Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on May 23, 2010 by leclisse

I rarely make it to the theaters for first-run movies.  This is usually due in large part to the fact that I need to be convinced to spend almost $10 to see a film that I know I can probably get much cheaper on DVD through Netflix or my local library.  I don’t usually regret this decision, but that may be the case after settling down to watch Crazy Heart last night.

The first chords of world-weary Bad Blake’s (Jeff Bridges) whiskey-inspired songbook provide the soundtrack to the striking New Mexico landscape.  The expansive sky reveals an incomparably rich blue, studded with the whispy illusions of clouds.  The endless roads wind their way through this rocky country, leading Bad toward his next gig, hundreds of miles away from his last.  Bridges’ portrayal of Blake reveals an unapologetic drunk who still manages to make an appearance at his concerts, even if he has to run out midway to vomit the toxins that have been coursing through his bloodstream day after day.  He has obviously seen better days but somehow manages to not convey the bitterness that so often befalls entertainers in the last throes of their careers.  As long as Blake can get drunk and laid once in awhile, he seems content to let life continue as it has been for these last few years.

Not too long after this introduction, Blake meets an accompanying piano player in Santa Fe and agrees to an interview with the man’s niece (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a local newspaper.  Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), recently divorced with a young son, presents herself as someone who knows a bit of Blake’s world-weariness.  Her bad luck with men has not hardened her attitude toward them, but rather seems to have made her all the more vulnerable.  She and Blake obviously like each other, although Blake’s initial flirtation appears to be born more out of animal instinct than any developing emotional entanglement.  They both seem to recognize the emptiness in each other’s lives and are drawn to that — if not to fill it, then at least to ease some of that loneliness for a little while.  The performances of Bridges and Gyllenhaal succeed in making this love story so much more tangible than a mere plotline.  It is obvious that both characters approach the situation tentatively, first as almost something of a one-night stand, and gradually building into a friendship more than anything else.  Sex is not some perfunctory benefit of their time together, but rather an outlet for both of them to find some kind of comfort without the judgments of family.  While their sexual relationship is obviously not going to last the length of the film, it is clear that they do love one another and probably will always have that lifelong regard.

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack to this film is truly phenomenal.  Jeff Bridges has done some previous musical work and  provides his own vocals.  His voice perfectly marries the raw talent of early country music with the indescribable beauty of the film’s locations in the Southwest.  His music carries the purity and genuine simplicity that is mirrored by and also contrasted with Blake’s approach to life.  He is a broken-down drunk, yes, but he never denies this fact.  And with this same honesty and conviction, he turns his life around by getting sober and penning the film’s title song for Jane.  Colin Farrell plays a supporting role as Tommy Sweet, who represents young country music and has eclipsed Blake’s celebrity, even though he readily admits his debt to Blake’s musical teaching and guidance.  Sweet’s character is without a doubt something of an essential addition to the plot of this film, if only to show how far Blake’s star has fallen and the very real trends in country music today.  Honestly, Sweet could have been played by almost any other actor and have been as effective as Farrell’s portrayal.  I guess I haven’t seen Farrell in very much so I am unable to compare his performance here with an array of other films, but I suspect that my conclusions would doubtlessly be the same.  He does provide his own vocals for the film, just as Bridges does, but they are at best average.  Mediocre is probably a better assessment.

It’s refreshing to witness a doomed love story that doesn’t fall into the trite traps of tragedy and self-consumption that make for good box office rather than substantial storyline.  More often than not, chance encounters do not necessarily work out for the long run, but almost always have the potential to provide some meaning for those involved beyond the physical relationship itself.  In the case of Crazy Heart, they can be a literally sobering experience and a foundation from which to reach for better things.


La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Posted in Dailies, Silent Film with tags on February 5, 2010 by leclisse

During the course of a film class I had several years ago, we watched a 15-minute clip of Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).  It was the first time I had ever seen a silent film (or part of one) without some sort of musical accompaniment, but I suspect that it would have only proved to be an intrusion on the unearthly spell of this particular film.  Watching it again, this time the whole way through, I can remember precisely the awe that I felt those years ago.  La passion is perhaps the purest example of the height of silent film as an art form, for it is first and foremost a stunningly visual piece.

