Movie of the Month: Christmas in Connecticut (dir. Peter Godfrey, 1945)

My mother once went through my home media collection and told me I didn’t have enough comedies in there. It is true that I tend to prefer horror, psychological thrillers, satire, Shakespearean tragedy, dystopian sci-fi, and noir to, well, fluffier fare, but my taste isn’t completely devoid of whimsy. If I was, then I’d hardly be recommending Christmas in Connecticut, pure concentrated Yuletide cheer in cinematic form.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth, a magazine writer whose readership thinks she’s tending to a baby and cows on a Connecticut farm, whipping up delicious homecooked meals and searching for the perfect rocking chair. In reality, she lives in a messy NYC apartment, spends her salary on mink coats, and probably couldn’t whip up a bowl of instant potatoes, let alone roasted duck. However, her publisher has no idea that Elizabeth isn’t who she claims to be and to boost sales, insists Elizabeth have war hero Jefferson Jones over for Christmas. Rushing to get a husband (a long-time admirer will have to do), a farm (luckily the long-time admirer has one), a baby (borrowed from a local woman while she’s off at work), and someone who can cook (Elizabeth’s chef pal “Uncle” Felix), Elizabeth also finds herself falling for the handsome Jefferson… too bad he thinks she’s a married woman!

The whole story is essentially a farce, not to be taken too seriously whatsoever. What always sticks out to me most is how borderline naughty the romance between Elizabeth and Jefferson is. For 90% of the runtime, he assumes she’s a married woman, and he reacts to her open flirting with a mixture of shock and titillation. Stanwyck and co-star Dennis Morgan have a great deal of chemistry, making their scenes a delight, and they get wonderful support from Sydney Greenstreet as Elizabeth’s publisher and SZ Sakall as Uncle Felix (his constant use of the term “honky-donky” always cracks me up).

So yeah—I’m not all gloom and doom! I can recommend Christmas films other than the moody Alastair Sims’ Scrooge or nihilistic noir like Blast of Silence!

Movies I’m thankful for… Wuthering Heights (dir. William Wyler, 1939)

Blogging around Thanksgiving can be tough. Unlike Halloween or Christmas, there really aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies, certainly none considered seasonal classics like the Universal horror lineup or It’s A Wonderful Life. However, there are plenty of movies I’m thankful for: movies that introduced me to a beloved artist, movies that remind me of a family member or friends, movies that I associate with a fond memory.

So I decided to highlight one such movie today: William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Why am I so thankful for this movie? Because it led me to what is now my favorite novel of all time, though not in the way you might expect… especially since I technically read Wuthering Heights before seeing the movie.

My introduction to Emily Bronte’s 1848 gothic masterpiece was typical of most readers: it was assigned reading during my senior year of high school. Now, today I am a great lover of what we call “classic lit.” Back then though? I hated pretty much everything for assigned reading in school, save for Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. Having to read what I considered depressing, confusing stuff during my three months off didn’t make me relish the likes of The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, or Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights especially drove me mad as it is a demanding work for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Set in 18th century England, the story centers on Heathcliff, an orphan foundling adopted into the Earnshaw family, who belong to the landed gentry. When his doting adopted father takes ill and dies, Heathcliff is left at the mercy of the Earnshaw heir Hindley, who forces him to the level of a servant. Heathcliff’s lone solace is his relationship with his adopted sister Catherine, a fellow free spirit who enjoys mischief and long hours on the nearby moors. Hindley’s attempts to keep the friends apart only serve to strengthen their kinship– that is, until Catherine catches the eye of handsome Edgar Linton, the heir of the nearby Thrushcross Grange. As much as she loves Heathcliff, Catherine is seduced by Edgar’s fine breeding and wealth, and opts to marry him so she can be the finest lady in the county and then use her newfound influence to take Heathcliff out of her brother’s power. Feeling betrayed by his one friend and unaware of her hope to rescue him from servitude, Heathcliff runs away, much to Catherine’s horror.

A few years pass before Heathcliff returns, now the owner of a decent fortune. Overjoyed, Catherine longs to resume their friendship, but Edgar isn’t fond of Heathcliff and Heathcliff has a mind to have his revenge on everyone that wronged him. And his vengeance is so great that it threatens to consume not just Catherine, Edgar, and Hindley, but also the next generation and even Heathcliff himself.

Covering roughly three decades, the book is not written in a conventional way: there is a framing story set in 1800, but much of the novel is presented in flashback, told by the former Earnshaw servant Nelly Dean, who, by the way, is not always the most unbiased narrator. Characters often have similar names (Edgar and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine; Heathcliff’s son by Isabella Linton is named Linton Heathcliff; Hindley has a son named Hareton), a device meant to emphasize a sense of cyclical repetition but one that only served to send me to Sparknotes constantly just to keep track of who was who.

And then there are the characters, who are almost uniformly unlikable. The books and movies I enjoyed featured main characters who were sympathetic and easy to root for, so I didn’t know what to make of Wuthering Heights, where victimized characters often become vicious victimizers and the central pair of lovers engage in obsessive, cruel behavior. Heathcliff is a particularly monstrous sort, treating others with sadistic relish once he comes into power and doesn’t have to take anyone’s crap anymore. Bronte initially makes it seem as though Heathcliff will be a diamond in the rough who can be transformed through love– and then she pulls the rug out under the reader, with his undying love for Catherine being the thing that only just barely makes Heathcliff seem vulnerable and human at all.

Honestly, I was too young to properly appreciate the uncompromising nature of the story or the psychological complexity of the cast. That, and I just wanted to spend hours on my PS2 and nowhere near some old book I’d have to write a report on before August. When I was done with the novel, I shoved the paperback in a drawer and never thought I’d ever touch it again.

Wuthering Heights entered my life again about a year later. Throughout senior year, I was in the early phase of my film geekdom and my way of sampling a variety of genres and eras was to go through the American Film Institute’s many curated lists. You know– the Top 100 American films, Top 100 Thrills, etc. Included on the Top 100 Passions list (a compilation of the best romantic American films) was William Wyler’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.

I don’t remember what my response was to seeing this title on the list. Probably an eyeroll. But I dutifully watched it… and wouldn’t you know, I was crying at the end and haunted by the film for weeks after seeing it. I literally stayed up all night thinking about it once. When that happened, I knew I had to reread the book.

And what do you know? I loved it and stayed up all night thinking of Bronte’s characters once again. I haven’t stopped thinking of them ever since.

Twelve years on and I still love Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. It’s a golden example of the exquisitely mounted melodramas the big Hollywood studios put out during the 1930s and 1940s. The black-and-white visuals perfectly evoke that desired gothic, haunted atmosphere in which ghosts chill the air and even the strongest love possesses undercurrents of yearning and pain. Director William Wyler creates a sharp contrast between the exteriors and interiors, mirroring the way Catherine is torn between her desire for the moors (where she and Heathcliff can be free of the class distinctions that keep them apart) and the seductive comforts of high society. But of course, the heart of the production is the chemistry between Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon– passionate, obsessive, and borderline sadomasochistic in their onscreen interactions. Both actors do well bringing these charismatic but infuriating people to life. That they have any chemistry at all is impressive, given that the two performers were reportedly at each other’s throats on set.

