The thirty-minute test, or how I learned to stop worrying and just shut the movie off

When you’re a kid, wasting time is no big deal. As an adult, time becomes a precious, limited resource. A thousand things scream for my attention on a daily basis: my job, my writing, cooking, cleaning, exercise, spending time with loved ones, going to the groceries, dentist appointments, etc. Because of this wretched thing called responsibility, I’m not able to watch as many movies as I once could. Unlike reading, which you can squeeze into a lunch break or in the relaxed moments before bed, movie-watching needs to be carved out and planned in advance. You only get so much time.

What I’m trying to say is that I have less time and patience for sitting through movies I do not enjoy in any capacity. I’ll sit through something I don’t like if it’s at least interesting (ex. I dislike Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, but its chief sin certainly isn’t that it’s boring). However, some movies really test my endurance and I find myself bailing more in recent years.

My past self would be horrified by this change in habit. My former philosophy was that finishing as many movies as possible could only be good for me, even if said movie was bad or forgettable. I would make myself complete every little thing I started, no matter how abhorrent or dull.

I now have a thirty-minute rule: if the movie isn’t grabbing me by that point, if my index finger craves the smooth surface of my smartphone just so I can check the weather even though I can hear it thundering outside, I turn the movie off. This does not happen often, but I no longer feel I have to finish every movie I put in my player.

Sometimes it lasts longer than thirty minutes, as with Arthur Penn’s 1965 cult favorite, Mickey One. I really wanted to like that movie. The noirish visuals and Kafkaesque elements are enticing enough, but something wasn’t clicking—maybe it was Warren Beatty, who I’ve come to find I’m pretty cold to as an actor. By the 70-minute point, I shut it off. The same occurred with more classical fare like Saratoga Trunk. I got an hour in, then stopped—Ingrid Bergman as a calculating southern belle should be way more entertaining than that movie makes it.

Will I ever finish these? Maybe. Mickey One I have no desire to revisit, but Saratoga Trunk I might re-pick up just because Bergman is a favorite actress of mine and I feel a bit sad not seeing everything she ever did. However, I only have so much time to watch movies—if it’s not clicking, it’s not clicking and I’d much rather rewatch something I liked (or at least found interesting) or take a chance on some other movie on my never-ending watchlist.

Whimsy and suspense in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (warning – spoilers for 98 year old movie)

It’s intriguing how during the 1920s, Buster Keaton’s features tended to be seen as less dramatic than Chaplin’s. I recall one critic of the period claiming Keaton (and Harold Lloyd) “openly tickle” the audience while only Chaplin was interested in providing an emotional experience.

That sentiment is total nonsense when you think about Our Hospitality. Only Keaton’s second feature film, it represents a major evolution in his storytelling. Three Ages was episodic, essentially three shorts strung together. In contrast, Our Hospitality is a fully developed narrative with dramatic stakes that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock movie.

Strangely, it makes me think of Chaplin’s The Kid—not in terms of tone, as the two movies are nothing alike, but in terms of the way it blends comedy with other genres. The Kid features heavy melodrama that induces more tears than laughter for me. Our Hospitality keeps me on the edge of my seat from the sheer suspense.

This mood comes on strong from the first scene. For those who think Keaton is only a “tickler,” this opening can be shocking, since there is no humor in it at all, not even a twinkle of irony. During a stormy night, two men locked in a generations-spanning feud shoot one another dead. Their families grieve both their lost loved ones and the sad fact that these killings will only extend the vengeance into perpetuity.

Keaton’s plucky, modest persona isn’t a relief from the tension. It makes the audience fear more for his life when he’s cornered by the physically imposing, revenge-obsessed Canfield family. The feud is no laughing matter and the movie makes it clear that Buster isn’t going to be able to walk off a bullet in this storyverse. If he gets shot, he’s dead. Movie over.

It’s amazing how the movie juggles so many tones. It’s got humor and suspense, which as we’ve seen in other films often do go hand in hand, but there is also a gentle whimsy augmenting these elements. The prolonged train scene offers more than gags about how quaint and rural America used to be before mass industrialization—it also provides the sense that the refined Willie McKay is moving to unfamiliar territory where his guilelessness will be a liability.

In the end, love wins the day. Willie outwits his would-be killers (attacking them back seems to be only a last resort judging by that last gag), rescues the girl, and makes peace with the Canfields. In a great many stories, the hero has to beat up, kill, or even just humiliate the villain. I’m not saying that’s an unacceptable approach, but it is always refreshing to see a story where reconciliation is the answer. That might be why I go back to Our Hospitality so often. Its gentleness is all the more appealing in a landscape where so many film “comedies” rely on vulgarity and mean-spiritedness to entertain the audience.

