Happy birthday William Wyler

Today is William Wyler’s 120th birthday.

Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.

You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.

I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.

I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.

Carrie

I couldn’t find a trailer for this one, so enjoy this small clip which demonstrates the assured direction and performances of this underrated movie.

Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.

Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.

The Collector

Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.

The Heiress

I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.

An update (and an apology)

Image source: Movie Poster DB

I try to post at least twice a month on this blog, but June has been doing a number on me. My weekends have been consistently busy and my post for this month was devolving into a cranky, unfocused rant… and I don’t want to turn this blog into a receptacle for grouchiness. There’s enough of that already, both online and off. I like to keep this place positive, so for this month I’m going to have to sit out.

I do have at least three posts in line for next month, so that should make up for the deficiency this June. There will be the usual short of the month, as well as a birthday tribute to William Wyler and a contribution to the Singin’ in the Rain blogathon hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.

I’m also hoping to put out my first audio commentary up before autumn rolls around. I’ve wanted to record some for a long time now– like ever since the earliest days of my movie geekdom. Listening to the great James Bond commentaries from YouTuber Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade inspired me to finally get off my butt and do one of my own instead of just thinking about it but never actually doing it out of fear of making a fool of myself. For this first one, I’ve picked Wait Until Dark, a 1967 Audrey Hepburn suspense-thriller and one of my favorite films ever. Hopefully, it will be the first of many because there’s nothing I love more than researching and discussing the movies I’m passionate about. And who knows? That might eventually evolve into my making video essays, another long-time wish of mine… but one step at a time.

I guess this is just a long-winded way of saying, I haven’t jumped ship on this blog like I did back in 2015. For the 4.5 people who probably read this website, be at ease.

PS I did not forget about creating a site index page. Hoping to get that done ASAP.

Short of the month: The Wizard’s Apprentice (dir. Sidney Levee, 1930)

During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.

Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.

Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.

While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.

One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.

An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.

Sources:

William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis

On George Lucas, The Searchers, and cinematic quotations

This piece was supposed to be for May the Fourth—whoops.

To be honest, it switched focus many times—it was originally a simple analysis of the different 1950s movies which influenced Attack of the Clones, the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. However, I got caught up on one of these movies, a film that has a long-standing relationship with the Star Wars saga—John Ford’s The Searchers.

When you think about it, Ford’s movie seems an odd inspiration for a Flash Gordon-esque space opera. Yes, Ford was a master of composition and his images of the natural world have inspired a great many filmmakers, but when you look at the story proper, it doesn’t seem like Lucas inherited much of it at all—at least, not at first.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Set in post-Civil War Texas, The Searchers opens with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier turned wanderer, to his brother’s homestead. His homecoming is interrupted by a Comanche raid in which most of the family is brutalized and killed. Ethan’s two nieces are captured by the tribe, leaving him and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to pursue the captives across the wilderness.

The older of the girls turns up dead and the search for the younger takes so long that it is almost a guarantee that she’s been integrated into the tribe, possibly even married to one of the men. Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is so strong that it becomes clear he plans to kill the girl rather than rescue her. The only one in his way is the principled Martin, but will he be able to change Ethan’s mind before it is too late?

The Searchers is no simple adventure. Suffused with rage and despair despite its comic scenes, it questions the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” narratives of earlier westerns with a main character whose homicidal bigotry is hard to reconcile with his “compelling strength” as critic Edward Buscombe once observed in his book-length analysis of the film. It’s little wonder the film garnered more appreciation in the jaded 60s and 70s than when it was originally released. New Hollywood’s shining stars tend to list the movie as a favorite. George Lucas is no exception.

Lucas’ homage to The Searchers during the burning of the Lars farm was noticed and commented on even back in 1977. Second image source: Second Reel

The Searchers is often touted as a major influence on the original Star Wars film (also referred to as A New Hope once it became clear Star Wars would become a series), but the connections always seemed thin to me. Sure, you could draw broad comparison between weary war veteran Obi-wan Kenobi with weary war veteran Ethan Edwards—both fought on the losing side of a civil war, both serve as mentor figures to an idealistic younger man. However, Obi-wan is a positive figure while Ethan certainly is not, so the comparison does not run too deep. There’s also the famous quotation of the destroyed homestead in which Luke’s return to the Lars farm openly recreates Ford’s compositions in the 1956 movie. Otherwise, the original Star Wars is a light adventure in which grief and rage are shunted to the side. The movie quotes The Searchers without actually dealing with its themes. This is not a problem, mind you—any wallowing over the barbecued Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would bog down the film and clash with the pulpy tone it’s going for.

However, A New Hope is not the end of Lucas’ quotations of The Searchers. There’s more of Ford in another, less regarded film in the Lucas saga—Attack of the Clones. Released in 2002, it was the second of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy and usually touted as the worst of the three, even in light of current re-evaluations of the prequel films. Mock the cheesy love dialogue all you want, but rewatching this movie again, I was struck by how much more meaningful the references to Ford’s film are.

