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)

Poster - Crowd, The_05

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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The Story of Film: The Life of an American Editor

As any fan of reality TV can tell you, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are poorly policed.  Reality shows emphasize drama—often following entirely predictable and palpably artificial storylines—yet are constituted of footage of events that actually happened.  The irony is that for all the ways that this may feel challenging or new, it has been part of cinema since the very beginning.  This is where movies began, in the 1880s and 90s.

The earliest motion pictures were just what their name said: pictures that moved.  And as such they had a lot in common with pictures that didn’t move—records of real events.  Take a quick look at whatever pictures you have on your phone.  How many are attempts to tell stories, or to be artistic, versus how many are documentary records of things that happened to you?  Think about what comprised the first ever Lumiere Brothers film show in 1895—here’s our office, here’s our friends, this is somebody’s baby.  It’s a photo album that moves.  All that’s missing are some Lumiere Brothers selfies throwing up deuces.

LUMIERE_LUMIERE

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The Entertainer: Allan Dwan (Part 1)

Annex - Swanson, Gloria (Manhandled)_01

“Directing movies — I’d do it for free, I like it that well.” -Allan Dwan to Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By…

The 400 or so films that Allan Dwan directed are playgrounds for their actors, sandboxes of freewheeling experiment. Trained as an electrical engineer, Dwan was a technical innovator, but his flourishes were always in service to the specific talents of his performers.  In his self-effacing style, elaborate tracking and dolly shots never call attention to themselves, but only to the characters on-screen. Whether its suave Franchot Tone swinging off a saloon chandelier in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) or glamour queen Gloria Swanson fighting through a packed subway car in Manhandled (1924), Dwan found hidden reserves of athleticism and wit in his stars. They would need it to motor through the  scenarios of borders, doublings and makeshift families that Dwan was assigned, which he treated as complex logic problems that are always solved, from institutional separation (political or geographic) into personal bonds (lovers, friends). He oils these Hollywood mechanics through his attention to character detail and penchant for parody, able to pack pathos and the madcap into his unstable, gleefully entertaining concoctions.

Dwan has never had the name recognition of some of his classical Hollywood contemporaries, and aside from Peter Bogdanovich’s essential interview book The Last Pioneer (1971), has had precious little written about his inexhaustible career. Some of this has to do print scarcity, as much of his silent one-reelers are lost, and his Republic Pictures films might as well have been due to rights limbo. That has all changed this year, with two major retrospectives (at MoMA in NYC and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna), and a flood of writing, from Frederic Lombardi’s critical biography Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios to the massive (free) dossier published by Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, a labor of love with contributors from around the world (including yours truly). After viewing twenty-some of his films over the past month, I’m about to add more to the pile.

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Report from the trenches: Slapsticon 2013

I used to say that Slapsticon was the most wonderful time of the year—but then last year it didn’t happen at all.

It’s like Christmas was canceled.  So its return this year is doubly sweet—it’s the most wonderful time of two years!

 Buster_TriptoTheMoonWeb

For the uninitiated, Slapsticon is a putatively-annual four-day classic film convention dedicated to slapstick (mostly silent) comedy.  But that doesn’t properly describe it—it’s unlike any other classic film fest I’ve ever encountered.  For one thing, it’s all movies.  Other fests are mostly dealers’ rooms with an ancillary screening room attached.  Slapsticon allows its luminaries to hawk their own books and DVDs, but 99% of the thing is a bunch of film geeks packed into a screening room.

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 2

Picture 005In Part 2 of my excursion into Hollywood Forever Cemetery in search of the myth and romanticism of Old Hollywood, I focus on the great stars whose final resting places are indicative of their larger-than-life status. If Old Hollywood is a combination of glamor, marvel, illusion, and a touch of scandal, then the stars did not disappoint me.

Established in 1899 as the Hollywood Memorial Park, the cemetery itself is a story of glamor and scandal. The glamor is obviously represented by the stars interred there; the scandal is in the form of a character named Jules Roth, a convicted felon who purchased the cemetery in 1939. Roth lived a life in luxury, while the cemetery fell into disrepair, because he was using the profits from Hollywood Memorial to support his lifestyle. By 1997, Roth was bankrupt, and the deteriorating cemetery was looking decrepit. The old con man died in 1998, and the following year, the cemetery was purchased by Tyler and Brent Cassity, whose Missouri-based family had been in the funerary business for 25 years. Tyler Cassity had a new vision for the cemetery, capitalizing on its history and glamor. The Cassitys renamed it Hollywood Forever and spent millions refurbishing it to its former glory—perhaps even surpassing it. While I was visiting the cemetery, I spoke with a Hollywood native and movie lover who visits regularly. He had nothing but praise for the new owner for bringing this landmark. . . well, back from the dead.

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Harold Lloyd’s Marathon

This past week TCM debuted a package of rare Harold Lloyd films from 1917-1919, including one especially eye-opening treat, The Marathon. Of all the thrilling discoveries shown that night, this was the one that quickened my pulse the most.

For those who missed it, let me show you a clip to set the stage for the discussion that follows:

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Yup, it’s the mirror gag, made famous by the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup:

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Mission critical Harold Lloyd

This week TCM debuts some super-rare Harold Lloyd shorts from the early years of his career.  I cannot overstate the significance of this find.

I was asked by TCM to write some material for the web site to introduce Harold Lloyd in general and some of these shorts in particular, but the specific remit of that assignment was kind of limiting, so I have a lot else to say about these films that didn’t fit into the website content.  But hey—I have a blog!

Harold Lloyd, Film Land's Famous Comedian

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Harold vs. the Clock

Later this month, TCM is unveiling a package of Harold Lloyd films, which will include debut screenings of some rarities from the early end of his career. I was asked to contribute some material to the website to help promote and document this Lloyd festival, and in the course of fulfilling that assignment I found myself writing a lot of material that just didn’t fit the specific needs of TCM’s website, so I’ll be letting the excess Lloyd stuff spill over here to Movie Morlocks over the next several weeks.

This week concerns Safety Last, which will be screening on May 23 and is coming out imminently as a deluxe Criterion Collection Blu Ray. It is of course the film from that image comes, the most famous icon of all silent comedy:

Safety Last by Harold Lloyd

And, as it happens, there’s a story behind that image.

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Dreams of a Rare Artistic Fiend

While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.

He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.

But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.

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