Friday, July 6, 2007


Humans are essentially wet and gooey. Our bodies contain up to 60% water, and our biological processes, from digestion to circulation to reproduction, all basically involve slippery organs slushing soupy liquids from place to place. And although we're often too vain to acknowledge it, we all leave a trail of oily fingerprints, stray nose hairs, clipped toe nails, and dead skin cells everywhere we go. Civilization could be defined by everything that tries to conceal our basically messy nature: band-aids, underwear, deodorant, electric shavers, etc.

In David Lynch's Eraserhead, the rigid facade of smooth surfaces and right angles fits awkwardly over the undulating globs of flesh that make up the basis of our biology. A man and woman falling in love, having sex, and raising a baby, should be the most natural thing in the world, but in this movie, it's monstrously repugnant.

Early in the film, our protagonist, Henry, accepts an invitation to dinner with his girlfriend and her parents. All the social implications and arbitrary etiquette create an itchy discomfort. This mood is permeated by the sound of the family's puppies suckling; loudly demonstrating how uncomplicated the basic act of eating ought to be. The main course is man made chickens, presumably manufactured by white-coated technicians in an antiseptic laboratory instead of farmers with dirty fingernails or hunters with blood up to their elbows. Appropriately, the mechanical cuckoo clock signals when it is permissible to eat.

The father, is the only character not alienated from his nature. As a plumber, he's not fooled by the my-shit-don't-stink pretense of the rest of society. He's "put every damn pipe in this neighborhood", he says, and he's seen it change "from pastures to the hell-hole it is now". Every time his conversation veers toward his body - his bad knees, or his numb left arm - he is quickly shushed by his wife.

According to Eraserhead, we have more in common with the primordial ooze we crawled out of than the civilized society we pretend to live in.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Time Capsule Year: 1977

Academy Award for Best Picture Winner:
Annie Hall

Cannes Golden Palm Winner:
Padre Padrone

National Film Register:
Star Wars
Annie Hall
Powers Of Ten
Killer of Sheep

Time Magazine Person Of The Year:
Anwar Sadat

Nobel Peace Prize:
Amnesty International

Timeline of News Events:
January 20 - Jimmy Carter inaugurated as 39th President of the United States.
January 23 - Television mini-series Roots airs.
June 7 - Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" crusade successfully repeals Miami-Dade County's gay rights ordinance, leading gay activist to launch a nationwide boycott of Florida Citrus for whom she advertised.
July 13 - A blackout in NYC lasts 25 hours and leads to looting and disorder.
August 10 - Serial killer David Berkowitz (aka Son of Sam) is arrested in New York. (see Summer Of Sam)
August 16 - Elvis Presley Dies.
September 12 - South African activist Steve Biko dies in police custody. (see Cry Freedom)
October 1 - Pele plays his last professional soccer game as member of the New York Cosmos (see Once In A Lifetime)
October 20 - 3 members of the rock group, Lynyrd Skynyrd, die when their chartered plane crashes.
November 19 - Anwar Sadat becomes the first Arab leader to officially visit Israel.

In Queue:
Annie Hall
Padre Padrone
Saturday Night Fever
The Late Show
New York, New York
Amar Akbar Anthony
Slap Shot
Soldier Of Orange
The Duellist
Allegro Non Troppo
Kentucky Fried Movie
The Consequence


Killer Of Sheep
Madame Rosa
A Special Day

Already Seen:
Star Wars
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
The American Friend
High Anxiety
The Hobbit
Oh, God!
Powers of Ten

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Top 10 Movies of 1967

1. Point Blank - Instead of a muscle-flexing line-growling action hero, Lee Marvin's revenge obsessed thug is more menacing for his economy of movement and relative silence. And director John Boorman gives this ultra-cool (and ultra-violent) vengeance film a non-linear new wave treatment that leaves enough ambiguity to invite an intriguing supernatural interpretation.

2. Le Samourai - Jean-Pierre Melville's film introduces a meticulous hit man, played by Alain Delon, who unexpectedly invokes our sympathy as an extremely competent professional whose attention to detail is so impressive we almost forget how unsavory those details are. Our respect is validated when his basic decency is revealed in the film's unforgettable ending. Also, check out Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai; a film that seems to be directly influenced by this one.

3. Cool Hand Luke - A fiercely independent prisoner bucks authority everywhere he encounters it (appropriately, he is incarcerated for vandalizing parking meters), first he challenges his alpha-male prison mate, then the prison bosses, and ultimately, God himself. Each defiant action, both successful and failed (mostly failed), earn him the admiration and loyalty of his fellow prisoners. Biblical allusions that liken him to both Moses and Jesus suggest a sort of anarchist Messiah, or a Christ-as-Libertarian parable.

4. Reflections In A Golden Eye - A year after Liz Taylor played the bratty, defiantly trampy wife in the overwrought Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, she played a similar role in John Huston's depiction of repressed sexuality and dysfunctional marriage. The ensemble of quirky characters (the tramp, the closet case, the nut case, the voyeur, and the eunuch) keeps the story so lurid that the promise of murder in the opening scene is quickly forgotten (one of several similarities between this film and American Beauty).

