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.

The Umpteenth Blogathon: Beauty and the Beast (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946)

This post is for the Umpteenth Blogathon, hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. It’s a blogathon dedicated to the movies individual bloggers have watched obsessively over the years. Check out the other posts at this link!

SPOILER ALERT! Let it be known, I’m discussing this movie in a fair amount of detail including the ending. I imagine most people know how the Beauty and the Beast story ends, but just in case you’re uninitiated with this movie and want to go into this classic absolutely cold, then watch the movie before reading this.

Image source: MOMA

Some people cannot rewatch movies. They don’t see a point. You already know what’s going to happen. Comedies become less funny. Suspenseful films become less suspenseful. Mystery films are spoiled by knowing who did it. Even art films don’t evade these beliefs about diminishing returns.

Yeah, that’s not me. I love rewatching my favorite films, be they blockbusters or Bergman. Any film that tells its story well will still hold up on repeat viewings. Not every movie is a one-and-done affair and to suggest otherwise is an insult to cinema as an art form, if you ask me.

I also don’t care how astute a filmgoer you believe yourself to be: a movie with many layers cannot be understood on a single watch, especially when the viewer is coming in fresh. Case in point: Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, a movie I have literally watched dozens of times and have yet to grow tired of, let alone fully comprehend.

Many might not get why that is the case. After all, aren’t fairy tales just simple stories for kids? Aren’t they full of bad advice about romance and happy endings? Songs like Maroon 5’s “Payphone” proclaim that “all those fairy tales are full of shit,” after all. Maybe when you get your understanding of fairy tales from popular culture, this might seem to be the case… but no. That’s not what fairy tales are, especially not Cocteau’s magnificent fairy tale film.

Fairy tales are not realist novels or self-help books. They reflect a complex inner reality in their presentation of humanity’s deepest desires and primal fears, but they are not meant to give you dating advice or comfort you with promises of a literal, concrete happily ever after. If anything, fairy tale worlds are perilous. In his book on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, historian JB Kaufman describes the original context of fairy tales as less sunny than most imagine: “[F]airy tales were expected to contain elements of magic and enchantment but also commonly depicted a cold, forbidding, and dangerous world.” For that reason, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is my idea of the perfect fairy tale film. There’s nothing sugary or safe about it.

The basic outline should be familiar: Belle, a lovely young woman, takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a Beast who lives in a remote castle. At first repulsed by his animalistic appearance, she comes to see the goodness within him. Her love transforms the Beast into a handsome prince and they marry.

However, Cocteau’s version stands apart from other retellings in its strange details and surrealistic touches. For one thing, Cocteau adds a human suitor for Belle, the handsome but unpleasant Avenant (Disney would famously reincarnate this character into the meme-inspiring, antler aficionado Gaston). Cocteau also tells this enchantment-filled story with a surprising lack of spectacle, setting this film apart from other cinematic fantasies of the time, like The Wizard of Oz or The Thief of Bagdad. Those films seek to wow you with their spectacular effects and color. Not so in Cocteau’s dreamlike, black-and-white universe.

In Cocteau’s world, there is no real spectacle to Belle gliding down a corridor when she first enters the enchanted castle or the candles along the wall igniting by themselves as Belle’s father walks past them. The effects are antique even for the 1940s, yet they somehow make the magic seem more matter-of-fact, further immersing us into the tactile reality of this world.

The characterizations of the titular beauty and beast are no less unsentimental than the magic. Jean Marais’ Beast is as tragic a figure as any classic movie monster, desperate for love and ashamed of his ugliness. He has the soul of a sensitive poet, yet he is also tormented by a desire to kill when he hears wildlife rustling in the bushes. Unlike Disney’s angry and selfish Beast, Marais’ Beast is a victim of vengeful spirits rather than his own bad behavior, making him all the more pitiable.*

Josette Day’s Belle is arguably even more complicated than the Beast and not in a way that immediately endears her to the audience. Her characterization was downright baffling to me the first few times I saw the movie. Used to the feisty bookworm of the Disney version, Day’s Belle seemed aloof, even haughty. However, I’ve come around to the character because there’s a lot more to her than is readily apparent.

Jean Marais plays Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, creating thematic links between the three characters.

In her introductory scene, Belle acts the archetypal Cinderella: dressed in rags, polishing the floor, protesting the ardent affections of Avenant. But even in this scene, as she defends her sisters from Avenant’s barbed comments and claims her father is her sole priority, there is a coyness to her interaction with Avenant, a slight flirtatiousness– of course, that flirtiness evaporates the moment Avenant decides to act like a caveman (dare we say, like a beast?), but it does imply Belle desires something beyond a life of household chores and somber filial duty.

But Belle does not totally subvert our expectations until she’s in the enchanted castle. At first terrified of the Beast, she quickly learns he means her no harm after he carries her to a sumptuous bedchamber and leaves her in peace. Courteous despite his hairy face and compulsive need to hunt, the Beast is the inverse of the handsome but aggressive Avenant. However, Belle’s attitude towards the Beast is just as complex as it is towards her human suitor. Despite claiming “I would never wish you the slightest harm,” Belle can be blunt and callous. For example, though she is aware of the Beast’s self-loathing, she calls him “an animal” when stroking him like a cat.