One of the major plot threads in Attack of the Clones concerns Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) search for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), who was left enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine at the end of the previous movie in the series. Plagued by nightmares of his mother’s distress and convinced these visions are prophetic, Anakin rushes back to Tattooine in the hopes of finding her. Instead, he discovers that Shmi, though briefly liberated and happily married to a farmer, was captured by the Tusken Raiders, a nomadic tribe hostile to outsiders. Anakin tracks down the Tusken camp and finds his mother just as she is dying, presumably from weeks of beatings. Enraged, Anakin kills every Tusken in sight—(in)famously “not just the men—but the women—and the children too!”

This chapter of the film almost operates as a condensed remake of The Searchers. Anakin’s scouting out the camp and the later funeral scene openly quote shots in Ford’s movie. And then there’s the basic dramatic trappings: the quest for a captive loved one, the obsessed warrior driven by hatred and grief, and even, to a smaller extent, the emphasis on the individual’s psychological need for belonging in a community. Ford extensively explores that third point through the romance subplot with Laurie (Vera Miles) and his depiction of close-knit settler families, while Lucas makes those notions more implicit in Anakin’s alienation from the stoic Jedi Order and how this divide pushes him to the dark side.

Everyone talks about how Anakin is meant to evoke James Dean’s red-jacketed teen hero in Rebel Without a Cause, but he shares way more DNA with Ethan Edwards. For both characters, the genesis of their never-ending rage comes from the violent death of a mother (we see it plainly in Attack of the Clones, while this bit of Ethan’s backstory is only evidenced by the information on Mrs. Edward’s gravestone). Erotic transgression troubles both characters as well: Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the supposed-to-be-free-of-romantic-attachments Anakin is in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). For these anti-heroes, love becomes twisted into something obsessive and ugly, turning each into monsters unable to connect with anyone. In the end, both are redeemed by love, though neither will ever fully escape their isolation from the greater community.

Image source: The Cinema Archives

Beyond showing George Lucas understands film history, what does all this referencing really do? It’s easy to take the standard cynical view that it’s yet another example of the shallowness of postmodern art. While damning the similarly allusion-happy Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich once accused Lucas and others of his generation of “simply making movies they grew up with, over again.” Bogdanovich’s criticism suggests a man caught up in his childhood loves, doomed to a grotesque Peter Pan career.

But I can’t go there, especially since Attack of the Clones shows a decided upping of the ante in Lucas’ engagement with The Searchers. He’s in dialogue with Ford in a way he was not before, actually dealing with Ford’s themes head-on. Maybe it’s because Lucas was older by the time he got to the prequels and therefore better able to understand the tragedy of The Searchers than when he was young. In that sense, he’s not only having a dialogue with The Searchers, but with A New Hope, and arguably with his younger self as well. This suggests not some Peter Pan with a camera, as Lucas’ detractors would define him, but an artist whose worldview evolved between youth and old age. Whatever one thinks of the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels, one cannot accuse Lucas of treading water with them or with his relationships to the movies that shaped him in his youth.

Sources:

https://kitbashed.com/blog/the-searchers/

https://kitbashed.com/blog/there-was-once-a-certain-kind-of-cinema

The Searchers: BFI Classics by Edward Buscombe

Short of the Month: The Sinking of the Lusitania (dir. Winsor McCay, 1918)

Animation pioneer Winsor McCay was a man of many talents. Before 1920, McCay would work as an illustrator, comic book creator, political cartoonist, vaudevillian, and filmmaker. It is as a filmmaker that he is most remembered today, particularly for his 1915 short Gertie the Dinosaur. However, his ambitions went beyond what most thought possible for animation as an art form. Considering we still live in an era where the mainstream sees animation as little more than an electric babysitter, the scope of those ambitions remains impressive.

In 1915, McCay was enraged by the fate of the Lusitania, an English commercial liner torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Almost 1,200 people died in the disaster, including American civilians. The sinking would not catapult the US into the Great War, but it did establish angry feelings towards Imperial Germany and would be a major contributing factor when the country did enter the conflict in 1917. In the meantime, the event inspired McCay to create a harrowing work that would allow people to see the ship’s final moments.

The Sinking of the Lusitania is McCay’s masterpiece and representative of a road long untaken by the American animation industry at large. To this day, mainstream American animation is associated with two genres: fantasy (usually for children) or comedy (usually for children or frat boys). The Sinking of the Lusitania is neither. McCay set out to recreate the infamous sinking in an expressive but realistic style, essentially creating an animated documentary.

The film was a labor of love for McCay. He funded it himself and worked on it in his free time for a period of twenty-two months. While the film never made a profit for its creator, it was heavily admired by both audiences and animation professionals at the time.

Early cartoons tend to be pigeonholed as visually simplistic, but this is certainly not the case for The Sinking of the Lusitania. Here, the sheer amount of detail is staggering. Just look at the virtuosity of the shot in which the first torpedo speeds through the water, fish ducking out of its path—or look at the long shot of the sinking ship and the tiny figures of individual human beings jumping from the vessel. These are scenes that would have been either impossible or difficult to achieve in a live-action movie during that time.