5. In Cold Blood - A near-documentary recreation of a well-documented murder of an entire family. It's disturbingly immersive; enough to make me question the ethics of watching it. Is it really appropriate for this very real atrocity be offered up as entertainment? Is it insensitive to the friends and family of the victims for us to be rehashing every sensational gory aspect of the crime? Maybe so, maybe not, but no other film has ever brought me to this place, albeit a chilly and unpleasant place.

6. The Young Girls of Rochefort - Jacques Demy's unapologetically romantic old-school musical is a love letter to the very same cheery, brightly-colored Hollywood tradition that his contemporaries in the French New Wave (including his wife Agnes Varda) react against. Ballet influenced choreography and light jazz give the standard formula a classy and unmistakably French flair - sort of like what Cirque du Soleil does for Vegas glitz.

7. Play Time - Few filmmakers have a cinematic voice as unique and distinctive as Jacques Tati's. It's physical comedy that unfolds at a deliberate and rhythmic pace with little or no dialogue. The gags are often subtle, or develop slowly over time. Play Time is set in a modern Paris, and Tati's protagonist, Mr. Hulot, is a throwback to a simpler era who is baffled by the alien world he finds himself wandering through. It makes a good companion to Chaplin's Modern Times.

8. Two For The Road - As The Graduate and Bonnie And Clyde ushered in a new generation of movie-making, Stanley Donen's innovative romantic comedy proved that the old guard wasn't entirely irrelevant yet. It features standard classic movie elements: it's shot on exotic European locales with glamorous A-List movie stars, the banter is quick and witty, and Audrey Hepburn's designer fashions are always crisp even while road tripping across Europe. Despite its breeziness, it has some insightful things to say about the way real life married couples interact, and it demonstrates this brilliantly through clever non-chronological editing.

9. The Graduate - This influential coming-of-age story is somehow dated and timeless at the same time. The conventional wisdom of the time was that this film heralded a new generation's rejection of their parent's out-dated values and hypocrisies. 40 years later, this same generation is working in plastics, and driving their SUVs to their homes in the suburbs. But this doesn't invalidate the movie; it just proves that the alienation and insecurities of youth are not unique to Boomers.

10. How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying - A fun and surprisingly cynical take on corporate culture. Set on the same campy sixties planet that Austin Powers came from, and featuring some typically jazzy choreography by Bob Fosse, and a pitch-perfect comic performance by Robert Morse as the naive-yet-scheming J. Pierpont Finch (that's F-I-N-C-H).

Friday, March 23, 2007

Films set in 1927

For Goatdog's 1927 Blog-A-Thon, I'm departing from my established formula. I'll resume discussing movies of 1937 after today's brief return to 1927.

Since I've already blogged about the movies of 1927 throughout the month of February (see all my posts here), I decided to list some films from other years that were set in 1927.

Events of 1927

May 20-21, Charles Lindbergh becomes the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1957, Jimmy Stewart portrayed Lucky Lindy in The Spirit of St. Louis, which focused on this historic event.

August 23, Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed in Massachusetts after being in convicted of murder and robbery in a controversial and highly publicized case. Their case was dramatized in the 1971 Italian film Sacco and Vanzetti.

October 6, The Jazz Singer opens and becomes a sensation. The motion picture industry has to transition to this new standard of synchronized sound with unforeseen consequences. This was memorably demonstrated in 1952's Singin' In The Rain.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a flourishing of African American art and culture centered in Harlem, New York. The movement produced an expansive list of inspiring and influential artists, one of whom is the innovative dancer Josephine Baker whose life story was made into the movie The Josephine Baker Story in 1991. Harlem in the 20s was also the setting for Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 classic The Cotton Club.

Prohibition, Speakeasies and Gangsters

Prohibition led to speakeasies, the covert establishments that served liquor. Organized crime prospered by running these clubs and by supplying the bootlegged booze. Al Capone became the most notorious of these gangsters. This provided a rich source of inspiration for movies (The Untouchables, Road To Perdition, Scarface, Some Like it Hot, Miller's Crossing, Idlewild, etc.), but most of these take place after Capone's Valentine's Day massacre in 1929, or during the Depression in the early 30s. Two notable examples of this genre that span the time before the Depression are Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon A Time In America (1984), and Cagny/Bogart crime thriller The Roaring Twenties (1939).

Sunday, March 18, 2007


In Dead End, notorious gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his childhood home in the slums of East Side Manhattan to see his mother (Marjorie Main) and his old sweetheart (Claire Trevor, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance).

The film follows a variety of characters who try to cope with life in a slum squeezed between the East River and the upscale high-rises of the wealthy. Sweet and hardworking Drina tries to keep her little brother Tommy from falling in with a gang of delinquents. Dave, an unemployed architect, tries to make an honest living painting signs while trying to impress Kay, the mistress of a wealthy man torn between love and security.


1937 was a hopeful time for New York City. Following a period of political corruption and economic depression, their former Governor, Franklin Roosevelt, was elected President, and popular reformist mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, was elected mayor. Democrat Roosevelt's New Deal programs greatly benefitted New York City, and Republican LaGuardia was a strong supporter of it.

