Break on Through to the Other Side

Overlook 1921

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]

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July 18, 2015
David Kalat
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Guest post: How to Solve a Problem Like Maria

In case you missed the listings, TCM is screening Fritz Lang’s Metropolis this week—and users of the splendid TCM smartphone app can stream it at their leisure. I have a very fond spot for this film, beyond its significance as a masterwork of world cinema. I was a student at the University of Michigan’s Film and Video Studies program in the early 1990s when a previous restorations effort was unveiled at the Michigan Theater. In 2010 I was asked by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema to contribute to the UK Blu-Ray edition of the newest restoration, and got the special privilege of being one of the first people to see it.

Earlier this summer, the Chicago Symphony’s CSO at the Movies program screened the film with live accompaniment by the symphony, and I had the pleasure of taking my daughter Ann to see it with me. She had not seen the film before, and came out of the screening full of energy and enthusiasm for what she’d just experienced. It occurred to me that given that she’s blogged here before in my place, I should once again hand the keyboard to her to let her share her perspective. Click the fold below and I’ll let Ann take over from there—

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KEYWORDS: Fritz Lang, Metropolis
COMMENTS: 5
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The Passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first masterpiece. It was critically acclaimed but a disappointment at the box-office. Dryer followed it with a second masterpiece, Vampyr (1932), which also failed to impress its investors, but this time he was criminally overlooked by the critics, probably due to the stigma that hounds the horror genre. Day of Wrath (1943) fared better, but due to its allusions to the tyranny of Nazi Occupation Dryer fled to Sweden and did not return to Denmark until after the war. Dryer grew up in a Danish foster home and was adopted by a newspaper typographer, and this later dovetailed into a career in journalism. In 1912 he got work as a title writer for Nordisk Film and for the next six years wrote many scripts before breaking out as a director. Dryer was influenced by Sergei M. Eisenstein’s work, but his films are in a class all of their own and have left deep imprints on many filmmakers, including Lars von Trier – who sometimes seems to be as haunted by Dryer as were all the people who worked on The Passion of Joan of Arc[...MORE]

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June 13, 2015
David Kalat
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The Blank Stare of Harry Langdon

Back when I started my endless ramblings about the transition from silent slapstick to screwball comedies, I led by singling out Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp as a fulcrum point where screwball becomes imperative. So it’s time to come back to Harry Langdon, and indulgently celebrate what made him so gloriously awesome, even if his style of comedy was unsustainable over the long run. Harry, this one’s for you.

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KEYWORDS: Harry Langdon
COMMENTS: 4
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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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May 2, 2015
David Kalat
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The Back of Joan Crawford’s Head

Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.

You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.

Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.

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KEYWORDS: Frank Capra, Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford, Screwball Comedy, Slapstick, Tramp Tramp Tramp
COMMENTS: 12
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Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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Harold Lloyd
March 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Harold Lloyd 101

On a recent business trip, I took my team out to dinner and had some fun telling them some of the absurdly implausible anecdotes from my peripatetic life (I was bit by a giraffe! Picasso’s lover bought my daughter a toy! I accidentally imprinted myself on a pair of doves and they followed me around for months! I was almost arrested by Homeland Security! I hung up on Hollywood mega-producer Roy Lee because I thought he was a telemarketer!) Eventually I got around to one of my favorite anecdotes:

After completing work on American Slapstick Volume 2, I wanted to donate the Harold Lloyd materials to the Harold Lloyd Trust. I called them up, explained what I had, and offered to give them the film elements and the digital transfers. The Trust representative thanked me, and said that someone would be by later that afternoon to pick them up.

Come again? I live in the Chicago suburbs—the Harold Lloyd Trust is based in Los Angeles. How were they gonna have someone swing by in a few hours of the same day I called them? Did Lloyd’s heirs operate some freaky black ops helicopters, ready to deploy anywhere at anytime? Actually, it turned out that one of Lloyd’s heirs happened to live nearby, and it was just a convenient coincidence.

My colleagues listened to this story and then hit me with a punchline I hadn’t been expecting: “Who’s Harold Lloyd?”

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KEYWORDS: Harold Lloyd
COMMENTS: 12
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December 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Slapstick While Black

Apologies: this week’s post is about racially insensitive jokes in silent comedy (Yes, Ben Martin, this one’s for you), and so I’ve got some unpleasant screen grabs, illustrating some gags most of us probably wish hadn’t been filmed, and then to make matters worse I’m going to speak clumsily and awkwardly about these things while analyzing jokes. None of which is really all that great an idea.

As recent history has tragically shown, we’ve got a lot of work do to repair race relations in America. But that’s not to say it’s on no one’s short list of priorities to pick at the scabs of ninety-year-old silent comedies.

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COMMENTS: 19
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Missing Reels: A Novel of Silent Movie Love

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Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.

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