Just compare this film to the 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle The Little American, which features a thinly disguised depiction of the Lusitania’s sinking. The animated film is far more chilling and dynamic.

The sinking scene starts at 16:40.

McCay never shies away from the horror of the sinking. The short’s most striking moments feature the victims of the attack trying to keep their heads above the waves, their miserable faces resembling skulls. Most heart-wrenching of all is the shot of a mother thrusting her baby above the water, desperately trying to ensure its survival before they are both pulled down.

Propaganda is perhaps the more appropriate descriptor for this film than documentary. Released during the war itself, The Sinking of the Lusitania brims with outrage against Imperial Germany, reflecting popular sentiment during this time. Anti-German feelings grew to a lethal fever pitch once the country entered the war in 1917, unfortunately extending even to German-American communities.  The “Huns” were depicted as freedom-hating, baby-killing monsters who needed to be stopped at all costs. The final intertitle is chilling in its echoing of this national fervor: “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

An ad for the film in The Moving Picture Weekly

In recent years, some elements of the film’s depiction of the sinking have been debunked. Most significantly, it was revealed in 1982 that the ship was carrying military ammunition. Of course, that does not make the loss of innocent life any less tragic. As animation historian John Canemaker observed, even if these facts had been known in 1915, they likely would not have had much impact on the emotions surging throughout the US at the time.

Removed from the fear-soaked, enraged environment in which it was conceived, The Sinking of the Lusitania remains compelling, its combination of gorgeous animation with raw emotions elevating it from mere historical curio to disturbing work of art. Canemaker once said the film’s dramatic power was not equaled in American animation for many years. I would have to agree.

Sources:

Winsor McCay by John Canemaker

“Never was a story of more woe,” a review of Romeo and Juliet (dir. George Cukor, 1936)

Image source: Leslie Howard fansite

People do crazy things for love.

In producer Irving Thalberg’s case, he wanted to give his wife Norma Shearer—then the undisputed queen of the MGM lot—the chance for the crowning artistic achievement of her career. The Boy Wonder desired to bring his favorite Shakespeare play to the screen: Romeo and Juliet, with Shearer starring as the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Though Shearer was in her mid-30s and completely lacking experience with Shakespearean drama, this did not deter Thalberg, who thought the part would allow her to reach new dramatic heights. He spared no expense, lavishing two million dollars on grand sets, gorgeous costumes, and an exhaustive shooting schedule. Several actors turned down the Romeo role, which eventually went to forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard. With bright stars, a high budget, and a classic tale at the heart of it, Thalberg expected a smashing success.

Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet was ultimately as star-cross’d as Shakespeare’s lovers. Though much ballyhooed before release, the film was indifferently received. While attendance was okay for a more moderately budgeted film, it was not nearly enough to cover this super-productions’s immense cost. Unlike the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (also known as “the one where Romeo looks like Zac Efron”) and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation, this Romeo and Juliet did not strike a chord with the zeitgeist beyond inspiring a vogue for “Juliet caps.” By the end of its run, the film lost almost one million dollars, failing to live up to Thalberg’s hopes. To make matters worse, Thalberg died shortly afterward, ending his career on a disappointing note.

Some derided movies gain prestige over time, with new audiences discovering their merits. This never happened to Romeo and Juliet. If anything, its reputation soured. The ages of the main cast members became more of an issue once Zeffirelli’s version famously used actual teenagers in the lead roles. The buttoned-up love scenes were absurd compared to the explicitness permitted in a post-code world. Shakespeare scholars scorn the film, finding it unimaginative. Norma Shearer fans positively resent its existence, feeling her overgrown Juliet takes away attention from her superior performances in better movies. On the whole, it’s a laughing stock, even among classic movie fans.

But is the movie all that bad? When approached with an open mind, is it a better experience than the critics say?

First, the elephant in the room—yes, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard are way too old to be playing teenagers. At youngest, Shearer could pass for a twenty-something, whereas Howard always looks like a man at the dawn of middle age. While more mature actors could get away with playing these roles on the safe distance of a stage (for example, nineteenth-century stage star Charlotte Cushman played Romeo well into her forties), the camera is less forgiving, even with flattering make-up and lighting.

Hot take: their ages aren’t as big a deal as people make them out to be.

Shearer and Howard might not pass for teens, but their chemistry was enough to get me to stop caring that they weren’t high schoolers. By the time they lock eyes at the Capulet ball, the two have me utterly sold. In the text itself, Shakespeare signals to the audience that the immediate attraction between Romeo and Juliet is something extraordinary by having the two speak a shared sonnet before their first kiss, and Shearer and Howard help sell this development with their body language. There’s a wonderful blend of sweetness and burgeoning passion in the both of them– especially Shearer, who portrays Juliet’s awakening sexual desire brilliantly.