The movie was based on play by Sindey Kingsley which explores how adult crime is linked to juvenile delinquency, and how both are exacerbated by poverty and social inequality. In this era of growing socialist idealism, the play was eagerly received on Broadway and ran for almost two years (Oct 1935 - June 1937)


The film's politics may have seemed progressive at the time, but after 70 years of labor unions, minimum wage, social security, and welfare programs, they don't seem so radical.

The movie featured a gang of juvenile delinquents that proved so popular that the "Dead End Kids" spun off a series of movies of their own. Although this was probably Bogart's most acclaimed role at the time (after the previous year's Petrified Forest became his breakout hit), many of his subsequent movies easily overshadow this one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The Casbah is a walled-in mazelike section of the city of Algiers where notorious French jewel thief Pepe Le Moko hides from the Authorities. The police know they can never catch Pepe while he's in the Casbah; there are too many hiding places, and he has too many friends. Pepe knows he can never leave the Casbah or he would immediately be captured.

A beautiful diamond covered French tourist represents everything Pepe has been isolated from: love, home, and country, and he becomes obsessed with her. Inspector Slimane, Pepe's nemesis and admirer, sees an opportunity; would the thief risk everything for this jewel?


The Casbah of Pepe Le Moko is exotic and romantic - much different from the horrific and violent Casbah that we would see in The Battle of Algiers 30 years later.

Although there had been tensions between the indigenous Muslims and the European settlers throughout the 100+ years of French rule in Algeria, the conflict wouldn't come to a head until the start of the Algerian War of Independence two decades later.


This film is stylish and dense with atmosphere. It practically invents the noir genre, and there are many great classics (Casablanca for example) that influenced by it.

This movie would be remade as Algiers one year later in an English language version starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. Algiers would be a faithful translation, mimicking exact shots from the original, and even editing in some of the original's footage. A decade later, a musical version would be made starring Peter Lorre. But perhaps its most familiar influence today is Pepe Le Pew, the famous cartoon skunk that was based on the character of Pepe Le Moko.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Paul Muni plays the title role in The Life of Emile Zola, the biographical film of the 19th century French writer, social activist, and general dust-kicker.

Unevenly paced and choppily edited, the first act efficiently checks through the list of necessary milestones of Zola's early career. The second act abandons Zola altogether and focuses on a simplified and incomplete version of The Dreyfus Affair.

It's in its third act that the film justifies its Best Picture Oscar. The movie becomes a first rate courtroom drama with surprise witnesses, withheld evidence, testy lawyers objecting, and irritable judges overruling. Zola's on trial for libel after publishing J'accuse, the controversial essay critical of the French government. In the climatic speech by Zola to the jury, Muni pours his considerable reserves of passion into his fist pumping and jowl shaking monologue.


The story of anti-Semitism in France in the late 19th century, and its probable role in sending an innocent patriot into exile, was timely considering the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly Germany. Or at least it would have been had the film mentioned it.

Bafflingly, the most relevant and compelling part of the Dreyfus affair was completely left out of the movie! It wasn't until after I saw the movie and researched its accuracy that I learned that Zola and Dreyfus were Jewish, and that this was a significant part of the case.


Although I criticize this movie for simplifying the facts of the Dreyfus case, it's this generalization that makes this movie eerily relevant today. In the movie's version of the case, the army falsely convicts Dreyfus, and after they discover their error, they cover it up to save face. Zola's meddling threatens to divide the country just when they need unity the most, so he is branded a traitor. In this sense, Zola is like modern muckraker Michael Moore in that his attempt to hold the government accountable for its actions is considered a treasonous act by some, and a patriotic act by others.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Tom Canty is a dirt poor beggar boy who lives with his abusive father. He was born on the same day and has an uncanny resemblance to Prince Edward, son of King Henry VIII and next in line of succession to the throne.

After escaping a downpour, Tom finds shelter on the palace grounds where Prince Edward saves him from the palace guard and befriends him. While playing, the prince and the pauper exchange clothes and marvel at their similarities. Edward is mistaken for Tom by the palace guard and sent from the palace.

Neither boy can convince anyone that they are not who they appear to be, but Prince Edward is befriended and protected by Miles Hendon who is initially skeptical about Edward's royal claims, but humors him anyway. Once convinced, he tries to help Edward return to the palace before Tom is mistakenly crowned King.


King George VI's coronation was May 12, 1937. This movie's release date was scheduled to coincide with this (after its May 5 premier, it opened widely May 8).

Errol Flynn's popularity after his breakout performance in Captain Blood two years earlier led to him being top billed despite not being in the lead role. He makes his first appearance in the film halfway through.

Although Twain's novel was a social satire about class inequities, it's doubtful that this swashbuckling film version had such a political agenda. But the fact that these social issues could fit so unobtrusively in a family movie is an indication of how pervasive these ideas were. The Depression had caused an increased involvement in organized labor and a general national shift toward socialism as demonstrated by President Roosevelt's social programs of the New Deal. These social issues were more overtly promoted in such movies as Winterset in 1936.


