka-den; October 31, 1970
starring Yoshitaka Zushi, Kin Sugai, Toshiyuki Tonomura, Shinsuke Minami, Yûko Kusunoki, Junzaburô Ban
written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto (from Shûgorô Yamamoto's novel "Kisetsu no nai machi")
directed by Akira Kurosawa

Story: A group of outcasts, living in a dump, struggle to survive and dream of escaping their miserable lives.

For decades, Dodes-ka-den was regarded mostly as a negative turning point in Kurosawa's career - following its critical and financial failure, he attempted suicide. Only recently, with a Criterion Collection release, has it resurfaced as a misunderstood masterpiece. Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 1975, when it was released in the U.S. and observed grimly, "Mediocre filmmakers often continue to work long after their lack of talent has been established because the level of their ambition is low. Great filmmakers, on the other hand, can suddenly find themselves out of work because they've continued to create in their own way and haven't followed the marketplace. Akira Kurosawa of Japan is a great director who finds himself in that dilemma; it's a melancholy fact that the Chicago premiere of his first color film, Dodes'ka-den, comes nearly five years after it was first shown in Tokyo -- and he hasn't made another film since." Kurosawa would release Dersu Uzala later that very year, and experienced renewed critical triumphs with Kagemusha and Ran in the 80s.

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
Hanyo; November 3, 1960
starring Eun-shim Lee, Jeung-nyeo Ju, Jin Kyu Kim
written & directed by Ki-young Kim

Story: A young, attractive housemaid plays on the guilt and class anxiety of her employers, terrorizing them with ever-increasing vigor.

Crafted in a dictatorial, quickly Westernizing South Korea, Hanyo was a social critique as much as a thriller or horror film. It satirizes the complex knot of complacency and anxiety which haunted middle-class Koreans; the man in the film is a professor who spurns the overtures of a young girl, leading to her suicide, and making him unwilling to repeat his offense when the housemaid tries to seduce him. The film could perhaps even be given a Cold War reading, in which the pushy housemaid represents either South Korea's northern neighbor or the U.S. Army, asserting itself and given either look-the-other-way acceptance (in the first case) or open-armed acquiesence (in the second). There's no evidence that Kim intended either reading, incidentally; it's just a thought. Kim would go in to make many independent works - the mainstream being shut off for him by government censors - and he would be rehabilitated in the early 90s by word-of-mouth on the internet. In his 2004 review, Andrew Grant (a.k.a. Filmbrain) drew connections between Hanyo and another famous horror film from the same year. "The Housemaid was released in 1960, the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Both films are without a doubt groundbreaking in their testing and pushing the limits of the psychological horror film, though The Housemaid contains scenes that would have been impossible for Hitchcock (or any other director) to include in an American film made at that time."

Watch a re-release trailer.

60 years ago...
The Jackpot; November 1, 1950
starring James Stewart, Barbara Hale, Natalie Wood
written by Phoebe & Henry Ephron (from John McNulty's New Yorker article)
directed by Walter Lang

Story: Somebody call George Harrison (or the Tea Party) - the Taxman's come for Bill Lawrence, who's won big prizes in a radio contest but must then sell them to pay off the IRS.

A comedy of the sort Hollywood specialized in during the postwar era - big, brassy, and broad, with clever hijinks and, from the sound of it, a kind of disregard for the down-to-earth (in marked contrast to many screwballs of the 30s). Stewart would do a lot of these over time; the more down-to-earth Harvey (from the same year) was a high-concept comedy, and in 1965 the bizarre Dear Brigitte would take this sort of thing to the hilt. For modern audiences, it's a bit jolting to watch the clip of Stewart talking on the phone. Visually, the shot bears a striking resemblance to It's a Wonderful Life but the tone is so drastically different! Wood appears here, beginning her transition from little-children roles to adolescent parts in which she would appear throughout the 50s (notably Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers). Time Magazine assessed the various contributors thusly: "The movie is based on a sardonic New Yorker article by John McNulty, but Scripters Phoebe and Henry Ephron seem to have leaned more heavily on the comic strip Blondie for their family sequences, and on Damon Runyan for an episode with a Chicago gangster. Director Walter Lang helps out the dialogue with pratfalls and horseplay, but what keeps Jackpot moving briskly to its happy ending is the ingratiating acting of Jimmy Stewart."

Watch a scene.

70 years ago...
The Mark of Zorro; November 1, 1940
starring Tyrone Powers, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone
written by John Taintor Foote, Garrett Fort, Bess Meredyth (from Johnston McCulley's story "The Curse of Capistrano")
directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Story: Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes the horseman known as Zorro. This bold renegade carves a "Z" with his blade, a "Z" that stands for Zorro. Zorro (Zorro!) a fox so cunning and brave! Zorro (Zorro!) who makes the sign of the Z!

That song, of course is from the 1950s Disney series (a barrelful of nostalgia, no doubt, for boomers but for me as well - I remember it being featured on one of those old Disney "Sing-A-Long Songs" VHS tapes - follow the bouncing ball! - from the 80s and early 90s). Nothing to do with his particular film, but a reminder of how ubiquitous Zorro has been in pop culture since at least the silent era when Doug Fairbanks produced one of his string of early swashbuckling classics out of it (Robin Hood, Thief of Bagdad, The Three Musketeers, the man didn't miss an opportunity). Rathbone was of course already famed for his swordplay in Robin Hood and Captain Blood, but Powers holds his own here, in what some fencing fans have called the greatest screen duel of them all. Variety compared the film with the 1920 classic, and wrote, "Power is not Fairbanks (the original screen Hood) but, fortunately, neither the script nor direction forces him to any close comparison. He's plenty heroic and sincere in his mission."

