Tag Archives: Melodrama

LIST CANDIDATE: L’INHUMAINE (1924)

The Inhuman Woman

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marcel L’Herbier

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: A celebrity singer feels responsible for the suicide of a young suitor.

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Too weird for 1924, when screenings reportedly prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its numerous detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.

COMMENTS: L’inhumaine is a riot of Futurist preoccupations, with sets and themes evoking then-current Euro-chic: Cubism, Art Deco, German Expressionism (filtered through French Impressionism), and even a bit of Surrealism. Director Marcel L’Herbier’s intent was partly to showcase all the new movements in the art world for 1925’s Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. To this end he invited artists like painter Fernand Léger and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens to put their individual stamps on the various sets. The extrerior of singer Claire Lescot’s mansion is Cubist, and model cars pull up in front to drop off attendees for her soirees. She takes her meals in a grand geometric hall; the dinner table is on an interior peninsula surrounded by a pool in with swimming swans, and butlers in eerie smiling masks serve hors d’oeuvres. Claire has an indoor “winter garden” with giant ferns, and Einar’s laboratory, lined with neon and filled with strange machinery, makes Dr. Frankenstein’s digs look subtle and restrained. Every detail is so heavily artificed that even the real sets look like painted cardboard backdrops.

L’Herbier uses every camera trick in the silent arsenal: irises, tinted footage to denote different moods and locales, double images, words appearing in mid-air, lightning-fast Soviet-style montage (which reaches a fevered peak in the still-awesome final “resurrection” sequence with its spinning dials and rocking pendulums overlaid on a veering camera and certain-to-cause-seizures strobe effects). Watching this, you’ll understand why fell in love with the 1920s (I wonder if “The Heart of the World“‘s competing suitors explicitly nod to L’Inhumaine). The acting is theatrical and possibly old-fashioned even for 1924 (watch as the evil maharajah narrows his eyes when introduced to signal his untrustworthiness), but still appropriate for melodrama. But the film’s biggest detriment, and the thing that holds it back from unqualified classic status, is the miscasting of matronly opera star Georgette Leblanc as the fabulous beauty who enchants the hearts of the world’s most eminent men. Leblanc put up half the money for the production, essentially buying the role; but I don’t care how well she sings or how glittery the tiara, no man is going to commit suicide for a woman who compares only slightly favorably to your Aunt Martha. Imagine how effective L’Inhumaine might have been if they’d cast an actress who looked more like Maria in Metropolis!

The Blu-ray, a co-production between France’s Lobster Films and the United States’ Flicker Alley, offers the viewer the choice of either French or English subtitles, as well as a choice of music. The Alloy Orchestra’s percussion-heavy, mechanistic performance is perhaps closer to the score’s original intent—you can hear a touch of George Anthiel in it—but drummer Aidje Tafial’s progressive jazz accompaniment is superior. He leads an ensemble featuring percussion, accordion, vibes and trumpet, and the abstract spaces the group explores suggest an agreeable affinity between the old and new avant-gardes. Sadly, composer Darius Milhaud’s original score is thought to be lost.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the Alloy Orchestra accompanied a screening that left hundreds of us wondering who slipped the hallucinogens into the popcorn… it’s so completely what it is, so fervent in its devotion to then-fashionable notions of modernism, it’s hard to adjust your eyes to the real world again.”–Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune (2016 screening)

KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

Of all the star-worshiping that went on during silent cinema, it is perhaps the obsession with Rudolph Valentino that is most mystifying today. When he died prematurely, at the age of 31, numerous fans were so distraught as to commit suicide. His funeral was besieged by thousands, and a legend was born when a mysterious lady in black began annually placing funeral wreaths on his tomb for decades to come. Valentino had such an impact on pop culture that everyone from to were influenced by him.