Though Belle denies any deeper feelings for the Beast, her attraction towards him is palpable. Roger Ebert famously observed how she “toys with a knife that is more than a knife” when rejecting the Beast’s first dinnertime marriage proposal. Later, she takes sensual delight in having him drink water from her bare hands. These scenes flaunt Belle’s erotic power over the Beast, complicating the idea that this is some Stockholm Syndrome fantasy. If anything, it is a power fantasy, with Belle becoming the imperious mistress she refuses to be in her own home. Even the scene where the Beast appears at Belle’s threshold, shirt undone and hands smoking with blood, every bit a virile force, Belle is the one who holds the power, cowering the Beast with a fierce look as she demands he clean himself up.

Unlike the Disney film, in which Belle’s love creates both inner and outer change in the Beast, the Cocteau film transforms both of the lovers. Belle returns to the dying Beast, tearfully confessing that “I am the monster” in failing to keep her promise to return to him. The Beast then transforms into a handsome prince– though that description is debatable if you aren’t fond of ruffled collars.

Happily ever after or a downgrade?

What are we to make of this transformation? The former Beast seems content enough (no more worries about shedding), but Belle is definitely conflicted. She’s astonished by this miracle and acts a bit coquettish when speaking with the prince, just as she did with Avenant earlier. However, disappointment is palpable when she confesses she will have to get used to the prince, who must seem all too ordinary compared to the magnificent Beast.

Some have taken this ending to be a true downer. Greta Garbo (or Marlene Dietrich, depending on what version of his apocryphal story you hear) famously wailed, “Give me back my Beast!” as she exited the theater. Cocteau himself forecasted a painfully ordinary happily ever after for Belle, in which she could only look forward to bearing children.

Maybe I’m more of a cautious optimist, but it’s hard for me to read the ending as THAT bleak, despite Cocteau’s intentions. The conclusion is undoubtedly bittersweet because the Beast was so majestic compared to the prince (but in the movies, isn’t suffering always more majestic than bedazzled bliss?), but that last image of the lovers ascending into the clouds is hardly a gloomy one and the triumphant music does not suggest a future of endless diaper changes and domestic squabbling. Whatever “ever after” these two encounter, it isn’t going to be as simple as “they lived happily ever after” or “and then they were miserable, life sucks doesn’t it?” From the start, nothing in this movie was that simple, so why should the ending be?

To wrap it up, La Belle et la Bete is a film I can return to again and again because that quiet, seductive magic humming in every gorgeous black-and-white frame has never died out for me. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never wholly “get” this movie, for all my ruminations on the psychology of the characters or the nature of the magic. And to be honest, in a world where a great many movies are so simple as to barely make an impression beyond their runtime, that’s a wonderful, wonderful quality to have.

* Let it be known that if it sounds like I’m dumping on the Disney film, that is not at all my intention. The 1991 Disney film is a favorite of mine as well– my second favorite movie version of the story, actually. Now the 2017 remake– that abomination is another deal.

Sources:

Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale by Betsy Hearne

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1928-beauty-and-the-beast-dark-magic

The Fairest One of All: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by JB Kaufman

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-beauty-and-the-beast-1946

http://www.thecinessential.com/beauty-and-the-beast-yearning-for-the-beast

Favorite posts of 2021

It’s been my wish to up my blogging game this past year. Instead of standard reviews, I’ve been trying to incorporate more research into my posts and actually offer something beyond “movie good, watch it.” On the whole, I think I was successful and I’m pleased with what I put onto this site over the last several months. In the new year, I plan on redoing the site contents, so if you want to see what else I have posted on here without scrolling endlessly you’ll be all set. Within the next two months, I have two blogathon posts in the making: a piece on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and a look at an early John Williams’ score.

In the meantime, here are the posts from 2021 I am proudest of– they represent my best work on this website to date.

HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This was written for the Classic Movie Muse’s It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. I’ve always loved Mr. Gower as a character, an alcoholic and melancholy figure in the rather idyllic setting of Bedford Falls, but I knew little of the actor who brought him to life beyond the fact that he played Jesus in the silent King of Kings. It was great to appreciate the man’s ample stage and film experience. Though forgotten today, Warner enjoyed a long career as both a star and character actor. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he’s probably been in one of your classic film favorites.

Carol Dempster birthday tribute

Controversy, thy name is Carol Dempster, DW Griffith’s one-time girlfriend and leading lady. While I would not consider myself a Dempster fan, I have always found her fascinating, going back to when I first read Richard Schickel’s DW Griffith biography when I was still in high school. Dempster was a teenage dancer when first discovered by Griffith, who tried to make a proper star of her in the 1920s. That never happened for a variety of reasons, but Dempster’s contemporary reputation was not the critical wash-out certain historians say. Inspired by a viewing of Isn’t Life Wonderful (in which Dempster gives a powerful performance) and fan magazine clippings which showed some movie fans did appreciate Dempster, I wanted to learn more about the woman.

The greatest hits of 1921

For Silentology’s Silent Movie Day blogathon, I wrote about the highest-grossing movies of 1921. It was interesting to see what drew audiences to the theater in those days– in a sense, there was more variety than now, when it seems like superhero pictures and endless franchise installments dominate the end-of-year top tens. However, audiences of yesterday also enjoyed their spectacle, particularly since 1921 audiences had also experienced a major pandemic and other assorted troubles they wanted to escape.

