Hyper Hypochondira: Feel My Pulse (1928)

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Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.

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August 1, 2015
David Kalat
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Ernst Lubitsch Forgives Himself

If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).

Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.

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KEYWORDS: Don Ameche, Ernst Lubitsch, Gene Tierney, Heaven Can Wait
COMMENTS: 5
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Ugly American: Run of the Arrow (1957)

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In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.

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Break on Through to the Other Side

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If you stay up past midnight tonight, TCM will be screening an influential supernatural film about a violent alcoholic who at one point will grab an ax to splinter down a door behind which can be found his terrified family. And, yes, ghosts are involved. And, no, it’s not The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The film in question is Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, which was released in 1921. Fans of The Shining will be quick to notice that this is the same year printed at bottom of the iconic last shot of Kubrick’s film that shows us a black-and-white photograph with Jack Torrance frozen in time. [...MORE]

Appassionata: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

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“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

 In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.

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Postwar Amnesiac Blues: The Clay Pigeon (1949)

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After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.

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Ozark Elegy: The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

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After the success of Stagecoach (1939), John Wayne was in demand. While still under contract to poverty row Republic Studios, he was lent out to United Artists for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Universal for Seven Sinners (1940) and Paramount for The Shepherd of the Hills (1941). While still making interesting features for Republic, including Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940), he was positioning himself as prestige-picture ready. Shepherd of the Hills was a prime property adapted from a million-selling novel, to be shot in Technicolor by director Henry Hathaway and DPs Charles Lang and W. Howard Greene. Hathaway was an advocate for location shooting, and had already filmed Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) in Technicolor at Big Bear Lake in California, where Shepherd would end up as well. The ongoing “Glorious Technicolor” series at the Museum of Modern Art is screening both Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills as part of its sixty feature extravaganza. Shepherd is a delicate, strange and mournful drama of the breakdown of an insular Ozark Mountain community, one trapped in a cycle of intergenerational violence. John Wayne stars alongside his childhood Western hero Harry Carey, and the film acts as a series of lessons from Carey to Wayne, on and off screen.

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The Human Comedy: An Interview with Roy Andersson

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When I interviewed Roy Andersson last week I was struck by how mischievous this 72-year-old still was, his moon-shaped face cracking into an impish grin whenever he belittled things inimical to humanity (including but not limited to: the monarchy, billionaires, and smart phones) . The Swedish director was in NYC promoting A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final part of his trilogy “about being a human being” that is in theaters now from Magnolia Pictures (click here for playdates). He has only made five features in his unusual career, with a seven year gap between the films in the trilogy: Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, The Living (2007), and now, A Pigeon. Each film in the series is made up of absurd, deadpan sketches about the quiet desperation of everyday lives, something of a minimalist, formalist Laurel & Hardy. Each section is shot in long takes on a  single set, his actors wearing white face paint as if in Kabuki, speaking in an earnest monotone.  A Pigeon, for example, opens with a man having a heart attack after struggling to open a bottle of wine . His films are so sad you have to laugh, or so funny you have to cry. I spoke with Mr. Andersson about comic books, his switch to digital, and a visit from the Wachowski brothers.

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June 6, 2015
David Kalat
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The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Parrott

For the last several weeks we’ve been looking at romantic comedies of the 1930s/40s, specifically the talented filmmakers and (mostly female) comedians whose careers flourished with the transition from slapstick to screwball. But in this story there are some gaps—potholes in history where was supposed to be, for some reason, wasn’t. Consider poor Jimmy Parrott, doomed to live and die in the shadow of his brother Charley.

Jimmy Parrott, or James Parrott, or Paul Parrott, call him what you will, was a talented screen comedian with real gifts for gag construction and physical business. Off camera he was a brilliant comedy writer and director who helped shape the careers of numerous comedy stars, and helped define the unique magic of the Hal Roach studio. Many of his contemporaries who followed the same career trajectory ended up as leading lights of the new screwball mode (as we’ve seen these last few weeks). But Jimmy Parrott was haunted by various personal demons that would bring him to a tragic and untimely end before he had a chance to reap that reward.

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KEYWORDS: charley chase, hal roach, Jimmy Parrott, laurel and hardy
COMMENTS: 2
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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

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