Yet today, there are relatively few Valentino film festivals or revivals, and when his films are seen (rarely), they will inevitably prove disappointments. Valentino never made a great film. In fact, most of them are dreadful. (In his defense, he didn’t make very many). Of course, someone will inevitably make the tiresome 21st century claim that this is true of most movies from the silent era, despite the fact that there are plenty of films from that period that have good writing, performances, direction and hold up even better than many films of the Fifties and later. We could attempt to produce examples of stellar acting in lesser films, however, this does not work with Valentino. Although his charisma scorches, his acting is extreme in its use of silent film cliches, mechanical and bizarrely exaggerated to the degree that it elicits amusement today as opposed to the near orgasmic reaction of his contemporaneous fans. Undeniably eroticized, his screen persona was also amoral; he was a rapist. Otherworldly, he doesn’t even seem human, which is perhaps why he is primarily known by name alone. It’s doubtful if many today would even recognize his image.

Rudloph Valentino
Rudloph Valentino as “The Sheik”

Sometimes, the reason for stardom is more for a colorful biography than an actual body of work (e.g. Tallulah Bankhead), but this isn’t necessarily the case with Valentino. His biographers contradict each other with bullet point details, which is to be expected since the star’s press kit was largely fiction. What we do know is that he was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1913 looking for employment. Some reports have him working as a male prostitute, but that is widely disputed as well. He bussed tables and briefly found work as a taxi driver, which is how he met actor Norman Kerry, who convinced Valentino to try a career in the new cinema business. Valentino became an “overnight” star with 1921’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (although he had been doing small parts as exotic heavies in film for seven years), became a superstar with The Sheik later that same year, and became Continue reading KEN RUSSELL’S VALENTINO (1977)

CAPSULE: THE LAST SUNSET (1961)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich

FEATURING: Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, ,

PLOT: Lawman Stribling (Rock Hudson) tracks killer O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) into Mexico; upon finding him they agree to defer their confrontation so they can drive a herd of cattle to Texas with female rancher (Dorothy Malone) and her husband.

Still from The Last Sunset (1961)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I suppose this is one of those cases where the subjectivity of weirdness comes into play. The Last Sunset strikes me as a fine, but generally conventional Western with some unexpected philosophy and Freudian melodrama thrown in. You have to squint too hard to find the minimal surreality here.

COMMENTS: The Last Sunset has cattle drives, desperadoes, macho posturing, runaway chuckwagons, Indian attacks, and a final showdown between a protagonist in white and an antagonist in black. Despite all the standard outfit trappings, however, Sunset is not a formula oater; it peels off the weathered exteriors of its cowboy archetypes and uncovers layers of pent-up, illicit passions underneath. Although Rock Hudson’s strict law-and-order Marshall Stribling is the putative headliner, Kirk Douglas’s O’Malley is by far the dominant character. O’Malley is a morally complex antihero, a whistling killer with a romantic streak who earns free drinks at saloons by spontaneously composing poetry. In fact, he may be too morally complex—the scene where he strangles a dog for growling at him seems terribly out of place (the cur later forgives him, like nothing ever happened). O’Malley’s in love with Dorothy Malone, who is married to the much older, alcoholic, presumably impotent Joseph Cotten. To make things even more complicated, Stribling, who has sworn to hunt down O’Malley for killing his brother-in-law, also falls for Malone, and Malone’s teenage daughter falls hard for the outlaw. And, quite naturally, O’Malley and Stribling develop a grudging respect and admiration for each other, which complicates things when it comes time to fulfill blood oaths.

The Last Sunset was one of the first scripts wrote under his own name after the Hollywood blacklist ended (1960’s classic Spartacus, of course, being the very first). The plot effectively merges Western conventions with elements of Greek tragedy and melodrama a la Douglas Sirk, although reportedly the suddenly busy Trumbo short-shrifted the project because he was more interested in writing Exodus for .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, THE LAST SUNSET (1961) is an odd duck… Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it ‘Strange on the Range.'”–Jeff Stafford, Movie Morlocks

(This movie was nominated for review by “The Awful Doctor Orloff” [who later wrote reviews here under the name Otto Black], whose explanation for his suggestion is so detailed we will list it in full here as a counterpoint to this review:

“On the face of it, this is just a bulk-standard horse-opera; the studio certainly thought so or they wouldn’t have made it. It’s ‘weird’ because writer Dalton Trumbo, annoyed by a pretentious magazine article suggesting that westerns were written by macho hacks who unconsciously riddled them with Freudian imagery, deliberately wrote a western containing as much screamingly blatant ridiculously over-the-top Freudian symbolism as he could possibly cram in short of calling the hero the Oedipus Kid!

