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January 30, 2016
David Kalat
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The Immigrant

For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.

Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.

I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, The Immigrant
COMMENTS: 9
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January 23, 2016
David Kalat
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Musty Suffer

It’s March 1, 1916 (or its November 1915 if you want to be pedantic and argumentative. I know who you are, and I’m ready for you). Let’s start again: It’s March 1, 1916. There. This is the day that the first film in the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is released: Cruel and Unusual.

For the next two years, Musty Suffer’s mishaps will unspool over a raucous cycle of unruly two-reel shorts, full of surreal imagery and violent slapstick. Largely forgotten today, but available to the curious in an outstanding set of DVDs, the Musty Suffer films are remarkable both for what they are and also for what they are not. They are artifacts of what happens when talented and inventive people go significantly out of their way to take the road not traveled. And to understand just why these singular oddities deserve special attention beyond their immediate joys, we need to focus on the significance of that date—these would make sense if they’d been a few years before, or a few years after. But 1916?

That’s just nuts.

 

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Musty Suffer, Silent comedy, Slapstick
COMMENTS: 10
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January 16, 2016
David Kalat
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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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KEYWORDS: Max Linder
COMMENTS: 6
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The Moving Picture Girls

blogopenerWhile wandering through an antique mall in the middle of nowhere, I came across a beat-up bookcase crammed into a corner nook. As I walked toward it, a book caught my attention right away: The Movie Picture Girls. The faded brown cover showed a man cranking an old silent-movie camera while two young girls appeared in cameo portraits above him; it was clear that this was a girls’ adventure book about the movies.

The cover lists the author as Laura Lee Hope, who, according to the back insert, was also the author of The Bobbsey Twins series. The copyright date is 1914, an interesting juncture in film history when the industry was in the process of exiting the East Coast to make Hollywood its new company town. If Laura Lee Hope sounds like a too-perfect name for an author of young women’s fiction, then you won’t be surprised to learn that the name was too good to be true. Laura Lee Hope is the collective pseudonym for several writers who worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a company that specialized in producing juvenile literature. Stratemeyer’s books were originally published by Grosset and Dunlap, though various series were reprinted by other publishers over the next several decades. Among the writers who penned The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and The Moving Picture Girls were owner Edward Stratemeyer, Howard Roger Garis and his wife Lilian McNamara Garis, and Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet.

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January 9, 2016
David Kalat
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Life, Police, and Trouble

Lately I’ve been enjoying the outstanding Blu Ray box set from Flicker Alley of Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay films from 1915-1916 (do you own one of your own?  Why not?). And while watching them, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a rabbit hole that other Chapliniacs (Chapliniados? Chaplinners? Chaplinians?) have fallen down before—some have even pursued it to absurd, quixotic lengths. But, being the obsessive fella that I am, I burrowed down this well-worn path too, and finally emerged for air. I’d like to take this week’s post to share my journey, perhaps to help spare some other poor sod from wasting as much time as I did.

This is the story of three movies. One of these movies was never made. The second was made, but has at times been alleged to be a wrongheaded bastardization of its creator’s true intentions. The third film is most decidedly a wrongheaded bastardization, but was deceptively promoted as being the real deal.

This is the story of Life, Police, and Triple Trouble.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Essanay, Police, Triple Trouble
COMMENTS: 6
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September 5, 2015
David Kalat
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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 19
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August 29, 2015
David Kalat
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Go, Miss Mend, Go!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent.  Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.

Of course, the bias is absurd.  Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely.  If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking.  So why the fear of silents?  Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein.  Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.

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KEYWORDS: Miss Mend
COMMENTS: 6
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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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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
Posted by:

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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