Shearer’s performance here is often held up as antithetical to her more celebrated pre-code work. Pre-code historian Mike LaSalle derides her turn as Juliet with terms like “queenly” and “embarrassing,” but I find that her Juliet shares commonalities with her more famous roles. Shearer’s characters are often marked by dramatic transformations, usually related to defying society’s double standards, such as Jerry in The Divorcee, who “balances the books” when her husband casually cheats on her, or Elizabeth in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, who breaks from a controlling, possessive father to be with the man she loves.

Shakespeare’s Juliet is a triumph of characterization, going from a young girl willing to allow others to chart her life’s course to a bold young woman willing to sacrifice everything to pursue what she wants, even if it goes against the wishes of her family or the dictates of society itself (which, remember, demands daughters unquestioningly obey their fathers). Chasing her own desires, defying patriarchal authority—doesn’t sound too different from what Shearer was doing in the early 1930s to me.

Image source: Leslie Howard fan site

While Shearer’s acting dominates the film, Howard is no slouch, even though his take on Romeo takes a little getting used to for those of us reared on latter versions. Howard is quite subdued compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann version (“I AM FOR-TUNE’S FOOOO-OOOOOL!”). Howard’s schtick was playing sensitive, gentle guys, and his Romeo continues in this tradition, though he also gets to be the bold wooer familiar from the play, eagerly pulling Juliet to him moments after they lock eyes on the dance floor. While hotter blood might have improved certain scenes, Howard’s Romeo is nevertheless properly romantic through and through.

A common complaint is that the film renders this most horny of plays utterly sexless due to the constraints of the Production Code. Before rewatching the movie, the dominant image my mind associated with the film was Cukor’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital embrace: Juliet lays across the bed buttoned up to the chin and Romeo is draped across her with both feet on the floor.

Definitely a universe away from Zeffirelli’s nude scenes.

Color me shocked when upon revisiting the movie I found that the filmmakers snuck a great deal of spiciness past the censors. Mercutio’s “bawdy hand upon the prick of noon” line (accompanied by raucous laughter from the dirty-minded Nurse) is only the most audacious example. Mercutio still gets to conjure Romeo’s initial infatuation Rosaline by her eyes, forehead, lip, foot, leg, thigh, and “the demenses that there adjacent lie.” Juliet retains part of her pre-wedding night soliloquy, which is all about how eager she is to lose her virginity. Even the bedroom scene I just mocked has a bit more heat than I remembered. Howard is out of his doublet, and the actors share a languid intimacy that strongly suggests this Romeo and Juliet have done more than just lay around holding hands in the dark.

Most of the supporting cast is strong. Edna May Oliver is delightful as the bawdy Nurse, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt simmers with barely contained menace, and Reginald Denny exudes a calm presence as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. If I have any complaint, it’s with John Barrymore as Mercutio. By this point in his career, Barrymore’s image was on the verge of self-parody, and he was often uncooperative on the set due to his alcoholism. His Mercutio is less the life of the party than an unpleasant, overgrown frat boy on crack. The character’s famous “Queen Mab” speech is reduced to sped up nonsense, and the character’s dying moments lack the bitterness needed to sell it as a proper turning point in the story.

If the MGM Romeo and Juliet has a fatal flaw, it isn’t the actor’s ages—it’s the lack of an original vision for the story. I hate to keep making comparisons with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann adaptations, but they make a good contrast because they succeeded where MGM failed in having stronger takes on the material. Zeffirelli emphasizes the play’s themes of youth and age, highlighting the generational conflict and making the young people feel like ordinary teens in their idealism, self-absorption, and impulsiveness. Luhrmann makes extensive use of religious imagery and juxtaposes it against a violent, profane, and decadent setting, making Romeo and Juliet’s love more precious by contrast. These films make bold choices that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s text, but that’s part of bringing the Bard to life for new audiences.

The MGM film does not have any such “take” on the material. It keeps to the text without doing much to draw out particular themes or ideas, save for linking the lovers with pastoral imagery: Romeo is introduced listening to a shepherd sing in the hills, Juliet is introduced in an orchard feeding a pet deer like a Disney princess, and the lovers’ sexual consummation is depicted through a montage of nature imagery. Perhaps this is meant to contrast their love with the artifice of the city and the corruption it represents, but the film does little to develop that idea beyond its borderline noirish depiction of the apothecary’s shop. Thalberg famously flew in academics to oversee the production, claiming they were there to “protect Shakespeare from us.” He was terrified of doing it all wrong—he probably figured the script would take care of itself and that all MGM had to do was supply opulent visuals.

The film is certainly dripping with visual beauty—the magnificent sets and elaborate costumes were meant to evoke medieval Italian artists like Botticelli and Gozzoli– but it’s all empty spectacle that doesn’t do much to evoke the passionate, oppressive atmosphere of the play’s Verona. The nature of the production also put its director to a disadvantage. George Cukor did his best work with more intimate comedies and dramas. A larger canvas rarely yielded his best efforts. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, so much emphasis is already placed on the spectacle that the drama is often in danger of being pushed to the side altogether.