As a classic work of literature, the story is timeless and has lent itself to several remakes, including versions starring Mickey Mouse, Barbie, and the up-coming Sprouse Brothers modern version.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


Stage Door is about The Footlights Club, a boarding house for aspiring actresses. When a confident rich amateur (Katharine Hepburn) moves in, her snobbery immediately provokes the derision of the other tenants, particularly the wisecracking and insecure dancer (Ginger Rogers) who is assigned as her roommate.

The other residents run the gamut from the old grand dame who's underappreciated in her advanced age, to the teenager who's never even been in a theater except as a spectator. Andrea Leeds (in her Oscar winning performance) plays last year's sensation desperate to get another role before people forget who she is. Gail Patrick plays a scheming social climber trying to date her way to fame. The cynical and sarcastic Eve Arden, and the jaded Lucille Ball round out the impressive ensemble.


Stories of star struck young women becoming disillusioned by the reality of show business was becoming popular theme in the films of the time as demonstrated in another 1937 film, A Star Is Born.

Audiences were already familiar with Katherine Hepburn as she had already won an Oscar in Morning Glory four years earlier. Earlier in her career, she had starred in a Broadway play called "The Lake" which had famously flopped. Hepburn playfully references this in Stage Door when, as a bad actress set up to fail, she woodenly recites a line from The Lake: "The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion..." This line would become one of her more memorable catchphrases.

Audiences were also familiar with Ginger Rogers. Although usually associated with Fred Astaire, she had a career of her own, and was known to typically play strong and sassy characters.


The movie was the big break for Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Ann Miller, and it was fascinating to see early performances from these women who would become household names years later

The feminism holds up well 70 years later. Despite all the mean-spirited wisecracking, these women are there for each other when it counts. They're independent, tough, and smart.

Sunday, March 4, 2007


In Shall We Dance, Fred Astaire plays a ballet dancer who wants to be a tap dancer. He falls in love with a picture of a broadway performer played by Ginger Rogers and decides to meet her. He follows her from Paris to New York on an ocean liner. His publicist starts a rumor that the two are secretly married which causes a sensation as they arrive in New York. After a series of unlikely but not unexpected events, the two naturally end up together in the end.


Fred and Ginger musical comedies were nothing new in 1937. This was a follow up to a string of hits that included Top Hat in 1935 and Swing Time in 1936. These movies never pretended to be anything more than escapist entertainment where Depression era audiences could forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

Shall We Dance was an attempt to class up the Astaire/Rogers musical. They replaced the popular Irving Berlin songs with the more classical George and Ira Gershwin compositions, and brought a ballet influence to the dance. But it still seemed stale. Maybe they had they had exhausted the formula by this film, or perhaps the recovering economy left less of a market for the escapist entertainment.


Like any other Astaire/Rogers musical, the stories are hackneyed situation comedies that today's audiences have seen enough of on television. So the best way to watch them now is to fast forward to the song-and-dance numbers.

This movie has a few highlights in this regard: In "Slap That Bass", Fred dances on a stylized set version of an ocean liner's engine room to the rhythms of the machines; In "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off", Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates in a Central Park set; and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is great classic Gershwin song.

Unfortunately, the movie also has more than its share of misses, particularly the final "Shall We Dance" number where Fred hardly dances with Ginger at all, but initially with a disturbingly flexible Harriet Hoctor, then with a chorus line of women wearing creepy Ginger Rogers masks.

Friday, March 2, 2007


In Waikiki Wedding, The Imperial Pineapple Company hires Bing Crosby, a layabout former Navy man, to come up with marketing ideas. His latest idea is to have a contest on the mainland and crown the winner "The Pineapple Girl" and award her with an all expense paid vacation to Hawaii. In exchange, she would publish her experiences in the newspaper.

The plan backfires when the Pineapple Girl finds she doesn't like Hawaii and threatens to publish this fact. It's up to Bing to show her a good time to ensure she publishes a positive review. A moonlight boat ride while crooning the Oscar winning song, Sweet Leilani, just might do the trick.


In 1937, Hawaii was a strategic American military base, a popular tourist destination for wealthy Americans, and the pineapple capitol of the world.

Hawaii was not a state, but a territory. The most significant differences being that the agriculture industry was not required to pay the same tariffs as the mainland plantations, nor were they obligated to uphold the same labor laws. The sugarcane industry prospered under this situation and wielded considerable political clout. Second to sugarcane, was pineapple. Dole pineapple, which produced 75% of the world's pineapple, was clearly the model for the "Imperial Pineapple Co." in this movie.

There was an attempt in 1937 by Congress to grant statehood to Hawaii, but it failed over issues of race as Hawaii would be the only state with a non-white majority. If this attitude was prevalent at the time, it's not apparent in the movie; the Hawaiian culture is portrayed respectfully. Plenty of dialogue and song lyrics are in the native language without subtitles, and the Hawaiian roles are played by native actors (or at least non-white actors). I don't know if Bing had a hand in ensuring that the Hawaiians were depicted with dignity, but it wouldn't surprise me. He had been insistent on the casting and prominent billing of Louis Armstrong in the previous year's Pennies From Heaven, the first time a white and black actor shared top billing on a major film.


