Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.
Visit Remembering the Movies to further peruse the past
This week, it's two of everything. Two gritty New York pictures back to back (one of which incited a fierce protest movement), two films about fascism (one for, one against) released exactly ten years apart, and two Chaplin classics - one following the other on this list. There's also a bit of cheating going on: since I missed some of these films on the true first screenings, I'm allowing several by on technicalities (either using their wider release date or a particular premiere as the benchmark), including a film I saw in theaters almost exactly two decades ago - my memories of that occasion will appear below. Finally, we've got a connection to the previous post, as you'll see right away. A week later, but ten years older, a certain doctor is stopping by for dinner once again...
10 years ago (February 9, 2001)
"Scott's Hannibal is the apotheosis of serial-killer chic, the prestige movie version of a Manson T-shirt. No longer a villain, Lecter is now the hero, the superior being given the power of judgment over all the other characters -- the serial killer as arbiter of taste. Even as guardian angel. On NBC's 'Today' show recently Sir Tony claimed that Lecter only kills the people who are out to harm Clarice. That's wrong, but it's true that Scott and his screenwriters David Mamet (who worked only on the first draft) and Steven Zaillian have arranged the movie so that we see Lecter's victims exactly as he does. Putting audiences on the side of the villain by making the victims repulsive is a trick that Kubrick employed in A Clockwork Orange. And here, no one whom Lecter kills is shown the slightest glint of sympathy. His victims are all thieves or killers or pedophiles, or cops so motivated by greed that they're presented as indistinguishable from the bad guys." - Charles Taylor, Salon
20 years ago (February 8, 1991 U.S. release)
I saw this movie in Florida with my dad. We had trouble finding the theater and I made a bit of a scene (apparently even then I was a bit of a backseat driver) so he threatened to turn around and take me back. I settled down and we made it to the movie a few minutes late - the film had already started and the hero was standing on a diving board, from which he was afraid to jump (needless to say, by the end of the story his fantastical adventures had given him the courage to brave the swimming pool). That moment, the temper tantrum in the car ride, and the cool-looking poster for the upcoming Backdraft in the theater lobby are the only things I remember about the experience. I still haven't seen the first Neverending Story, but my school library had a picture book which I read several times.
Also, how can there be a "Neverending Story II"? Wouldn't the first one still be going on?
"When the first thing you want to say about a movie is 'at least they tried', it's not a good sign. While the first movie was made to be a 'good' movie with fantasy elements treated in a dramatic and serious fashion, Part 2 of the trilogy turns out to be a quirky kids movie with horrible jokes aimed at people in elementary school. I guess you have to look at the audience when this came out. In the mid-1980's, I got hooked on this movie before I was seven. When it came to theaters, I was there (10 years old). The older woman I live with ALSO saw it when came out. So if it was too kiddy for a ten-year-old and WAY too childish for the teenage fans....who the hell was this film for? I still can't believe I asked my grandmother to take me to see this when it debuted. Then again, stuff like that might explain my love for bad movies." - Jared Von Hindman, Head Injury Theater
30 years ago (February 6, 1981)
"Fort Apache: The Bronx is an affecting film for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because the audience comes to recognize Murphy and Isabella as good, likable people. They are not so very different from us at all. Accordingly, we root for the characters to succeed, and for their relationship to succeed as well. Together, they could share some sliver of hope; of happiness. Yet, that's not a realistic hope given where and when the characters live. To intimate this, Petrie often shoots the film's star-crossed protagonists from behind bars as if to visually represent or symbolize their entrapment and eventual doom. You just know that for Murphy and Isabella, things aren't going to end well, so we consistently see them through these myriad visual "cages." Strung-out Isabella through the panels of french doors in her apartment, for instance. Or Murphy -- like a gorilla at the zoo -- shaking the zigg-zagged bars of the precinct windows. It's not a world that either Isabella or Murphy made, but they are victims to its eddies and tributaries, as I wrote above." - John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film
Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981)
40 years ago (February 9, 1971)
