Affairs of the Heart: The Wedding Night (1935)

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To view The Wedding Night click here.

The Wedding Night was doomed from the start. It was producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final attempt at making the Ukrainian actress Anna Sten into a Garbo-level star, and his persistence had become something of a Hollywood joke. The Wedding Night became known around town as “Goldwyn’s Last Sten,” but though it failed as a star-making enterprise, it was another sensitively directed drama from King Vidor, detailing an unlikely romance between a dissolute big city writer and a Polish farm girl.

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Murnau and the Phantoms of Germany

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To view Phantom click here.

It’s that time of year when Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau’s interpretation of Dracula, appears on lists of recommended horror films. The oldest, existing film version of Bram Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is likely Murnau’s most watched title. It’s eerie Expressionist style was a major influence on the American horror genre, but Murnau’s talent for mise-en-scène is evident in all of his films. I have been fortunate enough to see most of his movies, but one film, Phantom, eluded me until recently. Currently streaming on FilmStruck, Phantom (1922) was one of those thousands of silents that had been lost to the pages of history. However, in the early 2000s, a print of the film was found in an old theater in Germany. The film was restored through the efforts of several organizations, including the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.

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Mario Bava Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly

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To view A Bay of Blood click here.

A Bay of Blood (1971) shares something in common with Friday the 13th (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Brazil (1985). The first commonality is obvious as A Bay of Blood was clearly a huge influence on Friday the 13th (director Sean S. Cunningham cribs Mario Bava’s murder-setups along with a forest-by-the-water landscape normally used to inspire a sense of idyll), leaving the second connection squarely on the shoulders of Carlo Rambaldi, a special effects master who could decapitate a person as easily for Bava as he could construct a small, amiable and home-sick alien with a penguin-like waddle for Spielberg. As to the third connection, I’d like to think that one would stump most. Here’s the answer: both A Bay of Blood and Brazil begin with the death of a fly. In Brazil it’s a big to-do, with a bureaucrat killing said fly such that it lands in a typewriter, causing a typo that sets in motion all the chaos to follow. In A Bay of Blood, around the two-minute-mark, a fly buzzes noisily in the night sky and then, seconds later, drops into the water with a soft “plop” and dies with barely a ripple. It will be the first death of many.

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An Unusual Western: William Wyler’s The Westerner (’40)

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To view The Westerner click here.

In 1940, immediately following his adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939), William Wyler directed his first major full-length Western, The Westerner, starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Although he hadn’t yet made any Westerns for producer Samuel Goldwyn, this wasn’t Wyler’s first time working in the popular genre. In the 1920s, in the early years of his career working for Carl Laemmle at Universal, Wyler was a crew member on countless Westerns, eventually working his way up to director. Finally in the director’s chair and still under contract with Universal, Wyler only directed Westerns. It wasn’t until the 1928 comedy Has Anyone Seen Kelly? starring Bessie Love, that he was able to break free and experiment with other genres outside of the Western. Returning to the genre after a long absence gave Wyler a renewed perspective, allowing him to apply his artistic vision and constantly evolving camera techniques to something he was quite familiar with.

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Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight!

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To view A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum click here.

During the late 1950s, film adaptations of Broadway productions began to dominate the musical genre. Film historians such as Rick Altman, author of The American Film Musical, grumble about this trend, which often resulted in stilted adaptations or clumsy attempts to “open up” the original. According to Altman, adaptations lacked the freedom “to exploit the versatility of the film medium” compared to original film musicals. He compared Vincente Minnelli’s original musicals (An American in Paris [1951]) to his later Broadway adaptations (On a Clear Day [1970]) to make his point, which is valid.

I find A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) to be an exception. It’s light, breezy surface belies its modernist approach to production numbers, clever verbal humor and well-researched production design, making it a unique adaptation of the Broadway hit. Forum is currently streaming on FilmStruck along with other films by director Richard Lester.

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William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (’39)

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To view Wuthering Heights click here.

Following the success of Dead End (written about here) in 1937, director William Wyler headed over to Warner Bros. to direct Jezebel (1938), a romantic drama set in the antebellum South, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. The film was a critical and commercial success, and earned Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress. Jezebel marked the first time that Wyler had tackled a period drama; one that is often held up against the more popular Gone with the Wind (1939), with many considering Jezebel the superior film—myself included. Thanks to Jezebel, Wyler proved that he could hold his own as a director outside the control of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

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The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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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.

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The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)

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Following the success of These Three and the film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (written about here and here), both released in 1936, William Wyler brought another popular Broadway play to the screen: Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. Kingsley’s play tells the story of a group of young boys growing up in poverty in the slums of New York. With no clear-cut path to a decent life, the boys have nothing better to do but to find trouble, resorting to a life of petty theft, gambling and bullying. After seeing the play in its original run, both Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn were interested in adapting Kingsley’s work to the screen. The characters’ struggles were relatable for a Depression-era audience, and while it was risky to make a realistic film for an audience desperate for escapism, Wyler had proven that he could make a film that was both serious and entertaining. Goldwyn purchased the film rights and immediately began production. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, Dead End (1937) was a relatively faithful adaptation of Kingsley’s play. When casting the gang of young boys, Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t having much luck, so he decided to bring several of the boys from the original stage production, including Billy Halop and Leo Gorcy, to Hollywood, offering them a contract. This marked the beginning of the famed “Dead End Kids.”

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Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

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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.

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From Stage to Screen: William Wyler’s These Three (1936)

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To view These Three click here.

In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour debuted on Broadway. Starring Anne Revere, Katherine Emery and Robert Keith, the production was a huge critical and commercial success, running for almost two years. But Hellman’s story almost didn’t make it to the stage because of its then-controversial subject matter. Based on a true story in Scotland in the early 1800s (which had been suggested to Hellman by her partner Dashiell Hammett), The Children’s Hour recounts the struggles of two young teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, as they try to open a small boarding school for girls. With a successful opening and their young students very eager to learn, the two teachers are proud of their accomplishments and what lies ahead for them and their students. But one of the students, the granddaughter of a wealthy, influential figure in the community, spreads a lie: Ms. Dobie and Ms. Wright are romantically involved with one another and flaunting their relationship in front of the students. While the rumors of the lesbian affair are false, Ms. Dobie reveals in confidence to Ms. Wright that she has developed feelings for her. Ms. Wright, who is in a relationship with local doctor Joseph Cardin, doesn’t take Ms. Dobie seriously. Wracked by guilt over her unrequited feelings for Ms. Wright and devastated by their school’s untimely closing and subsequent ouster from the community, Ms. Dobie commits suicide.

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