Archive for Guest Blogger

Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard

Posted in Academic with tags , , on May 24, 2010 by leclisse

Like most bustling urban centers at the turn of the twentieth century, Milwaukee, Wisconsin was home to some of the nation’s first neighborhood movie theatres and downtown cinema palaces.  When discussing or reading about local film history, I am always struck by the unity of experiences shared by theatres and moviegoers across the country which always reflect in some form or another the trajectory of film history itself.  From film projections on white canvas backdrops in the earliest claustrophic storefront theatres to the gilded exotic shrines of stone and electric lights that populated major urban thoroughfares, the city of Milwaukee is emblematic of all these landmarks in American moviegoing.

Matt of Pink Angora fame has created a web repository of Milwaukee’s moviegoing past for a graduate class project entitled Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard.  The Graveyard is a collection of photographs and information about the city’s population of theaters, most of which have been shuttered within the past thirty years and often times the victims of razing.  The site is divided into several sections, with the individual theater pages divided between Former Theatres and Featured Theatres.  Those theatres lucky enough to be Featured are treated within an essay-length history as well as a collection of historic and recent photographs (when applicable).  In addition to the wealth of information about the theatres themselves, there is also a section showcasing advertisements from the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel for films shown in the city from the 1910s through the x-rated days of the 1970s. 

While the Graveyard pulls  much from existing scholarship about Milwaukee’s cinematic past, it offers for the first time a navigable Google map of 130 theatre sites within the city’s limits.  Viewing this for the first time, I was astounded by the concentration of theatres within the downtown area, especially along the city’s main thoroughfare, Wisconsin Avenue.  Today, only three of Milwaukee’s original stand-alone theatres currently operate as such: Times CinemaOriental Theatre, and Downer Theatre.  While none of the downtown palaces remain, I am grateful that Milwaukeeans are able to experience at least part of the city’s rich theatre legacy.  The Oriental is perhaps the best preserved of these theatres, still offering patrons something of its gilded past as a neighborhood palace.

In addition to the Google map, many of the Featured Theatres offer contemporary photographs taken by Erin Dorbin, a current graduate student in the History program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Erin has an impressive resume as a freelance photographer, and uses only film cameras for her work.  The photographs taken by Erin that are included in the Graveyard are but a sampling of her portfolio, which runs the gamut of theatres, motels, diners, taverns, bowling alleys, laundromats, and various roadside signage across the country.  She has several digital repositories for her work, all of which are linked below:

Milwaukee Cinema Graveyard is more than merely an object of local interest.  It is a mirror through which any other urban area in America may view its own cinematic past, comparing and contrasting the elements of change that have irrevocably altered the landscape of moviegoing and ultimately our relationship with cinema itself.

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.

The Pink Angora Series

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , on June 30, 2009 by mjprigge
I can't possible elaborate upon this image...

I cannot possible elaborate upon this image.

Enjoy this latest addition from my favorite guest blogger, Matt.  Stay tuned for more to come from The Pink Angora Series here at l’eclisse.

I remember once at a party, I put a hipster in his place. He was p-shawing a friend of mine for their adoration of sappy, early nineties cinema. I remarked pithily that any dope could enjoy a good movie, but it takes a real connoisseur of film to appreciate a terrible one. I might have been a bit aggressive in my delivery, but I think the idea holds merit. I’ve heard before that the best art happens when you don’t expect it, a lucky aberration that yields something beautiful. This would suggest that mediocrity is the norm, what happens when fate and genius do not intervene. But if mediocrity happens by default, then it would reason to stand that those lucky breaks of genius can break bad too. This blog is dedicated to exceptional films and I would not dream of changing that, but just as great movies are the exception, so are the downright terrible pictures. In short, Citizen Kane  is nearer to Plan 9 from Outer Space than it is whatever tepid picture is showing at your local mall this weekend

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

Ed Wood, schlock king, drag queen.

So in that spirit, I would like to announce a new series here at l’eclisse… The Pink Angora Series. Honoring the Orson Welles of the other side, Ed Wood (who had a knack for terrible movies and a soft spot for angora and heels), Pink Angora will take a look at what happens when everything goes wrong. Since I can’t rightly decide which steaming loaf to dig into first, I will throw the nomination to the floor.

SO! Here are the candidates…

The Buster Keaton Story (1957) – Biopic of my very favorite actor of all-time, starring two of other favorites, Donald O’Conner and Peter Lorre. It tells the story of Buster’s life about as well as Napoleon Dynamite tells the life story of Bonapaurte… and the story of TNT.

Wicked Stepmother (1989) – Best known as being the forgettable final film in Bette Davis’ legendary career. Known less

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

The sad end for Miss Bette Davis

 for being the only time that bald guy from “Night Court” shared scenes with Howard Cunningham.

Blank Check (1994) – Disney kiddie film that speculates what might happen if an annoying prepubescent boy with thrifty parent suddenly came into a million dollars cash. SPOILER ALERT… he orders Chips-Ahoy factory-direct.

So there you have it. Cast your vote in the comments!

Betty Boop and Friends (1930-1939)

Posted in Guest Blogger with tags , , , , on June 23, 2009 by mjprigge

Today’s guest blogger is Matt, who writes over at Yount Vs. Molitor.  While his blog is about baseball cards and other sports topics, Matt has a formidable knowledge of classic film and is always welcome at l’eclisse. Enjoy!