“Dreams may come true, but so do nightmares.”

This. This is the long-form analysis of the Disney Pinocchio I have always wanted. Few people have ever appreciated the movie’s themes about the nature of good and evil at the heart of this film, maybe because most are too traumatized from childhood viewings to want to revisit it or maybe because– as always– people underestimate so-called “kid’s movies.”

As the three-part video argues, Pinocchio is undoubtedly the darkest work in the Disney canon. It has no contest, despite the superficial trappings of darkness in The Black Cauldron or Frollo’s homicidal horniness in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After all, in those movies, the bad guy dies and the community is symbolically exorcised of his evil (even in the more serious-minded Hunchback, medieval Paris is suddenly tolerant of both the disfigured Quasimodo and racial “others” like Esmeralda)– you get no such comfort in Pinocchio, where at worst the villains are inconvenienced but hardly no longer a threat to society. This video also goes into why Pinocchio is more immediately frightening for children, who can understand the nature of the threats Pinocchio faces unlike in Hunchback, where the threats are more likely to click with teens and adults.

It makes me a bit sad that most American family entertainment isn’t willing to go so dark anymore. Sure, there are glimpses of it (Dr. Facilier getting literally dragged off to hell at the end of The Princess and the Frog comes to mind), but Pinocchio‘s darkness is almost all-encompassing, even ontological. The only thing that saves the movie from unpleasantness are its likable characters, humor, and that cathartic ending. Otherwise, it has a view of evil that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s New Hollywood movie.

Happy birthday, Frederick Knott!

Frederick Knott and Grace Kelly on the set of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. I appreciate the pun on the back of Knott’s chair.

Playwright Frederick Knott was born 105 years ago today.

The son of Quaker missionaries, he had a distinguished resume by all accounts: he studied law and played tennis before serving in the British Army during World War II, attaining the rank of major by the time he left the service in 1946. But it is primarily for his theater work that Knott is remembered today, even if he did not write many plays.

Exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas instilled a fascination with the stage from a young age. The child Knott was so enamored with them that he staged his own versions in the family garden. Though he would make his name as a playwright, his first play would not be produced until he was in his thirties. Initially, he tried to make it as a screenwriter, most notably adapting material for horror legend Terence Fisher’s first Hammer project, The Last Page.

Knott’s breakout hit Dial M for Murder struggled to be realized—it was rejected repeatedly as having little box office potential. Frustrated, Knott managed to get the play produced for television by the BBC in 1952, where it made enough of a splash to garner the interest of the West End. The play would become an unexpected smash, quickly moving to Broadway and then attracting the attention of Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock’s film version also proved a great success with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly headlining the project.

Dial M for Murder has been adapted for television multiple times over the years. The above image is from a 1958 production starring John Williams (who was also in Hitchcock’s famous version), Maurice Evans (a veteran of the Broadway production, and Rosemary Harris.

Like the later Columbo series, Dial M is less a “whodunit” than a “how will they be caught.” It follows the sociopathic and greedy Tony Wendice as he plots to have his unfaithful heiress wife murdered before she leaves him for her lover, taking her millions along. The plan is meticulous with seemingly no detail overlooked, but small errors during the execution make big problems and Tony has to improvise while his wife’s paramour (who just happens to be a crime fiction novelist) and a meddling detective wait in the wings.

From then on, Knott was most associated with thrilling potboilers, though he was hardly a prolific writer. There were years-long gaps between his plays: nine between Dial M and Write Me a Murder, and then five between Write and Wait Until Dark. In a sense, Knott became a victim of Dial M’s success: he expressed fears about getting into a “rut” by writing thriller after thriller, but his one attempt at dark comedy (Mr. Fox of Venice) failed to garner interest and so a master of twisty thrillers he has remained.

Knott’s two 1960s thrillers: Write Me a Murder and Wait Until Dark.

Write Me a Murder is an underrated piece of work following mystery authors David and Julie, a pair of illicit lovers who try to enact the perfect murder on the latter’s loathed husband. It had a respectable run, but would be overshadowed by Knott’s next and final play, Wait Until Dark, a sinister home invasion thriller. New York native Susy Hendrix is a blind woman targeted by a trio of cunning drug smugglers, their struggle culminating in a showdown that put both the characters and the audience in near-total darkness. Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark received a popular Hollywood adaptation, with Audrey Hepburn giving the final performance of her superstar heyday in the lead role.

Like Dial M, Wait Until Dark was enormously successful and has been revived often over the years, though never more infamously than the 1998 Broadway production with Quentin Tarantino as the villain. How I wish there was video of it.