Martha Raye and Anthony Quinn are familiar faces to today's viewer, although they were relatively unknown at the time. Martha Raye's performance is particularly over-the-top, but it was uncharted territory for a female comic at the time and a possible influence on Lucille Ball. It's hard to laugh at her humorous song about binge drinking when you know how hard her life would become due to her alcohol problems later in life.

Thursday, March 1, 2007


Time Capsule Year: 1937

Academy Award Best Picture Winner:
The Life of Emile Zola

National Film Register:
The Awful Truth
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
The Prisoner of Zenda

Time Magazine Person of the Year:

Chiang Kai-shek and Soong May-ling

Nobel Peace Prize:
Robert Cecil

Timeline of News Events:
January 20 - Franklin D. Roosevelt starts his second term after being re-elected in a landslide.
April 26 - Guernica, in the autonomous Basque region of Spain but sympathetic to the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, is bombed by the German Luftwaffe allied with Franco's Nationalists.
May 6 - German passenger zeppelin, The Hindenburg, bursts into flame while landing in New Jersey, killing 36 passengers.
May 27 - The Golden Gate Bridge opens.
June 7 - Blonde bombshell Jean Harlow dies from kidney disease.
June 22 - Joe Louis "The Brown Bomber" defeats James J. Braddock "The Cinderella Man" to become the heavyweight boxing champion.
July 2 - Amelia Earhart disappears over the Pacific during her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world.
July 7 - Japan invades China launching the Second Sino-Japanese War and starting WWII in Asia.
September 21 - JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit published.
December 21 - The premier of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, considered the first full length animated feature by people who willfully ignore Lotte Reiniger's stunning 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

In Queue:
Titles I've added to my GreenCine and NetFlix queues to see this month.
Waikiki Wedding
Shall We Dance
Stage Door
The Grand Illusion
The Life of Emile Zola
The Awful Truth
You Only Live Once
Big Fella
Drole de Drame
In Old Chicago
Dead End
The Prince And The Pauper
Pepe Le Moko
A Day At The Races

Movies I would have added to my queue, but are not available at GreenCine or Netflix.
The Prisoner of Zenda
The Spanish Earth
On The Avenue

Already Seen:
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
Lost Horizon
A Star Is Born

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Top 10 Movies of 1927

1. Metropolis
The influence of Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic can still be seen almost a century later in future-dystopia cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and The Matrix. It presents a future where technology outpaces social advances, and soulless machines threaten to overwhelm the human experience.

The irony is that the gee-whiz factor of hot robot babes, impossibly tall building and flying cars overshadows Lang's humanist social allegory. What gets lost is a surprisingly optimistic message that humans can overcome their tendency to react violently against oppression and peaceably reconcile their differences. In the Soviet films of the time, the class struggle would end in glorious revolution; instead, Lang subversively depicts the worker's revolution as benefiting the ruling class by providing a justification for violent retaliation.

2. Sunrise
In his Hollywood debut, F.W. Murnau doesn't abandon the style that he perfected in his German films. His films are more narrative photography than filmed plays. He tells stories through carefully composed shots with elaborate sets and precise lighting. He doesn't bog down his narratives with superfluous details (such as names for his characters) that would hinder his pacing or require more intrusive title cards.

The story is basic: a married man falls for another woman who suggests he murder his wife so they could be together. Despite (or perhaps because of) this simplicity, the plot is extremely tense.

3. The Love of Jeanne Ney
Set during the Russian Civil War, I expected more political intrigue. Instead, the politics are more or less wrapped up early in the first act and it becomes a suspenseful and twisty crime story that's a little bit Mr. Ripley and a little bit Blood Simple.

4. Chang
An exciting adventure story about surviving in an untamed jungle teeming with predators and other dangers - and that's just the making of. This is a DVD to watch with the commentary on as the story behind how the movie was made is more intriguing than the movie itself.

5. The Chess Player
An epic historical drama set in 18th century Poland under the rule of the Russian Empire. A young revolutionary is on the run after a failed coup attempt. His ally, an Austrian inventor who creates automatons, plans to smuggle him to safety inside his chess playing machine. Some stylish montage sequences keep the political storyline engaging, but it's the downright creepy automaton scenes that leave a lasting impression.

6. The General
Adapting a serious Civil War incident into a slapstick comedy is risky, especially considering the cost of sending an actual train off a cliff. Since the plots of many Buster Keaton movies just serve to tie together stunt sequences, this is easily his most ambitious movie. It works, but I wonder if it was all worth it; I still find the cheaper and less cohesive Sherlock Junior to be the most enjoyable of all Keaton's movies.

7. Berlin: Symphony Of A Great City
An inspired montage of images of Berlin edited together to capture the rhythms of the city over the course of a day. An invaluable historical document that permanently captures the mood of the day in the same way a newsreel might capture the events of the day.

