The First Time I Ever…

Tonight TCM airs one of the all time classics by anyone’s yardstick, The Wizard of Oz.  It’s a movie that occupied a great deal of my childhood imagination as its annual showing was a highlight of each passing year, long before the days of cable and VCRs and DVDs when making sure you were home in front of the tv on Good Friday was your only chance to take in the magic of Oz.  And a magical movie it was, and is to this day.  It’s also a movie that can easily lead off a list I’ve wanted to do for some time: The First Time I Ever…  What does that mean? Let’s start off with The Wizard of Oz and it should be clear.

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We Haven’t Seen Anything Really

Last Friday, March 18th, when I looked at the TCM schedule, I was reminded how many movies there are out there and how few any of us has really seen. Much of the time I look at the TCM schedule and can honestly say I’ve seen at least half of what’s on that day. The other half I may not have seen but I’m completely familiar with them and may have even seen a few scenes. There are other days when I have seen literally every movie on the schedule for that day. Big classic movies that we’ve all seen, say, during the 31 Days of Oscar. And then, on days like last Friday, I look at the schedule and think, “Wow, I’ve only seen two!” Those two were A Song to Remember and That Uncertain Feeling.  Of those on the schedule that I hadn’t seen?  Well, there was Wide Open, But the Flesh is Weak, Lonely Wives, Roar of the Dragon, Sing and Like It, Smarty, The Night is Young, Young Man with Ideas, Gypsy Colt, Moonfleet, and First Comes Courage.  I have not seen a one of them.  And why should I have anyway?  Do have any idea how many movies have been made?!

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Hitchcock/Truffaut

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The 38th Denver Film Festival calls it a wrap today. When it began in 1978 it featured the works of such diverse directors as Woody Allen, Wes Craven, and Louise Malle. This year #DFF38 was held November 4 – 15 and it had an equally varied lineup that covered a wild gamut of genres from all around the world. Of specific interest to TCM viewers would be a documentary by Kent Jones that screened last night at the DFF titled Hitchcock/Truffaut. It uses a legendary 27-hour interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock conducted in 1962 as its starting point. The results provide an excellent launch pad for cinephiles looking to rekindle a discussion for what Hitchcock referred to as “the greatest known mass medium in the world.”  [...MORE]

Fatty Arbuckle: The Life of the Party

blogopenerNext Sunday, October 18, at 2:30am, TCM airs The Life of the Party starring Fatty Arbuckle. It was released in November 1920, ten months before the fateful party that ruined the comedian’s life and career. Life of the Party, indeed.

On September 5, 1921, Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle was arrested for manslaughter in the death of starlet Virginia Rappe, one of the attendees at his infamous Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Prohibition had been in effect for over a year and a half, but the main reason for the party was to consume alcohol. The party began on Saturday, and drunken participants drifted in and out of Arbuckle’s hotel rooms all weekend. On Labor Day, Rappe dropped by with two other guests. In the afternoon, she was found semi-conscious in one of Arbuckle’s rooms. She was carried to another room in the hotel, and later that week, she was taken to a hospital, where she died of peritonitis due to a ruptured bladder. Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter based on the dubious, ever-changing testimony of a key witness. After three trials, he was eventually acquitted, but the relentless sensationalized press coverage had exposed and exaggerated a party lifestyle of drinking and carousing. Huge headlines, such as “Arbuckle the Beast,” had left their mark. Despite the declaration of innocence by a jury, the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Will Hays, banned Roscoe Arbuckle from starring in future films and ordered distributors to cancel any of his movies still playing in theaters.

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Of Flappers, Hoppers, and Shifters

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Tonight on TCM, bubbly Colleen Moore stars as flapper Pert Kelly in Why Be Good?, a 1929 romantic melodrama that turned out to be the last gasp of the flapper archetype. When the stock market crashed eight months later, the mood of the nation changed, and the high-spirited frivolity of the flapper no longer seemed appropriate.

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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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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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Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN'S 'THE NEW JOB'

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN’S ‘THE NEW JOB’

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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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Valentino’s Starmaking Role in ‘The Sheik’

sheikcigaretteAs part of TCM’s series Silent Stars, Rudolph Valentino sets the small screen on fire tonight with his star-making performance in The Sheik (1921). Though Valentino had created a stir when he danced the Argentine tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was The Sheik that propelled him to superstardom. Over the next five years, Valentino would magnify his celebrity by taking on roles that exploited his sensual, exotic Latin Lover image and by exposing his colorful romantic life to the fanzines.

Valentino’s screen persona would be out of place in today’s Hollywood, where interchangeable young actors show off their buff bodies and blond highlights while tossing out snarky one-liners. Valentino’s slightly feminine face and smooth body are unusual physical traits for a leading man, while his nostril-flaring, eye-bulging acting are unfashionably melodramatic. Yet, despite his dated persona and acting style, there is much to appreciate in Valentino’s films. They are imaginative, highly romantic fantasies that evoke colorful, exotic places or eras that never really existed. And, Valentino was undeniably charismatic and energetic—a perfect combination for the silent screen. A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch Valentino on the big screen in The Eagle, the story of Russian soldier Vladimir Dubrovsky. The film opens with Dubrovsky on horseback dressed in full Russian regalia while inspecting his troops. His queen, Catherine the Great, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her advances, resulting in his banishment from the castle. Details such as Catherine the Great, a castle, soldiers on horseback, and Valentino in a cape and uniform suggested to me—and the rest of the audience—that the story takes place in the distant past. Imagine our surprise when Valentino drives away from the castle in a fancy 1920s automobile. The audience burst out laughing at the incongruity, but this type of mismatching of exotic styles and historic eras is typical of Valentino’s films, where Romance with a capital R trumps accuracy.

To set the stage for Valentino’s signature, career-making role, I offer ten facts about The Sheik, which airs at 8:00pm tonight.

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