“If you thought you knew what terror was,” or that time Tarantino was a Broadway star

This was easily my favorite post of 2021, an examination of the critically reviled 1998 revival of Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark starring Quentin Tarantino of all people. While trying to find production information about the more famous (and better received) 1967 film version, I fell into a research rabbit hole with the revival once I came across old interviews with the actors, director, and producers, conducted months before the show became something no one wanted to discuss on the record, so cataclysmic was its failure. There have been online pieces looking back at this short-lived production, but few go beyond Tarantino’s allegedly wooden performance. I wanted to know what the revival was like, why this play (considered an old chestnut by sophisticated critics) was revived on Broadway to begin with, and how the creative team attempted to modernize it. The answers were all fascinating to me, making me think about the challenges of trying to revive yesteryear’s hits and the double-edged issue of using star power to draw an audience that might not have come otherwise.

It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon: HB Warner, a retrospective of his career and a reflection on Mr. Gower

This is my entry for the It’s a Wonderful Life blogathon. Go on over to the Classic Movie Muse’s blog to check out the other contributions!

Bedford Falls is populated by a variety of rich and memorable characters. Any fan of It’s a Wonderful Life certainly has their favorites. Mine has always been Mr. Gower, the alcoholic pharmacist played by character actor HB Warner. Warner is not exactly a household name, though if you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve undoubtedly seen him, either in It’s a Wonderful Life or as one of the “waxworks” playing cards with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. However, he enjoyed a long career on stage and screen.

Harold Hartsell and a young HB Warner in a 1910 production of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner was born in London, England in 1876. Acting appears to have run in his family: his grandfather and father were both prominent stage performers, and his sister Grace would become a stage manager. Despite familial expectation that he would study medicine, Warner studied acting abroad and joined his father’s stock company instead. He toured throughout England for many years before coming to America at the turn of the twentieth century, where he made his Broadway debut in 1903.

HB Warner as a morphine addict in the 1916 drama The Beggar of Cawporne. Image source: Wikipedia

Warner began his long association with the movies when he was cast in the 1914 film The Lost Paradise. He became a leading man in no time, playing everything from Ruritanian princes to morphine addicts. Unfortunately, many of his 1910s movies are unavailable for viewing, either from lack of access or their being lost. The most intriguing of these is Wrath, a film that was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

A magazine ad for When We Were Twenty-One, a starring project for Warner in the early 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia

During the 1920s, Warner worked both in Hollywood and on Broadway. Once again, many of the films he headed are unavailable for viewing, the most regrettable title being 1927’s Sorrell and Son, a role he would later replay when the story was turned into a talkie in 1934. However, some of the movies have made it to home video in recent years, such as Zaza, where he plays a respectable diplomat who falls in love with Gloria Swanson’s showgirl, and the historical drama The Divine Woman where he plays Lord Hamilton to Corinne Griffith’s Emma Hart.

Warner as Jesus Christ, his most famous role during the silent era. Image source: Criterion Collection

For a long time, Warner’s most famous film role was Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille’s astonishing 1927 epic The King of Kings. Though older than the biblical Jesus by two decades, Warner made an ideal Christ, serene and compassionate as well as virile and persevering. He achieves an ideal balance between the mortal and divine sides of Christ, which is easier said than done judging by subsequent actors’ tendencies to favor one side over the other.

As convincing a Jesus as he was on-screen, Warner was a womanizer and alcoholic in real life. Regardless, DeMille was determined that Warner behave himself during shooting so as to not compromise the production’s sense of holiness. Warner responded by having an affair with an extra and drinking it up as usual. Much to DeMille’s irritation, his meek and mild Jesus also slept onboard a luxurious yacht every night.

Whatever Warner’s off-screen behavior, The King of Kings was a massive hit with a long shelf life. Even after the talkie revolution and the cultural dismissal of silent cinema, The King of Kings remained in circulation well into the 1950s and became an Easter staple on television.

Warner with Norma Shearer in a lobby card for The Trial of Mary Dugan. Image source: normashearer.com

Warner’s career was unaffected by the coming of sound. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he flourished as a character actor. Notable projects from this period of his career include The Trial of Mary Dugan, Five Star Final, Unholy Love, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rains Came, New Moon, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and several Bulldog Drummond movies.

Warner’s health declined in the 1950s, but he was determined to keep working. By the time he agreed to take a small role in DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, he was living in a nursing home and had to be carried on the set in a stretcher. Regardless of his health, Warner’s presence awed the cast and crew, and he performed his last scene with poignancy. He would die two years later at the age of 82.

HB Warner in It’s a Wonderful Life. Image source: Vanity Fair

While his film work is extensive, Warner’s most notable output comes from his work for Frank Capra. He would appear in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but his turn as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly now his most famous role, silent or sound.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for all its small-town coziness and triumphant ending, is a dark, dark movie, and Mr. Gower’s poignant character attests to that more than any other in the film. Haunted and hard-edged, he could have walked right out of a film noir. It was an unusual role for Warner by this time. He gleefully told reporters that DeMille would just lose it when he saw he was playing “the damnedest, dirtiest bum you ever saw, a proper drunk.”

From the start, the Gower part is a reversal of the more dignified roles Warner was used to, even if this character is technically an important member of the community as the town pharmacist. Take Gower’s introduction. It does not leave a good impression: he’s tyrannical and drunk, bossing young George around. At first, we might think he’s just another crank like Mr. Potter. However, George and the audience quickly learn Gower was informed his son died of influenza and he’s turned to alcohol to dull the pain.