I know as a fan of the novel I’m supposed to hate this movie. As an adaptation, Wyler’s movie is hardly faithful to Bronte’s original. The setting was changed arbitrarily to the 1840s rather than the late 18th century purely on the whim of the producer Sam Goldwyn. The screenwriters toned down the nastiness of the characters. The entire second half of the book was cut from the script, thwarting the book’s focus on how abuse can beget more abuse and how the second generation of characters decide they will not repeat their parents’ mistakes.

Without the second half, it is true that the story loses much of the source material’s uniqueness and power, becoming a far simpler romantic drama about the unfairness of the British class system. If I have one big complaint about the film today, it’s that the ending seems so abrupt without the later stages of Heathcliff’s revenge. However, that might only seem so problematic to me because I am now thoroughly familiar with the novel. Back then, I was satisfied with the ending and other viewers might argue this ending works well in the context of the movie. Indeed, on its own merits, the film remains a beautifully mounted gothic drama, among the best of its era. I always enjoy seeing it– I prefer to think of it as a study in Wuthering Heights, much as Olivier saw his 1948 Hamlet film as “a study in Hamlet” due to its truncated nature.

Today, I am a certified Wuthering Heights junkie. I’ve read the novel over ten times and own several editions of the book. I’ve seen most of the film and TV adaptations. I’ve even watched the enjoyably cheesy 1996 Cliff Richard musical.

But all of that love only blossomed because the Wyler film inspired me to give the book another chance. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Movie of the Month: The Lineup (dir. Don Siegel, 1958)

(I’m changing my Short of the Month bit to Movie of the Month. I’m sure there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth lol.)

In observance of Noirvember, I’m recommending the last noir I watched, Don Siegel’s The Lineup. Set in San Francisco, it’s a taut little crime thriller that cuts between two plot threads: a trio of crooks out to recover smuggled narcotics and the cops on their trail.

While the first fifteen minutes leave the impression that you’re about to get a standard police procedural, the moment the criminals appear, it’s clear you’re in for a treat. Each of the crooks is given a strong personality and the dynamic between them is uneasy throughout. One is more restrained, hoping to get the job done as quietly as possible, while the driver is an alcoholic with a bottle hidden on his person.

The shining star of the whole thing is a young Eli Wallach as “Dancer,” the most violent of the smugglers. Brimming with pent-up rage beneath his deadpan manner, he leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he goes to uncover his illegal goods. He’s so engaging that he makes the more heroic characters look absolutely colorless by comparison.

The movie’s most noirish element has to be that undercurrent of danger in a seemingly civilized society, that sense that no one can truly be trusted. At one point, Wallach puts on a courtly, charming manner to persuade one of his marks to take him back to her apartment where his next shipment is hidden inside her daughter’s doll.** There’s something understated yet dreadful about how this woman– and indeed, so many other characters in the film– takes Wallach at face value, never suspecting his unsavory occupation or violent nature. It’s as if she thinks the truly evil parts of the world will never touch her and her upper-middle class life– by the end of the movie, it will be clear that there is no real insulation from evil for anyone.

** I just realized between a trio of bad guys searching for heroin and one of the shipments being placed inside a child’s doll, this sounds an awful lot like Wait Until Dark, which I just did a big project on last month– I swear to God, my picking this movie was just a coincidence, I’m not that obsessed (I hope).

My audio commentary for Wait Until Dark (1967)

Here’s a first for me: an audio commentary of the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, an underrated gem and a top five personal favorite of mine.

If you’ve never seen the film, don’t bother with this commentary until you do. It’s a great little cat-and-mouse thriller in the Hitchcock mold: Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded housewife who finds herself targeted by a trio of criminals out to find a stash of heroin that accidentally ended up in her possession. The story is packed with twists and turns, and the suspense slowly builds to a boiling point. The final twenty minutes are truly nail-biting, with Hepburn fending off the most dangerous of the thugs (played to perfection by a young Alan Arkin) in a battle to the death.

It’s a unique movie in the Hepburn canon, one of the few thrillers she ever did (think of it as the suspenseful but romantic Charade‘s more sinister cousin). She walks the fine line between vulnerability and tough-minded resourcefulness, and the result is one of the best performances of her entire career. She finds the perfect onscreen nemesis in Alan Arkin, whose master criminal is every bit as intelligent as she is. And then there’s the fine direction, the great script, Henry Mancini’s queasy yet gorgeous score– but you can hear me gush about all that in the track.

In the commentary, I cover the following:

  • How Wait Until Dark started out as a stage play by Frederick “Dial M for Murder” Knott, but the screen rights were purchased by Warner Bros. at Mel Ferrer’s request well before the show even opened on Broadway
  • How Wait Until Dark was adapted for the screen without resorting to obvious “opening up” tactics to make it more cinematic (courtesy of screenwriters Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington and director Terence Young)
  • The numerous differences between the play and the film
  • Frederick Knott’s style as a thriller playwright and the running themes/motifs between his three plays (Dial M for Murder, Write Me a Murder, and Wait Until Dark)
  • Wait Until Dark‘s long stage history, including the ill-fated 1998 Broadway revival and Jeffrey Hatcher’s noirish 2013 adaptation
  • The almost-constant conflicts between Team Hepburn (which includes producer Mel Ferrer and director Terence Young) and the studio over everything from Hepburn’s wardrobe to where the interiors would be shot
  • How Alan Arkin’s characterization choices (based on his actual interactions with criminals and drug addicts in early 60s Chicago) initially baffled the film’s crew and the movie critics (though apparently charmed a decent number of teenage girls who sent the alarmed actor love letters)
  • Hepburn’s extensive research of blindness and her friendship with a visually impaired college student
  • Richard Crenna being underrated as hell
  • My (mostly nuanced, I think) thoughts on the irritating husband character
  • And much more!
A very giallo-esque Italian poster for the film. Source: Cinematerial

Making my own commentary has long been a dream of mine, but for years, I felt I wasn’t good enough and putting my voice on something terrified me. However, over time I’ve become less self-conscious and decided, hey, why not? Other people have recorded fan commentaries (I was particularly inspired by the Batman and James Bond commentaries on the This Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade channel on YouTube and Chris Meadows’ 2006 fan commentary of The Castle of Cagliostro)—why shouldn’t I give it a try? Even if it isn’t Criterion-worthy, creating something is better than just dreaming in vain forever.