Wait Until Dark’s success on stage and screen closed out Knott’s career. Though many an advance was thrown his way, Knott was content to coast off the continued success of his thrillers for the remaining decades of his life, even though he still had ideas for other stage work running through his brain. He would pass away in 2002 at the age of 86.

Knott has left an indelible impact, even if his name is only known to theater geeks and classic film buffs. His thrillers could almost be considered a trilogy on the myth of the perfect crime. All feature a criminal mastermind with a major case of hubris, his plans undermined by overlooked details and unexpected behavior from the potential victims.

Knott also had a good handle on witty dialogue and concise characterization. He had a particular talent for creating memorable villains, each unique and menacing in their own way, but his sympathetic characters like the meek but unrelenting Julie of Write Me a Murder or the vulnerable yet tough-minded Susy of Wait Until Dark are also well-drawn on the page, parts any actress would be proud to take on.

Knott’s writing is most remembered in the form of major Hollywood versions of his plays, like the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock Dial M for Murder. These films in turn have been ripped off or unofficially remade many times ever after, such as 1998’s A Perfect Murder, a sexed up reimagining of Dial M.

Knott’s wife Ann claimed he did not enjoy writing and only did so for the big, big money. If so, I’m glad he got past his dislike of writing to give us what he did.

So, happy birthday Frederick Knott—because of you, I haven’t opened a fridge or picked up a pair of scissors without thinking of murder ever since.

References:

https://www.bard.org/study-guides/about-the-playwright-dial-m-for-murder

https://www.playbill.com/article/frederick-knott-playwright-of-wait-until-dark-and-dial-m-for-murder-dead-com-110662

“Thrill to the same idol who made your mothers’ hearts flutter wildly” – Revivals of the sheik movies in the 1930s

William Drew’s The Last Silent Picture Show really is a treasure of a book. Way too many people get their film history from (admittedly delightful) movies like Singin’ in the Rain, where it’s made to look like the talkie revolution occurred overnight. Most might even assume the American moviegoing public was content to let their silent favorites rot by 1930.

The actual history is far more complicated. In truth, silent films would sometimes get revived for Depression-era audiences, even after all theaters converted to sound. (Not to mention, silent films would still be produced in some Asian and European countries until the mid-1930s.)

Silent comedies were usually revived and given some level of respect– after all, you were supposed to laugh at them. Silent dramas were not so fortunate, at best treated as nostalgia items and at worst openly mocked as outmoded camp. However, there is an interesting case of silent drama revival I just have to share from Drew’s book.

“Show it– and machine guns wouldn’t keep the people away.”

It might surprise some that the two Rudolph Valentino sheik movies were revived throughout the 1930s. The popularity of the original Edith Hull novel and the 1921 movie adaptation had sparked a craze for desert romance in the 1920s, inspiring fashion trends and slang words like “sheik” and “sheba.”

By the time the talkies arrived, this fad mostly died out, though there were a few humorous treatments of the “sheik” theme, such as 1937’s The Sheik Steps Out with Ramon Novarro, a low-budget affair that converted the Hull novel from a racy melodrama to a screwball comedy and replaced the trembling Lady Diana with a wisecracking American heiress.

When Depression-era exhibitors put The Sheik on the bill, it was usually a bid for nostalgia. These showings did draw patrons, though The Sheik was mostly mocked as a “typical” silent film, what with Valentino’s bug-eyed antics and Agnes Ayres’ imitation of a fainting goat. Apparently forgetting that critics in the 1920s had the same issues with the film, it was held up as yet another example of how unquestionably, absolutely superior sound films were in terms of realism (for what that’s worth).

The hell with realism– realism would deny me fantastic reaction images like this!

Not everyone reacted this way, of course: Valentino still had a devoted cult fanbase and they did not appreciate snickers from fellow audience members or the accompaniment playing “The Sheik of Araby” to camp up the screening.

While The Sheik might have been enjoyed as a guilty and nostalgic pleasure (not unlike the reaction some have to Twilight these days), The Son of the Sheik was another matter. When a Washington DC theater revived that one in 1938, people rushed for seats.

Yes, you read that right! The “sophisticated” 1930s audience lined around the block to see a silent movie to the point where hundreds of patrons had to be turned away at the box office.  Inspired by this success, over five hundred theaters across the United States would revive Son and always to the same bewildered reaction that an “old movie” could be good. Not so bad it’s good, but genuinely well-made, entertaining, and holding its own against current releases. Even skeptical youngsters who had been kids when Valentino died were entranced.

A surprise success (all over again).