A few notable examples not withstanding, the realm of mainstream animated film, up until the last fifteen years or so, has been largely aimed at a young audience. The sixties saw both the last of the short animated films released in theatres and the sale of those libraries for broadcast on television. These broadcasts, particularly the Saturday shows that would become a cultural ritual, cemented the image of cartoons as child’s play. However, early animated sound films were intended for a much wider audience. The Fleischer brothers, Max and David, were two of the early giants of this industry. Fleischer Studios developed a method of combining animation with live-action film called the Rotoscope. The Rotoscope style gave Fleischer’s cartoons a distinctive three-dimensional look. The Fleischers also developed the “bouncing ball” device for sing-a-long cartoons. Among Fleischer Studio’s star players were Koko the Clown, Popeye the Sailor, and a plucky young starlet named Betty Boop.

Betty as nameless Frech Poodle. Note the large ears.

Betty as nameless Frech Poodle. Note the large ears.

Introduced in 1930 as a nameless poodle dressed in flapper fashions, the original Betty was the girlfriend of established Fleischer star pooch, Bimbo. In 1931, New Yorker Mae Questel took over vocal duties for Betty, providing her trademark squeaky voice. The following year, the character was officially christened as Betty Boop and assumed her more familiar human form, although she maintained her romantic interest in Bimbo for several films. Questel’s vocals, combined with Betty’s new look, drew comparisons to two flesh and blood stars, Helen Kane and Clara Bow. The original Betty poodle was indeed a caricature of Kane and she would later unsuccessfully sue the Fleischers, claiming infringement. The partnership of Questel and the Fleischers would being an eight year run of success.

Early Betty Boop cartoons reflect the unstable time in which they flourished. Betty is often shown at odds with modern urban life. Betty was a city girl, living in an absurd, Rube Goldbergian world. Just as Betty was an animal-come-human, the inanimate world around her would often spring to life, with talking clocks, galloping tables, and sexually-aggressive flowers. During the Great Depression, Betty’s struggles with the clatter of progress (Stop That Noise), ridiculous innovation (Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions), or the decline of urban civility (Judge for a Day), resonated with an adult audience. The constant personification of everyday objects, combined with the generally trippy animating style of the Fleischers make the early Betty Boop Pictures a treat for the senses. The subtle cuteness and rhythmic silliness of it all works on levels that are far deeper than most cartoons of the era.

Classic Betty, pre-code. Note the short dress and exposed shoulders.

Classic Betty, pre-code. Note the short dress and exposed shoulders.

While not consciously political, Betty is unmistakably her own woman. She is only once shown to have parents and, aside from her canine boyfriend Bimbo, is rarely shown with a love interest. A female character, especially an animated one, who was not a wife, daughter, or object of pursuance was nearly non-existent at the time and remains a novelty today. Betty was almost always shown living by herself, driving (and sometimes flying) on her own. Betty worked, as a singer, as a business owner, even once as a candidate for President. Betty was also in command of her own sexuality. Much more prominently displayed in the early thirties, Betty had an obvious sexual nature. With a garter exposed and occasionally flashing a bit of cleavage, early Betty maintained an innocence that stayed true to her sly nature. While certainly also aware of her appeal, it was never used callously. Occasionally, her virtue was challenged, with 1932’s Chess-Nuts alluding to rape and Betty’s virginity. However, after a narrow escape, Betty proclaims that her “Boop-boop-be-doop” was not taken away.

Betty was tamed by the introduction of the Hays Code in 1933, with toned-down adventures and a more traditional home life and dress. Gone were the visible garter and low-cut dress, replaced with more modest clothing. Betty’s role in her own franchise also began to decline by the mid-thirties, while co-stars like Henry, an egg-bald nine-year-old sometimes billed (quite presumptuously as the ‘Funniest Man on Earth’), Pudgy, a troublesome pet dog, and Professor Grampy, an eccentric inventor. Betty’s role in these films would shrink as the decade progressed, eventually reduced to an ancillary character whose main contribution was musical, as Questel was busy with Popeye the Sailor, the Fleischer’s newest hit, providing the voice of Olive Oyl.

Betty in her final film, Rhythm on the Reservation.

Betty in her final film, Rhythm on the Reservation.

By the late thirties, Betty’s appearance had become even more human, with her tiny feet and hands and melonous head adjusted in size. Her style of dress was also updated, more accurately reflected the fashion of the time. Betty’s final film, Rhythm on the Reservation is an unfortunately crude attempt at humor involving Betty on an Indian reservation. The film is comprised almost entirely of a single musical number (a common trait of later Betty films) and features some ugly stereotypes of Native Americans. A final cartoon was released under the Betty Boop banner, but she did not appear.

Betty’s transition to television was not as lucrative as some of her younger peers, owing largely to the fact that the vast majority of her 110 films were done in black and white (Although several were later colorized). Despite this, Betty Boop gained a second life beginning in the 1980s as a marketing tool. Betty’s image has graced thousands of items, from clothing to action figures, and is how most people know her today. Even with her ability to more merchandise, her original body of work remains somewhat obscure. About one-fifth of these films are currently in the public domain and viable for free on various websites. An eight tape VHS definitive collection was released in the 90’s and can be found used online. No official DVD release of Betty Boop films has ever been produced, but her public domain work can be purchased on DVD through amazon.com or eBay. Larger, unlicensed collections are also available and well worth the effort.

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.