To be frank, this commentary project is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It involves more than just talking—I had to make sure my vocal delivery was audible and figure out where to talk about what subject within the movie itself. I also had to make sure I was able to comment on scene-specific details amidst more general information about the film’s production. I confess I wasn’t able to share all the research I did either– 108 minutes goes by fast!

I admit I feel a bit vulnerable in posting this. I’m comfortable enough cranking out a written review, but expressing anything with my voice makes me feel exposed in a way that a normal essay does not. (I have to wonder if silent film actors making the transition to talkies experienced much the same dread in being heard for the first time?) I tried my best not to sound “academic” or dry. I think I succeeded there and maintained a casual (if very geeky) tone throughout (especially with my many jokes about Alan Arkin’s delightful wigs), but you can still detect a bit of my nervousness now and then.

A page from an original Japanese film program for Wait Until Dark. On the left side, you can bask in the glory of Arkin’s many wigs, ranging from oily beatnik to dapper old coot about town.

Still, it’s good to do things that scare you. I’d been in a creative rut for a while and having to learn new skills to work on this commentary rejuvenated me. I hope it’s a fun listen.

You’re welcome to play the track along with the film or to just listen to it like a podcast. Whatever suits you—I tend to have commentaries playing while I’m cooking or doing housework.

Below, I’ve also posted a list of the main sources I used when researching the film, as well as the sources for the interviews I directly quote in the track.

One last thing: I made two errors in the commentary, both luckily minor. First, I claim My Fair Lady was the biggest film of 1964, but that was actually Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews really got her revenge, didn’t she?). Second, during the scene where Jack Weston is interrogating Hepburn for the first time, I say something like, “When Carlino patted Mike on the shoulder a few moments ago”—only for the aforementioned pat to occur about a minute after I said that. That was meant to come out as “When Carlino pats Mike on the shoulder in a few moments” but my brain shorted out and I got the tense wrong, and just never picked up on it until yesterday. So if you’re watching along with the film, don’t think you’re off-sync—I’m just being an idiot.

Sources:

“A Look in the Dark,” the making-of featurette included on DVD and Bluray versions of the movie

“All for Knott” by Joan E. Vadeboncouer for Syracuse Herald American (NY)

Audrey: Her Real Story by Alexander Walker

Audrey: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Charles Higham

Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris

Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Warren Harris

Blood on the Stage, 1950-1975: Mileston Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection by Amnon Kabatchnik

The Carrington screenplay can be read on this website: https://cinephiliabeyond.org/wait-dark-terence-youngs-terrifyingly-effective-suspense-thriller-brilliant-audrey-hepburn-alan-arkin/

Clown Prince of Hollywood: The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner by Bob Thomas

Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto

Everybody’s Talkin’: The Top Films of 1965-1969 by Barry Monush

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock

Lee Remick: A bio-bibliography by Barry Rivadue

Liner notes by Lukas Kendall for Film Score Monthly release of the Wait Until Dark soundtrack

“Look What They’ve Done to Her Script” by Donnell Stoneman for News & Record

The making of feature films: a guide by Ivan Butler (Terence Young is one of the directors interviewed)

Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott

Sources of direct quotes:

Arkin’s comments on fan mail – Saturday Review (September 9, 1969: Vol 52, Issue 36)

Arkin’s comments on how he came up with his characterization – The Actor Speaks: Twenty-four actors talk about process and technique by Janet Sonenberg

Hepburn’s comments on having to commit onscreen murder – “Star Must Walk to Work” by Florabel Muir

Crenna’s comments on Hepburn’s professionalism – Audrey Hepburn: a biography by Warren Harris

Short of the Month: Frankenstein (1910)

So much of our modern conception of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is tied up with James Whale’s famous 1931 adaptation that it’s insane to think there was ever a time when this classic story was not associated with neck bolts or Boris Karloff’s grim visage. But there were plenty of adaptations before the advent of talkies– stage versions, burlesques, and of course silent films.

The 1910 Frankenstein starring Charles Ogle as the Creature is the first ever film version of the book. It’s a loose adaptation to say the least– unlike the novel, there are no extended philosophical conversations nor is the ending tragic. Eschewing Shelley’s ruminations on life and death, this movie goes for a more psychological take on the Creature, suggesting he is born from the evil within his creator and can only be destroyed by Frankenstein sorting his ego out– a sort of Jekyll and Hyde theme, if you will. Shot in three days at the Edison Studios, this 12-minute film is more an impression of Frankenstein than anything, but it’s still worth watching– and for more than mere historical interest.

To be sure, the storytelling is very much of the usual one-reeler variety: the novel is simplified down to “man creates monster, monster runs amuck, monster is stopped by the power of love or something.” The acting is extremely broad– Augustus Philips as Frankenstein gets to be a bit much, even by the standards of the nickelodeon era– and the staging is mostly nothing you wouldn’t be able to do in a theater, though there are two cinematic flourishes.

The first is the creation of the Creature. The book keeps the details of Frankenstein’s methods vague, so adaptors have free reign to do as they please. Here, Frankenstein mixes ingredients in a tub then bakes them to life. To depict the birth, the filmmakers fashioned a dummy of the Creature, burned it, then reversed the footage in the finished film, making it look like the Creature has emerged from hell itself. A primitive special effect, but still a touch eerie.

The second interesting flourish involves the use of a mirror. Frankenstein greets his beloved Elizabeth and we see her entrance not directly, but through a mirror positioned to the right of the screen. The mirror is mainly present so the Creature (breaking into the house to demand his creator make him a mate) can see his ugliness in a dramatic moment, but it’s awesome how the director saw fit to use the mirror in additional ways.

However, what I like best about this film is Charles Ogle’s Creature, who’s become iconic in his own right among silent film buffs. He has a “Quasimodo joins a hair metal band vibe” that’s so unique, especially since in the wake of the Whale film, most versions cannot escape the influence of Jack Pierce’s famous make-up. It’s great to see a take completely independent of neck bolts and gaunt cheekbones.

Interestingly, in its day the 1910 Frankenstein created a bit of controversy. Though the filmmakers tried their best to downplay the more gruesome elements of the novel, moral watchdogs still voiced concerns that the movie was too much. The reviewer for The Motion Picture World even suggested that depictions of violence and death, while acceptable in the realm of literature, were too much presented on a movie screen.

I have to imagine the amount of smelling salts he’d need if he saw the horror movies coming out today!

Sources:

https://frankensteinia.blogspot.com/2010/03/repost-first-frankenstein-of-movies.html

Silent Movie Day blogathon: The greatest hits of 1922

A year has passed since my last breakdown of the top-grossers of 1921. It’s only natural to follow it up with the hits of 1922!

