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January 4, 2014
David Kalat
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Irony and the Fat Man

Tomorrow night, TCM is letting Roscoe Arbuckle loose to rampage across the prime time schedule in some seminal silent comedies produced by Mack Sennett.  This is must-watch stuff, folks, even if you’ve seen it before, and I was given the joyous privilege of writing some contextual material for the TCM site to frame the screenings.

And I seized that opportunity to do something that had been on my to-do list for years—namely, to do nothing.  But wait, I don’t mean I just slacked off.  I wrote the essay—I just wrote it in a way that deliberately avoided any mention of certain events.

I had been given a similar opportunity many years ago, when I was asked to write the capsule biography of Arbuckle for the book 501 Movie Stars.  I failed that time.

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KEYWORDS: Roscoe Arbuckle
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Above and Beyond: 7th Heaven (1927)

7th-Heaven

 

In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix.  But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.

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Too Much Johnson: Becoming Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten in Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson (1938)

A missing piece of the puzzle in Orson Welles‘ career could be found at The George Eastman House in Rochester, NY last Wednesday evening. Hundreds of fortunate film lovers witnessed a bit of cinematic history at the North American premiere of the recently restored work print that comprises Too Much Johnson in The Dryden Theatre on October 16th. Never completed by the wondrously ambitious, over-scheduled, and often under-financed young Welles, the real beginnings of the prodigy’s love affair with movies can be glimpsed in these three chaotic, often funny and engaging silent scenes, alive with the raw curiosity of Welles with a new toy and the high spirits of his talented company of players. Too Much Johnson doesn’t have the astonishing verve or visual polish of Citizen Kane or the depth of The Magnificent Ambersons, but the existence of this film confirms the remarkable creativity pouring from Welles during his early career.

Welles had made a surreal, striking eight minute film, The Hearts of Age (1934) while still in his teens, experimenting with makeup, technical effects and symbolism, but his eye and enchantment with the medium’s real possibilities jumps off the screen when viewing the disparate images in Too Much Johnson, even today. Long believed lost, the last copy of this unfinished film was thought to have been consumed (“rosebud”-like) in a fire in 1970 at the Welles home in Madrid, Spain until it was found five years ago in Italy. How these films wound up moldering away, neglected and unknown in a warehouse in Italy is still a mystery.

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To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

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For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-Ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.

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Nosferatu to you too, and the horse you rode in on

It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu.  I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema.  In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself.  To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog!  So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!

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Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive

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In 2009 The New Zealand Project was initiated, a collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive, the National Film Preservation Foundation and private collectors to preserve and distribute American films housed in the NZFA’s vaults. They had stacks of American nitrate prints that had gone untouched for years, since the NZFA had focused their efforts on preserving their local film history. In 2010 nitrate experts Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate their holdings and assess which titles were most in need of help. What they discovered was astonishing, a cache of presumably “lost” films, including John Ford’s Upstream and the first three reels of The White Shadow, for which Alfred Hitchcock was the assistant director, editor, scenarist and art director. In total 176 films were shipped to the U.S. for preservation. Many of these rescued titles are streaming on the National Film Preservation Foundation website, and today the NFPF released a DVD with some highlights of this trove. “Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive” includes the Ford and Hitchcock features, as well as a selection of shorts and newsreels that haven’t been seen since their original release over 90 years ago. TCM will air a selection of these titles on November 17th and 24th.

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Don’t send in the clowns

From September and on for the next several months, on Mondays and Tuesdays TCM is airing a sprawling and ambitious multipart documentary called The Story of Film. As you have may have sussed out by now, this is a somewhat controversial program–in large measure because of its rather jaundiced view of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking. For an audience that watches TCM regularly, and finds leisure time to visit a TCM-sponsored classic movie blog like this, Story of Film‘s stance isn’t likely to find many happy supporters.

That being said, there’s a lot about Hollywood genres that is worth revisiting, challenging, and interrogating. There is too much received wisdom that has calcified around certain subjects, creating preconceptions that get in the way of being able to engage with these films in a fresh and clear-eyed way. And so, seen from that perspective, creator Mark Cousins’ approach represents an opportunity to explode some unhelpful conventional wisdom…

When it comes to silent comedy, though, he blows past that opportunity, managing to be simultaneously vaguely hostile to Hollywood’s classic era while also being uncritical about what it meant. Here’s what he says about silent comedy in the book version of Story of Film: “Silent American cinema’s greatest genre, comedy, had changed course at the beginning of the sound era and the fates of its director-stars were varied.”  Yup, there it is again–that old canard about silent comedy being distinct from talkie comedy, and superior–treating 1928 as some kind of Rubicon.

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Mating Games: A Girl in Every Port (1928)

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It’s hard to conceive of Howard Hawks without sound. His films are focused on work and its downtime, and it is in spurts of chatter in which his characters define themselves. As physical as their occupations may be, it’s always their words that reveal their true selves. Which is why watching Hawks’ silent films are so disorienting. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a full retrospective of Hawks’ work, and this past weekend they screened many of his silents, including A Girl in Every Port (1928), which manages to set up many of the director’s pet themes before the arrival of sound allowed his talents to fully emerge.

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Dr. Caligari: A Macabre Tale by Haunted Writers


drctitlecard (1)The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
airs tonight on TCM as supportive programming for The Story of Film, the 15-part documentary series about the history of world cinema.  Episode 3 covers German Expressionism, so tonight’s TCM schedule also includes F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Along with Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane, Dr. Caligari is a staple in many introductory film courses, including mine.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen this story of a madman who manipulates a sleepwalker into killing for him well over 100 times. I was sad to discover that it is slated for 2:15am EST, forcing those who want to catch it to set their DV-Rs or other time-shifting devices. Given its importance, it deserves to kick off the evening’s programming.

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The Story of Film: The Crowd (1928)

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Earlier this month Turner Classic Movies began airing The Story of Film, a 15-chapter documentary by Mark Cousins tracking the history of the moving image from 1895 – 2000s. Running from now through December, TCM will also air 52 movies that Cousins mentions in his work. To coincide with The Story of Film Chapter 2: 1918 – 1928, tonight TCM will air everything from Nanook of the North (1922, 8PM) to King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd (1928, 2AM). While Nanook was recently issued on Blu-Ray, The Crowd is only available on out-of-print VHS, so this airing is a rare opportunity to see it in a decent edition. George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalog Marketing at WB, recently wrote that the home video future of The Crowd depends on the sales of Vidor’s The Big Parade, which comes out on October 1st. It was originally because of the The Big Parade’s massive success that Vidor was allowed to make the smaller, artier The Crowd, so maybe it will have the same effect on WB executives today. Like Murnau’s Sunrise (’27) or Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (’28), The Crowd depicts the trials of the everyday with expressionistic intensity, proving that the working man is as worthy of tragedy as royalty.

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