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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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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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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The Legend Was Never Fact

westopenerRecently, I showed Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to my film history class. Porter was known to base his flickers and one-reelers on the newspaper headlines of the day. As I explained that Porter likely got the idea for the film from the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the oft-quoted line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance drifted through my mind: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But, during the heyday of the Wild West, fact was completely lost in the interweaving of history and myth.

The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903. By that time, the Wild Bunch had disbanded and Butch and Sundance were lost in the wilds of Argentina. But, the gang’s 1899 robbery of a Union Pacific train was already legendary. Newspapers carried wood engravings based on photos of the railroad cars destroyed by dynamite, while papers circulated the first-person accounts of mail clerk Robert Lawson, who was inside one of the cars. In 1900, members of the gang robbed another Union Pacific train in Wyoming, blasting the safes with dynamite. At the end of 1901, gang member Kid Curry was arrested, though he escaped in 1903—all of which played out in the pages of the newspapers. The dynamite, hapless mail clerk, and train uncoupling depicted in The Great Train Robbery were inspired by the Wild Bunch’s exploits, which in turn were perpetuated through the film.

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DYNAMITED TRAIN CAR IN ‘GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY’

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Reel Presidents: Searching for Lincoln

lincolnbilltedAs a follow-up to last week’s commentary on movie presidents, I intended to devote this week’s post to  Abraham Lincoln, wrapping up with a discussion of the recent cinematic odes to the 16thpresident, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. However, after sifting through sources and tracking down interesting asides, I discovered that there is way too much on Mr. Lincoln to fit into one post. Being such a movie-president enthusiast, especially when it comes to Lincoln, I just couldn’t bear to omit some of my favorite tantalizing tidbits, surprising suppositions, and ornery opinions. My two-part series on movie presidents has expanded into three parts. This week, I offer the unusual, the obscure, and the forgotten; next week, I will revisit the familiar, the celebrated, and the (in)famous.

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Griffith and Gish Lost at Sea

As an unabashed fan of movie stars from all eras, I am enjoying TCM’s marvelous lineup for this year’s Summer Under the Stars. And, no screen actor could be more deserving of a day than Lillian Gish, who is spotlighted on Wednesday, August 15.  Gish , whose screen career began with An Unseen Enemy in 1912 and ended with The Whales of August in 1987, helped develop the art of screen acting while under the guidance of D.W. Griffith.  It is a testament to her talent that she acted steadily throughout the silent era, survived the coming of sound to become a character actress during the Golden Age, costarred in one the 1950s most revered films, The Night of the Hunter, and then continued to work after the upheavals of the Film School Generation. Her career ended in what is generally considered to be the early modern era—quite a run for someone known as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen.”

Three of the films scheduled for Wednesday—Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm—were directed by D.W. Griffith, who was Gish’s mentor, colleague, and close friend.  During their years together, Gish learned a great deal about filmmaking, and in 1919, he urged her to try her hand at directing. Griffith had just purchased the huge Henry Flagler mansion in Mamaroneck, New York, and was in the process of converting it into a movie studio.  He wanted to keep his stock company of faithful actors and crew members happily occupied while developing new talent. Gish opted to direct sister Dorothy in a lighthearted romance titled Remodeling Her Husband. Gish’s little comedy became the first feature shot at Mamaroneck, because Griffith was busy shooting The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower on location in Florida. In addition to directing, Gish was also put in charge of the final renovations for the studio.

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HORROR AND THE HORROR FILM, by Bruce Kawin

Bruce Kawin is a widely published scholar, film historian, and poet. As Professor of English and Film at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he has influenced many careers. Some 25 years ago, Dayton Taylor, the producer of Habit (1995) and Wendigo (2001), got the idea for his three-dimensional imaging Timetrack® camera system while learning about Eadweard Muybridge in Kawin’s class. (In 1877 Muybridge captured continuous motion of a horse by setting up twenty-four cameras in a row along a racing track.) More recently, both Derek Cianfrance, director of Blue Valentine (2010) and Drew Goddard, director of Cabin in the Woods (2011), have cited him as an influence. In the interest of full-disclosure, I should mention that I took my fair share of classes from Kawin and later did a stint as his T.A. and projectionist, and he played a pivotal role in my path toward cinema literacy. Kawin had a reputation among the students as being a demanding teacher. Kawin was not afraid to flunk people who did not show up or do the assigned work, thus he has had his fair share of detractors. Kawin’s encyclopedic knowledge and keen attention to detail could be daunting to students used to fudging their answers. In his class, if you spelled Gregg Toland’s name with only one “g,” or only knew him as the cinematographer of Citizen Kane (1941) without being able to link him to Mad Love (1935), your grade would suffer. For Kawin, history and connections are both important. It is also one of many reasons why serious lovers of the horror genre have reason to rejoice, because here now is a book that fuses Kawin’s keen intellect and attention to detail with his passion for monster movies. [...MORE]

Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 1

I am still “reeling” from attending last month’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. As  a film historian, I have been reflecting on the relationship between the past and present—not only the connections between classic and contemporary films but also the lingering echoes of the film industry’s mythic, glamorous past amongst today’s crass, noisy Hollywood.  As I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard the first evening, I felt that nothing was left of that enchanted Hollywood of the past that exists mostly in my imagination! The traffic was worse than rush hour in Chicago, festival attendees crowded the shops and restaurants, and, tourists with children clogged the sidewalks to take photos of their little darlings posing with “actors” costumed as movie characters and superheroes. It’s next to impossible to race past a group of people dressed like Transformers.

When I looked more closely, however, I did find Old Hollywood: It was integrated, intertwined, and infused with the present day, right under everyone’s noses. Uncovering it reinforced my belief that—for better or worse—the past is always part of the present, whether people see it or not. It also made the noise, clamor, and tackiness of modern-day Hollywood more tolerable. My thoughts have inspired a two-part post on the ghosts of old Hollywood that still linger among the noise and tourism. Today and next week, I will offer a few observations on this notion in addition to a little history and a bit of reflection.

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The history of the history of silent comedy

We begin our story at the end.  The end of what, you ask?  The end of silent comedy.  It is March of 1949, twenty years after sound came to Hollywood and laid waste to the traditions of silent slapstick.  It is St. Patrick’s Day, and the California Country Club is playing host to an event called the Mack Sennett Alumni and Remember When Association.

The aging wrecks of once sprightly comedians have convened, decked out in ill-fitting finery that went out of fashion back in the days of Prohibition.  They are here to reminisce, to drink, to throw pies at each other.  Mack Sennett, one of the true pioneers responsible for creating Hollywood as we know it, has seen to it his friends don’t waste their efforts on something so ephemeral as mere fun.  He’s brought cameras—to record their shenanigans  for posterity.  This is how he built his empire—by letting funny people do what came naturally and let the cameras roll.

Keystone Kops a sagging

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The Funny Parts

In the introduction to his essential new book The Funny Parts (McFarland, 2011), writer Anthony Balducci relates an anecdote about Bill Cosby appropriating and improving on a routine first performed by George Carlin, and the lasting personal enmity that resulted from this “theft.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqLv9js3L_U]

Balducci tells the story as a signpost for how attitudes about intellectual property in comedy have shifted over the last century or so.  Among other things to admire about this book, this anecdote is an example of how Balducci shows an awareness and appreciation of modern comedy, and a refreshing willingness to discuss them in the same context as silent comedy–whereas too many scholars and writers steeped in silent-era movies tend to act as if popular culture ceased to exist in 1928.

The Funny Parts is an exhaustive—and at times exhausting—catalog of slapstick routines and bits —a history of the genre that doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, or by artist, but rather by joke.

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