Watch the duel (spoilers).

80 years ago...
Way for a Sailor; November 1, 1930
starring John Gilbert, Wallace Beery, Jim Tully
written by Laurence Stallings, W.L. River, Charles MacArthur, Al Boasberg (from Albert Richard Wetjen's book)
directed by Sam Wood

Story: An ex-sailor tries to settle down, but he can't resist the call of the sea.

Gilbert was on his way out as a big draw when MGM cast him in this picture. The production seemed calculated to humiliate the onetime matinee idol, for whom the appearance of talkies (or rather the sound of talkies - Gilbert had a surprisingly weak-sounding voice) already spelled the end. Cast alongside the star was Jim Tully, the pugilist-turned-litterateur who had publicly brawled with (and beaten) the Hollywood star. Adding insult to injury, Gilbert was advised to take vocal lessons from the rough-hewn boxer, and a publicity photo was staged in which Gilbert and Tully pretended to fight. Supposedly, Gilbert got himself in trouble with MGM brass when he punched out Louis B. Mayer - Mayer had apparently told Gilbert, after Greta Garbo stood him up at their wedding, "Don't marry her, sleep with her." As for the resultant film, Morduant Hall yawned the New York Times, "There is a shipwreck, some of the scenes of which are well filmed. In fact, it is a production in which glimpses of the work aboard freighters, the rescuing of men from a sinking vessel and other such views are infinitely more interesting than the actual doings of the characters." (For more fascinating anecdotes from the film's production, visit TCM.)

Watch this documentary excerpt about Gilbert's tough transition into sound.

90 years ago...
The Golem; October 29, 1920
starring Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch
written by Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener
directed by Carl Boese, Paul Wegener

Story: A Jewish mystic creates a living man out of clay.

One of the earliest movie monsters is also one of the most memorable. In some ways, the Golem is more chilling than Frankenstein's monster - unlike that creature he is inanimate object made animate, which in some roundabout way leads us to question our own humanity - what makes us "alive?" The film has been much touted in recent years, but unfortunately I didn't find it as involving as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, despite the great creature and sets. Still, it's an accomplished picture and one of the foundational Expressionist films (it was apparently made and remade several times throughout the teens, climaxing in this version which is the most famous). At The Film Sufi, MKP celebrates the film's cinematography. "Wegener uses every one of Reinhardt’s lighting effects: the stars glinting against a velvety sky, the fiery glow of an alchemist’s furnace, the little oil-lamp lighting a corner of a darkened room when Miriam appears, the servant holding a lantern, the row of blazing torches flickering in the night, and, in the synagogue, the light trembling over the prostrate, indistinct forms wrapped in cloaks, with the sacred, haloed seven-branched candelabra emerging from the darkness."

Watch the film.

100 years ago...
Le Deul de Monsieur Myope; released October 31, 1910 in U.S.
starring Max Linder
directed by Louis J. Gasnier

Story: As one English-language title has it: Max has trouble with his eyes - leading to collisions with stationary objects, inadvertent embraces of shocked women, and worst of all, duels with offended gentlemen.

Max Linder was a proto-Chaplin, although perhaps this does him an injustice. His was one of the first characters created specifically for films and to achieve fame independent of its creator. Of course, Max and "Max" were not necessarily as distinct as Charlie and "The Little Tramp" - both Linders were well-off and well-groomed. Max's offscreen life was not so mirthful as his screen appearances; like Chaplin, he married a teenage bride in the 20s but instead of divorcing, they enacted a suicide pact inspired by Quo Vadis. Chaplin would later dedicate a film to the man who had helped inspire his career. This particular movie puts a Mr. Magoo-like twist on the Max persona, and even his attempt at a peaceful resolution backfires, literally. Though not released stateside until Halloween, the short saw release in Europe many months earlier. "This film is a laughter-raiser all through," declared the Bioscope ( rather roughly translated from the German, or so it seems).

Watch the film.

4 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

"Hanyo" is my favorite korean movie, and one of the best horror movies of all time. The comparison with Psycho was a thing I did on my own, without reading about it, which makes me kinda sad since I wanted to make the argument. Haha. Anyway, I love this movie and that staircase, as with the Psycho's staircase, will be in my memory for a long time.
"The Golem", I love that movie, I find that it's easily one of the best horror movie of the 20's, and I found it a serious candidate for a foreshadowing for the Nazi regime, as the dark times were coming for the Jews. Please, don't see it with the new score by the guy from The Pixies, I couldn't fucking stand it.

MovieMan0283 said...

I know what you mean, I get that disappointed feeling all the time - oh, they sad that already? Ha...

I've had Hanyo on a list of "great movies" that I go by for a while, but I didn't know that much about it; it does like really good...

I generally like to turn music off for silents, I once went to a screening of a couple Murnaus without a score and to my surprise I not only enjoyed it, I preferred it to having a (usually) distracting soundtrack accompanying the movie. I wanted to give The Golem another whirl since it didn't do that much for me on 1st viewing but I didn't have time to watch it before this went up. There's a great-looking print on You Tube but unfortunately there are no subtitles...

Joe Thompson said...

I'd like to see many of these, such as "Dodes'ka-den" and "The Golem."

The only one I'm sure I have seen is the Tyrone Power "Zorro," which is a good one. Basil Rathbone was always wonderful in swashbucklers.

Happy Halloween.

MovieMan0283 said...

You too, Joe. That scene in Captain Blood is one of my all-time favorites. Rathbone had such a great screen presence.