What won over an audience of people hostile to silent films? Comments from both critics and ordinary film-goers emphasized the film’s blend of hot-blooded drama and self-aware humor as the main ingredient for its continued appeal. Unlike the first movie, the sequel is aware it’s dealing in hokum. The actors are all in on the joke while still preserving the sense that vital things are at stake for the characters, a magnificent achievement.

And then there was the silver image of Valentino in his prime. Girls and women too young to have experienced Valentino mania thought he was just as appealing as Hollywood heartthrobs of the day. And of course, those who had loved him long ago felt that fangirlish fervor all over again. As one patron explained, “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him– I still love him.”

If there’s something to be gleaned from this anecdote, it’s that many people– even in the thick of the Golden Age of Hollywood– have turned their noses up at anything older than them or just perceived as “old” in general. This isn’t unique to millennials or Gen Z. Even during the silent era, audiences mocked the stage melodramas of their grandparents’ time.

Everyone thinks themselves more sophisticated then the storytellers who came before them, that their tastes are less “cringey” than the audiences of yesteryear. Sad, but seemingly inevitable. However, there are plenty of treasures from the past in every medium, waiting to be appreciated for those willing to take a chance on anything not made in the past five minutes.

On that note, read Drew’s book! It really is fascinating and filled with other interesting stories like this. In a way, silent films are given more love and attention now than they were immediately after sound arrived.

I’m baaack– kind of

Well, it’s been half a decade since I’ve haunted WordPress, hasn’t it?

What a wild five years it’s been.

To be honest, I’ve been cutting back on social media in general, both for my mental health and so I can concentrate on other interests. However, I still enjoy posting about old movies, so I don’t plan on totally jumping ship, either here or on that dreaded hellsite Tumblr.

So what does that mean for this blog? Well, I plan on posting blogathon posts here. Let’s face it: WordPress is better suited than Tumblr for longer-form content. Easier on the eyes.

So yep, look for my upcoming contribution to the Silent Movie Day blogathan here! I plan on writing about the top-grossing movies of 1921. Check out Silentology and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs for the full line-up– or to sign up yourself!

“Father and son” – Steamboat Bill Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner, 1928)

annex-keaton-buster-steamboat-bill-jr-_nrfpt_03

Steamboat Bill Jr. is Buster Keaton’s final independent film, though not necessarily the last one in which he had creative control. His first work with MGM, The Cameraman, could be said to hold that title, so when you watch Steamboat Bill Jr. there is not the same sense of the bittersweet you may get when watching Keaton’s final 1928 masterpiece. However, there is something grand about Steamboat Bill Jr., not just in its dazzling final hurricane sequence, tight sense of plotting and structure, or Buster’s increasingly creative pratfalls, but in the emotional heart of the story, young Willie Canfield’s efforts to simultaneously please his father Bill Sr. (Ernest Torrance) and be with his college girlfriend, Kitty (Marion Byron)— a hard task, considering her father and his are rivals in the river boat transportation business.

It is true that Keaton’s films often show his characters more comfortable with props and animals than other people; this is perhaps the largest reason why his characters feel otherworldly, as though he hailed from another dimension altogether and were perplexed by ordinary human interaction. Perhaps more than any of Keaton’s previous films, Steamboat Bill Jr. has Keaton interacting with other characters constantly, and they are some of the most interesting supporting characters in his oeuvre.

Keaton’s feature characters don’t often have families. With the exceptions of the aunt in Our Hospitality who warns him of the feud, the parents in Battling Butler who push him to “rough it” in the wilderness in order to become less dependent on luxury, and the doting mother in College (played by 1910s comedienne Florence Turner, no less!), most Keaton protagonists are loners looking for a place to call home or at least someone to share home with (often a love interest, sometimes a cow). Yet in Steamboat Bill Jr. unlike any other Keaton movie, the protagonist’s family is a source of conflict. In Keaton’s short work, Torrance may have been purely the heavy with his scowling face and towering build, but here that function is complicated: he is the bullying heavy, but he is also Willie’s perplexed father. Willie’s petite frame, stylish clothes, and enthusiastic ukulele-playing have the burly Bill fearing his son may be a wimp at best or a touch “purple under the collar” at worst. And while Willie’s relationship with Kitty may dispel the latter anxiety, his prime desire is to make Willie more of what he thinks a man ought to be. Being a son who wants to please the father he’s never known, Willie agrees to go along with it.

