Archive for March, 2009

Q&A: How did it all begin?

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , , , on March 29, 2009 by leclisse

From Movie Viewing Girl:

Who was the actor/actress that you were first interested in?
Claudette Colbert.  I remember seeing So Proudly We Hail and It Happened One Night while on vacation at my grandparents’ house.  My grandma always took my brother and me to the library to check out movies for the week, and for some reason these caught my interest.  I was so captivated by Colbert that I had to see every one of her films that I could get my ten-year-old hands on.

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Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , on March 28, 2009 by leclisse

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)I always make the mistake of comparing Diary of a Lost Girl with the preceeding Brooks/Pabtst collaboration, Pandora’s Box (also 1929).  Because of this, I have always preferred ‘Pandora’ because there was something, quite indefineable, that made me uncomfortable while watching ‘Diary.’  I gave the film another viewing this afternoon and I think my reservations became a little clearer, or at least a little more articulate.

The contrast between Thymian, as portrayed by Louise Brooks, and the slithering cast of characters that surround her is made as clear as what one feels while in the midst of a nightmare.  Initially, Thymian is oblivious to the fact that her father is a sexual predator.  She cannot comprehend the fact that he has dispensed a beloved housekeeper who is pregnant with his child, and trustingly turns to his pharmacy assistant, Meinert (played to the hilt by Fritz Rasp, a favorite Murnau villain) to explain “what happened to Elisabeth.”  Brooks moves through the trauma of this scene as if through a dream.  She loses consciousness once Meinert takes her in his arms, and steals her away to the secrecy of the back room in order to reenact for the unconscious Thymian the downfall of Elisabeth.

Louise Brooks as ThymianThe exaggerated performances of Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert as the director and his wife, respectively, take the film’s ethereal atmosphere to a higher level.  Thymian is thrown from the cliff of hypocrisy when she is sent to a reform school for girls, headed by Engelmann and Gert, whose characters at times border on caricature.  They are the figures of nightmares, exacting unrealistic standards of obedience from the cowering, terrified pupils.  Gert, especially, derives an orgiastic pleasure from the rigors of descipline inflicted. 

Thymian escapes this harrowing world with the aid of an old family friend, Count Nicolas Osdorff and her fellow prisoner, Ericka, who brings her to a brothel, the next stage of her journey.  The girlish and unassuming Thymian is immediately taken in and made the belle of the establishment.  Once again, she is collapses in unconsciousness as she is taken to a private room by her first john.

It is this feeling of being in a nightmare that sets ‘Diary’ so much apart from ‘Pandora.’  Brooks channels that inimitable feeling of helplessness that is all at once terrifying and numbing.  ‘Diary’ unleashes horrific destruction on the life of Thymian, which hinges the sexual domination of women and the conventional Western double-standard that does nothing about this domination. 

Louise Brooks as Thymian (candid)I have read that Director G.W. Pabst planned a very different ending for this film, which would have included Thymian becoming the madame of her own brothel.  While this conclusion would have exacted some sort of justice for the trauma that Thymian has suffered, I do not believe that it would have been appropriately within keeping of her character.  After all, Thymian turns to prostitution because she only has the clothes on her back.  Her family doesn’t want her, her illegitimate child is dead, and she has no practical vocational skills.  It is difficult to say how Pabst would have handled this ending, however, so perhaps judgment is best left to oneself.

What is indisputable, however, is the is the gravity of Brooks’ performance.  She is delicate, subtle, vulnerable, intuitive, and a host of other immortal adjectives.  The Kino version of ‘Diary’ includes the rare short ‘Windy Riley Goes to Hollywood,’ which was directed by the disgraced Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle some years after the Virginia Rappe scandal.  Watching this crude film drives home the injustice of Brooks’ brief career, especially when watching this following ‘Diary’ or ‘Pandora,’ both of which I consider to be some of the finest offerings from the age of silent cinema.

It (1927)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags , on March 20, 2009 by leclisse

Glass Slide from "IT"What is “IT”?  According to author Elinor Glyn, “It” is a “self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.”  The fabulous embodiment of it is the vivacious Clara Bow, star of that aptly titled 1927 hit film.

It was the first Clara Bow film I had ever seen, and several years later, I am still spellbound by her vivacity and irresistable charm.  Clara shines as the shopgirl Betty Lou, who is enraptured with her handsome young department store employer.  Betty Lou has plenty of It, and plenty in reserve, too.  She thinks nothing of claiming her friend’s child as her own in order to ward off snooping welfare workers, nor does she let rumor and innuendo stop her from pursuing the man of her dreams.

On its own, It is a delightful tale of a tenacious shopgirl who sets her sight on the handsome and aloof young son of her department store employer, played by Antonio Moreno. 

Clara’s performance is what sets this film apart from being merely a pleasant diversion from the vaults of silent cinema.  Her vivacity and spunk resonate with modern audiences in a way that transcends the typically affected mannerisms of many of her contemporaries. 

Clara captivates her audience with a genuine poignancy, evident not only in her remarkable range of facial emotions, but also in the way she handles the demands of each scene.  She rises above adversity in such a way that garners something more than sympathy or admiration.

“She danced even when her feet were not moving. Some part of her was always in motion, if only her great rolling eyes. It was an elemental magnetism, an animal vitality, that made her the center of attraction in any company.” – Adolph Zukor

Chinatown (1974)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on March 19, 2009 by leclisse

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray

I don’t get tough with anyone, Mr. Gittes.  My lawyer does.

This was my second attempt to watch Roman Polanski’s neo-noir classic, Chinatown.  The first time was several months ago, late at night, so I was fighting to keep awake.  I’m just not much of a nighttime person.  This second viewing was far more successful, needless to say.

I liked this movie, but there was something that bothered me about it.  I still can’t quite put my finger on it.  The closest I can come to it is Polanski’s direction.  I’ve always heard of this film being touted as his homage to the great noir films of the 1940’s and 50’s, but it lacked several elements of those films.  The fact that it was filmed in Technicolor does not detract from its bid for “crime drama” status.  If anything, it separates it from a mere rehash of the decades-old crime formula.  It just seemed like the film lacked a certain heaviness that is so essential to noir.  The camera angles were too jerky in some places, as well, which disrupted (to some extent) the intensity of the story.

Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson were, as always, in top form.  As Jake Gittes, Nicholson was a perfect blend of cynicism and a slightly vulgar humor to prevent him from internalizing the terrible nature of his work.  I have an unabashed love for Faye Dunaway simply because she is an unapologetic badass.  She is never afraid to imbue her characters with a certain vulnerability, but is always careful to keep this side concealed or in check.

Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.

And why is “Man with Knife” listed so prominently in the ending credits?  It was a two-minute scene.  Get over yourself, Polanski.

The Return of Bonnie and Clyde

Posted in Dailies with tags on March 12, 2009 by leclisse

I recently read an article in USA Today about  the forthcoming film about the iconic Depression-era bandits, Bonnie and Clyde.  Apparently this was actually old news, but I’ve never been known to be the first one to hear much of anything.

Hillary Duff has been cast as Bonnie Parker, a role immortalized by Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  This casting choice has led to some verbal sniping from these two ladies, with Dunaway asking, “Couldn’t they have at least cast a real actress?”  Duff shot back against the remark as “a little unnecessary, but I might be mad if I looked like that now.”  Zing.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

To be fair, Warren Beatty and the filmmakers say they took a chance on casting Dunaway as Bonnie.  By 1967, her list of credits was not exactly intimidating, but she more than proved her worth as an actress.  She had a pivotal role in making Hollywood history as the film industry changed hands (seemingly) overnight during that tumultuous year.  

Hillary Duff’s credentials as a teen actress are not very reassuring, but actresses have turned out remarkable performaces with much bleaker resumes than hers.  Tonya Holly, director of the forthcoming The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, insists that the film will not be a remake of the 1967 classic.  Comparisons will undoubtably abound, but I am curious to see how they handle the material.  Perhaps there will be an effort to be more historically accurate, which alone would set this film apart from the Penn version.

2009 Topps Heritage Clara Bow

Posted in eBay, Guest Blogger with tags , , on March 5, 2009 by mjprigge

CROSSOVER ALERT! L’eclisse has been kind enough to invite me to blog about a topic near and dear to me… Trading cards! Particularly this dandy card of the It Girl, Clara Bow.

Clara Bow Topps Heritage Card

Anyway, this is part of the 2009 Topps American Heritage series. Topps has used some of their classic baseball card designs to present a variety of American icons, including Civil Rights leaders, Inventors, Statesmen, Entertainers, etc. Miss Bow is one of the Entertainers in the series, along side Buster Keaton, Joe Namath, Will Rogers, and others. Topps issued a similar sets in 2001 and 2002, called “American Pie” (sorry, no Stifler), although both sets featured baseball-heavy checklists, with a few baby boomer heroes (JFK, Marilyn Monroe) thrown at the end. The American Heritage set, however, is one of the first major sets to feature only historical figures.

This can not properly be considered Clara’s rookie card. Cigarette companies had been offering baseball cards as premiums as early as the 1880s (there were also used to prevent the filter-free smoke from being damaged), and would soon begin to issue cards featuring a wide range of images, from world flags to animals. The first movie-related cards showed up by 1910 and in 1913, the first card series featuring Movie Stars was issued by Major Drapkin Tobacco. By this time American companies had largely stopped issuing trading cards, leaving the vast majority of movie star cards to be issued in Europe. By the mid-twenties, there were over a dozen cigarette makers offering sets of Movie Star cards. The earliest Clara Bow card I was able to find was a 1928 issue, released in England. Bow had several other cards issued throughout the 20’s and 30’s, the majority of which actually were released after the collapse of her career and her 1931 mental break-down that resulted in her being briefly institutionalized.

The great thing about the movie star tobacco cards is their affordability. You can easily find one for less than $10 on eBay, while baseball cards from the same period run about five times higher, even for minor stars. The American Heritage Bow will run you about 50 cents, with the rarer chrome foil version (individually numbered to 1776) for about two bucks.

The Beatnik on Film

Posted in Dailies on March 4, 2009 by leclisse

My uncle sent me this Beatnik birthday card, and it reminded me of the rather hilarious portrayals of Beatniks I have seen in films over the years:

birthdaybeat

Take, for example, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964).  At the time of its release, it had the longest title of any film ever made.  Director Ray Dennis Steckler plays Jerry (“Flagg”), a Beat with finely tuned anti-authority tendencies, who succumbs to the hypnotizing power of a carnival stripper (Carmelita) and is compelled to join the zombie forces of the evil fortune-teller Estrella.

Director Ray Dennis Steckler as "Jerry"

And who can forget the ridiculous Parisian Beat scene in Funny Face (1957)?  Audrey Hepburn will always be dear to me, largely due to my love for Roman Holiday (1953) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but her Jazz dance and an over-the-top Professor Flostre are just a bit too much.

Black turtleneck?  Check. Bongo drums? Check.

Granted, most films produced at this time that dealt with Beat culture derived their material by and large from secondhand stereotypes.  The Beatniks (1960), anyone?  Or The Beat Generation (1959)?  As Joyce Johnson describes in her memoir, Minor Characters, the ” ‘Beat Generation’ sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each other’s wives.”  As mainstream and coopted as it may have become, it’s still good for a laugh to see how film deals with fringe groups.  This would only be repeated later in the decade as hippies gained more popular exposure.