Gower’s distracted and irritable in his inebriation, so wrapped up in his suffering that he doesn’t realize he’s about to poison a child by mistake. Even worse, he deliberately slaps the hell out of young George when he thinks his failure to deliver the medication was due to laziness. When George explains his actions and Gower realizes how close he came to killing a kid, his remorse and relief are so beautifully presented.

Everything about Warner’s performance is so deeply felt. His work is never a broad portrait of drunkenness and we get to see enough of the goodness within him to where he feels like a genuine person. He literally makes me cry in some of his scenes, especially when he shows up at the bar during the alternate universe sequence, once again dazed and drunk, but this time with the additional burden of being a social pariah since George was never there to stop him from going through with his fatal mistake. He comes off like a figure out of the Inferno, damned even by the criminals and low-lives within the hellhole that is Pottersville.

It’s interesting how Warner’s two signature roles– Jesus Christ and Mr. Gower– could not be more different. Interestingly, both deal with redemption: Christ is obviously the one doing the redeeming in The King of Kings, while Gower is a lost soul redeemed through George’s kindness who then gets to return the favor at the end of the movie. It’s a dynamic part, one that I appreciate with every Christmas-time viewing of this classic film. It remains an integral part of the movie and a testament to Warner’s often unsung skill as a character actor extraordinaire.

Sources:

Empire of Dreams by Scott Eyman

The Epic Film: From Myth to Blockbuster by Constantine Santas

LIFE: It’s a Wonderful Life

Who Was Who in the Theatre: 1912-1976 Vol. 4 Q-Z 

They Remade What?! Blogathon: The Most Dangerous Game, A Game of Death, and Run for the Sun

gameopenera-game-of-deathMPW-26505

This is a submission for the “They Remade What?!” blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out her blog for more remake related posts!

Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” concerns a hunter named Rainsford who finds himself on the other end of the chase when he is marooned on the island fortress of General Zaroff, a madman who hunts humans for sport. Of course, the piece piqued Hollywood interest early on, leading to the famous 1932 Cooper and Schoedsack adaptation of the same name starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray. This film is the most well-known cinematic adaptation of the story, but Hollywood did not visit the well only once: there were two remakes produced in 1945 and 1956, A Game of Death starring John Loder, Edgar Barrier, and Audrey Long, and Run for the Sun starring Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard, and Jane Greer. Made in three very different decades of Hollywood moviemaking, how does each differ from the one before it? Let’s dive right in and find out!

Before we start, I will share the version I saw first. I found The Most Dangerous Game on YouTube about two years ago and just fell in love with it, snapping up the Criterion Collection DVD immediately. Now onto the review!

The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest Schoedsack, 1932)

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While some viewers perceive The Most Dangerous Game as a sort of trial-run for the more-famous King Kong due to the two films sharing a jungle set and actors, it is a fine piece of entertainment in its own right, one of the greatest productions in the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror and a marvelous example of economical storytelling in any medium.

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The film begins the same way as the story: world-famous big game hunter Rainsford asserts that he is a hunter and that “nothing on earth can change that” right as his ship sinks. After surviving the fakest shark attack in the history of cinema (in one of the film’s most deliciously over-the-top moments, one of the crew is snatched by a shark and shrieks “Ohh— they got me!!” before finally being dragged under to his doom), he washes up on an island and wanders off to an ominous castle populated by Count Zaroff, a refugee of the Russian Revolution and hunting enthusiast, and his handful of servants, the most memorable being played by African-American film pioneer and character actor Noble Johnson. There he meets fellow castaways, the drunken Robert and the reserved Eve. Over coffee and cigars, Zaroff boasts of having found “the most dangerous game,” which he hunts on the island. Though Rainsford urges him for an answer, Zaroff won’t tell and sends everyone off to bed—everyone but the annoying Robert anyway, whom he wants to show his trophy room…

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That night, Eve awakes Rainsford, worried for her brother’s sake and suspicious of Zaroff’s intentions. Wandering down into the trophy room and finding decayed human heads mounted upon the wall, they manage to cross paths with Zaroff, who has Robert’s body in tow. Turns out that “most dangerous game” he hunts are human beings. And unless Rainsford plans on joining Zaroff, he and Eve are going to be finding themselves in the jungle and on the opposite end of the count’s rifle.

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Though some purists take issue with the embellishments of the 1932 screenplay, particularly the addition of a love interest, I rather like the way the filmmakers fleshed out Connell’s story. While I do miss the original story’s haunting and ambiguous ending, this is still an effective piece of writing and I think the changes make the 1932 an interesting variation on some of the original’s ideas. For one thing, Rainsford’s rather cold and worldly character is transformed into a genial if naïve young man, played to perfection by a young (and sexy!) Joel McCrea, whose ideas about the hunter/hunted relationship seem more a product of his youth than genuine hardness or lack of empathy. Fay Wray is ravishingly gorgeous and her character does display a little more intelligence than your garden variety damsel early on, but unfortunately once the chase gets underway, all she really has to do is scream and gasp whenever Zaroff’s around.

tmdg8Leslie Banks’s Count Zaroff dominates the film. Simultaneously urbane and savage, genuinely menacing and campy as hell, he ranks among my favorite screen villains. Sure his Russian accent is as phony as that shark attack, but just listen to the way he delivers his lines with such relish (apparently they had two Russian language consultants on the set to make sure Banks pronounced things correctly, but his accent is pretty comical nonetheless). I cannot help but say them along with him with every re-viewing. “Hunting was beg-in-ing to BORE me!” “When I lost my love of hunting, I lost my love of life! Of love!” “Im-POSS-ible!” “Kill, then love! When you have known THAT, you have known ec-stasy!”

That last quote reveals one aspect of the character invented by the screenwriters: Fay Wray isn’t just there to scream and look jaw-dropping. Zaroff pretty much states outright  he cannot indulge in the pleasures of the flesh without killing something first (“One passion builds upon another…”), that he, as Bruce Eder puts it in his excellent commentary for the Criterion Collection, “links killing and hunting with sex.” With his hungry gazing and excited reaction at the sight of Eve in that tattered dress, it does not take much speculation to surmise what Zaroff plans on doing to her after the hunt. And that’s not even mentioning the almost orgasmic delight on his face which comes about after he believes he has killed Rainsford (notice how he lights up a cigarette afterward too).

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Though this film is often sold as an adventure flick a la King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game fits neatly into the early 1930s cycle of Hollywood horror. Zaroff’s castle is a gothic hunting lodge in which Dr. Frankenstein or Dracula would be right at home. The parlor where Zaroff and his guests indulge in coffee and conversation is dominated by a large staircase and tapestry depicting a vicious-looking centaur with a half-nude woman swooning in his arms. And then there’s the infamous trophy room, where human heads are either hanging mummified upon the wall or pickling in a jar. Apparently more of the trophy room was supposed to be shown, with a proud Zaroff showing Rainsford the maimed bodies of his most noteworthy victims stuffed and on display, but the disgusted reaction of the preview audiences had the studio reaching for the scissors right away.

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The famous jungle set is no doubt artificial, but that enhances the sense of claustrophobia. The lighting therein is evocative of a Gustave Dore illustration. While its use in Kong has made it so iconic, I always felt it was never more foreboding than in this film.

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The Most Dangerous Game’s finest moments are in the last half-hour of its runtime, when the hunt begins and Rainsford and Eve must fight to survive the jungle terrain, Zaroff’s bow and rifle, and finally a bloodthirsty pack of hounds (which were on loan from Harold Lloyd!). These scenes are tense and well-edited, perfectly complimented by Max Steiner’s heart-pounding score. Contrary to popular belief about the cinematography of the early sound period, the camera is quite fluid as it follows McCrea and Wray through the dense jungle foliage. I really dig that one close-up of Zaroff’s face as he’s in pursuit of his prey, an expression that’s both hilariously over-the-top yet perfect in showing how focused he is on coming for the kill.

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Overall, The Most Dangerous Game is essential for pre-code lovers and highly recommended for everyone else. Unpretentious, entertaining, and well-crafted, it stills stands as grand fun after eighty-plus years. And being a well-made Hollywood flick, is it any surprise it was remade more than once?

A Game of Death (dir. Robert Wise, 1945)

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After the moral guardians of the nation cracked down on Hollywood in 1934, RKO was unable to re-release The Most Dangerous Game due to the much stricter enforcement of the Hayes Code, which took issue with the film’s less than subdued content. Thus in 1945, a remake under the direction of Robert Wise was put into production and released in the fall of that year.

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The plot clings close to the 1932 adaptation with some differences: the Russian Count Zaroff is now the German Erich Kreiger, no doubt due to the film’s production coinciding with the end of World War II. Rainsford is still a big game hunter who maroons on Kreiger’s island lair, makes friends with a sibling duo, Robert and Ellen, and then finds himself and Ellen hunted by Kreiger and his hounds. Noble Johnson reprises his role as the mute manservant, only this time he looks like a cast member from Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Robert Clarke is an additional servant who is perhaps the least threatening henchman in film history, coming off as mildly disgruntled and praying his eccentric boss will give him a raise.

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This version is the least regarded of the three adaptations, most likely due to its being an uninspired and almost shot-for-shot redo of the 1932 production. I would love to offer a revisionist opinion, but in this case, the popular consensus is right: A Game of Death is inferior to The Most Dangerous Game in just about every area, coming off as bloodless and dull. For one thing, the look of the film is pedestrian (save for the footage borrowed from the 1932 original). Zaroff lived in a gothic castle repurposed as a hunting lodge, complete with atmospheric lighting emphasizing greys and shadows. The mise-en-scene made the place feel huge. In comparison, Kreiger’s island abode is cramped, small, and overlit, not nearly as foreboding.

Being a Hayes Code era picture, A Game of Death also does away with the more objectionable elements of the original, so don’t expect to see Rainsford breaking someone’s back or partaking in any other sort of enthusiastic violence. As for the sexual aspects, Kreiger does exhibit an unhealthy interest in Ellen, reusing Zaroff’s “ecstasy” spiel and giving her longing glances every now and then; however, as with the violent stuff, don’t expect Kreiger to have the same hungrily deranged look in his eye that Zaroff gives Eve once he thinks the game is won or for him to ask his servants to bring her down from her prison for a post-victory “celebration.”

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To call the performances second-rate would be too cruel, but not a one of them is particularly strong. John Loder’s Rainsford is much less interesting than McCrea’s for a variety of reasons. While McCrea came off as a callow young man with a character arc, one who will bear scars from his encounter with Zaroff even if he did win the day and get the girl in the end, Loder is a mature adult, a white-hatted hero if there ever was one and just as boring as you’d expect him to be from that description. Nothing really flaps him. When McCrea discovered what “the most dangerous game” was, he became indignant and horrified at the “logical conclusions” of his own ideas about life and death. Loder is mildly shocked, but otherwise unruffled. Audrey Long’s Ellen, while strikingly pretty, is completely wooden, lacking the likeability Wray brought to the already threadbare Eve.

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Edgar Barrier gives the best performance in the film as Kreiger. He’s not nearly as charismatic or fun as Banks’s Zaroff, but he does give Kreiger a low-key sense of menace and culture. His best moment comes when he believes Rainsford sees eye-to-eye with him on the natural order of things; the ecstatic expression on his face as he speaks of murdering other people is chilling. Still, even he has a lot of moments where he’s just phoning it in and when he flatly says lines from the original production, you cannot help but hear Banks’s enthusiastic delivery in the back of your mind. In fact, when he gives the whole “hunting was beginning to bore me” speech, his delivery is so uninteresting that only the background music is able to liven the leaden exposition up. (Speaking of music, I’m really missing Max Steiner; A Game of Death’s soundtrack is so stock, I couldn’t even hum it even five minutes after I finished the movie!)

The biggest changes in this version are Robert’s characterization and an added middle sequence preluding to the big chase. Armstrong’s Robert is an irritating drunk who slurs his words and gets in everyone’s personal space. When he’s killed by Zaroff, we aren’t too sorry for him, but his death does establish our villain as a monster and build up sympathy for Eve. While Russell Wade is inoffensive as Robert, he isn’t nearly as memorable and overstays his welcome, leading us to the flabby middle section of the movie. Instead of killing Rob and getting us to the chase, A Game of Death decides to have the heroes discover what Kreiger’s “game” is ahead of time and then plot an unsuccessful escape mission. It’s such a waste of time and kills the pacing.

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That’s not to say this film is a total clunker: Wise’s direction is capable (though his talents were put to much better use in The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff, also released in 1945), Barrier is an entertaining enough villain, and on its own merits, it is a passable if poorly paced thriller. But whether judged on its own or in relation to The Most Dangerous Game, the big issue with A Game of Death is that it just isn’t that impressive. Not a single shot or performance haunts you the way the earlier film did. Its finest moments are taken straight from the 1932 picture and none of its own offerings enhance the story in any way. This one is at best a competent programmer.

Run for the Sun (1956)

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Run for the Sun’s behind the scenes stories are more discussed than the film itself, particularly the one about Jane Greer contracting a tropical disease that nearly killed her. Not being a fan of 1950s Hollywood cinema, I confess I was not looking forward to this version. Reviews of the movie did little to comfort me, with many a critic and viewer finding the film mediocre, though it does have a small group of fans. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the film, though it does share a great deal of flaws with A Game of Death, flaws which keep Run for the Sun from being as effective as it could have been. Unlike A Game of Death, Run for the Sun stands on its own two feet apart from The Most Dangerous Game. It owes much more to the 1932 movie than it does Connell’s story, thus justifying its position as a remake, but it fleshes out the story to an even greater degree than the earlier film, giving the romantic subplot a good deal of screen time.

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The movie starts off with journalist Katherine “Katie” Connors landing in Central America. Her mission: get the scoop on the long-lost adventure novelist Mike Latimer, who she’s tracked to a remote Mexican fishing village. Finding him there and striking up a friendship with her target, the two get more than they bargained for when they fall in love, though Mike is unaware of Katie’s true motivation for seeking him out. Once Katie learns that the reason for Mike’s reclusiveness was being betrayed by the woman he loved, she finds herself unable to use his misery for an editorial and attempts to return to New York; however, Mike says he wants to fly her to Mexico City in his plane first, an offer which she reluctantly accepts.

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The trip goes about as well as can be expected when one is living in a movie based off “The Most Dangerous Game”: the plane runs out of fuel, causing them to crash land in the middle of a jungle. The injured travelers soon find themselves in the care of Run’s two versions of Zaroff: the English Browne and the Dutch Anders, who live in a hacienda nearby. While the house is cozy and the food is great, Katie does find it rather odd that attack dogs prowl the estate every night and Mike is shocked to find their plane has gone missing. More complications ensue when Mike discovers Katie’s true identity, though once he realizes their hosts are escaped war criminals, he’ll have to learn to trust her again as they flee for their lives in the jungle beyond.

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Ironically, the most effective aspect of Run is the love story between Mike and Katie. Understated and mature, the romance feels integral to the characters and not like an afterthought. Continuing on that note, Widmark’s Mike is the best character in the movie. He was certainly given a more developed character to play than either McCrea or Loder and Widmark plays him with enthusiasm and depth of feeling. Greer is game as the reporter who gets in over her head, though sadly she becomes little more than window dressing once she and Widmark crash land on their way to Mexico City. I will say that I felt the first thirty minutes of the film were more interesting than anything in the jungle: perhaps Run might have been better had it been a character study of this reclusive and creatively dried-out Hemingway-ish author than a redo of “The Most Dangerous Game.”

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And that’s the weird thing about Run: what should have been given the most attention turns out to be the least interesting aspects of the production: the villains and suspense. Unlike Zaroff and Kreiger, Browne and Anders are not enthusiastic big game hunters chasing the hero and heroine for the thrill of the chase. They want Mike and Katie dead solely because they know they are Nazi war criminals. That’s not nearly as chilling as a privileged nutcase who views other people as prey and expects the hero to share his pathology. Even more unfortunate is that neither Howard nor van Eyck do much to make their characters interesting nor do they ever come across as especially threatening.

While the earlier versions had a nightmarish atmosphere, Run never reaches the same levels of excitement. The action sequences are few and not edited that well. We see the obligatory bloodthirsty hounds, but they never feel like that much of a threat. The villains are so overconfident and incompetent that they aren’t that scary either, and you never feel Mike and Katie are in danger for even a moment. While it’s nice that the filmmakers went on-location to shoot the jungle sequences, we never get that same sense of claustrophobia found in The Most Dangerous Game or even the watered down rendition of that in A Game of Death. Thus the final third of the movie, what should be the highlight of the film, turns out to be a major anti-climax.

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While I think Run for the Sun isn’t as bad as some have claimed and would even argue it is in some respects underrated, it is uneven. The screenplay should have either focused on the character elements or the suspense-filled “Most Dangerous Game” plot, because when trying to juggle the two, nothing gels. Widmark’s performance and the romance with Greer do make it worth a gander though.

Conclusion

These three films are only the most well-known adaptations. There have been countless others which operate more on the plane of Run for the Sun, using Connell’s outline. Bloodlust!, Surviving the Game, and The Pest are only a few of the latter day adaptations which use the idea of people hunting people for their basic plot. The influence of the story also lives on in novels like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Throughout this post, I think it’s pretty clear I feel that in the case of The Most Dangerous Game movie adaptations, you just can’t top the original. While I’ve heard some people decry the 1932 The Most Dangerous Game as melodramatic or silly in comparison to, say, Run for the Sun, I have to just say that’s part of what makes it so much fun. And while it embellished upon the original short story, it still manages to keep its storytelling economical and its pacing pitch-perfect. Combine all that with striking visuals, breathless action, a great villain, and pure 1930s gothic horror atmosphere, and you have a magnificent piece of entertainment which has weathered the better part of a century quite well.

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The Classic Movie History Blogathon: Feature films of Disney’s Golden Age (1937-1942)

900_snow_white_blu-ray_14 This is part of the second annual Film History Project blogathon run by the wonderful Fritzi of Movies Silently, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth of Silver Screenings.

It is generally agreed that there were two golden ages for feature Disney animation: the original Disney Golden Age which lasted from 1937 to 1942 and the Disney Renaissance which stretched from 1989 to 1999 (though some people will argue it started with the animation/live action hybrid noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1987). While a great deal of my generation looks on the Renaissance period with fondness (and I do too, with the exception of Pocahontas and Fantasia 2000), I have always had a greater fascination with the early Disney features and the inventive short films which paved the way for them.

The five feature films of the original Disney Golden Age are a diverse bunch: a traditional fairy tale, a dark morality play based off a nightmarish children’s novel, a bold experiment in music and animation, a simple fable set in the modern day, and a coming-of-age story set in the natural world. Yet in spite of these differences, there is a shared set of characteristics between these five pictures, characteristics which set them apart from the rest of the studio’s productions. I’ve compiled a small list examining these characteristics and hope you’ll have a new appreciation for the films, as I continue to every time I watch them.

Pure ambition

Fantasia-disneyscreencaps_com-4524 Following in the footsteps of the Mickey Mouse shorts which experimented with early sound technology and the visual splendor of the Silly Symphonies, the early Disney films strove to do more than just entertain the audience: the pushed the boundaries of the animated medium itself. Everyone knows how much of a gamble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was back in the 1930s. Despite what the Disney studio and many a trivia book tell you, it was not the first feature-length animated film. Heck, it wasn’t even the second or the third or even the fourth and so on, but it was the first to be such a massive international success. Though the arguably shrill tones of Snow White’s voice and some of the character animation on the realistic human figures have aged, the film’s simplicity and genuineness set it apart to this day. In terms of visuals and story, Pinocchio and Bambi are quite similar, focusing on the coming-of-age of their titular characters while offering audiences some of the most gorgeous character and effects animation ever conceived.

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Considering it was made on the cheap after the double whammy of Pinocchio and Fantasia’s failure to catch fire at the box office, Dumbo is sometimes viewed as “thin and unsatisfying” by critics such as Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston controversially snubbed the film in their book on the studio’s animation philosophy, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, barely mentioning it while dedicating pages to lesser efforts such as Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone. It is true that Dumbo does not attempt to innovate in the same way Fantasia or Bambi do, having more in common with Silly Symphonies like Elmer Elephant and the Technicolor remake of The Ugly Duckling. But that is where the greatness lies. This is an extension of the studio’s short format work, examining the world and problems of the main character. The stakes are not on an epic scale, but they are no less affecting. Few are the people who have never been an outsider; the universality of Dumbo’s plight and the simple, but powerful way it is told are what draws fans like Pixar’s John Lasseter or the late critic Gene Siskel to the film. This simplicity is a rare thing, especially in modern Disney fare where extra plot details and twists are thrown into the mix, the writers hoping to impress us with their occasionally clever subversions. Not that this is always bad, but the simplicity of Dumbo is a refreshing quality, at least for this filmgoer.

Fantasia was the biggest risk of them all and one which did not initially pay off. Road show prices and its experimental nature gave it a chilly reception from the general public, many of whom complained the film wasn’t suitable for their children what with those flirtatious centaurs and Chernabog’s demonic orgy. Critical response was mixed: some loved the film, but others (usually connoisseurs of classical music) loathed it with a passion. Critic Pauline Kael in particular referred to the film distastefully and admitted to walking out in the middle of the screening, calling it “kitsch.” Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was featured in the movie, despised how it was re-arranged and cut.

Looking at the film now, it does have flaws, but it seems almost petty to disregard such visual sumptuousness as “kitsch” or a “failure.” Fantasia reminds me of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in a number of ways: not everything gels perfectly, but it seems a miracle it was made at all. Today’s Disney has not the drive or courage to make a film as bold as the original Fantasia; just compare Fantasia 2000, a much less ambitious and adult work, one that doesn’t want to break any mold at all. I find that to be true of most of the studio’s modern work in general, which displays similar ambition only in “fits and starts” as critic Tim Brayton puts it.

Ruthless presentation of evil in the world

snowwhite3 Anime expert Susan Napier claimed Disney was part of what she deemed “a cinema of reassurance.” I would not say these early efforts entirely fit such a description 100 percent. If there’s anything “reassuring” about these films, then it’s the idea that you can survive the evil present in the world and somehow find happiness.

One thing often pointed out is how these features are often filled to the brim with what TV Tropes would call “nightmare fuel.” There’s a kind of ruthlessness to the worlds of the early Disney features. Despite their catchy musical numbers, cute sidekicks, and doses of humor, danger and evil are never far in the background, conniving to swallow the heroes and heroines whole. The Queen wants to rip out Snow White’s heart as vengeance for the crime of being more beautiful than her, and when that plan fails, she tries to get her buried alive instead. Pinocchio is threatened with exploitation, death, and even the loss of his very identity during the infamous Pleasure Island episode. Fantasia has Mickey Mouse nearly drown due to his own hubris and the demonic god Chernabog conjure up a satanic orgy. The colorful world of Dumbo is peppered with social cruelty: Dumbo, essentially a young child, is mocked and humiliated in addition to be separated from the only figure in his life who loves him. And everyone knows how Bambi’s mother is taken from him, but there is also the continual threat of Man looming over all the animals in that forest, leading to an almost apocalyptic forest fire.

Animation instructor and critic Mark Mayerson has pointed out that the time period in which these films were made has a great deal to do with this sense of uncertainty and danger. During the Great Depression, people struggled economically and the common worldview was hardly a sunny one. Go back as far as Hollywood’s pre-code era, coincidentally aligned with the early years of the Depression, and in those films you can see a certain cynicism, a sense that the world is ruthless and that you have to struggle to make ends meet. The Disney studio itself was faced with a great deal of uncertainty about its future around the late 1930s and 1940s, being on the verge of bankruptcy more than once due to the lavishness of productions which did not always break even at the box office. And let’s not forget the world in the late 1930s, with the shadow of another global conflict quickly coming into fruition.

Passive but persevering protagonists

Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Pinocchio-walt-disney-characters-35455439-4362-3240 The passiveness of the protagonists has often been noted, usually criticized. Though Snow White’s reactionary nature is often examined by feminist critics, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi are similarly more reactive than proactive; good never triumphs over evil so much as evades being destroyed or consumed by it. The church bells might banish Chernabog for another day, but it is clear he will return the next night. None of the villains in Pinocchio are stopped in any way and will continue to exploit and hurt the unwary. The Queen/Witch in Snow White is killed, but not due to any effort of the dwarfs whom she would have crushed with a boulder; the way that lightning comes down at her feet, it feels as though a higher power were intervening. About the only exception to this passivity is Bambi fighting his rival for the doe Faline. Compare this to later protagonists like Aladdin, Mulan, or Wreck-It-Ralph, who overcome their trials in a more active manner.

Personally, the passivity of these characters makes them seem more like everyman types to me. Like the earlier Mickey Mouse, the influence of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is apparent in all of these characters, a “little fellow” who overcomes all adversity. And you could even there is an autobiographical element on display: after all, isn’t Walt Disney himself often mythologized as being an everyman who was knocked around by unfeeling producers like Charles Mintz during most of the 1920s, coming to success only due to never giving up?

Conclusion

bambi-1942--02 In the years since, Disney has become associated with safe formulaic blandness, which these early films were certainly not. Were it not for their existence, I’m not sure I would even call myself a Disney fan at all.

“Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic” by J.B. Kaufman

I just finished this gem of a book yesterday evening. J.B. Kaufman should be a familiar name for most of us who like reading up on Disney history; he co-authored the definitive book on the Disney studio’s silent era work and his big, beautiful volume on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won great acclaim. On the commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Disney’s second feature Pinocchio, Kaufman announced he had a book on that film in the works as well, which had left me in great anticipation for Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic for about three to four years now.

For fans of the film and the pre-WWII years at the Disney studio, this book is a must-have. Like the earlier tome on Snow White, it’s filled with concept art, stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs, as well as information on the original Collodi novel, and its presence in 19th/20th century popular culture and in the early cinema. The production is described in great detail, particularly the way the filmmakers achieved those marvelous effects and character animation (both of which have rarely been equaled in animation, even to this day), and every scene in the film is analyzed extensively.

To top it all off is an essay from film historian Russell Merritt, which discusses the way the Disney Pinocchio approaches themes of the presence of evil in the world, the painful transformation from youth into adulthood, and spiritual redemption. He even notes an element of melancholy in the otherwise happy finale, one which I have never seen others mention in their analysis. One reviewer on Amazon thought the whole essay was “tedious,” but I found it enlightening and enjoyable. Then again, I’m studying film and literature in graduate school, so your mileage will definitely vary there.

In any case, a great book about a great film.