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

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

Bernard Herrmann blogathon: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

This post is for the Bernard Herrmann blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse. Check out the listings for more Herrmann-related material. The blogathan lasts from October 29th to October 31st.

Image source: Wikipedia.

On Dangerous Ground had a famously muddled production and has enjoyed an equally muddled critical afterlife. Director Nicholas Ray considered the movie a failure and producer John Houseman found it “sort of a mess… but awfully good.” Now that the passage of time elevated this once minor work to cult status, generations of critics and movie geeks have argued its merits. Is the story structure, severing the film into two tonally disparate halves, merely uneven or is it bold? Do the romantic elements complement the gritty noir elements or do they declare open war upon them?

The movie starts like any typical noir. Jim Wilson is a big-city cop who’s been hardened by constant exposure to corruption and criminality. His ordinary world encompasses darkened alleys and shabby apartments populated by every kind of scumbag. Not above beating the hell out of suspects to get confessions, Jim is too much even for the police force. His captain opts to send Jim to the snow-covered countryside where there’s a murderer on the loose, hoping the assignment will cool Jim off literally and metaphorically.

Depending on your perspective, this is either where the movie loses its way or gets interesting. Jim encounters a reflection of his own anger in the victim’s father, who swears bloody vengeance on the killer. During the search, he also comes across the lonely Mary Malden, a sensitive young blind woman who knows the killer’s whereabouts but is not willing to reveal him. It turns out Mary is the killer’s sister and she’s hoping he’ll agree to be hospitalized for his mental illness rather than continue to run from the law.

Image source: The Signal Watch.

On Dangerous Ground is definitely a film of two halves. While most people prefer the gritty urban fare in the beginning, I take more to the latter section. The desolate beauty of the wintry countryside sets the film apart from your typical city-bound noir, createing an atmosphere both dreadful and romantic. The black-and-white visuals make the sense of cold palpable, especially when the film goes inside Mary’s cabin, dominated by deep shadows and the intense white fire of the hearth.

What stands out the most in the story is the fragile relationship between Jim and Mary. Ryan and Lupino could both channel hardboiled toughness and soulful yearning, making them an ideal screen pairing. Their characters are desperately, even ontologically lonely people, lending a desperate quality to their budding romance. Not everyone likes this part of the script, feeling any love that doesn’t end in disillusionment or death has no place in noir. However, I think there’s room in film noir for movies that show some glimmer of hope in an otherwise corrupt world. Murder, My Sweet has a similarly romantic subplot between Philip Marlowe and a fresh-faced ingenue, and no one ever contests its noir status.

“The Death Hunt”

The one element of the film everyone agrees upon is the quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score. For his part, Herrmann liked the movie and claimed he was “very partial to it” in a 1971 interview. Herrmann’s score brings together the contrasting elements of menace and romance in a chocolate/peanut butter style combination. This contrast is especially clear in two pieces from the score: “Death Hunt,” an intense, brassy composition which plays while the men are pursuing the killer, and the gentle, romantic theme associated with Mary. The gentler music is soulful and moving, perfectly complimenting the central romance and the quiet, desperate yearnings of both lovers.

The suite

Whether you see On Dangerous Ground as a truncated curiosity or an underrated gem, there’s no denying the power of the film’s many parts. Herrmann’s contribution might just be the glue that holds everything together.

Sources:

A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith

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

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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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Anti-Damsel blogathon: Hilda of Horus, Prince of the Sun (dir. Isao Takahata, 1968)

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Much like silent film, too many people make the mistake of considering animation a genre rather than a medium, yet in the United States, that’s kind of an understandable mistake. For decades, mainstream American animation has been restricted to comedy, “adult” satire, and the family friendly, rarely permitted to wander into any other realm or demographic. In the 1960s, future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was given a chance to direct a feature-length production for Toei, a studio which considered itself the Disney of the East with its lush animated features. They had made the first color animated feature in 1958, The White Serpent, a picture most famous for inspiring a teenaged Hayao Miyazaki to pursue a career in animation.

Takahata’s feature directorial debut was The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, or Horus, Prince of the Sun as it is also called. The plot involves a teenaged boy who, after his father dies, saves a fishing community from a monster fish and helps them to overcome an evil sorcerer named Grunwald. One of the major figures of the story is the more than a little troubled Hilda, a lonely young songstress with connections to Grunwald himself and her own inner demons to battle. The executives expected another safe family film with cute comic relief and musical numbers, but after a troubled three year production, the film which emerged was not what they wanted, something truly revolutionary. Freelance critic Daniel Thomas MacInnes puts the film’s impact down better than I could:

Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes – addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.”