Dorothy Malone is turned on by a herd of stampeding bulls with luminous horns, Joseph Cotten is forced to drop his trousers in a crowded saloon, and best of all, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas debate the merits of Rock’s great big gun versus Kirk’s tiny little one! (Robert Aldrich recycled that idea when he co-wrote ‘A Fistful Of Dollars,’ hence Ramon Rojo’s very Freudian dialogue concerning his rifle). And after that it gets even worse… OK, it’s only borderline weird, but it’s certainly very unusual, and more than slightly surreal.”

Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: WHITE RABBIT (2013)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tim McCann

FEATURING: Nick Krause, Britt Robertson, Sam Trammell

PLOT: Things start to go rapidly downhill for Harlon, an emotionally abused boy, after his father makes him kill an injured white rabbit; years later he hears the voices of characters from his favorite comic strip urging him to stand up for himself.

Still from White Rabbit (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If “angsty” meant “weird”, this would have been the weirdest movie I have ever seen. However, it doesn’t, and this wasn’t. White Rabbit‘s occasional dips into pseudo-schizophrenic hallucinations are very few and far between, and for better or worse the movie burns up its first two-thirds blandly exposing just how horrible life can be when you’re stuck in a rural backwoods with nothing to do but shoot, drink, and beat on anyone who is remotely different.

COMMENTS: There is a problem with a twist-based movie when by the end one just can’t care less. While the ambiguity provided a bit of relief, a movie hingeing on a final minute that misfires is nothing short of disappointing. There are a number of things that Tim McCann is trying to achieve with White Rabbit; however, they’ve already been accomplished in other, superior, movies. Rural life is terrible? Check out Gummo. Society overlooks the mentally ill? Check out Clean, Shaven. Angst is a sure-fire path to outburst? Check out Angst. Whatever you do, don’t check out White Rabbit.

McCann’s cautionary (?) tale of abuse and detachment begins at the end, with the goth-y protagonist’s back-story fleshed out confessional-style. Young Harlon’s home life is terrible: his father Darrell is a volatile drunk, his brother teases him mercilessly, and his mother’s best efforts to make things “okay” are welcome but insufficient. At a tender age, his father buys him a gun and goes hunting with him. Cue the film’s metaphor. In the middle of the woods, Harlon sees a white rabbit, which his father immediately orders him to dispatch. The boy misses, and they pursue the animal until they find it stuck in a briar. Taunted by his father, Harlon shoots the now-defenseless rabbit. Dead white bunny = innocence lost.

Growing up in Rural, USA, the boy has one friend, Steve, who is even more abused than he. Otherwise alone, Harlon takes comfort in a comic book series called the Scarlet Widow. Its characters begin talking to him, using words of malevolent encouragement. Then there’s Harlon’s father. As nasty as the father generally is, he is the only fleshed-out character. Though “charming” would be far too strong a word to describe him even in his better moments, Darrell stands as the movies most relatable figure. Improbably, his disappointment and ridicule are interrupted by intermittent bursts of kindness and understanding. In one scene, having just gotten high on crack, Darrell takes his son to a nearby strip club after the boy’s had a rough day. Darrell’s own life obviously has been pretty dismal, but he has a kind of flippant charisma that made him the only character worth watching.

