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

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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.

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Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun & Creole Cooking (1990)

YUM, YUM, YUM! (1990)

To view Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking click here.

If you’ve never heard me say it before, let me say it here again: Les Blank is my favorite documentarian. I’ve written about him several times in different venues on and offline, as well as on TCM’s main site, where I did an article on this very movie. In that article, I wrote, “There aren’t many documentarians like Les Blank anymore. Maybe there never were. Blank had an uncanny ability, an inexplicable talent one might say, to take normal, ordinary activities, like making dinner, and turn them into fascinating cinema.” Of course, the wonderfully titled Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taster of Cajun and Creole Cooking (1990) is about more than making dinner, it’s about culture and family and how something as simple as a meal can have deep communal roots.

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Before Cable, There Was Korda

CONQUEST OF THE AIR (1936)

To view Conquest of the Air click here.

Perhaps I’m alone in this (though I hope not) but I find watching old info docs as much fun as watching old movies. When I first got TCM years ago, I quickly settled into something that would become a familiar pattern. Sitting down for a night of movie watching, I was often more excited for the programming between the movies as the movies themselves. And if one of those one-reel wonders turned out to be an informational documentary or travelogue, all the better. If you’ve seen some of them, you know that re-enactments play a big role in them, whether they’re covering the early days of the Pony Express, cataloging superstitions or retracing Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. These infotainments would become the models for cable programming years later, and when you watch them, you can see proto Modern Marvels and Wild Discoveries in the making. In Britain, these formats were done with exceptional skill and an eye towards entertainment and one of the most interesting, and ominously timed, was Conquest of the Air(1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by his brother, Zoltan.

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FARMAGEDDON

“This film has cross-over appeal that connects with progressive hippies and Tea Party members alike. It’s about government raids on local and organic farmers.” I’d had a long working relationship with the distributor who was telling me this over the phone, but in the past Jessica had been a broker for classics of the silent era as well as representing some of the biggest names in both the realm of foreign and contemporary arthouse movies. This was a very different and far cry from Dersu Uzala. It was a debut low-budget documentary called Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms.   [...MORE]

Facets Night School with Lew Ojeda: Cool Films on a Hot Night

Since its inception a couple of years ago, Facets Night School has morphed into more than a midnight movie series. It’s a place where cinephiles can watch and ruminate on a crazy mix of classic, exploitation, genre, and even silent films. The diversity comes from our unique spin on the midnight movie series: Each week a knowledgeable person introduces a film he/she has selected. Despite the late hour, audiences have been receptive to the pre-screening introduction and post-screening Q&A, because they get a context for appreciating the film and an opportunity to contribute their opinions and perspective. In addition, a weekly raffle and other shenanigans have created a relaxed atmosphere that suits the late hour.

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Silent Whoopee Pictures

A friend recently brought my attention to a Craigslist posting for some 16mm films that were being sold by a private collector in Denver who was offering a 16mm Kodak Pageant 2505 projector, take-up reels, plus a collection of vintage 16mm shorts. Titles listed included: Grand Hotel, Matinee, The Plumber, and Krazy Kat. It seemed like a screaming deal, so I instructed my assistant to make the purchase for the Film Studies Program and then anxiously awaited their delivery to screen some of these shorts as part of my backyard cinema series. I did, and I’m lucky my neighbors didn’t call the police. The Krazy Kat short was actually titled Krazy Kat House, and while it did hearken back to the silent-era, the only thing animated about this was the sexual libidos of the lesbians engaging in various graphic and explicit acts. Grand Hotel? This was no excerpt of the John Barrymore classic but rather the sexcapades of four people in a hotel room. Although it was hard to tell, due to the angles and the way it was shot, I’m pretty sure it did not involve Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. These women, however, were certainly ready for their close-ups, but mainly in the gynecological sense. [...MORE]

J. Carrol Naish, Changeling

Careening across the countryside in a gypsy wagon, a lovesick hunchback cries out piteously for release from his twisted form. A hardworking Jewish-American father tries to appease his young son on his birthday, seeking to interest him in a baseball bat rather than an expensive violin.

A tired general on the Western frontier finds a few moments of solace in soldiers’ singing. An Italian soldier, willing to do anything to get back to his wife and baby, is stranded in the war-torn desert. A stoic Indian chief joins a wild west show, finding a way to keep his dignity despite his reduced circumstances. A broken matador tells an up and comer some hard truths. A Mexican dictator regretfully but decisively goes to war. A Japanese editor tries to correct his American-educated son’s corrupt Western ways.  And a half-monkey, half-man broods endlessly about his plight, especially since he’s stuck being an unpaid houseboy for his creator.

What do each of these diverse (and sometimes pretty outlandish) characters and at least 200 more have in common? Character actor and changeling J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973). I can’t possibly touch on the range of Naish‘s roles in this blog, but his remarkably productive career includes an enormous range of characters, far beyond the roles as heavily accented types he is often best remembered for today.

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16mm Educational Films

A sampling of educational films from the '60's & '70's.

Last night I revisited an old VCR tape that had on it a short compilation of 16mm educational films compiled by Alpha Blue Archives titled Pink Slip. These were films primarily targeted at young women during the 1960′s and ’70′s that required a signed “pink slip” from parents before they could be seen by the kids, due to their “sensitive” subject matter. Topics on this particular collection deal with menstruation, juvenile delinquency, adult predators, therapy, menstruation again (but this time aimed at children with Down syndrome), and teenage runaways. [...MORE]

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