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Irritated with his son’s college boy aesthetic, Bill Sr. takes Willie to the hat shop to try on a series of comically oversized hats. Of course, the scene is funny, what with the silly headwear and Buster’s attempts to look as dignified as possible in them, but the scene is hardly frivolous or throwaway. It serves an important narrative function: the main conflict of the film is father versus son, or perhaps more specifically, the father wanting to fashion his son into his own image. Yet the moment Bill Sr. is satisfied with a hat and the two Canfields leave the shop, the headwear is blown off of Willie’s head the moment they leave the shop. Already, we are shown through the visuals that Bill’s mission is a doomed one; Willie cannot be changed and, as we come to learn later, should not be.

And yet despite Bill’s distaste for his son being who he is, he is not presented as a terrible person or black-hatted villain. Indeed, Bill is protective of his son, knocking out any sailor who attempts to bully or beat up on Willie. And once his violent temper lands him in prison, he gains a newfound respect for his effete son’s resourcefulness in the hilarious and celebrated tools-in-bread sequence. Like Annabelle Lee in The General who so wanted Johnnie Gray to be a soldier, Bill Sr. discovers that there was nothing wrong with his son after all, he never needed to change himself to prove heroic. (Throughout the picture, Keaton and Torrance have such wonderful chemistry in general; it’s too bad they never shared the screen again. It could have livened up some of the dreadful projects MGM had in store for Keaton in the early 1930s.)

In the end, Willie more than proves himself, as Keaton’s heroes often do. Yes, he may not be physically intimidating or as willing to pick a fight, but he does manage to possess bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness when he rescues Kitty and Bill from drowning. Willie is also forgiving. Both Bill and Kitty want Willie’s complete, unwavering loyalty to one or the other of them; both become angry when he fails to split ties with either of them. Rejected by both, Willie has no reason to stay in Mississippi, yet he sees his father in distress and stays to help him. After rescuing his father and his girl, all three reconcile and are allowed to live happily ever after.

Keaton’s last two truly Keaton-esque features, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Cameraman, allow his protagonist to be more vulnerable in a way, put into situations where we see more of his emotional side in regards to human interactions. Not that he is cold or machine-like in his earlier features as some silent film aficionados have claimed: for me, his hurt and humiliation during the early scenes of The General, where Annabelle Lee rejects him, are moving— though Keaton does not keep you feeling sorry for his hero for long because dammit, we’ve got a train engine to save! But the intensified emotional qualities of these two films make them stand out, all culminating in that famously heartbreaking descent into the sand scene in The Cameraman. The father-son moments and romantic scenes in Steamboat Bill Jr. and much of The Cameraman are perfect illustrations of what film scholar Imogen Sara Smith means when she claims Keaton’s movie persona is like “Baked Alaska in reverse,” cool to the touch, warm at the center.

(Images courtesy of Doctor Macro)

Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I watched this magnificent film again last night. Nitrate Diva’s write-up from four years ago is divine, a wonderful close reading of a single moment in the movie which speaks volumes about its themes. Give it a read!

Nitrate Diva

I need to reign myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty…

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The House of Darkness (dir. DW Griffith, 1913)

The House of Darkness is rather unsung as far as Griffith’s short films go. It’s about the soothing effect of music upon a mentally deranged man, one which becomes a major boon when he breaks into the home of a former nurse. While the video above cites Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish as the stars, it is Claire McDowell as the nurse and Charles Hill Mailes as the mentally ill patient who are the real stars of the show, beautifully underplaying parts which could have easily turned hammy.

Also am I the only one who thinks the shot set-up at 9 minutes and 56 seconds in looks a lot like the famous scene from James Whale’s Frankenstein where Karloff breaks into the bride’s chamber? The use of suspense there, with the woman unaware of the potential danger behind her, is very similar between the two movies.

Amazing New Keaton Discoveries – My Wife’s Relations

Always cool to hear more silent era discoveries are being uncovered, even in the modern world!

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

ca Click to enlarge – newly discovered footage from My Wife’s Relations at the Alvarado Arms.

An entirely original stunt - how is it we've never seen this before? Click to enlarge – an entirely new stunt – who knew this was awaiting discovery for 95 years?

An astonishing new Keaton stunt, Buster’s return visit to a classic apartment house, and yet another surprise appearance of the Cops – The Kid – Safety Last! Hollywood alley – the Lobster Films restoration of My Wife’s Relations (1922), with over a minute of restored footage unseen for decades, is a cornucopia of new discoveries and delights.

On screen Buster is mistakenly married to a harridan, moves in with her caveman brothers, and after a climatic family brawl, the film concludes (in the version we’ve been accustomed to seeing) as Buster flees for a Reno-bound train. In the Lobster restoration, Buster flees the family apartment, is chased back inside by the cops, only to escape from the…

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