Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Movie Highlights of 1919

Best Movie:


Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition to the South Pole is a remarkable story that's been recently recounted in a feature length documentary, presented as an IMAX feature, and re-enacted for a television mini-series. But photographer Frank Hurley was on board, and his amazing first hand footage has the immediacy not found in the recollections of the crew's grandchildren 80 years later; his stark images capture the sense of desperate isolation better than those projected on a five story screen; and his authentic depiction of the challenges faced by these men provides more drama than even Kenneth Branagh. No human lives were lost during the ordeal on the Endurance, but little else survived. Incredibly, this film did.

Most Pleasant Surprise:

The Doll

The gimmick is established in the opening scene: we see a miniature set with a dollhouse on a grassy hill with a painted walk to the front door. We see full-sized arms dressing the set with miniature cardboard cutout trees and two dressed-up dolls. The arms place the dolls in the dollhouse, and then we cut to the identical full-sized set and two actors walk out of the house dressed in the exact same costumes as the original dolls.

The audience has been told what to expect; we are watching puppet theater. Characters are excused from behaving believably, and there's a different set of physics controlling this world. The fun set design carries the film a long way on it's own, but director Ernst Lubitsch injects some satire into the fairy tale.

Most Underrated:


Axel Heyst lives alone on an island, but he breaks his solitude when, out of pity, he agrees to harbor a young woman from her abusive domestic situation. She's frustrated by his lack of passion. "I have never loved a woman or killed a man" he tells her, and adds "I hope I never shall". But naturally, circumstances conspire to make sure he does both by the end of the movie.

"To Love, to slay - the greatest enterprises in life" says a title card early in this film. And the film delivers on the sex and violence it promised; the sex scenes are surprisingly frank, and the fight scenes are shockingly brutal. The film is the first adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel (the only one Conrad himself would ever see), and it shows the same dark estimation of human nature that he would explore further in Heart of Darkness.

Most Overrated:

Broken Blossoms

The only film from 1919 deemed significant enough to be inducted into the National Film Registry is this melodrama from D.W. Griffith. It's a typical Griffith downer: the helpless heroine is pitiful and downtrodden; the villain is an irredeemable brute; the hero is stoic and principled; and there's a good chance that most or all will meet a tragic end.

Most Disappointing:

Different From the Others

I was excited to see what was probably the first movie to feature a gay lead character. Naturally, cultural attitudes towards gays have evolved a lot in the last 90 years, so I didn't expect to relate much to even a sympathetic portrayal. That wasn't the problem, the film was unexpectedly progressive, but the film only survives in fragments, and the version that's available has been patched together with stills and long expository title cards to fill in the gaps.


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