Undeniably, Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet is a labor of love, and this is both its greatest strength and ultimate undoing. The good there is comes from Howard and Shearer’s tender chemistry, luminescent and resonant despite their shared maturity. For advocates of 1930s Hollywood and the artificial but enticing soundstage worlds they conjured, Romeo and Juliet’s make-believe Verona is a visual treat. That it doesn’t fully stick the landing is a shame, since so much effort was poured into the endeavor– however, I don’t think those efforts were 100% wasted. I am reminded of an anecdote from the great Shakespeare scholar Northop Frye:

“… why is the story of the tragic love and death of Romeo and Juliet one of the world’s best loved stories? Mainly, we think, because of Shakespeare’s word magic. But, while it was always a popular play, what the stage presented as Romeo and Juliet, down to about 1850, was mostly a series of travesties of what Shakespeare wrote. There’s something about the story itself that can take any amount of mistreatment from stupid producing and bad casting. I’ve seen a performance with a middle-aged and corseted Juliet who could have thrown Romeo over her shoulder and walked to Mantua with him, and yet the audience was in tears at the end.”

For all its imperfections and interpretive timidity, I was still moved by the finale of this Romeo and Juliet. It might not be anyone’s favorite telling of the classic tragedy, but it still has enough treasures for anyone willing to give it an honest chance.

Sources:

The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davies

George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy

Norma Shearer: A Life by Gavin Lambert

Norma: The story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence Quirk

On Shakespeare by Northop Frye

Short of the Month: Le Duel D’ Hamlet (dir. Clement Maurice, 1900)

As always, please watch the short before proceeding to the article– an easy feat considering this one is under two minutes!

Easily the best-known nineteenth-century stage personality, Sarah Bernhardt’s contributions to film history are often overlooked. Famous Players Lasky—later to become Paramount Pictures—began its history with its distribution of The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, a 1912 feature adaptation of Bernhardt’s stage success of the same name. The Divine Sarah would appear in other features throughout the 1910s, but her most intriguing screen appearance was a short film depicting the climax of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

As far as film historians can tell, Bernhardt was the screen’s first Hamlet. She had played the ill-fated Dane on-stage to great sensation in the 1890s. Rather than playing Hamlet as a mopey, lethargic sad-sack unable to make up his mind, Bernhardt chose to emphasize Hamlet’s intellectual strength and determination to see justice done on his own terms.

Beautiful Alfons Mucha poster for Bernhardt’s Hamlet. Image source: Wikipedia.

These two minutes are all we shall ever see of Bernhardt’s Hamlet and the glimpse is tantalizing. Though fifty-six years old, Bernhardt’s Hamlet is energetic and graceful, fencing with youthful relish. The scene is extremely abbreviated, showing Hamlet and Laertes’ fatal duel sans Gertrude and Claudius. The two fight, Hamlet is cut by the poison sword, Hamlet disarms Laertes, Hamlet takes up the poison sword, gets a hit in, and then swoons and dies, falling into the arms of a convenient group of soldiers who bear the body out of camera range. The focus is all on Bernhardt—Laertes doesn’t even get to die on camera.

Unfortunately, this short does not exist in its entirety. It was originally produced as an early talkie for exhibition at the famous Exposition Universelle in Paris, one of several sound experiments on public display. The footage was synchronized with a wax cylinder recording of the actors speaking, but the cylinder has been long lost. It’s such a shame since Bernhardt was known for her rich voice. (If you’re curious about said voice, recordings of her from the turn of the century are available in online archives, such as this emotional speech from Phedre.) It just goes to show that the history of sound movies long predates The Jazz Singer.

Sources:

American Cinema of the 1910s, edited by Charlie Keil and Ben Singer

The divine Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

https://www.victorian-cinema.net/bernhardt

The Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton and Bluffton

It’s finally here!!

Like any geek, I am protective of my favorite artists, particularly when it comes to the way they are portrayed in fiction. Biopics and historical novels that get these favorites wrong in the worst possible ways make my skin crawl. For example, seeing the multi-talented Mabel Normand portrayed as a shrewish hack in the 1992 Chaplin film makes me want to smash the DVD to atoms.

Ugh! This movie might merit its own post from me one day. Image source: https://haphazardstuff.com/chaplin-1992-a-review/

Of course, Buster Keaton ranks highest among my favorite creative people. He’s my favorite filmmaker, bar none, and a major inspiration to me both as an artist and a human being. He was flawed like anyone, but he was also persevering, loyal, and unpretentious.

If you’re a Keaton fan, don’t even try watching this thing. Image source: https://film.nu/filmer/the-buster-keaton-story/10197395.film

This makes certain portrayals of Keaton in fiction frustrating. Let’s take that oh-so charming load of slop The Buster Keaton Story as an example.  It stuffs Keaton’s life into a predictable 1950s biopic framework: a talented star on the rise is undone by a personal vice. All the focus goes to Keaton’s drinking problem and post-sound career slump. We have no idea what distinguished him as a man or as a comedian, let alone as a cinematic master. As far as this movie is concerned, he was a professional alcoholic who did pratfalls on camera now and then.