8. The Lodger
A family begins to suspect that the quirky man they rent a room to might just be the serial killer that's been evading the police. Hitchcock's first suspense thriller doesn't sustain the tension as relentlessly as his subsequent work, but it has its moments of brilliance.

9. Bed And Sofa
A couple decides to share their small apartment with an old army buddy. The intimate quarters leads to strained relationships. The husband's tolerance of a developing affair between his wife and friend seems surprisingly open-minded, but tensions still mount over little things, particularly who gets to sleep in the bed and who has to sleep on the sofa. The story focuses on individuals which is a departure from typical Soviet film of the time which usually focused on communities. There was probably an allegory to communism in there somewhere, but it was lost on me. The sexual attitudes were remarkably progressive for any film of the time from any country.

10. The Gaucho
Not the typical Douglas Fairbanks movie where he plays the athletic hero who goes on chandelier swinging, sword fighting, horse riding adventures to save the beautiful woman. This time he plays an athletic bandit who goes on chandelier swinging, sword fighting, horse riding adventures to save the beautiful woman - and his soul.

MIA Movies:
These are some significant films that I was unable to see as they are not available on DVD (at least not on GreenCine or NetFlix):

The Jazz Singer
Seventh Heaven
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

Had I seen these, this list most probably would have been different.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


London is terrorized by a serial killer that violently murders a pretty young blonde every Tuesday, and leaves a calling card that says simply "The Avenger" at the scene. At the home of one pretty young blonde named Daisy, a mysterious stranger decides to rent a room. As she starts falling for The Lodger, her boyfriend Joe, a cop assigned to the Avenger case, gets jealous. And suspicious.


Audiences who saw The Lodger in 1927 probably didn't know who the director was; although he had directed a film or two before this, Alfred Hitchcock hadn't had a substantial hit until this one. He has said that he considers this his "first true film". Audiences may have recognized the influence of German Expressionism that Hitchcock probably picked up from his two previous German co-productions. His use of light and shadow to convey ideas in lieu of dialogue is decidedly Murnau-esque.

It was Ivor Novello that people paid to see. He was already a successful singer and composer before appearing in movies. He was at the peak of his matinee idol status when he starred in two Hitchcock features in 1927 (this and Downhill). Novello's homosexuality was a something of an open secret, so perhaps Hitchcock was knowingly playing to pop culture with the dialogue:
JOE: Does this lodger of yours mean any harm to Daisy?
MRS. BUNTING: Don't be silly, Joe. He's not that sort.
JOE: Even if he's a bit queer, he's a gentleman.

Audiences in 1927 didn't know who Alfred Hitchcock was, but he's the primary reason we watch this movie today. It's impossible to watch it without being reminded of Hitchcock's subsequent work. It already has many of the elements that are associated with his signature style: mistaken identity, incompetent police, a tormented blonde, and relentless tension that threatens to break into violence at any given moment.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Cyrus inherits his father's department store, and Betty Lou, a perky young salesgirl, falls for her dashing new boss. Monty, Cyrus' foppish friend, is obsessed with finding a girl with "It".

What is "It"? Writer Elinor Glyn, who coined the term, makes a cameo appearance to explain. "It" is "That strange magnetism which attracts both sexes... entirely unself-conscious... full of self-confidence... indifferent to the effect... she is producing and uninfluenced by others." In short, sex appeal. And, as Monty observes, Betty Lou is "positively top-heavy with 'It'".

Betty Lou's and Cyrus' attraction to each other is mutual, but naturally there are a series of misunderstandings that threaten to prevent them from being together. Will the poor but pretty girl will end up with the rich and handsome man? I wouldn't bet against it.


Sexual attitudes were loosening during the 20s, and Clara Bow personified the new attitude: higher hemlines, lower necklines, and more assertive and shameless flirting. But some of the movie's progressive elements are tempered with concessions to more traditional values. Betty Lou brashly comes on to her boss and tricks him into taking her on a date, but when he kisses her after the date, she slaps him. She supports a friend who is an unwed mother, but when she finds out Cyrus believes the baby is hers, she's offended that he would think she was that kind of woman.

The attitude toward the unwed mother seems particularly quaint today. Apparently being unmarried is not only grounds for having your baby taken away by meddling social service workers (didn't I see these same busybodies taking the baby away from a woman who had a bottle of wine in the house in Intolerance?), but it's also newsworthy enough to be published in the newspaper.


Modern workplaces are more sensitive to issues of sexual harassment. Monty scoping out the salesgirls trying to find who has "It" would by condemned today. We also wouldn't find such gender specific wording in our employment ads as: "Female worker wanted... neat appearance"

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The First Best Pictures

January 11, 1927 - Louis B. Mayer hosts a banquet for 3 dozen VIPs from 5 branches of the motion picture industry (producers, directors, actors, writers, technicians) to promote an organization to be called The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. All 36 sign on and become the Academy Founders.

May 4, 1927 - The Academy becomes a legal corporation. 300 eligible industry professionals are invited to a banquet where the Academy's newly elected first president, Douglas Fairbanks, convinces over 200 of them to become new members.

