The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

Bardelys_The_Magnificent_1926_6

To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

Revenge1989

To view Revenge click here.

Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

MBDMAWH EC041

To view The Man Who Knew Too Much click here.

Years ago I read about Cecil B. DeMille’s adventures with The Squaw Man. If you’re unfamiliar with that title, it’s the first movie DeMille ever directed, a silent Western shot in 1914. It was also the 33rd movie he directed, depending on which uncredited assists you count, in 1918. And it was the first sound Western he ever made, in 1931. At a certain point, people close to him must have asked, “Geez, what is it with you and The Squaw Man?!” Surely, if he’d lived into the 1960′s, he would have figured out a way to give it one more go, maybe with Eli Wallach this time. Whether he was trying to perfect it, make lightning strike three times or just loved the story that much, DeMille clearly felt the first time wasn’t as good as it could have been. Not being able to endlessly ruin the original with CGI updates, he simply made it again. Three years after DeMille’s last attempt, Alfred Hitchcock, in 1934, made his first attempt at The Man Who Knew Too Much, with Leslies Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre in his first English-speaking role. Twenty-one years later, he gave it another go, this time with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day and Bernard Miles, who was given the impossible task of filling Peter Lorre’s shoes. The differences between the two are minimal but the reputation of the two are quite different.

[...MORE]

To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

To view Losing Ground click here.

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

[...MORE]

Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

mon oncle.003

To view Mon Oncle click here.

“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

[...MORE]

Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks, 1934

To view The Private Life of Don Juan click here.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made his last movie in 1934. The Private Life of Don Juan was, quite accidentally, a fitting farewell to one of the first megastars of the movie industry. It wasn’t clear while filming it that it would be Fairbanks’ last movie but its story, one of a once vigorous and dashing romantic reduced to seeing a physician because he just doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore, fell in line with Fairbanks’s real life condition. He was only 51 but already feeling the effects of decades of chain-smoking, drinking and general living life to its fullest. He could no longer do a lot of the athletic work he had so easily mastered in his early career. Better said, he could, but it exhausted him. But he was also exhausted by the movies themselves, particularly sound movies. He never quite took to them and despite his stardom and seemingly smooth transition to sound, never quite felt at home.

[...MORE]

The Art of the Transition: TV to Movies

Norma Rae (1979) Directed by Martin Ritt Shown: Sally Field

To view Norma Rae click here.

Not too long ago, television actors were of an entirely different class among professional actors. There were stage actors at the top, movie actors next tier down, then at the bottom were the TV folks. It’s not that they weren’t talented, they were and everyone recognized it. Early television stars like Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason weren’t just beloved, they were extolled and awarded for their boundless talents. But that didn’t mean they could become movie stars. Lucille Ball had been a second-tier actress with the studios before her television success and after it, couldn’t get much farther. Gleason had some critical success on film, garnering an Oscar nomination for The Hustler in 1961, but was never able to build a successful comedy career on the silver screen that matched his success on television, except perhaps for The Smokey and the Bandit franchise (1977, 1980, 1983). Dramatic actors had it easier. George C. Scott found success on the stage, then movies where he earned two Oscar nominations (one for Anatomy of a Murder [1959], and one for The Hustler with Gleason), before moving to television drama with East Side/West Side (1963-1964) and getting an Emmy nomination. Then he effortlessly moved back to film with Dr. Strangelove (1964) and inexplicably didn’t get nominated. But in the 1970s, when I was first beginning my serious study of the cinema, three actors broke down the wall that held back the comedians, starting with Art Carney and finishing up with Sally Field.

[...MORE]

Summer Daze: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Monsieur_Hulots_Holiday_1953_27_002

To view Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday click here.

The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle [1958], Playtime [1967] and Trafic [1970]), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime.  Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.

[...MORE]

“We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda

MBDLIHA EC001

To view The Lion Has Wings click here.

Propaganda can be as benign as simply biasing information to promote one particular point of view, usually at the expense of another. In its more naked form, it can be used to convince one set people that another group will be their destruction if they’re not dealt with swiftly and decisively. And in its most dangerous form, it can be used to convince the masses that an entire population of people don’t deserve to live. Radio and the movies gave propaganda a reach it never had before the 20th century. During the 1930s, both became a strikingly strong means of getting the message across and once World War II got started, radio broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally did their best to demoralize the enemy: the Allied Powers in general, Britain in particular. At a certain point, you’ve got to hit back and all sides did. During World War I and II, the Allies dehumanized their enemies in posters,  from the “Mad Brute” ape depiction of German soldiers in World War I to the buck-toothed, thick glasses of the Japanese in World War II. The Nazis, of course, took things to an entirely different level with their rampant dehumanization of the Jews leading to eventual systemic genocide. And when the Nazis went into western Poland on September 1, 1939, joined by the Soviet Union in the east a couple of weeks later, Britain found itself in a tense situation. They weren’t nearly as prepared as they could have been but needed to convince the British people they were. Enter Alexander Korda and his three contract directors Michael Powell, Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, to quickly make a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. The result was The Lion Has Wings, one of the most important, and groundbreaking, propaganda films of the period.

[...MORE]

The Postman: Jour de Fête (1949)

MBDJODE EC002

To view Jour de fête click here.

After a decade-long career as a music-hall performer, Jacques Tati transitioned to feature filmmaking witha comedy about a remarkably gullible postman. Before Tati invented the iconic bumbling bourgeois Hulot (in M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), he experimented with a clumsy working class letter carrier, prone to insecure bouts of drinking and falling flat on his face. Jour de fête (1949) exhibits Tati’s elastic expertise at mime, including a tour-de-force drunk bike ride, as well as displaying his immediate talents as a director, constructing brilliantly funny gags through choreography and sound design. All of the gags generate from a small town’s resistance to and obsession with technological advancement, especially as trumpeted by the Americans. Tati eyes all this talk of modernization with a gimlet eye, preferring instead to linger on the absurdities of small town life before they disappear forever.

[...MORE]

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.