This is part of the Second Annual Silent Movie Day blogathon hosted by Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

NOTE: Properly determining box office for movies made one hundred years ago is a tough feat, pretty much impossible to determine with total accuracy. Like last year, I based my list off the one on Wikipedia—however, something weird happened this time. When Knighthood Was in Flower disappeared from the list in the middle of my writing process. I could not find a reason why this was so beyond someone questioning whatever source was previously used to justify its placement there. I tried to find more precise numbers for its box office in other sources, but I came across little more than claims that the film was a big hit.

This left me with a bit of a conundrum. I try to be as historically accurate as I can with this stuff, even if this still involves a lot of conjecture. I had already done research on other aspects of the film’s production. I’ve decided to post that review separately in the future, as a kind of bonus.

#5 – SMILIN’ THROUGH

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: February 13, 1922

Box office (est.): 1 million

Summary: Years ago, John (Wyndham Standing) lost his beloved fiancee Moonyeen (Norma Talmadge) when she defended him from the fatal attack of a rival for her hand, Jeremiah (Harrison Ford– no, not the one you’re thinking of). Years later, John is a bitter old man, only comforted by the love of Moonyeen’s orphaned niece Kathleen (also Talmadge), who he has raised as his own. When she falls in love with Jeremiah’s son Ken (also Ford), John tries to break up the lovers, but Moonyeen’s spirit seeks to soften John’s heart from beyond the grave.

Has any major star ever well and truly dropped off the face of pop culture as sharply as Norma Talmadge? In the 1920s, she was arguably the most respected dramatic actress working in Hollywood, as well as a top fashion icon imitated by thousands of women across the country. Celebrated for her dark, expressive eyes and versatility, it’s astonishing how swiftly she fell from stardom into obscurity. When remembered at all, it tends to be through silly myths about the transition to sound (namely, the idea that a Brooklyn accent sank her career overnight) or in relation to her one-time brother-in-law Buster Keaton (and in that case, usually not in the most flattering light).

Talmadge’s films have had only a scant presence on home media, making her difficult to re-evaluate. Not everyone is impressed by what they see, especially considering how Talmadge’s films are often described as prototypes for the “women’s film” genre that became popular in the 1930s. Compared to “women’s film” actresses like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Talmadge seems far more subdued, with a lot less fire.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger puts this sentiment across best:

“Norma Talmadge’s bad reviews were usually for her material, not for her. She was too professional simply to walk through even her worst roles, yet despite all the different eras and settings in her movies, it becomes apparent that her work is about genre. She has beauty and skill, but she is basically serving the plots of her films, dressing them up with her presence. Her movies are star vehicles, but their significance today lies outside her. She was the genre she inhabited– the woman’s picture. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it denies her the significant place in film history that her popularity would ordinarily have earned her. She cannot stand the test of time.”

I don’t know how much I agree with this sentiment. Talmadge’s screen persona is certainly less colorful than the likes of Crawford and Davis. However, I find myself fascinated by it. Talmadge’s characters exist at a crossroads between the Edwardian era and the Jazz Age. She isn’t a vamp or a flapper, and there’s a bit too much solemnity and world weariness in her to qualify as an ingenue. Her appeal seemed to lie in her ability to make the audience admire her characters, specifically their courage in the face of suffering, be it from an unjust prison sentence in Within the Law or from being forced to spend the night with a spurned former beau to save lives in The Woman Disputed. Journalist Adela Rogers St. John once said Talmadge should play Marie Antoinette and The Merchant of Venice‘s Portia, so that should give you a good idea of the types of parts people associated with her: noble, charming, troubled.

In her superstar heyday, Smilin’ Through was considered Talmadge’s signature film. Like a great many Talmadge vehicles, it was based on a hot stage property. Written in the wake of World War I, the play follows a bitter old man haunted by the death of his fiancée Moonyeen. Her ghost is always near him, but his rage prevents her from being able to make her presence known. The sentimental story touched the public deeply, making a film version inevitable.

Talmadge got the juicy dual role of the crinoline and corseted Moonyeen and the more modern Kathleen. She acquits herself well in both parts. I wouldn’t call this Talmadge’s best film, but the script allows her to indulge both melodramatic and comic moments, from a touching death scene to a humorous interlude in which she has to ditch an unwanted beau at a dance. If anything, one might accuse this film of being a one-woman show. The other actors are competent, but the only other performance that stands out is Harrison Ford as Moonyeen’s jilted lover. He has a desperate, compelling energy that stands in stark contrast to the other performers, but he appears all too briefly.

The movie itself is handsomely produced. The story touches on themes of death and love, and the ghost angle is handled well. I was reminded of the spiritualist themes in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the wake of the war, spiritualism came into vogue, with people hoping for a sign that their dead loved ones could still be reached beyond the grave. Smilin’ Through‘s appeal was no doubt indebted to this interest in the spirit world.

But the big attraction is still Talmadge. And while I don’t know if she will ever receive a proper, full-scale re-evaluation in the silent film community– let alone film history at large– Smilin’ Through is a good showcase for the expressive versatility Talmadge’s public so prized in her.

Sources:

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

“The Lady of the Vase” by Adlea Rogers St. John, Photoplay, August 1923, Vol. 24, Issue 3

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

#4 – GRANDMA’S BOY

Image source: Reelgood

Release date: September 3, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.1 million

Summary: A cowardly young man (Harold Lloyd) is given a magic talisman by his grandmother (Anna Townsend), who claims it makes its owner invincible. When a criminal starts terrorizing the town, the boy puts the charm to use, but will it work as planned?

(Since Harold Lloyd is the star attraction of 3 and 4 on the list, I just decided to combine the two into one piece.)

#3 – DR. JACK

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: November 26, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.275 million

Summary: The insidious Dr. Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne) gets rich off a supposedly ill young heiress known as the Sick-Little-Well-Girl (Mildred Davis), shutting her away from sunshine, socialization, and anything remotely resembling fun. The commonsensical Dr. Jack (Harold Lloyd) is called in to give the girl’s desperate father a second opinion, but Saulsbourg will do anything to prevent his patient’s recovery.

For most Americans in the 1920s, Harold Lloyd was the reigning king of comedy. He made more films than Charlie Chaplin and his films tended to have more staying power at the box office than Buster Keaton’s. The great appeal was that Lloyd’s “Glasses character” was closer to earth than the down-on-his luck Tramp or Keaton’s restrained persona—Lloyd was the boy next door, the energetic go-getter out to snag the American Dream by the coat-tails.

In 1922, two Lloyd pictures were top draws at the box office: the first was Lloyd’s debut feature Grandma’s Boy and the second was Dr. Jack. What strikes me most watching these two movies back to back is how versatile Lloyd’s screen persona is. In Grandma’s Boy, he’s a cowardly young man who has to grow into heroism, while in Dr. Jack he’s a confident but static character who rescues a damsel-in-distress from a bad situation. And yet both are undeniably the Glasses character—resourceful and optimistic.