He also announced that the Academy will give awards of merit. These awards were not initially voted on by the Academy members, but determined by a panel of judges. Each member was allowed to vote for a nominee in their own branch. A panel of judges in each branch would count the votes and narrow the nominees down for a central board of judges. This board would have 5 members, one from each branch, and they would decide the winners.

Initially there was two best picture categories: Best Production was awarded to "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness"; and Artistic Quality of Production was given to "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude." Because The Jazz Singer was such a sensation, the Awards Committee decided to rule it ineligible for either of the best picture awards and gave it its own special award.

Wings won for Best Production and Sunrise won for Artistic Quality of Production, but there was some controversy. The Central Board of Judges initially decided to award the Artistic Quality of Production award to King Vidor's The Crowd, but Louis B. Mayer, who was there despite not officially being a judge, persuaded them to give the award to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. One of his arguments was that if they gave the award to a Fox production, it would prove there was no collusion between Mayer, The Academy, and MGM. After arguing until 5:00 am, the Central Board relented.

February 18, 1929 - The winners are announced in the Academy Bulletin.

May 16, 1929 - The banquet is held and the statuettes are handed out. Douglas Fairbanks presented all the awards, and they were all distributed in less than 5 minutes.

This would be the only time that there would be two best picture categories. I think it's interesting to consider what might have happened if they continued to award art movies in a separate category from big productions. It seems inappropriate to compare Good Will Hunting with Titanic, or Lord or the Rings: The Return of the King with Lost in Translation. But I supppose that's what The Independent Spirit Awards are for.

Inexplicably, Wings and The Jazz Singer are not available on DVD (at least not on GreenCine or NetFlix), so I've not been able to see either of them. I did find these clips of Wings on YouTube:

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Jeanne Ney is the daughter of a diplomat in the Crimea, the last stronghold of the White Army in the Russian Civil War. The Love of Jeanne Ney is Andreas, a soldier, and, secretly, a Bolshevik. When the Red Army takes over, and Jeanne's father is shot, Jeanne returns to her family in Paris. Andreas also goes to Paris on a mission to organize a communist revolt.

Once in Paris, Jeanne gets a job working for her uncle's detective agency. A missing diamond and the appearance of Khalibiev, an unscrupulous scam artist who also escaped the Crimea, sets in motion a series of twists and schemes that leaves Andreas wrongfully accused of murder, and Jeanne looking for Khalibiev to clear his name.


Director G.W. Pabst's politics lean decidedly left. This is evidenced by his sympathetic portrayal of the Bolsheviks in the film. This is not surprising considering that he was a founding member of the Dacho, a German film workers organization. What is remarkable is that the production company, UFA, allowed it. In March 1927, the UFA was taken over by Nazi sympathizer Alfred Hugenberg.

Curiously, Pabst would return to Nazi occupied Austria and remain there during the war making three propaganda films for the Nazis. He would later claim that he was pressed into this service. A claim supported by his subsequent anti-Nazi postwar movies.


From a technical standpoint, Pabst was ahead of his time. Most films of the silent era are static medium shots, like a filmed play. Pabst's camera work is very dynamic (panning, dollying, and zooming) with lots of close-ups. I was also impressed by the depth of his shots; action or composition in the foreground, middle ground, and background, and frequent use of mirrors and other reflecting surfaces. This style would become the signature of Orson Welles decades later.

Friday, February 23, 2007

1927 Blog-A-Thon

This is almost perfect for my blog. Apparently there's a blog-a-thon for the films of 1927. I found this on goatdogblog, and it will be March 23-25 when I will be blogging about the movies of 1937. Since I'm blogging about the films of 1927 throughout the month of February, I suppose I could blog about them for one additional weekend in March, too. It's only fair; February is too short a month for such an important year in film history.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


In The Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker plays Papitou, a childlike and impulsive Caribbean native. The first half of the film is set in the Antilles where Papitou becomes devoted to Andre, a French engineer. The second half is set in Paris where Papitou sets out to find Andre, and during the course of her adventures, she becomes a celebrated dancer.

The plot is a melodrama of little interest - the movie is a vehicle for Josephine Baker. With the exception of a couple of regrettably overacted dramatic scenes and an ill-fitting comic bit in the middle, Baker shows off her considerable natural appeal in her film debut. She somehow manages to be naive and sophisticated, primitive and modern, playful and sensual all at the same time.


Josephine Baker was a performer at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-20s. She was an innovative dancer that helped popularize Jazz Dance, particularly the Charleston, the dance most associated with the era. Although black culture and art was flourishing in Harlem, racism was peaking in other parts of the nation. The popularity of the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak in 1927; Alabama had elected a Governor and a Senator who were Klan members.

By this time, Baker had relocated to France where she was a sensation as an erotic dancer.


A black woman dancing half-naked in a banana skirt today would not be considered progressive, but Baker's reputation is untarnished; her brash sexuality comes across as more liberating than degrading. Her involvement with the French Underground resisting Nazi occupation during WWII and her involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement assure that history will always see her as an inspirational figure.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The most remarkable thing about Jean Epstein's The Three-Sided Mirror is it's non-linear structure. The narrative involves a man's relationship with three different women. Each woman is given a confessional segment where she describes their relationship in flashback effectively creating six distinct storylines which are tied by an arc in which the man dumps each one in sequence and drives off. Instead of being confusing, this outline actually tells a complex story quite succinctly.


Besides his films, Jean Epstein's most enduring legacy is his mentorship of surrealist film maker Luis Bunuel. The two would collaborate on Epstein's most well-known work, the outstanding Fall of the House Usher in 1928.


Although the non-linear timeline was innovative for the time, they are not unusual now; Memento, The Singing Detective, and Pulp Fiction are three examples that come immediately to mind.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Chang is an anthropological documentary with a staged narrative in the style of Nanook of the North. Adventurers Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, last seen documenting the remarkable migration of the Baktyari tribe of Iran herding their goats over mountain passes in Grass, bring their cameras to a remote Lao tribe in the untamed jungles of Siam. Marty Mapes at Movie Habit has this excellent review of both films.


It's not entirely clear to me just how much of this was staged; the cameras always seem to be in the right place to catch some remarkable footage, suspiciously, from a variety of angles. This isn't detrimental. In fact, it's quite impressive - just how would somebody, logistically, stage a herd of wild elephants trampling a village?

The actual killing of exotic animals in this movie gets a bit hard to stomach after awhile, but I don't doubt that hunting for food and protection was a certain necessity for these people.


Merian Cooper considered remaking this movie a few decades later, but civilization had already crept in and permanently altered this culture preventing that possibility and making this film an indispensable record of a now non-existent culture.

Although I'm sure there were plenty of people in 1927 that were offended by the animal cruelty, I think it's fair to say that it is less tolerated today than then. A large part of this is no doubt due to the efforts of the American Humane society that has been monitoring the treatment of animals in movies for over 65 years.

Monday, February 19, 2007


This epic adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin takes many liberties with Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential abolitionist novel.

Relatively kind slaveowner, Arthur Shelby, has financial difficulties, so he decides to sell two of his slaves: The child Harry, and old loyal Tom. Eliza, Harry's mother, takes her son and tries to escape north to Ohio. Tom, separated from his family is sold down the river where he is bought by a benevolent master in New Orleans before being auctioned off to the violent Simon Legree.


The novel was a cultural phenomenon. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and proved to be a flashpoint of the social divisiveness between the American North and South in the lead up to The Civil War. It spawned spoofs, pro-slavery versions, and "Tom Shows" (various staged versions of the novel). Since there was no official stage version, Tom Shows varied greatly from the novel; some even being pro-slavery. The black characters were usually played broadly, and always by white actors in blackface.

Given that this movie was made 75 years after the book, the fact that they cast an actual black actor as Uncle Tom hardly seems progressive considering they used white actors for many of the other black roles. This was often confusing (the mulatto characters were played by white actors without makeup so it was hard to tell who was "supposed" to be black) and sometimes offensive (a blackfaced Mona Ray's over-the-top buffoonery as Topsy was particularly degrading).

For contrast, see Scar of Shame, a 1927 movie made by a black director with a black cast for a black audience.


As influential as the novel may have been in changing America's attitudes toward slavery, it was a book by a white person for white people. As such, the portrayal of black culture, however well-intentioned, was not well-informed. Some of these characterizations have endured through popular media. The "pickaninny" stereotype of black children and the "mammy" character may not be as common today, but the term "Uncle Tom" to negatively characterize a black person who is eager to please white people is still commonly used.

By The Way: D.W. Griffith was originally announced as the director on this film. What were the producers thinking? The guy adapted The Clansman - he must be good at adaptations!

Sunday, February 18, 2007


This Laurel and Hardy comedy short has two distinct and loosely related halves. In the first half, Stan is a skinny and inept boxer in a match against a much braunier and skilled boxer. In the second half a baker slips on a banana peel and it starts a series of pies-in-the-face that escalates to include an entire city block. It's not clear which fight is considered The Battle Of The Century.


Jack Dempsey was one of the most popular sports figures of the 20s. In September 1927, he faced Gene Tunney in an attempt to regain the World Heavyweight Championship; Dempsey had lost the title to Tunney a year earlier. The fight had garnered a lot of interest, and there were over 100,000 spectators at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The match would end in controversy and would be known as "The Long Count Fight". Tunney out-boxed Dempsey for 6 rounds, but in the 7th, Dempsey knocked Tunney to the mat. A new rule had been implemented prior to the fight that required a fighter who dropped his opponent to move to a neutral corner before the referee would begin counting. Dempsey was apparently unaware of this rule. It took 3 to 7 seconds for the referee to get Dempsey to a neutral corner before he began his count. Tunney got up on the count of 9. He regained his composure and won the remaining rounds and the match.

Laurel and Hardy not only took advantage of boxing's popularity, but specifically spoofed The Long Count incident.


Seriously - Slipping on a banana peel? A pie in the face? This movie must have seemed stale even then (Charlie Chaplin resorted to a pie fight in Behind The Screen 10 years earlier). Today, this 80 year old movie is as fresh as a 90 year old movie.