It’s not a perfect film, certainly: juvenile elements such as the maudlin talking bear Coro and cutesy small child Flip drag the film down at moments, and a few big action scenes are relegated to still frames over which the camera pans, obviously a cost-cutting maneuver. But a film does not need to be perfect to be great or influential. Being that this piece is for the Anti-Damsel blogathon, I will restrict my discussion of the film to the character of Hilda.

Here's to a complex animated heroine.

Here’s to a complex animated heroine.

Oh, Hilda. When people praise the likes of Frozen for being “revolutionary” in the depiction of female characters in animation, your complexity goes to show just how low we’ve set the bar in the States. When we first encounter Hilda, she seems to be little more than a melancholy variation of Disney’s Snow White: a pretty face flanked by animal sidekicks and equipped with a lovely singing voice. We expect she and Horus will fall in love and be going steady by the time the credits run up. Yet as Horus and the villagers come to know her, we find she is not at all another princess type, but a clever deconstruction of what we might expect from an animated heroine. Hilda’s role in the narrative is not straightforward; she is alternatively heroine and villain, least of all Horus’s love object or a damsel to be rescued. She is a complex figure, tormented by survivor’s guilt, loneliness, and a crippling terror of mortality. The sinister owl and friendly squirrel following her about are not there for kid appeal and merchandizing purposes, but to make concrete the two sides of her character, her misanthropy and desire to belong.

Hilda's singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are... rusty.

Hilda’s singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are… rusty.

We see this conflict most clearly in Hilda’s relationship with the village. The simplicity of the community’s members grates upon her. Though the people have lost family members to the monstrous fish Horus slays in the first act, Hilda knows none of them can comprehend or understand her own tremendous loss: that of her entire village. As the village gets ready to celebrate a wedding between two sweethearts, Hilda is unable to join in the celebration. When the village women gently tease her for her lack of domestic skills, Hilda flies into a rage and condemns their communal merrymaking. So scarred by loss and death, Hilda can no longer tolerate joy, for how can anyone remain joyful in a world where everything is doomed to end with death, to become nothing but “ashes”?

Hilda’s girlish exterior cannot fully belie this internal torment. We are told her singing is her sole joy in life, but even this is infected with the character’s pain. Her musical numbers do not focus on optimism, romantic longing, or disappointment as a Disney heroine’s would, but despair and alienation. When her squirrel pal says her songs are “a little sad,” it’s an understatement. When she sings, “Perched high upon a narrow branch, a bird is always singing, a bird always alone, a bird always alone,” she may as well be describing her own situation. Here’s one of her darker songs, which features senseless violence, ill-will toward others, and a violent God who seems apathetic to suffering:

In the past, in the past,
the good God rose and said
“Good night to you all,
my kind children”

In the past, in the past,
an otter said
“Pity my God, remove the
claws of the brown bears.”
“Good night my dear otters, the
brown bears do not have any more claws.”

In the past, in the past,
a small animal said
“Pity my God, the otters devour all the fish”
“Good night my dear children,
I threw the otters in the fire”

Once upon a time,
the Lord God stood and said:
“Sleep well, everyone
all of my dear children”

Hilda's isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

Hilda’s isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

It is fascinating to compare Hilda’s lonely, sad songs with the musical numbers of the villagers. The melodies, lyrics, and movement of the villagers emphasize community, joy, and life. During the wedding feast, we see the community members hand-in-hand, singing and dancing through the streets before the camera pans over to Hilda, standing solitary and utterly separated from the action.

Hilda’s loss and trauma consume her whole being and make bleak her worldview, rendering her unable to fully love others or embrace life. Her bonding with one of the village children and conflicted feelings toward Horus are a few chinks in her armor, brief flashes of humanity in a character who seeks to eradicate all that is human about herself. The villain Grunwald coaxes Hilda into accepting life as his “sister,” thus making her immortal and isolated, as well as automatically making her Horus’s enemy. The trailers for the film pose the question of Hilda’s identity: is she a human being or a demon?

Hilda saving the milding irritating comic relief, but it's the thought that counts.

Hilda saving the mildly irritating comic relief, but it’s the thought that counts.

In the end, Hilda’s humanity wins over all. Coming across Coro and Flip dying in the blizzard, she relinquishes her immortality by placing the medallion around Coro’s neck, allowing the duo to be transported back to safety. In the most haunting moment of the movie, standing alone, she allows the snowy winds to pummel her until she finally collapses, surrendering herself to death. However, she awakes in a springtime landscape, astonished. Hilda has undergone what anime historian Mike Toole deems a “transformative moment” after a long period of doubt, can finally embrace her own humanity, and thus finally join with community along with Horus.

Embracing humanity... well, technically a squirrel here.

Embracing humanity… well, technically a squirrel here.

The famed Ghibli Heroine finds its earliest incarnation in Hilda, and yet, arguably few of her spiritual successors have matched her in complexity. The closest is Miyazaki’s San from Princess Mononoke, who struggles between her sense of belonging with the forest gods and human identity. Certainly no female figure in mainstream theatrical American animation has yet to do so, at least none that I have encountered (I won’t say anything regarding television animation, as I rarely watch TV). Now just as then, Hilda remains a unique and fascinating figure in animation history.

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The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: The Beloved Rogue (dir. Alan Crosland, 1927)

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This submission is for the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Check out the site for most Barrymore-themed posts!

While he had a prolific stage career and starred in more than a few sound pictures, I have always associated John Barrymore with silent film. His turn as the tormented Dr. Jekyll and the lecherous Mr. Hyde is his most famous performance in this medium, but Barrymore also dabbled in his fair share of escapist historical flicks, such as Beau Brummel and Don Juan. But my favorite of the lot has to be The Beloved Rogue, a masterpiece of ham and swashbuckling.

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Villon once he cleans up during act two.

Barrymore plays Francois Villon, a thirteenth century French poet who also specializes in lovemaking, partying, and general mayhem. However, his prankster nature gets him in trouble with the erratic Louis XI (Conrad Veidt in his campy-licious American film debut) and the treacherous Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), the former of which proceeds to banish Francois from his beloved Paris for undermining royal authority. Francois gets over his heartbreak quickly and starts plotting to get back at the king and his cronies, whilst also falling in love with the beautiful Charlotte de Vauxcelles (Marceline Day), an ardent fan of his poetry. His desire for revenge and Charlotte intersect when the unwilling young woman is betrothed to Burgundy himself.

The Beloved Rogue is a lark, offering the best of old-school Hollywood escapism: the swashbuckling action, good humor, fun characters, and romance under the starlight. In the traditional MGM fashion, the production values are sublime. Essentially, all the good stuff in pure, unfiltered form. The supporting cast is fabulous all around. The lovely Marceline Day makes a good contrast to Barrymore’s intense energy with her character’s reserved nature. Or maybe that’s just me being nice about her rather wooden acting. At any rate, her performance is inoffensive and she’s lovely to look at in her grand costumes. Mack Swain and Slim Summerville are great fun as Barrymore’s clownish lackeys. And then there’s Conrad Veidt, who plays the creepy Louis XI, a character whose danger to Francois ebbs and flows with his paranoia and good humor.

But of course, the one who steals the show is Barrymore himself. Ah the ham that is this performance, the delightful ham! As Villon, he leaps through Paris with the gusto of Douglas Fairbanks. He’s unafraid to troll anyone, including the king, and generally acts like an imp. That is, until he shares the frame with Marceline Day. I do confess that I wish his character had retained his sense of mischief when courting his lady love; he changes on a dime to an ardent wooer once the two are alone together. Ah well, it’s John Barrymore in his prime doing love scenes—who am I to complain?

Villon and pals party hard.

Villon and pals party hard.

The only flaw of the picture would be the climax, which features Barrymore being tortured in a manner more befitting a drama than a swashbuckler. It’s unpleasant and ruins the fun. But otherwise, The Beloved Rogue is awesome, an example of Hollywood excess done right and Barrymore ham cooked to perfection.

… And Scene blogathon: The descent to the lair in The Phantom of the Opera

For the “… And Scene!” blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid.

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For the “… And Scene!” blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid.

The famous unmasking scene is the one great scene in the unevenly directed The Phantom of the Opera. But my favorite of them is definitely the moment the Phantom puts Christine into a trance and leads her down into his underground domain.

It really has a sense of entering another world, like Hades taking Persephone into the Underworld. We get to take in Ben Carre’s fabulous sets: the stone walls, the walkways going down and down until they reach the lake which leads to the Phantom’s well-furnished apartment. The image of the Phantom rowing a gondola as Christine sits in the back with her scarf trailing in the water is iconic, an image appropriated (and mostly connected with) the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical adaptation.

The whole sequence is filmed in long and medium shot. Hack director Rupert Julian does this a lot during some of the bigger scenes, thus diminishing their effectiveness. The most infamous example of this tendency is the bit where Raoul and Ledoux are trapped in the torture chamber; Julian shoots the scene like it’s still 1908, keeping the actors away from the camera and having them stumble about like drunkards in the hopes the audience will believe it’s delirium. But in the descent to the lair sequence, this distancing works well, enhancing the sense of mystery.

A great deal of my enjoyment also comes from Carl Davis’ score. The use of strings creates a haunting, half-awake quality, as though you were napping one moment and caught up in some strange fantasy the next.

The Phantom of the Opera may be uneven, but it’s moments like this which have ensured its classic status.

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.