While neither film is as great as Lloyd’s third feature—the immortal Safety Last!—both are quick, charming treats. Lloyd keeps the action moving at a brisk pace and packs every scene with great business. Mildred Davis is the leading lady in both and I always thought it was a shame that she would shortly retire from the screen after marrying Lloyd. The two have sweet, natural chemistry—obviously a side effect of their real life involvement.

Of the two films, I prefer Dr. Jack, if only because it’s slightly less sentimental than Grandma’s Boy. It also has one of my favorite sequences in any Lloyd feature: Dr. Jack pretends to be a homicidal maniac (don’t ask) and terrorizes everyone in a dark house. It’s like something out of a Scooby Doo episode and it’s absolutely wonderful.

But then again, Grandma’s Boy has the scene where Lloyd confuses a box of moth balls with candy, and then he starts making the most reaction image-worthy expressions possible…

Oh damn, I can’t pick between them after all!

Sources:

The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-1923 by Robert E. Sherwood

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#2 – BLOOD AND SAND

Image source: Zekefilm

Release date: August 5, 1922

Box office (est.): 1.25-1.3 million

Summary: Juan Gallardo (Rudolph Valentino) rises from poverty to become a successful matador. He has everything, from fame to a loving wife (Lila Lee), but trouble comes in the form of Dona Sol (Nita Naldi), an aristocratic femme fatale out to make Gallardo her newest plaything. Consumed by a passion he can barely control, Gallardo finds everything he holds dear hanging in the balance.

Nineteen twenty-one had been Rudolph Valentino’s golden year. His stardom was established in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then made secure by The Sheik. Both were massive box office hits. What could he do to top such an iconic duo?

A more dramatic tour de force was in order. Embarrassed by the bodice ripping antics he’d been up to in The Sheik, Valentino returned to Ibanez for his next film, an adaptation of the 1909 novel Blood and Sand. The story of the rise and fall of a matador would allow Valentino to showcase a wider range. Juan starts the film as a wily youth and ends the film a chastened but sadder man. Seen as little more than a pretty boy, no doubt Valentino was eager to show the public his dramatic chops.

Production was frustrating for the newly minted star. Valentino wanted to shoot the movie on-location in Spain. Paramount figured a few costumes and props imported from Spain to a Hollywood backlot would be just as good (and far cheaper). Valentino wanted George Fitzmaurice in the director’s chair. Paramount claimed Fitzmaurice turned the offer down, then offered up Fred Niblo instead (Valentino would later learn from Fitzmaurice himself that the director was never even asked, much to the actor’s fury). Valentino learned real bullfighting moves, but the bulk of the scenes in the ring were cobbled from stock footage.

These setbacks irritated Valentino, but they weren’t enough to prevent the film from becoming the second-biggest hit of the year, as well as a critical darling. Some compared the film favorably to DW Griffith’s tear-jerker Broken Blossoms. The day of the film’s Rialto Theater premiere, patrons starting lining up before noon, eager to get a ticket. Mary Pickford was also a fan, saying she loved the picture enough to see it twice.

Blood and Sand is a hotblooded melodrama, the sort that won’t appeal to everyone, but for those of us who go for that sort of thing, it is a delight. The atmosphere is sensual and torrid, and Nita Naldi is a campy delight as the femme fatale (she literally bites Valentino in lust at one point). If I have any issue with the film, it’s that it gets a bit overly moralizing at times, something that’s more downplayed in the film’s 1940 remake.

However, I can’t fault this movie too much because it did give Valentino something he always desperately craved: the chance to exercise his dramatic skills. Juan is a fleshed-out character brought low by his own lust for life. The very quality that makes him such an appealing guy is also what makes him easy prey for Dona Sol. So while this isn’t close to my favorite Valentino vehicle, it is a great showcase for his talent, so often ignored in the glare of his tragic off-screen demise.

Sources:

Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily Leider

The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler

#1 – ROBIN HOOD

Image source: Wikipedia

Release date: October 18, 1922

Box office (est.): 2.5 million

Summary: Brash and jolly King Richard (Wallace Beery) rushes to the Crusades, leaving his cruel-hearted brother Prince John (Sam De Grasse) in charge of England. John’s tyrannical grasp inspires Maid Marian (Enid Bennett) to reach out to the dashing Earl of Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks) for help. Unwilling to pull his king from his “Holy Crusade,” Huntingdon runs back to England and takes on the persona of Robin Hood, giving aid to the poor and hell to John’s regime.

Douglas Fairbanks racked up a great many hits in the 1920s, but arguably none were as loved as his 1922 Robin Hood. He’d already swashbuckled his way through The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, but Robin Hood would be produced on a scale that surpassed the both of them. Fairbanks had enormous sets constructed and collected a library of hundreds of reference materials related to Robin Hood and the Middle Ages. Immense labor and cost went into recreating medieval England, ensuring this would be Fairbanks’ biggest onscreen adventure to date. The effort paid off handsomely, with both the public and the critics won over by Fairbanks’ romantic yet brutal blockbuster.

Though Robin Hood was Douglas Fairbanks’ greatest financial smash, it has become the most maligned effort of his golden period. The most common complaint is that the movie takes too darn long to get to the actual Robin Hood segments—the first 70 minutes cover the hero’s life as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, where he meets and falls for Maid Marian despite his fear of women, earns the enmity of Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne due to his undivided loyalty to King Richard, and finds himself leaving the Crusades when he hears of how England is being oppressed by John. Having that contrarian streak in me that cannot be denied, I’m going to defend Fairbanks’ choice in delaying the appearance of the expected Robin Hood scenes.

This Robin Hood obviously cannot avoid comparisons with the later, more celebrated Errol Flynn film from 1938. That is a far leaner movie, having Robin Hood in Lincoln green the moment he first rides into the three-strip Technicolor frame. However—and to stave off the bringing out of the guillotine, none of this is meant as a insult to the 1938 version, which I consider a practically perfect movie—Fairbanks’ approach allows for a more epic and emotionally rich story. His Robin gets to come into his own as a hero, going from a callow youth to a man dedicated to “God, his king, and his lady.”

No one would deny the film is largely escapist, but there is a darkness to it too. Prince John’s tyranny is illustrated through some horrifying scenes, such as a man having his eyes burned out of his skull for daring to hunt in royal territory or a woman being whipped in front of her own child for refusing John’s “address.” At one point, Huntingdon believes Marian has died and his transformation into Robin Hood is prompted in part by grief. When he turns into Robin Hood, an intertitle describes his subsequent existence as “bitter but joyous.” There is always a dangerous edge to Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, a simmering rage that makes all the broad grinning and rabble rousing take on a slight air of the grotesque.

Don’t get the impression that this is a mud and blood vision of the Robin Hood story though—we’re still miles away from the bitter, revisionist taste of movies like 1978’s Robin and Marian or Ridley Scott’s 2010 version. This is a film where Robin skips around like a five-year-old on cocaine—though admittedly, few five-year-olds on cocaine could break a man’s back with their bare hands, as Robin does here. This is also a film where the Crusades and King Richard are presented as noble, which would likely make any historian cringe.