Maria Falconetti stars in only her third film (her first two were made eleven years earlier), but the power of her performance is far superior to most actors who spend their entire lives dedicated to the art form.  Falconetti’s Jeanne is a saintly combination of youth, naivity, and complete consumption.  She is eclipsed as being merely an actor in her performance by the tangible fire that burns within her for France and God.  The apparent simplicity with which she assumes the role of Jeanne only serves to underscore the total purity of this production.  At one point, in the midst of her ongoing abuse at the hands of the clergy, a fly happens to land on her eyelid.  She does not even flinch, so consumed is she by her agitation, and she absentmindedly brushes the insect away with the slightest touch of her shaking hand.

Falconetti’s performance here is equal only to the direction of Carl Dreyer.  It would be difficult to think of a title that so perfectly marries the unearthly talents of two artists such as we see here in La passion.  Dreyer makes frequent use of extreme closeups and uncentered shots to give the audience the feeling that they are there with Jeanne, taking every abuse and humiliation that she suffers.  The sets are as simple as they can possibly be, making minimal use of props or anything else that would detract from the sharpness of true black and white.  Dreyer’s decision to refrain from the sort of extraneous clutter that could have marred (or even ruined) such a masterpiece is a stroke of genius, as this emptiness underscores better than anything else the overflow of Jeanne’s sufferings and anguish.  Shots ebb and flow in rapid succession in order to cultivate the desperation of Jeanne’s situation and, like the use of extreme closeups, sweep the audience behind Jeanne’s eyes as she is almost broken between the Church’s threats of excommunication and death and her conviction in the certainty of her mission from God and the survival of France.

Classic Comfort Movies

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2009 by leclisse

There are a handful of films that I return to over and over again, particularly when I am in a rather gray mood, or just in need of some hand holding.  As I’ve thought about these movies lately, I’ve realized that they are all ones that I’ve loved as a kid, and still enjoy just as much now.  I am fairly uncritical of their merits as films, but rather find myself drawn in by some intangible magic (which is probably just to say that my sense of nostalgia gets the better of me sometimes).  Here are just a few of them:

Jeanne Crain as Margie Frake

State Fair (1945)

For the young in heart! And romantic oldsters, too!

I was quite the connoisseur of musicals growing up, but I always maintained one rule that I believed separated the good ones from the mediocre.  The number of songs couldn’t exceed five or six, because to do this immediately caused me to suspect that they served only to cover a weak plot.  I still believe that I was right about that (in most cases, anyway), because my favorite musicals consistently limit their musical numbers in favor of solid plot development.

State Fair is my favorite Rogers and Hammertsein collaboration because it does not fall into the trap of the grandiose, self-important musical that I tend to detest.  Margy (Jeanne Crain) and Wayne Frake (Dick Haymes) are small-town Iowans, as wholesome as apple pie and as genuine as your favorite grandmother.  They come to the Iowa state fair with their parents, yearning for something new and exciting in their lives.  They find love with some city folks (Dana Andrews and Vivian Blaine), and all four find time to croon their way through food, amusement rides, glittering entertainment, and the senior boar championship.  State Fair is a simple story, but one that refrains from piling on the sugar in favor of something more savory and substantial.  The ending may be predictable, but at least is comes across as honest rather than hackneyed or trite.  And really, who can resist the infectous rhythms of “All I Owe Ioway” or “It’s a Grand Night For Singing”?  You’ll be singing long after the credits roll before you even realize that real-life folks don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Two Weeks With Love (1950)Lobby card for Two Weeks With Love


My fondness for Two Weeks With Love is grounded in many of the same reasons I mentioned above for State Fair.  The plot is fairly unassuming, but its Technicolor cheer blooms when the characters take to song and dance.  Turn-of-the-century Patti Robinson (Jane Powell) has just turned 17, but can’t stand to wait another eleven months before she reaches the milestone of 18.  Her mother (Ann Harding) treats her “like a child,” but “inside [she’s] a woman.”  What girl can’t relate to that?  Even though she sits up half the night lengthening her dresses, she’s still little Patti, a girl to be protected from “rounders” and “figure pinchers.”  Sulking and mooning her way on the family’s annual two-week vacation at Kissimmee in the Catskills, she is startled and electrified when she catches sight of the dashing Demi Armendez (Ricardo Montalban).  This immediately throws her into competition with the vain and preening Valerie (Phyllis Kirk), who is 18 and therefore among the “older set.”  Although Valerie feigns friendship with Patti, she does everything she can to manipulate and maneuver Pattie toward humiliation so she can have Demi all to herself.