Anyhow, things get nasty at an accelerating rate. Steve suffers a nebulous fate after a dog-adoption goes awry. The depressive-pixie-dream-girl whom Harlon fancies cleans up her act and gets together with the now reformed jock that Harlon (rightly) abhors. Unfortunately, the best twist of the movie never happens. There’s a point where everyone around him has reformed and become a decent person; had McCann explored the greater isolation Harlon would have experienced after this, things might have traveled down an interesting psychological path. As it goes, White Rabbit ducks out of this route almost before it begins, ending on a “Hey, maybe there’s some redemption going on here. Or not. Or maybe.” Or whatever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the voices he soon hears in his head are as muddled and underdeveloped as the rest of the film, which falls back on the easiest answers available to explain its protagonist’s fractured psyche.”–Nick Schrager, Film Journal International (DVD)

BARBARA STANWYCK PRE-CODE DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHT NURSE (1931) & BABY FACE (1933)

 was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).

For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”

However, in 1934, the studios lost the war when Breen replaced Hays. Joseph Breen was a constipated, Hollywood executive, in-house Keystone Kop type in cahoots with the Catholic League of Decency. Like that infamous organization, Breen saw the “big sin” as sex, and saw sex as undoubtedly on the mind and agenda of all those Christ-killing Hollywood Jews. Breen was a vile anti-Semite and saw Jewish-led celluloid muck merchants as being on a mission to open a Pandora’s box of sins on a gullible, innocent Christian public. The Hays Code was not only enforced, but now became even more rigid. The newly revised code composed an extensive lost of “dos” and “do nots.” Not surprisingly, over half of the do nots involved sex. The Code stayed in effect until the 1960s when it went the way of the dinosaur. (As we are apt to do in America, when freed to discuss sex, Hollywood then went from one extreme end of the pendulum to the opposite extreme end). Regardless, among the original do nots were: sex, sinners going unpunished,  sex, profanity (which included taking the divine name in vain), sex, any mention of virginity, sex, actual scenes of child birth, sex, use of drugs, sex, nudity, sex, interracial relationships, sex, lack of patriotism, sex, sedition, disrespect of flag, sex, sympathy for criminals, sex, disrespect for institutions, and sex.

A number of film historians have written volumes on the pre-Code era and, understandably, take delight in finding how many Code conventions were broken in that period. Night Nurse and Baby Face are two of the most infamous examples.

Still from Night Nurse (1931)
Still from “Night Nurse”

Night Nurse is directed by William A. Wellman, and co-stars with a young Clark Gable. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck)  is trying to get a job as a night nurse in the big city, despite having no high school education. She got the taste for nursing in the country while caring for her dying mother. The bitchy head nurse seems to think the lack of education is a big deal and sends our heroine packing, but not for long. Lora literally runs into well-heeled Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), bats an eyelash, shows off her gams, and soon this tomato has been accepted into the trainee program.

Lora’s new roommate is Maloney (the vivacious Joan Blondell). Maloney is the smarty pants trainee and the two hit it off so well that they spend an awful lot of peek-a-boo time undressing one another down to their lingerie and climbing into bed together. On her way to sainthood, the nurturing Lora actually cares about the patients. One of those is a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) who is really a good egg (sort of), though he gets fresh with our night nurse while she tends his bullet wound. When asked about his injury, Mortie concocts a story and vows: “Nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it!” 

When Lora inherits charge of two young girls, she runs into Nick (Clark Gable), a sexy, black silk robe wearing, gigolo chauffeur who tends to the girls’ dipsomaniac mama, the widowed Mrs. Ritchie (Charlotte Merriam). Nick is slowly starving the two whelps to order get their inheritance for Ritchie’s mobster boyfriend. In one jaw-dropping, memorable scene, Ritche is passed out on her bear skin rug, champagne glass empty, with the disgusted Lora standing over her, yelling: “You mother!” Things get even hairier when Lora threatens to call the kops and Nick socks her in the jaw! Lora, with hands on hips and darts for eyes, lives up to her moniker “Miss Iodine.” She whips the entire apathetic hospital into action, socks a phony in the mug, and solicits Mortie’s help to rid her of Nick. This beautifully lurid, period melodrama is blessed with Wellman’s visual panache and a shockingly nonchalant, amoral finale.