However, Fairbanks’ Robin Hood is not a documentary—it is pure cinematic mythology. It combines several different elements of the Robin Hood story that have emerged over the centuries, synthesizing them into a satisfying whole. Even the way its many long shots are composed and lit is reminiscent of 19th century paintings of medieval pageantry and scenes– no interest in gritty “realism” pervades the film in any sense. Watching it again, I was reminded a bit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, because both films do such wonderful work in evoking an otherworldly sense of legend, completely, thoroughly, and without any shred of irony or shame. And to be honest, in a cynical postmodern age, there’s something refreshing in that.

Sources:

Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance

The First King of Hollywood: The life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracy Goessel

Short of the Month: Blue Bottles (1928)

In recent years, the comediennes of the silent era have gotten more of their due. For too long, scholars operated under the assumptions of critics like Walter Kerr, who argued none of the funny ladies of this period ever became “truly important” and that these actresses couldn’t possibly be funny and pretty at the same time. Thank God this attitude is disappearing, especially as more silent films become available for viewing. Case in point: Blue Bottles, starring Elsa Lanchester.

The story of a hapless flapper caught up in the police raid of a criminal hideout, Blue Bottles was part of a series of shorts written by HG Wells—yes, THAT ONE—for Lanchester. It’s nothing like any Wells work I have ever read, replacing speculative fiction and social commentary with droll comedy. Lanchester’s character is not an exaggerated clown nor a pretty but passive damsel—rubber-limbed, she gets caught up in the shoot-out and essentially bumbles her way out of danger. It’s like she’s a character from a flapper comic strip that wandered into a gangster film. The funniest part of all might be the show of thanks she gets from the police department—there are no real gags exactly, but there’s a hilarious awkwardness from both Lanchester and the cops that’s hilarious to watch.

That being said, most of the more traditional gags are fun, the standout being when Lanchester blows a whistle, not realizing it’s meant to signal the police. What results is a montage of cops taking to the streets, quickly followed by stock footage of tanks, planes, and warships. I was reminded of a similar gag in Duck Soup.

One bit of fun trivia: the criminal taking shots at Lanchester from above is played by none other than Charles Laughton in an early movie role!

More than a crappy remake: The Truth About Charlie (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2002) and the French New Wave

Image source: TMDB

Stanley Donen’s Charade is one of those classic movies so tied with its era that it’s hard to think anyone would ever be insane enough to remake it. Well, this happened twenty years ago in the form of The Truth About Charlie. Directed by Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs fame and starring Thandiwe Newton and Mark Wahlberg in the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, The Truth About Charlie scrounged only $7 million on a $60 million budget. Critics were aghast, classic movie fans were enraged, and everyone else opted to buy tickets for Jackass: The Movie.

No one talks much about Demme’s remake, but when they do the inevitable course they take is to compare it to Charade. And compared to Charade, that effervescent gem of a Hitchcockian thriller, Charlie is a dud. Newton and Wahlberg share no chemistry at all, the villains are all boring (you could accuse Charade‘s baddies of being cartoonish, but cartoonish leaves more of an impression than “the tall one with cardiovascular issues,” “the tough lady who randomly becomes sympathetic later,” and “that third guy”), and the attempt at a playful yet edgy tone is awkward rather than exhilarating. Charade balanced thrills, comedy, and romance, while Charlie tries all of these tones without being success at one, let alone competently blending all three.

It’s easy to pick Charlie apart as a remake, but I’m interested in another element of its conception. You see, Demme was not interested in a standard remake. While rewatching Charade with a group of friends, he pondered how while Donen was in Paris filming one of the last great Old Hollywood pictures, nearby young French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting the rules with their irreverent, energetic projects.

That’s when it hit him. Why not retell Charade using the techniques of the French New Wave?

For those unaware, the French New Wave was a movement lasting from 1958 to about 1970 mostly helmed by young film critics turned filmmakers. The movement rejected the conventions of traditional filmmaking and possessed a general countercultural spirit. Avant-garde editing, non-traditional storytelling, and an iconoclastic sensibility touching everything from social norms to politics prevailed. The influence of the French New Wave was immense, most notably spilling over into American film and resulting in the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But by the early 2000s, even something as radical as the French New Wave had a touch of nostalgia to it, particularly for cinephiles. For some, it represents golden age of young, enthusiastic rule-breaking. No doubt Demme was among this lot.

Now, was combining an Old Hollywood classic with a New Wave sensibility an inherently dumb idea? Not necessarily. A similar approach was used for one of the French New Wave’s bonafide classics, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, which adapted an American hardboiled crime novel with cinematic playfulness. In fact, Shoot the Piano Player was Demme’s primary stylistic inspiration for The Truth About Charlie.

I suppose it would be helpful to lay out the stories of these two movies. An adaptation of David Goodis’ hardboiled crime novel Down There, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player follows Charlie, a down on his luck pianist who works at a seedy bar. A mild-mannered, shy fellow, he’s drawn into a gang conflict when his criminal brother comes begging him for help. Charlie doesn’t want to get involved: he’s already on the run from his own tragic past and trying to deal with his burgeoning romantic feelings for a pretty waitress at the bar where he works. However, as it is with noir, the past isn’t so willing to lay down and die.

This synopsis makes the movie seem almost normal if you’ve never seen it, but don’t be fooled. Shoot the Piano Player is an odd duck of a film. It jabs at cinematic conventions (when Charlie has a woman in bed with him, he pulls the sheets over her bare breasts and says, “That’s how they do it in the movies”—Truffaut’s way of gently kidding cinematic standards of taste), injects silly comedy into otherwise serious scenes, stops the story for a weird music number, and de-glamorizes its noir protagonist by making him awkward with the woman he loves (he tries holding her hand but cannot—shades of Buster Keaton unable to take Kathryn Macguire’s hand in Sherlock Jr.).

If you’ve seen Charade, then you’ll already know the basic premise of Charlie, as it’s pretty close structurally. Chic young Reggie Lambert discovers her mysterious husband has been murdered and a trio of dangerous types are after money he stole from the US government. They think Reggie knows where the money is, but she hasn’t a clue. Along the way, Reggie is aided by a mysterious stranger named Joshua Peter who isn’t what he seems, and even though she can never be sure if he’s friend or foe, he is awfully cute…

The Truth About Charlie employs self-conscious techniques to emulate the experimental qualities of the French New Wave. For example, when Regina meets Joshua Peter, Demme cuts between panning close-ups of the two actors. During a conversation between Regina and another character, we get constant jump cuts, copying similar technique in Godard’s Breathless. Like Shoot the Piano Player, there is a musical number and weird comic interludes, though they’re not half as enjoyable. Somehow, they result in mood whiplash rather than the charm of spontaneity.