Watching the film now, I am amused at the fact that I never saw anything remotely unsettling in the fact that Patti, at 17, is smitten with a man who is at least in his mid- to late-twenties, and even goes so far as to requite her affection.  In fact, I think I identified all too well with Patti.  I was one of those girls who always had a crush on some teacher (usually History or English), and could not abide boys my own age.  Patti’s 12-year-old sister Melba (Debbie Reynolds) echoes this age gap in her puppy love for 16-year-old Billy Finley (Carleton Carpenter), so perhaps it runs in the family.  Or it could just be a girl thing.  The ending, of course, is as happy as any MGM musical, and affirmed all my girlish dreams of snagging some sophisticated and worldly charmer.  Patti can keep the corset, though.

Rex Harrison and Gene TierneyThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Is Lucy Muir’s love really a ghost, or is it a man of flesh and blood she yearns for?

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is among my revered trinity of Gene Tierney movies (the others being Laura and Leave Her to Heaven), but unlike the other two, she does not play an alluring femme in this film.  She is a widow, in fact, and leaves London with her daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper, Martha (Edna Best), in order to get away from her obnoxious and self-righteous in-laws.  She moves into Gull Cottage by the sea, a house that is haunted by the crotchety old Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) who lived and died there.  When ghost Daniel realizes he can’t scare away the feisty Lucy, he kindles a begrudging friendship with her that inevitably develops into love.

Bernard Herrmann’s sweeping score lends the film a breathtaking beauty, and shrouds the improbable story with something like fairy dust.  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not a movie that makes me feel as if I need to explain my slavish devotion, because there is nothing remotely ridiculous about it.  Watching this movie always gives me the feeling of warm blankets on a winter’s night, something soothing and altogether pacifying.  This is not to say that the movie is one giant pacifier — George Sanders is delightful as the slippery two-timer Miles Fairley (“Uncle Neddy”), who happens to be a children’s author.  He meets Lucy at a publishing house, where she has gone to get Captain Gregg’s memoir of colorful sea life, Blood and Swash, published in order to pay off some debts.  His silver tongue ensnares the naive Lucy into believing that he wants to marry her, but her illusions come crashing down when she finds out he is already married and with several children to boot.  I guess they can’t all up to the measure of Blood and Swash, but at least everyone gets his or her due.

The Ten Commandments (1956)Anne Baxter and Charlton Heston

It would take more than a man to lead the slaves from bondage. It would take a God.

Big, beautiful epics are a particular weakness of mine.  Throw Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner in there, and you’ve got a surefire way to hook me.  I remember once when I was ten or eleven I had a bad bout of the flu.  I must have watched The Ten Commandments repeatedy for several days (for some reason I keep thinking it was ten times, but that is unlikely) while laid up on the couch.  And each time that thunderous orchestral score rumbled on the screen, it was like I had never seen the movie before.  My eyes devoured the sumptous technicolor production, and in particular all those gauzy, flowing gowns worn by Nefretiri (Anne Baxter).  I always rooted for Ramses (Brynner) in his competition with Moses (Heston) over Nefretiri, just because it made me feel almost guilty, like I was eating too much ice cream or something.

Heston’s hammy acting has been the target of some deserved criticism, but I really don’t mind it so much.  The guy is playing Moses for goodness’ sake, so I think a little bit of over-the-top delivery is justified.  Charlton Heston was born to play epic men, and anyone who watches The Ten Commandments can not only see it, but feel it as well.  He has a remarkably commanding screen presence, and it’s not hard to believe that he is, in fact, parting the Red Sea before your very eyes.  Cecil B. DeMille certainly takes his share of liberties with the biblical story of Moses, but even the most religious come away from the film wishing that it really happened that way.  It’s just so much more… pretty.  Pretty awesome, that is.


Posted in eBay with tags , , on July 31, 2009 by leclisse

Things have been slowing down here at l’eclisse, mainly due to some disruptions in my personal life. I just moved this past Monday, so between unpacking, rearranging, cleaning, and working full time I have not been able to enjoy much time to watch movies. Alas.

So that is how things stand as of right now. This weekend looks to be rather full as well, but hopefully I’ll be able to devote some quality time to my DVD collection. I found a seller on eBay who specializes in rare and out-of-print titles from such silent favorites as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, as well as some schlock offerings from Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, Christine Jorgensen, and many others.  I bought the Gish and Pickford sets, so I’ll have enough in my silent film library to keep me busy for quite some time.

Hollywood Outlaws: A second look at Public Enemies (2009)

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


Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, viewing himself in a "Most Wanted" newsreel

Stranger stop and wish me well,
Just say a prayer for my soul in hell.
I was a good fellow, most people said,
Betrayed by a woman dressed all in red.

It’s taken me some time to gather my thoughts on Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009).  I actually went to see the film twice — the first time being two weeks ago at Milwaukee’s Landmark treasure, the Oriental Theater, and the second time at an IPic theater at Bayshore Mall.

Initially, I was incredbly disappointed in this production.  I made my way to the Oriental with high hopes, eagerly anticipating what I thought would be a stellar production filmed, literally, in my backyard.  I was in Columbus, WI in early 2008 when they were filming the getaway after John Dillinger’s second prison break.  You can see the downtown area retrofitted to 1934 as Johnny et al. cruise out of town in a stolen Ford coupe.  That being said, I still don’t think I had wildly unrealistic expectations about this film.  What I saw, however, was a visual mess.  The lighting in almost every scene was dingy, the camera movements jarring and unnerving, and the sound jagged and piercing.  All the actors appeared haggard, above and beyond the grit that is called for in any gangster picture.  At least twice, the digital picture pixelated.  I felt as though this was quite possibly one of the ugliest films I had ever seen.

Coming in to work the following Monday, I discussed the film with a friend of mine who had also seen it that weekend, but at a different theater.  She was incredulous when I told her my disgust with the production, which rather surprised me because I know there is no way she could have loved the same film that I saw.  After doing some internet digging, I came across an article describing how some theaters are not equipped to properly show digital films.  This immeditely caught my attention, and I decided that I would give Public Enemies another shot, but this time at a theater that I knew could handle digital.  And boy, am I glad that I did.

Christian Bale (center) as G-man Melvin PurvisMichael Mann’s 142-minute adaptation of John Dillinger’s two-year crime spree across the Midwest must have been a daunting prospect to tackle.  Over five hundred pages of history had to be condensed into a two-hour feature film, a task that required some blurring of fact and forsaking of significant character development.  Johnny Depp really shines as the swaggering, self-assured Dillinger, expertly capturing the charisma that held the public’s attention and adultation, despite the fact that it belonged to a criminal.  This charisma remains largely on the surface, however, because the scripted events of Dillinger’s life do little to reveal much motivation beyond infatuation (his love for Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette) and perfunctory loyalty to his criminal comrades.  Christian Bale is G-man Melvin Purvis, driven to prove the FBI’s worth as first-rate crime fighters on the strength of utilizing “scientific techniques.”  Bale’s Purvis is really not given much to do, other than appear concerned when his officers are gunned down by Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson or artificially confident in the face of the Bureau’s glaring lack of field experience.  This isn’t Bale’s fault — his Bruce Wayne/Batman is an excellent update of the legendary comic book hero, example enough of his skills as an actor.  I think the fault lies largely with the screenwriters, who seem rather hesitant to provide this film with a real focus and instead resort to the thrills of firefights and chase scenes.  Cotillard speaks with only traces of a French accent, which is a rather nice touch for her turn as Billie, who is half French-Canadian.  The rather sorry upbringing that the real Billie Frechette had is only glanced at during the film, explained in the minutes following her and Dillinger’s first night together.  Frechette and Dillinger were drawn to each other in part because of this shared desire to escape from their personal histories, but this motivation is lost during the film.  Their relationship is consequently reduced to a whirlwind romance, cemented with the motions of love rather than the emotion itself.  Dillinger’s farewell to Billie is poignantly played, however, as Cotillard softly weeps at his final words: Bye bye, blackbird.

Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette at Arizona's Hotel CongressThis second time around, I saw incredibly pleased to see cinematography that did not assault my eyes.  The scenes of Dillinger and Frechette’s vacation in Arizona is bathed in this wonderful yellow glow, softly saturating the picture with warmth and sunlight.  As long as the camera remained relatively still, the picture revealed a crystal focus.  I could see the pores and textures of skin as well as the minutest details of costume fabrics.  The sound was much smoother as well, with more polished variances but just enough roughness to suggest the grit of a gangster flick.  The explosions of gunfire took on a rawness that lent very well to a realistic feel, not the usual cleanliness of a more stylized picture.  I was still bothered by the hand-held movements of the camera in some scenes, such as the woodland battle at Little Bohemia.  The time spent with this jarring movement was minimal, however, and excusable in the larger scheme of the film’s camerawork.

The bottom line: definitely go see this film if you have not already done so.  However, please make sure your choice of theater is equipped for digital — call ahead if you have to.  You will not be sorry.  Public Enemies is one of the finest offerings of the summer box office.

The Pink Angora Series Presents: The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , , , on July 17, 2009 by mjprigge

Here it is, the first installment of “Pink Angora” here at l’eclisse.  By popular demand, Matt has chosen The Buster Keaton Story (1957) as his topic.  Read on!

They say that Buster Keaton could do more with his eyes between blinkbkss than most Hollywood screenwriters could with pages of dialogue. If Keaton was the master of the subtle glance, his on-screen doppelganger in 1957’s “The Buster Keaton Story” is a cross-eyed spastic. There is nothing about The Buster Keaton Story, clever title aside, that makes it the Buster Keaton story. The film’s gross inaccuracies are infamous; Buster’s three wives are portrayed as one (Ann Blyth), his early films are shown as studio pictures when there were indeed independent productions, even the titles of his films are changed, presenting him in such works as “The Criminal” and “The Gambler.” Of course, artistic liberties must be taken with any historical film, but TBKS approaches Oliver Stone territory in its appraisal of Buster’s life and work. Yes, there was an actor named Buster Keaton, who did in fact wear a flat hat and own a big house, reality pretty much ends there. Oh yeah, and the booze. The real Buster liked booze too.

The movie opens with the Three Keatons on tour. The poster outside a ratty old vaudeville house advertises their “Pantomime” routine, although the only time we see them on stage, Mr. Keaton (Dave Willock) is singing opera. Perhaps they did a kind of dada-esque pantomime in which you could talk. Anyway, some time passes and we see a newspaper headline, “Movies kill Vaudeville.” My theory is that they hired the cartoons to drop an anvil on Vaudeville’s head. Theatre, being the older brother of Vaudeville, would forever hold a grunge over the killing and seek revenge on numerous occasions.

With vaudeville as dead as, well, vaudeville, Buster (Donald O’Connor) is forced into the moving pictures business. The year is 1920 (in reality, Buster had been making short films with Fatty Arbuckle since 1917 and was an established actor), and Buster is turned away at the studio gate. “Famous Studios” reads the sign on the gate, and like foods that use “Delicious” in the brand name, you are forced to take them at their word. Buster ends up sneaking past the guards by balancing a wooden plank on his head and following some workmen into the lot. This is actually surprisingly honest, playing on the little-known fact that security guards are unable to see anyone with a wooden plank balanced on their head (for more on this phenomenon, check out the 1930’s bank robber Billy “Plank Head” White). Once inside, he manages to impress the studio brass with own kind of “Folsom Prison Blues” moment, and is signed to a contract.

After filming his first movie, Buster becomes a man-about-town, dating blonde bombshells and ordering his beers two at a time. In a bit of dialogue that could have come from an upcoming American Pie sequel, the bombshell asks Buster about his desire to direct his own pictures. “Do you like to do EVERYTHING yourself?” Buster: “Well, not everything…” Heh, heh, heh.

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

That is the real Buster Keaton on the LEFT. Just to clear it up...

Like any good (or awful) biopic, TBKS has a musical montage. Newspaper clippings show Buster’s star on the rise, with films both real and imagined. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they used some real titles (The Frozen North, The Ballonatic, The General), and some of the previously mentioned fakes. In any case, the real ones do not occur in their actual order, and the re-created routines often borrow from several sources and add heavy doses of dumpy ad-libbing on the part of O’Connor. In TBKS O’Connor looks more like hippie-kissing, presidential also-ran Dennis Kucinich than the title character. He wears Keaton’s famous outfit (often anachronistically), but brings nothing in the way of the physicality or voice of the man. I can hardly fault O’Connor (a very talented actor in his own right) for not being able to match Keaton in his pratfalls and comic grace. No one can be expected to do that. However, O’Connor lacks the basic fearlessness Keaton took into his work. In Marion Meade’s biography of Keaton, she writes that during rehearsals with Keaton, O’Connor flat-out refused to do many of the stunts the sixty-one year old was showing him. O’Connor called them “scary.”

So after a quick and steady rise, everyone knows what comes next in a biopic… rock bottom! Buster hits his with the help of the bottle, his condition being aggravated by the smashing success of the Jazz Singer. His latest silent is a flop, while the line snakes around the block for the new talkie. Distraught, Keaton meets up with his old pal Don Lockwood, and they get drunk on rye and speed down Alameda Boulevard, smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat (although I might have just dreamed that last part).

On a particularly wicked bender, Keaton marries his old casting director Gloria (Ann Blyth). She marries him to try to clean him up, I guess, but it doesn’t work so well. Buster tries talkies, but that doesn’t work so well, either. He is brow-beaten by director Peter Lorre, who plays a kind of bored, Nazi version of Ed Wood. Unable to nail his lines (not even after take four!!!), Buster kicks over a table, shouting “Rehabilitated! Rehabilitated!” the word he kept tripping over. I am told that in an early version of the “Dog Day Afternoon” script, Al Pacino was to chant “Rehabilitated!” instead of “Attica!”*

Out of chances with the movies and Gloria, she leaves him all alone in his “Italian Villa.” Genuine exterior shots of the famous residence are used in the movie (and were also used in the famous horse head scene in The Godfather). However, indoors, the massive house seems to only have two rooms (a foyer and library). They are the only two rooms in which any of the characters spend any time, and combined with the office of the studio head, about half of the film’s action takes place there. No one in the entire film seems to move very much at all. They are always in the same rooms, always dress the same, no one ever ages or cuts their hair. Time passes only in the newspapers and hammy dialogue. By the end, Buster quits drinking (he pours a brandy which he does not drink to illustrate this point) and goes back into vaudeville, reuniting with his wife and once again wowing audiences. Meanwhile, Don Lockwood isn’t returning his calls.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about The Buster Keaton Story in that, in its time, it was a rather successful film. Audiences enjoyed it and it had a rather long run years later as on television. Keaton himself hated the movie. He was shut out of the production process and claims to have never even read the script. After TBKS’s release, Buster was embarrassed by its portrayal of him as a dopey drunk, especially considering he was simultaneously appearing in TV and print ads for liquor and beer. Keaton’s second wife even went so far as to file suit against the filmmakers, claiming defamation over the wife character. She was forced to drop the suit, probably stemming from the fact the character was so far from the truth, it couldn’t be considered to be representative of any actual person. Buster received $50,000 for the rights to his name for the picture, and used the money to buy the ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley in which he lived out the rest of his days. So some good came from it. And yes, movie fans, this picture was actually not as bad as it could have been… also in consideration for the role of Buster were Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. The horror…

Today, TBKS is a rather obscure film, never released on video or DVD (although bootlegs can be found) and off of TV for many years. The movie is worth seeing once as a curiosity for the true Keaton fan, but once is really enough. A drinking game could be made from the movie if you can get enough Busterheads together to watch it… every time something inaccurate happens in the film, someone shouts it out and everyone else takes a drink. If the inaccuracy is refuted by someone else in the room, the person who made the false claim takes three drinks… and, as always, double for flinching.

*I was not actually told this.

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Sparrows (1926)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by leclisse

Mary Pickford (center) as Molly, with brood in tow Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film.  The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness.  For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom.  There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.”  Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.

Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film.  Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s  Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927).  Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world.  The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind.  The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup.  Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.

Mary Pickford as "Mama" MollyMary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp.  The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog).  Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself.  Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible. 

The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies.  The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms.  This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology.  The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture.  He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms.  Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened.  In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap.  Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.

The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date.  Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators.  The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.

A lighter moment: Molly ramming Ambrose GrimesIt can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery.  Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell).  In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene.  The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects.  Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness.  Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926.  It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.