Baby Face is among the most notorious pre-Coders. Aiding its legendary status was its racier, pre-release edit (it was released just as the Production Code began to be enforced). The uncut version was believed lost until discovered at the Library of Congress in 2004. The Turner Classic Movies DVD release has both edits. Stick with the restored cut. Predictably, it’s more fun.

Babs is the aptly named Lily Powers, whose widowed, alcoholic father has been pimping her out to the mangy crowd that populates his speakeasy. One of Lily’s regular johns points her towards Nietzsche: “Be a master, not a slave, and use men to get the things you want,” he tells her. “Yeah.” Lily’s brain lights up together with her nihilistic cigarette. Lily becomes convinced of her feminine power when a convenient boiler explosion sends daddy to a much deserved hell.

With four bucks, Lily and her dad’s servant, Chico (Theresa Harris) hop aboard a train car. When the railman discovers them and threatens to kick them off, Chico suggests a romp in the hay. New York, here we come! Lily becomes “Baby Face” and spreads for anyone who can advance her career at the bank, including a young, curly topped .

Lily gives Lulu a run for the money and similar consequences await, including a murder-suicide scandal. Enter Tranholm (George Brent), Paris, marriage, eventual true love and realization that Nietzsche was clueless. Although director Alfred E. Green lacks Wellman’s directorial flair, he wisely defers to Stanwyck’s star power. Baby Face is not as outlandishly plotted as Night Nurse, lacks that earlier film’s idiosyncratic period zingers, and is bogged down with an unconvincing conversion at the finale. Still, for most of its ride, we are right there in the sack with Baby Face.

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

SPARROWS (1926)

defied all odds in becoming the defining cult figure in early cinema, despite the fact that her brief stardom was as an American actress in European films. Although Brooks lacked initial recognition, she  was far more contemporary and provocative than established stars such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.

Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford was the female superstar of the silent era. She was huge box office, married the swashbuckling matinée idol Douglas Fairbanks (theirs was the first Hollywood celebrity wedding) and together they built their famous mansion PickFair. Astutely, Pickford learned the business of filmmaking: editing, cinematography, lighting and production. She was the first woman to form her own production company and, later, with Fairbanks and , she built the mega studio United Artists. She was one of the founders of  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While politicos were battling over woman’s right to vote, Pickford’s voice was such an influential one that the Academy awarded her what was perhaps an undeserved Oscar for her first talking performance in the wretched Coquette (1929). Pickford and Fairbanks were Hollywood Royalty, wining and dining the famous, from Albert Einstein to H.G. Welles. Alas, royalty has its price. Coquette flopped at the box office. With the advent of sound the public wanted new faces, and because of their “royalty” status, Pickford and Fairbanks were seen as the old establishment. Although Pickford had an exceptionally fine voice, her career, along with that of her husband’s, came to an end. Still, even in reclusive retirement, Mary Pickford was treated as a pioneering queen of Hollywood, receiving numerous accolades  and tributes while the outsider Louise Brooks went through winters of extreme poverty. Today, Mary Pickford is virtually forgotten and Brooks is remembered. There are plenty of reasons for this.

Pickford’s virginal child persona dates her. The bulk of her films are heart-on-sleeve rudimentary melodramas, soaked in so much religiosity that they make saccharine contemporary fare like “7th Heaven” or “Highway to Heaven” look like cutting edge dramas. Pickford herself doubted the value of her films after she retired, and left instructions for her work to be destroyed. Thankfully, this wish was not carried out (although her films were kept out of circulation until the DVD age). Despite the Victorian halo, Pickford’s screen persona is a curiously bewitching one, due to its archaic, ethereal nature coupled with an irresistibly delicate feistiness. Her mastery of comedy and drama in the pantomime form, her finger on the pulse of Americana, and her thematic sympathy for the less affluent adds to her appeal.

Sparrows (1926) was Pickford’s last role in her child persona. It’s also her most compelling film. The religiosity is there, but it is so audacious as to be startling. Amazingly, William Beaudine directed. Beaudine later became known as “One-Shot Beaudine” because of his penchant for shooting single takes in poverty row programmers. Although he was one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, with over 400 films to his credit, the bulk of these were “penny dreadfuls.” For all the sympathy fans have for  suffering under an amateur Ed Wood, poor Bela was not a stranger to slumming it in One-Shot films like Ape Man (1943-Lugosi’s most embarrassing project), Ghosts on the Loose (1943), and Voodoo Man (1944).

Beaudine’s presence makes Sparrows all the more surprising. Pickford and Beaudine had worked together previously in Little Annie Roonie (1925), which was an unremarkable box office hit (it had returned Pickford to her irascible waif persona after several failed attempts to play an adult). Sparrows was produced by Pickford, photographed by her favorite cinematographer Charles Rosher, and written by C. Gardner Sullivan (Hell’s Hinges, Tumbleweed, Sadie Thompson, All Quiet On the Western Front), all of which may explain the film’s being an exception to the general Beaudine rule. However, Sparrows would be Pickford and Beaudine’s final collaboration. The star vowed never to work with Beaudine again after his supposed bad treatment of the children in the cast. Beaudine vehemently denied Pickford’s allegations, claiming she fabricated them for the sake of publicity. Beaudine’s defense is backed by others’ recollections. More than likely, Pickford and Beaudine clashed over artistic control. Art Director Harry Oliver created the stylish swamp, which was merely a few acres on a backlot. Alligators, with wired jaws, were brought in for “dramatic effect.”

Still from Sparrows (1926)In this Dickensian Gothic melodrama, Pickford plays Molly, the oldest of a group of orphans being used for slave labor on a potato farm. Despite being about twenty years too old for the part (!), Pickford pulls it off with plucky perfection. The potato farm is actually a baby farm, with Molly as the self-appointed mother of the brood. Every melodrama needs a good villain. Sparrows has a superb one in Gustav von Seyffertitz as the aptly named hunchbacked baby thief, Grimes. Seyffertitz was a favorite silent era villain and his portrayal here is saturated in mire. When his racket is threatened with exposure, Grimes has no qualms about “chucking them babies in the swamp.” News of Grimes’ plan reaches Molly. A chilling, breath-taking chase scene follows, which probably influenced Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Molly leads her charges through the bayou, facing gators and quicksand. There is an early casualty amongst the children and none other than Jesus Christ Himself appears to escort the poor lad’s corpse into heaven!

Sparrows is a model of art direction. Every detail counts. It was hailed as a masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch (who called it one of the eight wonders of the world) and Chaplin (who typically hated Pickford’s films). The late (and much-missed) film historian William K. Everson loudly sang its praises. Everson was rarely off, and he wasn’t here either.

LOSING LULU

The promiscuous motion picture camera has had many memorable romances: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor. Yet, the great love affair of the it’s 100 plus year life was also one of its briefest: actress Louie Brooks. Despite, or perhaps because of, that brevity, this love affair has never really been equaled in intensity.

Louise Brooks is primarily remembered for the cinematic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), made with G.W. Pabst. He was considered by some the greatest of all German directors; he was certainly one of the most intelligent. Pabst only made one other film with Brooks, Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929), which although not quite the equal of their first collaboration, is rightly and belatedly being recognized for its own merits. Brooks made a final film of some interest: Beauty Prize (1930) with director Augusto Genina, which together with the Pabst films finished off a feminist trilogy.

Pabst had earlier convinced Hollywood of Greta Garbo’s abilities with Joyless Street (1925), which also featured a remarkable performance by Asta Nielson. He directed Brigitte Helm in The Love of Jeanne Ney (1928) and Leni Riefenstahl in The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). Being a certified woman’s director, Pabst virtually invented Brooks’ screen personality. Brooks later confessed in her interviews with Kenneth Tynan that, at the time, she had little clue as to what Pandora’s Box was even about, turning herself over to the director’s hands. In Brooks’ eyes, she was only playing herself. She, and the film, was aided immensely by Gunther Krampf’s illuminating cinematography.  

Pandora’s Box is considered a primary example of Weimar Cinema. Simultaneously expressionistic and naturalistic, Pandora’s phantasmagoric quality inspired the composer Alban Berg, who adapted his libretto, as Pabst did his screenplay, from playwright Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” cycle. In both cases, the result was a beautifully repulsive work.

Still from Pandora's Box (1929)Pabst initiated an extensive search for his Lulu, testing and rejecting hundreds of aspiring actresses. Upon seeing Brooks’ ravishing portrayal of a femme fatale in Howard Hawks’ amiable, comic A Girl in Every Port (1928), Pabst felt he had found his Lulu. It’s easy to see why. Brooks’ memorable part, though small, registers as a rudimentary prototype of Lulu. Brooks later complimented her Svengali’s perception: “It was clever of Pabst to know even before he met me that I possessed the tramp essence of Lulu.” Brooks’ only other early Hollywood film of merit is William Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928). For years Malcolm St. Claire’s The Canary Murder Case (1929) was considered lost. Stills hinted at a missing gem. Unfortunately, the film was discovered and released. Perhaps some things should remain lost.

That Pandora’s Box has a lurid plot is a given. Pabst wisely simplifies Wedekind’s source material, concentrating on Lulu’s relationships with her first “patron,” the haggard Schigolch (Carl Gotz), Schon (Fritz Kortner), Schon’s son Alwyn (Franz Lederer), and her lesbian lover Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Pabst and Krampf give Pandora’s Box an crepuscular sheen. The girl, with her bobbed, jet black hair contrasting sharply with a white dress flickering like a candle, engages in a balletic promenade. Brooks, the trained dancer, is a naive succubus, flippantly unconcerned with bourgeoisie seasoned Continue reading LOSING LULU

CAPSULE: STOKER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Matthew Goode,

PLOT: A girl’s father dies on her 18th birthday; the uncle she never knew she had shows up soon thereafter and installs himself in the isolated house she lives in with her lonely mother.

Still from Stoker (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although Chan-wook Park fans should find enough perversion, violence and sublime cinematography to keep themselves engaged in it.

COMMENTS: From the long-lost uncle right out of Shadow of a Doubt to a subversive quotation to Psycho‘s shower scene, Stoker is Chan-wook Park’s Hitchcock tribute movie. But where Hitch was a master of plotting as well as suspense, Park substitutes high stylization and on-the-nose perversity for carefully shaded storytelling. The events of Stoker are highly implausible, and the characters act like dancers in a psychosexual ballet rather than three people mourning the loss of a beloved breadwinner. The triangular character structure draws you in, presenting sets of relations—mother/daughter, uncle/niece, and widow/brother-in-law—which shift throughout the tale. Allies will become enemies, buried family secrets will be uncovered, and Uncle Charlie, naturally, is not what he seems. Oh, and blood will flow when longings grow unchecked. Stoker unavoidably flirts with the Electra complex, as mother and daughter compete for the attentions of the surrogate father figure, the new Man of the house. Mysterious Uncle Charlie, whose very existence was unknown until he showed up at his brother’s funeral, is a figure of fear and desire to young India. The way he tries to win the 18-year old’s allegiance by waiting for her in his convertible parked next to the school bus would creep out Chris Hansen, and the way newly widowed and prematurely lonely mom Evelyn courts Uncle’s attention would boil Hamlet’s blood. There are a lot of naughty, nasty possibilities in a tale that teases a potential transformation into a taboo love triangle, but it has less transgressive sting because nothing onscreen bears much relationship to reality. Characters show up as if by magic when the script calls for it, ominous music plays for no obvious reason, and no one’s reactions are very believable. (You’ve got to call the police when you find that first body, folks!) The way India’s feelings for Charlie flow from disdain to prurient interest and back again, in particular, makes little outward sense; the vacillation only reflects her conflicted attitudes about sex and upcoming adulthood. Unannounced dream sequences further distance us from reality. A near-rape plays twice; the second time through, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to be a continuation of the previous scene, or a new version re-imagined as a sexual revenge fantasy. All of this is presented neither with a repressed Freudian subtlety (the way a Hitchcock would have handled it) or with a balls-to-the-wall operatic insanity (the way we might have expected a Chan-wook Park to treat such material). Stoker instead exists in the netherworld between the real and the surreal, the realm of melodrama. It’s like a too-logical dream that’s uncomfortable precisely because it’s not bizarre enough to meet our expectations. And although the script proffers the twists we’d expect in a thriller—secrets are revealed fast and furious in the third act—in the end, much of the plotting just seems lazy, particularly in a senseless, character-arc-erasing final scene that caps things off with a meaningless shock. On the plus side, the slow-paced Gothic tenor of the drama is refreshingly different from typical Hollywood “realism,” and Park grants us a couple of wonderful moments—a breathy erotic piano duet (of a Philip Glass composition made expressly for this movie) and a striking shot where Nicole Kidman’s hair transforms into a field of grain. In the end, Stoker is lurid, loopy, and occasionally lovely, no masterpiece but a passable guilty pleasure.

Korean director Park had to work with a translator on the set, and so the actors may have been largely left to direct themselves. This may be why some of the performances seem subdued, while Park’s camera is as vibrant as ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Park’s skills for surreal subjectivity and the mischievously weird certainly don’t hurt, but they can’t quite banish Stoker’s narrative speed bumps and draughts of cold air as the film bluntly denotes the compulsive correspondence of orgasm and murder…”–Peter Canavese, Groucho Reviews (contemporaneous)

113. CAREFUL (1992)

“The pandemonium of everyone, everywhere suddenly declaring all at once ‘and I too was molested by my father, or my mother; I too have recovered memories which have basically obliterated my chances of any kind of comfortable adult sexuality’—it seemed at that moment almost unthinkable to slant a movie—even going back into the German romantic past when incest was almost a common theme—to slant it comically and yet still somehow catch the feverish horror of incest in the net… It was only when the idea of the Alpine world, where extreme caution was required for all behavior, where there was a kind of silencer on everyone’s libido and behavior, when that was factored in, then I could see the green light in Guy’s eyes. Once he had the world ‘careful’ it was there all at once.”–George Toles describing genesis of Careful in the documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Brent Neale

PLOT: Villagers of the Alpine town of Tolzbad believe that avalanches will bury them if they are not meticulously careful to keep their voices low and their movements measured.  The film follows the adventures of a family of a widowed mother and her three sons: Johann, who is engaged to be married; Grigorss, who is training to be a butler; and Franz, a mute who never leaves his chair in the attic. Presaged by the appearance of the blind ghost of the father, the family’s repressed emotions eventually erupt into suicide, duels, and even the dreaded avalanche.

Still from Careful (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Guy Maddin’s third film, and his first fully in color (Archangel featured a few tinted scenes). The chromatic process used in the film mimics the so-called “two-strip” Technicolor which was used before 1932.
  • The setting of Careful was inspired by “mountain movies,” a 1920s subgenre popular in the German national cinema, although Maddin admits in the DVD commentary that he had not actually seen any mountain movies when he made the film.
  • Long-time Maddin screenwriting collaborator George Toles appears in Careful as a corpse in drag.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I am tempted by the vision of the mountain mineworkers—women stripped down to their underwear, wielding pickaxes while wearing candle-bearing diapers on their heads—but the film’s most significant image is Johann gazing manically at his mother sleeping under her goat’s-head headboard while spreading the limbs of his massive garden shears.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If movies themselves could dream, their dreams would look like Guy Maddin movies: sludgy jumbles of styles, moods, and melodramatic preoccupations, composed of fragmented images made up from bits of misplaced, distressed celluloid. Like Maddin’s other movies, Careful keeps us at two removes from reality: it displaces us once by its narrative dislogic, and then a second time by its archaic stylization. In Careful the technique is particularly appropriate, since the subject matter—repressed incestuous desire—demands to be buried under layers of mystery.


Original trailer for Careful

COMMENTS: Careful begins with what amounts to a pre-Code Public Service Announcement, Continue reading 113. CAREFUL (1992)