"Jules Feiffer’s 1967 play was a wisp of a satirical comedy about the American adjustment to random violence – to assassinations on the national level and on the level of local snipers. In this movie version, which Feiffer also wrote, and which was directed by Alan Arkin, the dialogue has comic authority, and there are some strong scenes of rabid farce, yet things keep going out of kilter and the humor slides into something ugly and slightly rancid. The film seems to be a collection of ideological points – it’s pious about its anti-Establishment attitudes." - Pauline Kael
"Feiffer is such a brilliantly accurate cartoonist that there has been a tendency to read Little Murders as animated cartoon rather than to accept the quite extraordinary theatricality of his drama of dark domestic comedy and maniacal declamation. There is a cartoon quality in the film, but it is special to the film, and it seems to result less from a habit of mind than from a failure in imagination." - Roger Greenspun, New York Times
Little Murders (1971)
"In the most celebrated analysis of the episode on which the film is based (The Possession at Loudon by Michel Certau) the author describes how these events revealed the deepest fears of a society in flux and accelerated its transformation. He talks of a people torn between the decline of a centralized religious authority and the rise of science and reason, wracked by violent anxiety over what or whom to believe. Europe was drawing nearer and nearer to the Enlightenment, traditional and modern beliefs and science and religion were jockeying for position, clashing in a rapidly changing society. In what maybe a reference to the mirroring in the film, some contemporary commentators have remarked on how Mother Joan could be read as portraying the struggle of the Polish people being stuck between the rationalism of the communist state and the faith of the Church." - Per-Olof Strandberg, DVD Beaver
Mother Joan of the Angels (1961)
60 years ago (February 10, 1951 national release)
"I stumbled across Storm Warning (1951) on dvd during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I was bemused by the fact that screenwriters Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs set their ugly little tale during the Christmas season. A valiant but clumsy attempt by Hollywood to deal with the Ku Klux Klan, in the alternate universe of this movie, neither racism, anti-Semitism nor anti-Catholicism are part of the KKK’s credo. [...] The seedy town is beautifully photographed by Carl Guthrie on location in Corona, CA with wet streets, really ugly, dramatic crowd scenes in the courtroom and the rec center mentioned earlier. Though the occasional black citizen appears as an extra in crowds–thrown in for reality sake, I guess–the movie pulls its punches when it comes to dealing with the real significance of the Klan. The violence of the organization is vividly rendered, particularly in one ghastly sequence in which Ginger is whipped, but it seems a bit dishonest to gloss over what it really stood for.
One other spurious note: though the townspeople talk about how they don’t like it when outsiders from New York or Washington or Points North stick their nose into their business, no one has a Southern accent. The only clue that we have that the town is probably in the South is on the bus at the very beginning of the movie, when the next stops called out as Birmingham and Mobile. It’s also obvious that there’s no hint of cold weather, even though we know it’s a not very merry Yuletide. Ronald Reagan, in the last days of his Warner’s contract, plays a prosecuting attorney trying to find a witness to the Klan’s latest outrage. Despite a part that might have given him a chance for some effective drama, he plays his DA as blandly as possible. Normally, I’m probably one of the few who like Reagan’s mild demeanor and bland presence in movies. He at least makes for pleasant company on screen, but here–faced with an intimidated populace without any moral spine–he acts as though he’s the captain of a football team that has failed to make a crucial field goal, disappointing him and showing a lack of school spirit. I wonder if Reagan thought that the rather socially timid script was 'too radical' or if he had just lost interest in attempting any characterizations by this stage of his career?" - Moira Finnie, Movie Morlocks
Storm Warning (1951)
70 years ago (February 7, 1941 Danish premiere)
"I watched Veit Harlan's Jud Suss with trepidation. I wasn't afraid that the movie, a virulently anti-Semitic melodrama made in Nazi Germany in 1940, would corrupt me with its repulsive slant on history. One would have to be a full-blown racist to begin with to be seduced by the film. I was more worried that the mere decision to watch, to show an interest in this piece of damned celluloid, was a sign of moral weakness. As usual, my voyeuristic impulse got the better of me, and I watched, so you don't have to. As I suspected, the film is a failure as propaganda for anyone not already steeped in anti-Semitism. Rather than starting with Oppenheimer as a neutral character, trusted by the gentile heroes, the film assumes his evil from the start, and shows that all the "right-thinking" Germans already despise him. Even the decadent Duke loathes Oppenheimer, but thinks he can make use of him. This had the reverse of the intended effect on me, making me side with Oppenheimer and do my best to maintain sympathy with him no matter how abhorrent his crimes (murder, torture, rape).