So why does Truffaut succeed with his experiment and Demme does not?

It could be the amount of plot each movie juggles—and Truffaut has the easier deal. Shoot the Piano Player is straightforward: man has a broken heart, man’s happiness with a good woman is threatened by criminal associations, man has to fight to protect his possible future. Anyone can get that easily, so Truffaut’s improvisational style works well. He can divulge into weird musical numbers and goofy slapstick without giving the viewer a headache. The shifting from comedy to action to melancholy drama might not appeal to every taste, but you can follow the movie without tearing your hair out in frustration.

Charlie tries to be playful, but its constant zooms and jump cuts and shaky cam and weird close-ups feel more like obnoxious film student antics than anything. The mishmash of tones feels awkward, like Demme was copying Truffaut’s technique without understanding what made it work. Beneath the clowning, thrills, and noirisms, there is a strong strain of melancholy throughout Truffaut’s movie. The protagonist’s broken heart gives the movie a sense of consistency, even when it’s being silly. Charlie just jerks the viewer between thriller boilerplate and awkward romantic comedy, with no beating heart beneath. There are attempts at drama, particularly during the climactic confrontation, but it’s sloppy and too little, too late. The climax might actually be the worst offender in that regard– shot exclusively in close-up for some reason, incredibly anti-climactic, and trying for pathos for a character the film barely bothered to build up.

Truffaut is also comfortable with just riffing on Goodis’ story, changing plot points at will. Considering how hard Charlie is trying to be playful in the French New Wave mode, it shocks me how closely it hues its screenplay to Charade, which is famous for how convoluted and twisty its plot is. Any time the movie stops trying to feel improvisational and then gets back to its central mystery, the plot screeches the momentum of the pacing to a halt. All the jump cuts and shaky cam in the world cannot make exposition interesting, not without strong characters and fine performances—and aside from Newton, the movie’s got nothing to work with there.

Demme’s adherence to Charade‘s screenplay also reveals another shortcoming, perhaps the biggest one of all: this does not feel much like a New Wave movie. Oh sure, Demme uses jump cuts during his expositional conversations, doing his best imitation of Godard’s Breathless. He has his abrupt musical numbers. He shoots handheld footage of Paris to give a “you are there,” cinema verite quality not unlike The 400 Blows or Cleo from 9 to 7. Agnes Varda, Anna Karina, and Charles Aznavour show up in odd cameo roles. But at its most basic level, the movie is a by-the-numbers romantic thriller. There is no sense of true, youthful experimentation like you had with the New Wave filmmakers. Compare Charlie to truly visionary New Wave works like Shoot the Piano Player and Alphaville, and it becomes plain how skin-deep the homaging is. It’s an homage to someone else’s homage.

It’s also half-hearted in its iconoclasm and iconoclasm was a huge part of the French New Wave. Truffaut maybe less so than, say, Godard—but Truffaut is still sending up Old Hollywood conventions in his film even while it’s clear he enjoys those movies. Demme doesn’t really jab too much at the Old Hollywood elements of Charade, besides deliberately making Wahlberg an “anti-Cary Grant,” deglamorizing Paris, or having Newton get nude in the shower (a “reversal” of Cary Grant’s fully clothed shower). As I’ve tried to make clear, Demme is more interested in the French New Wave part of the film than redoing Charade… but his attitude towards the French New Wave is reverential. One of the last images in the film is even a shot of Truffaut’s grave.

Anna Karina’s cameo

Does that kind of reverence have that much of a place in this style of filmmaking? The New Wave filmmakers did eat, sleep, and dream movies, but they were radicals at heart. They smashed idols or at the very least lampooned them, but Demme has made these iconoclasts idols in and of themselves. Is that a paradox? I genuinely don’t know– I don’t want to suggest that this means you can’t homage the French New Wave– but I think it does somewhat compromise the film’s desire to feel like those movies.

So maybe after all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is The Truth About Charlie is so much more than a crappier Charade. Its failure is far more interesting than that. And I have to afford it some respect—if you’re going to fail, then fail spectacularly.

Sources:

https://www.ign.com/articles/2002/10/22/an-interview-with-jonathan-demme

Short of the Month: An Elusive Diamond (1914)

An Elusive Diamond is a fine example of how exciting early movies could be. Released in 1914, it isn’t a groundbreaking masterpiece, but it is an antidote to the oft-repeated idea that movies didn’t become technically sophisticated until feature films started dominating the industry. This film moves at a good clip and interrupts its employment of the usual stagey blocking with close-ups that create a sense of cinematic intimacy.

The story is a simple Macguffin affair. A servant girl (Mignon Anderson) needs to deliver a $90,000 diamond to its owner, only she knows the butler of the house is on her trail and he wants the shiny stuff for himself. The girl concocts an elaborate scheme to ensure the diamond is not stolen: she hides it in a bar of soap while loudly telling her mistress that it’s going to be hidden in a jewel box stuffed into her big 1910s hairdo (all the while knowing the butler will be listening). En route to the niece, the girl is kidnapped by the would-be thieves, but far from being a fainting damsel, she outsmarts the lot of them.

Mignon Anderson is not a well-remembered name even among silent film buffs, but she does well for herself in this film. Her character is remarkably proactive, using her brains to save herself and the diamond. Thanhouser (the studio that produced this movie) promoted her as another Mary Pickford type (“I was supposed to look like Mary Pickford— I really didn’t,” she told historian Anthony Slide years later), innocent and spunky. For those who think Edwardian movie actresses were all delicate china dolls lashed to the train tracks, here Anderson does her own stunts, dropping twenty feet from an open window.

There’s not too much more to say: this is an entertaining little gem with so much packed into fifteen minutes. Give it a look!

Sources:

Silent Players by Anthony Slide

The Singin’ in the Rain Blogathon: Examining the Broadway Ballet

This post is for the Singin’ in the Rain blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse.

“Gotta dance!”

Despite brimming with gorgeous production design and iconic moments, Singin’ in the Rain‘s thirteen-minute Broadway Ballet sequence is the most controversial episode of the entire film. Gene Kelly thought it was too long. Co-director Stanley Donen’s distaste for the sequence was so great that he actually doctored a print requested by fellow filmmaker Julie Dassin, cutting more than half of the ballet out because he thought it interrupted the flow of the narrative to no purpose. Go online and it isn’t uncommon to find this sort-of exchange among movie geeks:

Movie geek 1: “What’s the point of the Broadway Melody scene?”

Movie geek 2: “Satisfying Gene Kelly’s ego.”

Considering how Arthur Freed was the one who pushed for a big ballet sequence rather than Kelly (whose original conception of the “Broadway Melody” number was more modest), this isn’t the right answer. However, the question still stands– does the Broadway Ballet have any true justification beyond
“we need a showstopper to bookend the movie”?