That’s why I wanted to highlight two excellent Keaton-centric novels for this blogathon: The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy Lord and Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan. On the surface, these books are wildly different: one’s a vampire thriller for adults, the other is a gentle graphic novel for children. But both present Buster Keaton as a nuanced personality without making him a Genius-Saint or a Pagliacci.

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

It’s 1927 and Buster Keaton is having it rough. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge is crumbling, his latest movie The General is not performing as expected, the studio system is starting to swallow up independent creators like himself– oh, and he’s being stalked by two fans. Fans who happen to be vampires.

Vida and Lee Anne decide to make Keaton their latest “pet,” threatening the lives of his loved ones to keep him under their control. However, Keaton starts to enjoy the sensually-charged escape vampire bites give him and he’s particularly drawn to the mysterious, soulful Vida. Unfortunately, Lee Anne is a jealous sociopath and the vampire underworld is not pleased about two of their own threatening undead anonymity by hooking such an illustrious snack.

I admit I am not the biggest vampire aficionado. I’ve read Dracula a few times and love George Romero’s revisionist Martin, but that’s about as far as my love for the blood-sucking undead goes. Wolfe’s book has not converted me into a vampire lover, but it is a good read, especially for Keaton fans.

What stands out most is Wolfe’s historical research. She knows Keaton inside out and even weaves her knowledge of his family history into the vampire narrative. She thoroughly nails the Roaring Twenties down too, from the social attitudes to the slang.

I also loved the little nods to other vampire stories. The most obvious is the book’s epistolary framework, evoking the articles, journals, and transcriptions that make up Stoker’s Dracula. The main meat of the book takes the form of journal entries narrated from Buster’s perspective, but these are bookended by emails between the discoverer of this “vampire diary” and individuals seeking to contest or accept the validity of the document. While this never ties into the overall narrative in any deep way, it is amusing.

Wolfe’s crowning achievement is her characterization of Buster himself. Narrated in first person, you can practically hear that deep, gravelly voice in your head. Buster is funny, self-deprecating, creative, and reserved. He is loyal to his family and friends, even if his relationships with his father and his wife are strained. He loves his work, even if it isn’t always appreciated by the audience or the critics.

Best of all, Keaton is allowed to be flawed. In my decade-plus time as a Buster fan, I have noticed a tendency in fandom to present Keaton as a guileless victim in every area of his life. Everything that ever went wrong for him is either blamed on the Talmadges, Joe Keaton, Joe Schneck, Louis B. Mayer, or whoever. Keaton is basically made into a Holy Fool undone by an unfeeling Hollywood. Wolfe credits Keaton with more agency than that. While he is initially blackmailed into being vampire chow, Keaton comes to see his interactions with the vampires as an escape not unlike being drunk. Just as in real life, Keaton is the partial author of his own unhappiness, but he is also a man concerned with doing right by his loved ones. His inner conflict on the matter is wonderful.

The original characters are no slouch either. Vida and Lee Anne are a striking duo. What’s great about them is how they are without a doubt menacing, but sympathetic and nuanced enough to avoid being simplistic monsters. I was particularly stunned by Lee Anne, who is quite evil (her manner of speaking and gleeful sadism brought to mind Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series), but made extra compelling by her almost poignant love of Hollywood fluff.

There are a few caveats some readers might have with the novel, but they stem from the vampire genre more than anything. Firstly, there’s some violence, with decapitations and bad run-ins with sunlight– which is to be expected when the bloodsucking undead are involved. Secondly, there are sex scenes, some of them graphic. Once again, your mileage may vary, though you can skip them without missing key story information if you so wish.

All in all, I would definitely recommend The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton. There is just so much to love, from the well-realized setting to appearances from other stars of the period. Even if you’re not big into vampires, Keaton’s characterization and the fast-moving thriller plot will keep you riveted.

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

Young Henry thinks he lives a painfully ordinary life in turn-of-the-century Muskegon, Michigan. His life is shaken up when the vaudevillians come to town for the summer. During this time, Henry makes the acquaintance of the child-comedian Buster Keaton. Buster is athletic, creative, and able to make people laugh with ease. Being a big star in a vaudeville act, Buster has everything Henry desires, but Buster is more interested in baseball and pranks than discussing his stage career.  Can this friendship survive a case of mutual envy?

It’s difficult for most books to strike a balance between entertainment and education, especially when writing for children. Reading Bluffton, it’s clear that Matt Phelan wants to introduce the colorful world of vaudeville to young readers without turning the narrative into a dry history lesson. Phelan does this successfully, weaving the historical lessons into a touching narrative about learning to appreciate ordinary life.

Unlike The Vampire Diary, Buster is not the protagonist. That would be Henry, who like the rest of us is an outsider looking in at the crazy world of vaudeville. As a character, Henry is more than just a starstruck fish-out-of-water or a self-insert for the reader. In his small-town ordinariness, he’s a foil for Buster. Buster is famous and on the move constantly, which seems like a dream come true for a kid living in a quiet town. But for Buster, the celebrity’s life is a little overrated.

Keaton takes pride in his abilities and loves the roar of the crowd, but he knows Henry is lucky to not have to bear the adult burdens he must prematurely. It’s easy to forget he shouldered a great many responsibilities at such a tender age and that he was essentially the family breadwinner (a role Keaton retained throughout his life). The story also hints at Joe Keaton’s alcoholism, which as any fan knows, only became worse as Buster grew into adolescence.

Everyone in town but Henry catches on to the less glamorous elements of Buster’s life. Eventually, Henry begins to notice how much is actually going on around him and that his little town is not as boring as he believed. His neighbors have their own talents, such as music and painting, that they practice without the need to become famous or wealthy. Life does not need an audience or 24/7 excitement to be meaningful.

This message is a universal one, but it’s especially relevant in our FOMO-ridden age of social media. Millennials and Gen-Zers tend to think they’re all failures if they haven’t made an impact before age 25. (Not a prodigy? Not a millionaire? And you’re at the advanced age of 26?? You must be worthless!) Books like this make you wonder if Keaton actually did ever look out into the crowd and envy them in turn, at least once in a while.

Overall, this is a fine book. Kids who love history will enjoy it and anyone of any vintage can enjoy the gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Buster fans will love the imaginative peek into Keaton’s childhood summers.

As I was in the process of editing this post, it was announced that there’s going to be a new Buster Keaton biopic. Unfortunately, it’s based on the infamous Marion Meade biography, known for making… um, bizarre claims (like Keaton being illiterate) and further pushing the notion of Buster Keaton as a sad clown. I don’t want to make any judgements, though given my experience with Hollywood biopics in general, I’m not optimistic. There is a tendency to turn people into caricatures of who they really were for the sake of D-R-A-M-A, even though more often than not, the messy reality of a person’s life is more compelling.

That’s why these two books are such great reads from the perspective of a Keaton fan. Here we have no perfect angel in slapshoes, no sad clown. Both books acknowledge that real life is more complicated than our retrospective simplifications, allowing Keaton’s humanity to shine through. I would absolutely recommend them to you.

This post is for the Eighth Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by the marvelous Silentology! Check out this link for more Buster-y goodness!

Sources:

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster by Matt Phelan

https://www.busterkeaton.org/myths

http://www.outofthepastblog.com/2013/07/interview-with-matt-phelan.html

The Vampire Diary of Buster Keaton by Tracy S. Wolfe

Book review: “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden

I haven’t read a biography in a while, so I treated myself to Eve Golden’s book on silent screen legend John Gilbert. Being a silent film devotee, I’ve seen several Gilbert movies (would highly recommend The Big Parade and Flesh and the Devil), though I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan. I knew the rough outline of his life and the many, many conspiracy theories inspired by his swift, Norman Maine-like fall from the top of the industry with the coming of sound.

The picture Golden paints of Gilbert is intriguing. He was charming, generous, and lively, but also troubled, insecure, and often his own worst enemy. He fell in and out of love quickly, going through wives and lovers in rapid succession. He resented his mother for not showing him maternal love while being hands-off with his own children. He tended to badmouth the lucrative movies he was in to the press, much the chagrin of his home studio MGM. His drinking killed him before he had the chance to see his fortieth birthday.

Regardless, Golden thoroughly examines why he was such a beloved star at the time. Gilbert made for a swashbuckling, charismatic screen presence, and he was game enough to play unsympathetic roles when the opportunity came. His ambitions extended to directing and writing, though he had little opportunity to pursue the former and lacked the discipline to succeed with the latter. I was surprised to learn he was an avid reader, his personal library stocked with classics and nonfiction (Golden compares him to the similarly ill-fated sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in this regard). Though unsentimental about his flaws, Golden never makes Gilbert out to be pathetic nor does she adopt a judgmental attitude. She presents him as he was, and this very human portrait gives his biography the ring of tragedy.

For a long time, Gilbert’s eclipse was attributed to a falsetto voice. It’s an ironic idea and a tidy, simplistic explanation, which is probably why it’s stuck to Gilbert’s reputation for so long. I’ve come across people who have never touched a silent film in their lives who will still repeat the story of “that silent film star who had a high speaking voice.” However, it’s not the truth nor is it as interesting as what appears to have been the real cause of his decline.

Firstly, there was the cultural shift of the late 1920s. People often go with the “all silent film stars had no idea how to deliver lines AND they all sounded like Lina Lamont” myth, but in truth, the Depression, an influx of younger talent into Hollywood, and changing tastes had more to do with the fall of many a former screen favorite than their ability to speak lines into a microphone. Gilbert was no exception—he was a Great Screen Lover of the sort that was quickly falling out of fashion with the onset of the hard-edged 1930s. His voice, while shaky in early efforts, was perfectly fine by 1932 (see him in the underrated Downstairs if you don’t believe me). Unfortunately, by then the public lost all interest in him.

Golden pushes the case that Gilbert was talented enough to reinvent himself as a character actor in the 1930s since he yearned to go beyond the matinee idol phase of his career. However, Gilbert’s hardcore drinking, poor health, and unreliable behavior put off many studios. Throughout that whole section, I was sad thinking about what might have been, particularly a possible collaboration with Marlene Dietrich in Desire that was destroyed by a heart attack. While Gilbert insisted it was only severe indigestion, the incident frightened the suits into dropping Gilbert from the project.

Of course, Golden does not let the studios entirely off the hook either. She does not indulge ideas like Louis B. Mayer purposely sabotaging Gilbert’s career in the sound booth and effectively debunks the infamous “fistfight” story, but she does show that MGM had no incentive to nurture Gilbert during the rocky transition to sound nor did they bother to supply him with quality scripts. He was taking in a high salary at a time when the Depression was hitting movie studios hard, which prevented him from getting a high-profile leading lady that might have drawn in additional audiences. It’s a sad affair—even if Gilbert was the partial author of his own ruin, outside circumstances were certainly at play as well.

I did have one problem with the book. A major pet peeve of mine is when biographers feel the need to play movie critic. Golden offers her opinions of several films and stars, which jibbed too much with the scholarly tone the book was going for—and also felt unneeded. When I read a biography of a movie star or filmmaker, I don’t mind some interpretations on murkier parts of a person’s life (such as Golden’s modest speculations regarding Greta Garbo’s feelings toward Gilbert), but I don’t care to read any commentary on the quality of their work. It just feels like a waste of time and it’s not why I picked up the book in the first place.

I’ve come across some reviews that claimed this book offers little new information than Dark Star, a Gilbert biography written by one of his daughters in the 1980s. I haven’t read Dark Star, so I cannot comment there (yet), but as someone only casually interested in Gilbert, Golden’s book made me want to rewatch a lot of the man’s films and gave me a greater appreciation for what he was able to achieve during his all too brief tenure as Hollywood’s top romantic lead. It’s not among the top tier movie star biographies, but it is a good, balanced one I would recommend to the curious.

Short of the Month: Snow-White (dir. Dave Fleischer, 1933)

As always, I recommend watching Snow-White before continuing on to the article:

While pre-code cartoons tended to be a wild bunch in general both due to the permissiveness of the era and the exhilaration that came with new sound technologies, few were stranger than what came out of Fleischer Studios. Disney’s biggest competitor at the time, the typical Fleischer Studios product tended to be more hard-edged, provocative, and unapologetically strange than anything from the House of Mouse. Case in point: their Betty Boop series.

Betty Boop is about as pure a pre-code creation as they come. She was a bonafide cartoon sex symbol, and her design’s juxtaposition of the cute and the alluring contributed to her popularity. The cartoons in which she appeared certainly catered more to the grown-ups than the kiddies. Snow-White is a great example, with its jazzy music, non-sequitur comedy, and macabre imagery.

As in the original fairy tale, Betty is the fairest in the land and therefore targeted for death by a jealous step-mother. Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog weep as they prepare to dispatch her, but they take pity instead and Betty manages to escape, only to fall into an icy river. She re-emerges in an ice block (a stand-in for the glass coffin), which is taken by seven dwarfs into a “Mystery Cave.” And that’s about all there is of the original story, unless I forgot about a random musical number or the queen transforming into a dragon.

Snow-White is less of a conventional story than it is a bizarre dream. Every frame boasts some kind of gag or surreal flourish as characters morph into new forms. The whimsically ghoulish backgrounds in the “Mystery Cave” alone are something to examine on repeat viewings, from skeletons playing poker to monsters grinning from framed photos on the wall.

The early Fleischer cartoons were notable for featuring some of the top jazz talent of the 1930s. Snow-White boasts the legendary Cab Calloway performing the “St. James Infirmary Blues” through Koko the Clown. Calloway not only provided Koko’s singing voice, but also his smooth dance moves via rotoscoping technology. The result is the highlight of the short, an eerie mini-music video in which Koko morphs into a crooning, moonwalking ghost as he tails Betty’s impromptu funeral procession.

Intriguingly, the number is not a 100% non-sequitur when you consider the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Koko is following Betty in her frozen coffin, while “St. James Infirmary Blues” starts with the singer visiting the corpse of his lover in a hospital before musing on his own eventual death.

Somehow, this somber song suits this otherwise high-spirited short perfectly. Between the winter time setting, monochrome visuals, and the continued presence of death (threatened, assumed, or otherwise) throughout the seven-minute runtime, I even dare to say Snow-White is borderline cartoon noir, only it’s so playful that it keeps any true moodiness at bay. Even among the strange Fleischer canon, Snow-White stands out and deserves its place as a classic of animation.

Sources:

Animation Anecdotes #150″ – Cartoon Research

BFI Film Classics: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Eric Smoodin

St. James Infirmary (1928)”