The film might not be worthy of discussion at all if its aesthetic qualities matched the diabolical standard of its political ones. But it's not only well-made, but actually stylish and impressive, using its high production values with vigour and even wit. As Oppenheimer sprinkles gold coins on a desktop to pay for the Duke's proposed ballet, Harlan dissolves to a high angle of pirouetting ballerinas, their tutus forming bright discs just like the coins. I had imagined that German cinema was artistically crippled by the flight of the best filmmakers to America, but as in France, new filmmakers came through to take the place of those departed. Of course, Harlan is no Lang or Renoir. But he's more than a hack, and he devotes his energy and talent to making the best anti-Jewish porno-propaganda film he can." - David Cairns, The Auteurs
80 years ago (February 6, 1931 New York premiere)
"What of Chaplin as filmmaker? In his autobiography, he writes that he spent more than a year shooting City Lights because he had worked himself 'into a neurotic state of wanting perfection.' The Tramp's discovery that the flower girl is blind, a scene that lasts seventy seconds, took five days to shoot. The movies of Chaplin, which look so simple, are among the most carefully crafted of films. Mack Sennett had accidentally discovered - accidentally, because he really had no aesthetic - that the best way to shoot a comic sequence was to set up a camera, turn it on, and shoot the scene performed in front of it in long, single takes. Chaplin took this idea, totally opposed to the concept of montage, and carried it out with artistry. His shots are always perfectly framed. When he chooses an angle it is not merely to cover his antics, but to frame his scenes for eternity, to place a music-hall proscenium around them in the most perfect way he can devise. The reason, perhaps, that people speak of Chaplin as a genius is that they cannot understand where he learned such things, how he was able to transform himself from a clown into an artist." - William Bayer, The Great Movies
City Lights (1931)
90 years ago (February 6, 1921 national release)
"In October 1918 Chaplin had compromised himself into a hasty marriage with a 17-year-old actress, Mildred Harris. The couple had little in common, and Chaplin’s personal boredom and frustration resulted in an acute creative block. He later wrote : ‘I was at my wits’ end for an idea'. Mildred became pregnant and gave birth to a malformed boy, who died after only three days. Chaplin evidently suffered acute trauma from this loss. But the responses of the creative mind are unpredictable. Only ten days after his own child was buried, Chaplin was auditioning babies at his studio. Suddenly the creative block seemed overcome. He was absorbed and excited by a new plan for a story in which the Little Tramp would become surrogate father to an abandoned child. The film would be called The Waif. By chance, he visited a music hall where a virtuoso dancer was performing. At the close of his act, the dancer brought on his four-year-old son – a beautiful, sparkling little boy called Jackie Coogan. Chaplin had found his co-star. Jackie was a born mimic, and could perfectly imitate any action or expression Chaplin showed him. This made him the perfect collaborator. Chaplin was the supreme and sole creator of his films. His colleagues all agreed that if he could have done so, he would have played every part in every film himself. Failing this, he looked for actors and actresses who could and would faithfully and unquestioningly copy precisely what he showed them. In Jackie Coogan he found his ideal actor." - David Robinson, CharlieChaplin.com
The Kid (1921)
100 years ago (February 6, 1911)
At the Duke's Command (1911)