It is true that the ballet does not progress the main plot of Singin’ in the Rain (though neither does the big fashion show segment of “Beautiful Girl” or the entirety of “Make ‘Em Laugh”). It’s best to compare the Broadway Ballet to the most celebrated dream ballet of them all, the seventeen-minute dance sequence in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, itself a big inspiration for Gene Kelly.

What makes the ballet of The Red Shoes tower above others of its kind is the way it delves into the psychology of the protagonist. The sequence is openly surreal, with the young dancer projecting the two men in her life onto the other characters. Reality and fantasy blur, illustrating the dancer’s inner conflict between art and real life. Singin’ in the Rain is a much lighter movie than The Red Shoes, but the Broadway Ballet is arguably a similar psychological projection for Kelly’s swashbuckling hero, Don Lockwood.

Consider his character for a moment. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that Don comes from a dance background. When success on vaudeville eludes him, he resorts to film work, first as an on-set musician and then as a stuntman. He stumbles into movie stardom in a manner that suggests anything but his “dignity, always dignity” motto, becoming successful but arrogant and complacent. The talkie revolution endangers his star status. The great irony is that a return to his undignified song and dance roots is what salvages Don’s career, making him a perfect fit for changing times.

Now, what does this have to do with the ballet sequence? A lot since the ballet both reflects Don’s character development and the Hollywood milieu in which he works.

A breakdown of the sequence

The Broadway Ballet stuns from the very start, pulling back from Gene Kelly to reveal a massive set dominated by vibrant neon signs and colorfully-clad dancers. The nameless protagonist of this sequence– who I’ll refer to as “the hoofer”– is almost entirely the opposite of Don’s swashbuckling hero persona. If Don the silent movie star is a mash-up of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, then the hoofer is pure Harold Lloyd, the great slapstick comedian who took on an enthusiastic but hapless everyman persona. His characters tended to long for success in the social world just as the hoofer craves Broadway stardom.

After passing a series of colorful characters on his way to the theater, the hoofer makes his audition rounds, only impressing the third and final agent. He is ushered to a speakeasy, which is presented as a weird kind of haven for those who “gotta dance.” I have always wondered why. Is it because the speakeasy represents a space where normal, stifling social rules no longer apply? Is it a space where the joy of dancing for its own sake can be appreciated? It would seem to be a liberating place given how easily the misfit hoofer is able to energize the crowd, but the presence of mobsters complicates this romantic view. In that sense, the speakeasy might be a bit like Hollywood itself, a place where art and money uneasily sit side by side.

Enter Cyd Charisse as the vamp.

With her Louise Brooks bob and smoke curling from her nostrils, Charisse’s vamp dominates this whole sequence with her slinky sexuality. Her green dress calls to mind both the dollar bill and the serpent in Eden, tempting the hoofer into the cynical, covetous side of show business. The dance between the two evolves from a seduction to a borderline tryst, ending with the vamp seemingly on the verge of submitting before the sparkle of a diamond bracelet lures her back into the arms of her coin-flipping mobster lover.

I’ve seen some claim the vamp is a dream stand-in for the power-hungry Lina Lamont, but I think she’s a general representation of what the hoofer (and Don) could potentially become: a sellout uninterested in art for its own sake.

Before the hoofer can become too broken-hearted, the stage agent wrenches him off and we get a short “rise to the top” montage. Ditching the Harold Lloyd look for a Harpo Marx makeover, the hoofer becomes a burlesque star. He moves onto vaudeville, dressed in a snappy striped suit and a boater, before moving onto the top hat and tails world of the Ziegfield Follies.

Whenever I watch this movie with other people, no one ever fails to note how much less involved the dancing becomes with every supposed upgrade to a ritzier venue. The burlesque and vaudeville dancers crackle with energy, while the beautifully gowned Follies showgirls barely move. The same applies to the hoofer once he’s made good: he puts more effort into tugging at his immaculate cuffs than impressing with any creative choreography. It’s definitely funny, but also a subtle indicator that success for an artist can breed stagnation.

Fading out to images of applauding hands and then a spinning roulette wheel, the film transitions to a casino where the hoofer makes a grand entrance. The carousing inside suggests the post-premiere party Don attends at the start of the movie. His success is cemented, but the sudden presence of the vamp in white creates a mood of longing.

For all his success, it is clear something essential is missing from his life. Convention suggests it might be the desire to share his success with a romantic partner, but arguably, there’s something else at play.

The casino morphs into a pink, Dali-style dreamscape populated only by the dancer and the vamp, suddenly transformed into a long-haired ingenue with a white veil trailing behind her in the wind. This is a dream sequence WITHIN a dream sequence, with the hoofer projecting his romantic aspirations onto the vamp.

Just as some link the green-clad vamp with Lina Lamont, it is also common to see the ingenue figure as a stand-in for Kathy Selden, both because of her romantic innocence and because the pink set is reminiscent of the movie stage setting of “You Were Meant for Me.” That’s a legitimate connection, but continuing with my more abstract interpretation, I think the ingenue is the artistic reverse image of the vamp, representing creative passion unsullied by greed. It’s notable that when the dream ends and the hoofer eagerly approaches his would-be lady love, she tosses him a coin before slinking off to the mobster. She rejects his artistic idealism, suggesting that at the top (and by extension, in show business in general) there’s only room for money.

If we are to see Kathy Selden in anyone in this sequence, I would actually argue she’s better represented by the fresh-faced dancer the hoofer encounters outside the casino. Dressed in the same Harold Lloyd glasses and banana vest get-up, this newcomer’s unspoiled joy in his art rekindles the hoofer’s passion for dance, not unlike the way Kathy helps Don revitalize his endangered movie career by reminding him of his undignified “hoofer” background, now the key to rescuing his career. In the end is the beginning, to use an old cliche.

And then, after the sequence comes to a glorious end and we return to the “real world” of the film, studio head RF claims he “can’t quite picture” Don’s cinematic flights of fantasy. Though Singin’ in the Rain treats RF sympathetically (considering he’s a studio head), he is in the end a money man, ever practical. It’s fitting that even the closing joke of the entire sequence emphasizes the ballet’s presentation of the tension between art and business.

“Broadway always wears a smile”

Picking a favorite number in Singin’ in the Rain is like picking a favorite child. It just seems wrong. For me, it’s a toss up between “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and this massive ballet sequence. But out of the three, the Broadway Ballet strikes me as one of the finest examples of what Hitchcock once called “pure cinema.” The choreography, editing, sets, costumes, and strong visuals tell a story that is compelling on its own, even without its connections to Don’s journey as an artist or the tug of war between money and artistry in Hollywood. To cut a single frame seems a sacrilege (my apologies to Stanley Donen).

Sources:

BFI Classics: Singin’ in the Rain by Peter Wollen

Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies by Stephen M. Silverman

Singin’ in the Rain: The making of an American masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar