Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I have a question – what is this thing on my head? (still from kinpoisk.ru)

The Bay Area’s economy may suck, but it can still be an amazing place to be if you love films (and can afford the occasional pricey event). 2015 was my first year back, after an absence of about 15 years—really, I find it’s best not to count any more. What I’m trying to tell you is that on Halloween, I had the privilege not only of watching Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, but of watching it in Grace Cathedral Church, with live organ accompaniment.

The Cathedral is an attraction in itself, and it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate place to see the 90-year-old gothic classic. It was heartening to see both showings had sold out.

The film has a complicated history, including a frosty reception upon its first (and second release). But even if the film weren’t importantly historically, with one of the first moments of moving technicolor (rather than hand-tinted film), it allows us to watch Chaney in all his sympathetic, oddball glory.

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven

Grace Cathedral, photo by Michael Caven. The screen was all the way at the back.

Phantom might have been the greatest vehicle for him, even if it’s not his best movie. It is, of course, an opportunity to shock us with the makeup he designed for the deformed Phantom. But, like a Ginsu-knife commercial, we also get so much more. Best of all is Chaney’s interpretation of the deranged villain.

Like all great villains, the Phantom has a well-honed sense of theatricality. However deranged he may be, the Phantom, like Chaney, is a sly master of spectacle. He doesn’t just live underneath an Opera House—he is constantly performing. It’s an understandable obsession for someone who is so ugly he has to hide from society. And he’s certainly better at it than poor Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), the hopelessly uninteresting Faust understudy whom he tutors. But Chaney’s Phantom is like Ridley Scott’s alien (admittedly, with less drool), we catch only hints, glimpses of the menace—the swish of a cape here, a gloved hand there, a shadow—until the big reveal.

umasking 1925Hollywood lore tells us that Mary Philbin (playing Christine Daaé) didn’t see Chaney in full Phantom glory until they were filming the reveal scene, the better to terrify her on camera. Rumor has it that patrons at the film’s premiere fainted when Christine tears off the Phantom’s mask. Chaney famously did his own makeup here, as elsewhere, and, Hollywood gossip aside, it is both grotesque and astounding. Early in the film, theater worker Buquet, cradling a prop head because why not, describes the Phantom to a rapt audience of skittish Opera ballerinas. His eyes are “ghastly beads in which there is no light.” His skin is a “leprous parchment—yellow skin stretched over protruding bones.” And no nose. Chaney wore a “contoured wire appliance to flare and pull back his nose,” a “contraption which would sometimes cause Chaney to ‘bleed like hell,’” according to cameraman Charles Van Enger (The Monster Show, David J. Skal)—and which made his face look uncannily like a skull.

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The Uncle Sam poster came first, in case you were wondering.

What’s so unexpectedly delightful about this Phantom is his demented glee at his own flourishes. When the Opera managers don’t let Christine play the part of Marguerite as the Phantom has instructed them to do, he sends them a note: “Behold, she [the other Marguerite] is singing to bring down the chandelier!” And then, of course, the chandelier comes crashing down on the audience. (Which, oddly, doesn’t seem to hurt their box office, if later crowds are any indication.) You can practically hear him cackling. When the Phantom presents Christine with the ultimatum to marry him or he will kill her lover, Raoul of the fabulous moustaches, he wags his finger at her, as though she’s being mischievous.

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This is what demented glee looks like.

The Phantom has the lyrical pomposity of the best villains, rearranging his syntax for effect: No longer like a toad in these foul cellars will I secrete the venom of hatred, for you shall bring me love. So romantic.

Arguably the best performance the Phantom gives is at the very, very end of the film, when an enraged mob chases him to the Seine. I won’t tell you what he does, but I like to think that Chaney came up with this last bit of Phantom magic himself.

And, as if that high-class, yet goofy, villainy weren’t enough, the Phantom lives in the bowels of an Opera House, surrounded by an underground lake. And his lair, five cellars below the stage, puts the Opera’s set decorators to shame. All the Opera House gets is a narrow trap door and that really, really big chandelier—which doesn’t even make it through the film. Meanwhile, the Phantom’s man cave boasts an advance alarm system to detect unwelcome visitors, a coffin for his bed and a one-person boat-bed for the woman he loves, an organ, a trapdoor, a secret exit, a torture chamber with its own trapdoor, and a grasshopper figure rigged to a cellar-full of explosives. All the cool kids have one of those.

Not to be missed is the elaborate torture—not of the hapless Christine, no, of her dashing mustache, I mean, boyfriend, and a detective. The two men are nearly roasted to death, a scene during which at least one of them disrobes more than you’d expect, and then nearly drowned. And then everybody is nearly blown up.

The Bal Masque scene is the only surviving sequence using the early Technicolor system. It’s fantastic, as you can see here:

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But this is only the prelude to what’s probably my favorite image of the film, the Phantom spying on Christine and Mr. Moustaches on the rooftop of the Opera. The cellar-dwelling villain—a red stain on the now black and white scene—balances on a statue above the lovers, and above Paris. And while the two straight arrows simper at each other, the Phantom curses Christine’s betrayal, his red cape billowing out as though it were part of the statuary.

Just one more tidbit. Why, you ask, are the two men on this lobby card (a detective and the mustachioed boyfriend), holding their arms aloft as if they’re in math class and they have to pee?lobby card arms

Well, let me first assure you that it is a matter of life and death. Really. The detective said so. Apparently, the Phantom has become known for silently lowering a noose around the necks of any persons so foolish as to go snooping in the cellars. Clearly, holding your arm up is the way to fend off an unwanted noose. Good tip.

It used to be that you could only see iffy prints of The Phantom paired with some truly godawful music—sometimes it’s not even pretending to be a score; it’s just the same piece of music being played over and over and over again, in absolutely no relation whatsoever to what’s happening on the screen. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. Kino has a recently digitally-restored Blu-ray version, as does Image Entertainment. The Image DVD has the Alloy Orchestra’s score and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s. (It also has the 1925 version of the film and two 1929 reissues.)

If you have never seen a silent film on a screen with live accompaniment, you’ve almost certainly not read this far, but if you’re still with me and you haven’t, do yourself a favor and find one you can get to. Lots of places (museums, summer festivals) now screen silents with live accompaniment around holidays or as special events. It will change the way you see silent film. (Sorta like reading Jane Austen or Laurence Sterne—or Shakespeare—and realizing that musty old literature isn’t musty at all and people were wickedly funny all the way back then, and still worth reading now, whenever now happens to be.)

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Lon Chaney–bendier than you realized.

The Great Villain Blogathon: Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol in Mad Love (1935)

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Like most movie watchers of my generation, I probably first saw the actual Peter Lorre in Casablanca (1942). He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s hard to forget. My first exposure to Peter Lorre, however, and perhaps also like a lot of folks my generation, was through the glory of Looney Tunes.

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So when I saw him in Casablanca, and then in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and M (1931), I might already have understood what a big deal he was. But I couldn’t have understood how amazing Peter Lorre is, because I hadn’t yet seen the glorious Mad Love (1935).

As a villain, Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol might be a distant relative of Udo Kier’s Baron Frankenstein. On his best day, Dr. Gogol has at least one foot in la-la land. Far more refined than the putatively aristocratic Baron, he’s got Lorre’s soft, soothing voice and self-effacing manner. Gogol is, however, equally likely to slip into hysterics at the drop of a hat. He is, after all, an unhinged doctor, also a surgeon, like Baron Frankenstein. Very much unlike the Baron, we see Dr. Gogol using his surgical gifts for good, helping crippled children walk and so forth. Mad Love is so effective as a horror film in large part because Lorre somehow endows Dr. Gogol with a glimmer of humanity, and we empathize with it. It’s an amazing trick—more difficult, I think, than what he does as the murderer in M, simply because we know Gogol so much better. We hear him talk to others, and to himself; we see him do good, and we see him luxuriate in the suffering of others.

mad_love_poster_04Mad Love is a delirious adaptation of a French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac, by Maurice Renard, a story that has been adapted no fewer than eight times (though the English translation is now out of print). The first was in 1924, a silent film starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Robert Weine—which is not a bad way to start a second life in celluloid. Here in 1935, it’s astonishing how much plot director Karl Freund has been packed into a mere 68 minutes (though I’ve no idea what’s from the novel and what might not be).

When we meet Dr. Gogol, he’s attending a performance at the Théâtre des Horreurs, a popular Grand Guignol-type entertainment starring his favorite actress/torture victim, Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). The camera takes us through the entrance, past the goblin selling tickets and the headless hatcheck girl. Yvonne plays a Duchess who is tortured on stage by her husband as an adulteress. Gogol attends this performance every night, and when Yvonne begins to scream as she’s being stretched on wheel, he closes his eyes in rapture. Ick. (Below the box he sits in every night is a nurse, as there was usually a nurse in attendance at such theaters, the better to create the illusion of unendurable horrors.)

grand-guignol-1In a sense, we never leave the Théâtre; the plot of the film is more bizarre and morbid, if not quite as gory, as anything that might have graced the Théâtre’s stage.

In quick succession the following happens:

Yvonne quits the stage to be with her successful pianist husband, Stephen Orlac (the twitchy Colin Clive). Gogol is devastated, and to compensate, he buys the wax figure of Yvonne that has been gracing the entrance of the Théâtre des Horrors. A murdering American knife-thrower from the circus is guillotined (Edward Brophy), witnessed by Gogol and a scandal-mongering American journalist (Ted Healy). Traveling to meet her, Yvonne’s husband, Stephen, is in a terrible train wreck in which his hands are crushed. And that’s the set-up.

After Yvonne’s final performance, she is fêted by the company, complete with a going-away-wedding cake.

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“The théatre loses another head.” How romantic.

Now, things get weird.

Stephen’s destroyed hands will have to be amputated. In a panic, Yvonne takes her husband to Dr. Gogol, in the hopes that the famous doctor will be able to find a way Stephen can keep his hands. Desperate to please her, Gogol agrees to take a look. He comes to the same unpleasant pro-amputation conclusion. But while washing up before the operation, he has a flash of inspiration, if by “inspiration” one can mean a man’s reflection audibly urging him to acquire a handy corpse and replace a pianist’s crushed hands with the hands a guillotined knife-thrower no longer needs. Gogol follows this sage advice, assuring the reassembled Stephen that his new hands are truly his own.

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Really, what could go wrong?

The American newspaperman gets wind that Gogol has taken the beheaded corpse, and when he swings by Gogol’s house to find out what the good doctor might be doing with it, he meets Françoise, Gogol’s perpetually drunk housekeeper. Who has a cockatiel on her shoulder, because why wouldn’t she? Françoise (May Beatty) assumes the newspaperman is asking about the wax figure of Yvonne, and she regales him with tales of grooming “it,” and of Gogol playing music to it every night. You know, on his chamber organ. But Gogol comes home and prevents the newspaperman from seeing any corpses with his own eyes.

I suspect that, in the novel, as in other adaptations of the original story, the main character is Stephen, the hands-less piano player. Here, it is the mad Gogol, and it’s an excellent choice. Clive is always effective as a gifted man losing his marbles, but Lorre is the main attraction, and his super-creepy obsession with Yvonne is certainly the stuff of horror movies. In fact, his super-creepy obsession has a long and proud literary heritage, to which the movie does a fine job of alluding.

As Stephen and Lorre mirror each other in their mad spiral, Gogol, a well-educated and cultured fellow, after all, takes to quoting poetry to articulate his feelings about Yvonne. He has, from the beginning, thought of the wax figure as Galatea and himself Pygmalion. Gogol recites some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which narrate her courtship with the poet Robert Browning.

Straightaway I was ‘ware,

So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move

Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,–

Guess now who holds thee?Death, I said, But, there,

The silver answer rang,–Not Death, but Love. (I.9-14)

The face of all the world is changed, I think,

Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul

Move still, oh, still, beside me…  (VII.1 – 3)

 

When the real Yvonne is locked in Gogol’s study by Françoise, Yvonne pretends to be his Galatea. When Gogol realizes she has “come to life,” she faints in his arms. He knows she will never accept him. What else to do but reply to Barrett Browning’s hopeful sonnets with the words of one of Browning’s madmen?

                                      …I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
       In one long yellow string I wound
       Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
       I am quite sure she felt no pain.
                            (from “Porphyria’s Lover”)

 

Both verses mention hair and Yvonne’s has been called to our attention repeatedly throughout the film. When we first see her, the long, wavy black hair has been brushed out to the point of frizziness.

 

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The movie is full of mirrors (with and without talking ids) and the plot itself is wonderfully symmetrical, opening with Yvonne’s stage performance at the Théatre and closing with her performance in Gogol’s study. In each she is persecuted by a man who claims to love her, wearing strikingly similar gowns/robes. During her first performance, Stephen is performing a concert of his own—his music plays over the radio during Yvonne’s first encounter with Gogol, backstage. During her last performance, Stephen comes to the rescue with a new performance courtesy of his new hands.

There is a simply fantastic moment at the beginning of the movie when Gogol is in the lobby of the Théatre, mooning at the statue of Yvonne, and a similarly dressed inebriate reels out of the auditorium as though from a mirror reflecting Gogol. The fellow drunkenly professes his love for the wax effigy.

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The staging in this scene is also wonderful. As the drunk begins to speak to the statue, Gogol turns away, so we can focus on what the second man is saying. As the declaration of love continues, Gogol turns slightly, drawing our attention back to him, and his distress at what the drunk is saying. There are a few “reaction” shots of the statue—and when it’s in close up, it’s not an “it” at all, but the actress, Frances Drake, standing in for the statue, prefiguring the end of the film, when the character will do so.

Lorre was never even nominated for an Oscar, which strikes me as scandalous. If TCM has ever devoted a Summer under the Stars day to Peter Lorre, I’ve missed it. If they haven’t, it’s long overdue.

 

Postscript

The film is the last of nineteen that famed cinematographer Karl Freund directed. Like Lorre, Freund was an Austro-Hungarian ex-pat with a background in Expressionist film (and the film has some great shadows and dark staircases). Freund did ground-breaking work on F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and was also the director of photography on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and later, Dracula (1931).

Mad Love also features Keye Luke, a Chinese-born American artist-turned-actor, as Dr. Wong, Gogol’s much more sensible colleague. Luke played Charlie Chan’s Number-One Son, Kato, the klukeGreen Hornet’s side-kick, Master Po in “Kung Fu,” and was in Gremlins (1984) and Woody Allen’s 1990 Alice. He amassed a ludicrous 211 credits, with a guest spot on what appears to have been every television show in production during his career. “The Ray Milland Show”? Check. “Gunsmoke”? Check. “Mike Hammer,” “General Hospital” and “Perry Mason”? Check, check, and check. “Jonny Quest,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Star Trek,” “Hawaii-Five-O,” and on and on through “M*A*S*H,” “Remington Steele,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The A-Team,” “T. J. Hooker,” “The Golden Girls,” and “MacGyver.” Sheesh. No Emmy, but he did get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the year before he died. Luke and Lorre co-starred again in Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938).

 

**This post was originally intended to be part of a blogathon that took place in—holy cow—April. I didn’t realize it had been that long. Anyway, life intervened and I changed jobs and we moved and everything all went screwy for a couple of months. Things are settling down, so here we are again.

The Great Villain Blogathon: Paul Morrissey’s Baron Frankenstein

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Just a laboratory and a dream

…and a lot of disemboweling

There is a lot of yelling in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein, primarily overbred aristocrats shouting at peasants. One of the things that makes this film so special is what the rich are yelling about: zombies. And sex.

If Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein was a man driven by grief (and sex), Paul Morrissey’s Baron Frankenstein is a mad scientist by way of a porn film. Don’t let the porn put you off, though. Flesh for Frankenstein is a great parody of sex and violence in films, with some giggles tossed in the direction of nationalism and upper-crusty aestheticism.

03 nasumThis Frankenstein, played by naturally villainous Udo Kier, is looking to create a master Serbian race. The plan is to piece together a male zombie and a female zombie who will mate, producing perfect “children” who will take orders only from the Baron. “How can I wait for nine months?!” he moans to Otto, his lab assistant. The Baron is only half of a repulsive duo, however. He’s married his sister, Katrin (Monique von Vooren), with whom he’s had two predictably appalling children in the more usual way. Katrin speaks all her lines in a tone of magnificent, indignant outrage. All her favorite sentences start with “How dare you—”

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She’s not a nice person, either.

The film is a glorious unraveling of absurdity, all emanating from Kier’s Baron. Frankenstein, as portrayed by Kier, is the crazed cousin of Shelley’s anti-hero, godfather to the grown-up children of Spider Baby (1967). Kier is able to maintain a pitch of insanity so over the top that we aren’t often distracted by Otto, played by Arno Juerging, who is bonkers enough in his own right. Left alone with the female zombie he begins tonguing the enormous incision on her torso, eyes popping out of his head.

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It would be hard to take your eyes off Otto…

 

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…if it weren’t for this sort of thing. And the screaming.

It’s hard to think of the Baron as evil because his villainy is so performative and so histrionic. Because he says things like:

“Make him unconscious! But don’t kill him or damage his head in any way. I need his brain for my zombie!”

Words can’t really do justice to Udo Kier’s operatic nuttery. Below is the climactic end of the Baron and almost the end of the film. It won’t exactly ruin the film to see this part first, and, believe it or not, there are several other sequences that rival this one’s cavalier sprint past the limits of decency and moderation.

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If you’re wondering why the liver spends so much time dangling in front of you there, it’s because the movie was filmed and meant to be screened in 3D. Yum.

The voyeurism and even some of the shot set-ups of Morrissey’s film reminded me a bit of Peter Greenaway’s A Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989). The characters in Flesh spy on each other and the Baron’s rooting around in opened torsos is a viscous sort of voyeurism. The Greek roots of “autopsy” mean “to see for oneself,” after all. Old-fashioned planimetric staging is used in both films as well–around dinner tables, even.

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As much fun as Flesh for Frankenstein is, however, I have to say I much prefer Greenaway’s film. Maybe it’s just Greenaway’s use of color.

Perhaps the ultimate villainy in Flesh is that the Baron and Katrin appear to have passed along their aristocratic desire to toy with the lives and bodies of lower class persons to their stock creepy kids. They reminded me a bit of the children in The Innocents (1961), the adaptation of Henry James’s ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. The final shot of the children and the surviving adult—poor Joe Dellasandro—is easily the most horrific moment in the film.

If you’ve heard anything about Flesh for Frankenstein, you’ve probably heard the infamous line about knowing death. It’s been noted that the line “is a pointed parody of Marlon Brando’s pretentious line from Last Tango in Paris about “crawling up the ass of death.” It’s hard to fault a film that parodies the pretension of that film with the line, “To know death, Otto you have to f**k life…in the gallbladder!” Pile the innards sex on top of hearty servings of hedge clipper beheadings, sprays of arterial blood (regardless of the source), and Udo Kier, and how can you say no?

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Pre-Code Blogathon: Murder at the Vanities (1934)

The following is my contribution to the fabulous Pre-Code Blogathon, hosted by Shadows and Satin and Pre-Code.com. 

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A word, or two or three, about Pre-Code Pictures

Even if you’ve seen some of the now-classic pre-code films, like Night Nurse (1931), Freaks (1932), or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), it can be hard to imagine the sheer volume of skin, moral turpitude, and—every so often—political or social reality that filled the pre-code films of Hollywood. In the more famous films, much of the “pre-code” material was used in the service of a good story or genuinely interesting characters. In lots and lots of other pre-code films, however, the material cultural conservatives found objectionable was simply tossed into a blender with a couple of nouns and a verb or two, and voilà! a quick and often tidy profit.

The guiding principle of the code was “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” which is predictably squishy. What the writers of the Code meant was— “Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” This is unfortunate, since much great art is almost exclusively the ridicule of human laws, and the great art that isn’t, is probably based on sympathy for the “violation” of such laws. Oh well.

There’s much too much in the code to mention it all, but let’s review what became the more striking unmentionables and invisibles: murder, the explicit presentation of “methods of crime” (including but not limited to theft, robbery, safe-cracking, dynamiting of trains, mines, or buildings, arson, the use of firearms, and smuggling), illegal drug traffic, the use of liquor, explicitly or attractively presented adultery, sex perversion (the classy way to refer to plots with characters who might possibly be thought, even for the most fleeting of moments, to be gay), white slavery, miscegenation, and venereal diseases. Oh, and seduction is “never the proper subject for comedy.”

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The famous photograph taken by A. L. Shafer, head of photography at Columbia, demonstrating what thou shalt not.

There were predictably silly rules about costume, dancing, national feelings, locations (apparently “location” actually means “bedroom”—it’s the only one mentioned), and surgical operations. A fairly well-known convention of the Code was that crime and villains were never to be portrayed sympathetically. It was absolutely verboten that a criminal of any sort be allowed to get away with anything. The theory was that, as long as the crime (and sex) was punished in the end, nobody would get any funny ideas. (Clearly, there were people making pictures who knew better, but you have to wonder—didn’t everybody know better?)

I mention all this because short of surgery and the dynamiting of trains, all of those no-nos seem to have been stuffed into the very rickety “plot” of Murder at the Vanities. It’s a ridiculous movie but totally worth seeing to get a sense of the generally cheerful lunacy that seems to guide a lot of pre-code films. Murder at the Vanities is a clown car of bat-shittery, with one misbegotten scenario after another tumbling out.

I’m not sure a set-up is required to understand what follows, but here it is: This is a film about a (real) Broadway show, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, with—three guesses, no peeking—a murder mystery slapped on top of the endless parade of chorines. (I love that word, chorine.) One of the virtues of setting your plot in a Broadway revue is that you can string together a series of musical numbers that bear absolutely no relation to each other or to the plot, and nobody bats an eye. A European star, Eric Lander (Carl Brisson) and his leading chorine (see?), singer Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle) are all set to perform at the opening night of the Vanities, and get married immediately afterward. As they swan off to the theater, Ann laughs, “This is the happiest night of my life, Eric, and nothing, nothing can spoil it!”  Now that we know Ann’s night will absolutely be spoiled, and spoiled in some unforseeably awful way, the film wastes no time diving into the splendidly tawdry backstage shenanigans. Problem one: Lander previously romanced another woman in the show, Rita Ross (Gertrude Michael), and she is having none of this marrying-Ann business. Michael’s portrayal of villainess Rita is admirably enthusiastic.t49OProblem two: Lander’s mother (Jessie Ralph), incognito as a wardrobe assistant, is on the run from a murder she committed in Vienna thirty years ago. This youthful indiscretion is batted aside as an airy nothing. To wit: it was thirty years ago, she has suffered, and anyway he was a bad guy. It took me a minute to figure out that the woman who introduces this background into the plot is a professional private detective. There is no jokey introduction of her or her profession to help the audience get past the fact that she’s got lady-parts and is simultaneously a detective whom people pay to do a job. She’s just there and that’s what she does for a living, and it’s awesome. Cue the bizarre musical number in which Lander is dressed as though he’s been shipwrecked, with nearly naked women strewn “artistically” about the stage.

Shortly after this, the bodies start dropping, and not a moment too soon. I have not yet been converted to the style of singing popular in such revues, so the dead bodies were a welcome diversion.

But the next musical number had the Husband and me suddenly sitting up a little straighter. Rita is singing, appropriately enough, about a lost love. The first thing that caught me off guard is the truly awful gown they’ve got her wearing. Perhaps the wardrobe department already has it in for her. There’s a line of sombrero-hatted fellas with guitars backing her up. What got our attention is that naughty Rita’s Mexican-flavoured song is an ode to marijuana. 

Soothe me with your caress

Sweet marijuana, marijuaaaana

Help me in my distress

Sweet marijuana, please do

The racism inherent in the it’s-about-marijuana-so-obviously-the-number-has-to-be-Mexican is par for the course. And it is the villain serenading her jazz cigarettes, after all. None of this really undercuts the effect, at least not now, in 2015.

You alone can bring my lover to back to me

Even though I know it’s all a fantasy

And then put me to sleep

Sweet marijuana, marijuana

Okey dokey then.

This is all merely the prelude to the centerpiece of weirdness, aka the Vanities‘ Act II.

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This isn’t helping.

Yes, folks, “The Rape of the Rhapsody,” the rhapsody being sung by Lander and Ware, both in proto-Liberace outfits more ridiculous than you could have imagined possible, and the rape, as you can see above, courtesy of Rita, Duke Ellington and His Band, and a bevy of African-American chorines. It’s hard to do justice, if that’s the right word, to either the spectacle or the subtext. The general idea, I presume, is that the hot new jazz music is violating the elegant classical music. Of course, it’s not just the metaphor of rape that’s icky, but the way the number is racialized. You’re probably wondering—might it be somehow less offensive if there’s a white lady in a sexualized mammy outfit singing “Ebony Rhapsody” in front of a line of black chorines in sexy French maid outfits? Let me assure you, it is not. The only thing that keeps me from saying it’s worse is that it’s just so…weird. 

Ellington is, of course, a joy to watch, and his band wipe the floor with the “rhapsody” musicians.

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If this fruitcake number is the musical climax of Murder at the Vanities, then the revelation of one of the murderers in the last ten minutes of the film is the dramatic climax. Spoilers ahead. In a blow for labor rights, Rita’s put-upon maid has shot Rita in the back. You can hardly blame Norma (Dorothy Stickney). Working for Rita is better than working at Wal-Mart, but not by much. Stickney’s wild-eyed confession is something to see. She only confesses to keep Lander, with whom she is smitten, from being arrested for the crime.

If you want to be surprised when you watch the movie, STOP READING NOW. Because this is one of the most enjoyable moments in the film, I wanted to share it with you, and it’s my blog, so here goes:

Norma begins where other, lesser murderesses would be wrapping up. “Oh, I’d’ve told alright. Rita deserved to go to the chair. She was rotten to everybody. I’m glad she’s dead!”

[The clip won’t start at the right place, so forward it to 39:47, and enjoy.]

I hereby nominate Ms. Stickney for Best Pre-Code Murder Confession.

I’m looking forward to watching more of the less famous pre-codes, discovering some old gems, and some more of these time-capsules of aesthetic lunacy. If you enjoyed this, please check out the other posts in the Pre-Code Blogathon at Pre-Code.com and Satin and Shadows!

Please nominate more Best Murder Confessions in the comments, Pre-Code, or otherwise!

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Curses! Western Civilization is foiled again!


For some other takes on Murder at the Vanities, see the Nitrate Diva and Pre-Code.com. I had exactly the same reaction to Carl Brisson as the Diva did: Where is Maurice Chevalier when you need him?!

Cinemascope! Blogathon: House of Bamboo (1955)

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10 Reasons You Should Drop What You’re Doing and Watch Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo Right Now

1) Samuel Fuller. Samuel Fuller did not mess around. His films are usually described as “in-your-face,” “pulpy,” and “crude.” They are, and they are magnificent. Fuller made films about things that mattered to him, and you can tell. He said films should start with a punch, and at least one of his films, The Naked Kiss (1964), does exactly that. Not a fan of establishing shots (meant to help orient the viewer in a new scene or space), Fuller was a natural editor. He wanted every shot, every move, every word, to count. Fuller would never sacrifice the raw emotion or the heart of a story just to make a point. But a few jagged edges on the plot were just fine.

House of Bamboo, like other films of Fuller’s, has an integrated cast, though there aren’t a lot of Japanese characters. (Four years later, in The Crimson Kimono, there are two interracial relationships.) Because this is a studio picture, its politics are pretty submerged, but the more control he had over his films, the more apparent Fuller’s politics were, as well as his proclivities. The hero of his film might be a prostitute, as in The Naked Kiss, or a pickpocket, as in the awesome Pickup on South Street (1953); the setting might be a mental hospital, as in Shock Corridor (1963), or the Korean War, in The Steel Helmet (1951), in which Americans execute a prisoner of war, royally pissing off the real U.S. Army. Fuller insisted he’d seen it happen during his service in World War II.

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Of course, he also took to starting shooting by firing a pistol, and he dribbled cigar ash everywhere. Nobody’s perfect.

Here’s some classic Fuller from the shooting of House of Bamboo: “To make matters even messier, Fuller shot [Robert] Stack hoofing it around the pachinko parlors of Tokyo without letting the local citizenry know that a movie was being filmed. When Fuller commanded Stack to be attacked by an angry mob, he didn’t bother to let his unpaid extras know that Stack was acting… and the mob nearly killed the actor right there in front of the hidden cameras. Stack was none too thrilled by the turn of events but Fuller was in his glory.” (From Richard Harlan Smith’s post on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog)

Twentieth-century Fox wanted a heterosexual relationship and a happy ending in House of Bamboo, and they got that. Sort of. Fuller made some compromises in for the studio; the relationship between Robert Stack’s character, Eddie, and his “kimono girl,” Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) is one of the bigger ones. But only a fool would think that the film is about Eddie and Mariko. It’s about Eddie and the crime boss he betrays, Sandy, played by the incomparable and underrated Robert Ryan. Which brings me to…

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2) Robert Ryan. You probably don’t spend as much time as I do thinking about how amazing Robert Ryan is, but you might, if you watched this movie. One of Ryan’s specialities is a barely suppressed rage that’s constantly in danger of erupting into violence. Depending on the character, carrying around this rage can seem to wear him down or give him the volatility of a downed power line. He isn’t especially violent in this picture, but with Ryan it’s those moments when you’re afraid he’s about to crack someone in the face with, say, the cue ball he’s been holding that stay with you. Fuller knows how to milk those moments.

Ryan played a lot of bad guys, but he seems to have played racist bad guys more often than most actors, especially in the 1940s – 50s. Just off the top of my head, he’s an anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, which got him an Oscar nomination), and a bigot in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Perhaps he was so good at these and other bullying roles because, in real life, he campaigned for civil rights and opposed McCarthyism. He knew injustice and cruelty when he saw it. Plus, he was 6′ 4″. I can almost guarantee you that there’s not enough Robert Ryan in your life. You should do something about that.

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3) It’s in Cinemascope. Oh, the glories of Cinemascope. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it remains breathtaking, even when you notice that little curvature at the edge of the frame’s width, even when you have to watch it on a television screen. Cinemascope films, with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (versus the old Academy ratio of 1.375:1) were meant to be shown (ideally) on 62-foot long by 32-foot high screens, give or take. The limitations of filming in Cinemascope, like those of silent film, the Production Code, and early sound technology, either defeat a picture or produce inspired solutions. Fuller took it as part of his job to push against limits of all kinds, and the results are invariably dynamic. This film in particular is incredibly visually satisfying. Fuller uses the screens common to traditional Japanese interiors to frame characters and to create staggered or layered depth of field (a screen opening on a room beyond the one, or in front of the one, which has our attention, for example).

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Notice, too, how a number of these shots have a sharp corner in the center of the foreground, rather than narrowing towards a point in the distance: the corners of buildings, offices, rooms. It’s an unusual (at least to me) way of creating depth in Cinemascope.

4) It was filmed on location in postwar Japan.

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Tokyo is dreary and smog-filled. The empty trees suggest that Fuller made a point of filming in late fall or winter—even the natural landscapes are brown and grey. And yet, the film is filled with color—in particular the colors of traditional Japanese culture. Though the Western protagonists seem to take a chauvinistic pride in refusing to even acknowledge that they are in someone else’s country, the audience cannot help but get a feel for this time and this place. Fuller makes sure that the sights, sounds, and customs that the men ignore are there for us to take in. One of Fuller’s interests in this film, as in some of his others, is the clash of cultures, and the gang’s pointed lack of interest in their surroundings is their own bigotry, not the film’s. A motif is one of these guys shouting into a phone, or at a person, “English! ENGLISH!”

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5) Fuller’s shot composition and staging

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

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Three pivotal scenes take place in this gazebo and in each the characters are framed differently, emphasizing their state of mind.

 

6) The ass-kicking ending. SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously.

I mean the real ending, not the silly tacked-on one with Eddie and Mariko holding hands. The final sequence is bizarre and brilliant from the moment Sandy sets up his revenge, getting Eddie shot by the Tokyo police, to the end, a Hitchcockian chase through the rooftop amusement park of the department store they were robbing. The highest point on the roof is a rotating globe, and that’s where Sandy goes down.

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7) Bones!

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Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not an ex-pat hood in postwar Japan!

8) Love triangles and gender reversals. Robert Stack in the tub, Robert Stack showing some shoulder. Meanwhile Shirley Yamaguchi is completely covered. (There is one obligatory shot of her in a skimpy towel, but that’s before the two of them get to know each other.)

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A lot of the shot compositions also emphasize Sandy’s feelings for his “ichiban” (number one), first Griff (Cameron Mitchell), then, of course, Eddie. There’s at least one major plot point that doesn’t make much sense unless you understand that Sandy has developed feelings for Eddie. Fuller made it clear in interviews that he fully intended this homoerotic tension. Apparently, the only other person on the set who figured it out was Ryan, and there are a couple of scenes where he plays to this, and Stack/Eddie just looks blank, totally unaware of how important he has become to Sandy.

9) Kabuki. As James Ursini and Alain Silver point out in their DVD commentary, Fuller borrows a fair amount from Kabuki theatre in his staging and in the way he creates depth using the interior screens.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

There’s also a Japanese party with traditional music and fan dancers that morphs into a sock hop. The women disrobe to reveal poodle skirts and bobby socks but keep their white pancake make up on. Because Fuller.

… aaaaaaaand this:

10) Having a heart-to-heart with guy you just shot. Dead. In his bathtub.

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Fuller’s pulp rendering of Marat’s assassination, the scene in which Sandy shoots first and talks later, is gripping, both for its total weirdness and for how it elaborates on Sandy’s feelings about the two men in his life, Griff and Eddie. Sandy cradles the dead guy’s head, keeps it from sinking into the water twice, as he tenderly explains why he had to kill him. It’s a speech that applies equally well, if not more so, to other relationships in the film: You weren’t responsible for your actions. You didn’t know what you were doing. I could see you had no control of yourself. Absolutely none.

P.S. The great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa is also here, but you’d hardly know it. He looks uncomfortable and has a thanklessly dull part.

This is a movie that should be a lot easier to see, and, hey, Fox, it should be available in Blu-ray. Get on that, willya?

Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, Part 2: The House on Trubnaya (1928)

a-casa-da-praca-trubnaia_t47274_png_290x478_upscale_q90Thanks to Movies, Silently and Flicker Alley for hosting the Blogathon!

Despite what Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) might have lead you to believe, Bolshevism did not destroy the Russian sense of humor. Although the “message” of The House on Trubnaya (1928) (aka The House on Trubnaya Square aka The House on Trubnaya Street) is, predictably, that the Soviet state is just super, the film does not throw its hands up in the air, in classic Russian fatalism. The House on Trubnaya is a hoot. Yes, you read that right, Soviet comedy is not an oxymoron.

Trubnaya takes on the country-girl-in-the-city trope. Rather than following the well-worn path in which the naive girl is taken advantage of by some unscrupulous city slicker and, “falling” pregnant, is forced to return home, where, of course, no one will have anything to do with her, however, Trubnaya sets it up and then has the naive country girl triumph, all thanks to the glorious Soviet system. Luckily, Trubnaya’s director, Boris Barnet, has a much subtler touch than that summary suggests. The story is genuinely funny, the only character we hate is the actual villain, and Barnet and his cinematographer, Yevgeni Alekseyev, have a lot of fun with the camera. Trubnaya puts a lot of the Kino-Eye-Constructivist-montage techniques to much lighter effect than I’ve seen in the canonical Soviet films, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s breathtaking Man with a Movie Camera.

The film opens on a lyrical set of images—a Moscow empty but for a few street sweepers. The city “looks in the mirror and begins to wash up,” the inter titles tell us. The next shot is a serene reflection of buildings in water on the street, broken the next moment by sweeper’s broom. Everything here is linked to everything else—it’s a political theory but also an aesthetic. Our focus shifts to the Trubnaya apartments and the film’s best set: a cut-away of the stairwell in a communal apartment building. It’s a great introduction to the characters’ world and the humor Barnet creates here sets the tone for the film.

trubnayaWe watch the stairwell come to life along with the rest of the city: neighbors shaking out rugs and curtains, chopping wood (yes, in the stairwell), tossing out garbage, shooing cats, and all manner of morning rituals. The beginning of the film doesn’t have much dialog, which allows us to better appreciate the images, the way they’re connected, and what they tell us about these people. The rhythmic movements of the morning rituals are a language of their own. The sequence reminded me a bit of a much more salacious one in the French film Delicatessen (1991), which moves from room to room in an apartment building, as everyone’s movements, no matter what they’re doing, fall into the rhythm of a very squeaky mattress being used by two tenants. During this sequence in Trubnaya, as the camera moves fluidly up and down, we gather that this communal space isn’t being used all that communally. We are introduced to the three tenants in particular, Fenia, the building organizer, and we later learn, a union organizer, Golikov, a hairdresser, and a driver, Semyon, who turns out to be from the same village as Parasha, the film’s country-girl heroine.

The film moves out into the streets again as we follow Semyon to work. Parasha is wandering, a bit lost, along the streets. Like all good peasant girls, she has brought with her a beloved duck in a basket. Distracted by some dolls in a shop window, she fails to notice the duck waddle off. A classic silent film chase ensues as Parasha tries to recover her duck. The two are finally reunited on the tracks of a tram, which we saw so many of in the opening shots. Naturally, there is a tram bearing down on them, and there is a wonderful montage of Parasha and duck, tram, the tram-driver’s foot, the growing crowd. Just as we expect her to be smooshed or saved, the film “stops,” and the inter titles point out that we don’t know how the duck got to Moscow. We rewind to the moment Parasha (or Paranya, depending on the translation) is getting on the train from the boonies to the big city. Unfortunately, at just the same moment, her uncle is getting off a train arriving in the village. We hurtle back to the “present” and watch the tram driver stop just short of turning them into duck-and-Parasha paté. As the crowd circles around her, Semyon discovers he knows this peculiar girl, crouching in the road, hugging a duck. He takes her back to Trubnaya.

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There, Parasha is hired by Golikov as a housemaid/drudge. Golikov is played with a weasely air of general disapproval by Vladimir Fogel, early proof that villains are usually more fun to watch. The rest of the movie is really a struggle between Golikov’s version of the world, in which he treats Parasha a slave rather than an employee, and Parasha’s expanding and much sweeter version of the world. Fortunately, Parasha has Fenia, the domestic workers’ union, and, ultimately, of course, the glorious Soviet state on her side.

Later in the film, Barnet borrows a (hilarious) scene from the second book of Don Quixote,** in which our hero(ine) watches a performance of the Storming of the Bastille at the Workers’ Theater. The odious Golikov has been drafted at the last minute, standing in for an actor too drunk to play the French army general. Watching the “general” thrashing a revolutionary on stage, Parasha is overcome with an understandable desire to protect the underdog and leaps up to intercede. She storms the stage, knocking the general on his can, and…the crowd goes wild.

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Vera Maretskaya as Parasha

This is one excellent example among many of how Barnet caters to the need for Soviet propaganda on the one hand, while on the other hand, lampoons excessive patriotic fervor. And he does it through a character who, like the knight from La Mancha, remains sympathetic. It’s quite a balancing act and a great pleasure to watch.

You can watch The House on Trubnaya with a Fandor subscription (or with their two-week free trial). There are also versions available for free on YouTube.

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Director Boris Barnet

For more Russia in Classic Film Blogathon posts on comedy, check out the following:

Two (!) posts about the short Chess Fever (1925), starring Vladimir Fogel, at Once Upon a Screen and The Moon in Gemini.

and another two posts about Miss Mend, a serial co-directed by Boris Barnet (and set in America!), one at Big V Riot Squad and Mildred’s Fatburgers.

For more Trubnaya reading:

An argument that Barnet’s film belongs on a list of “best ever” silents on BFI’s site.

The House on Trubnaya @ Fandor and an accompanying essay on Russian Silent Film

Interesting historical context on the film at Cinetext.

 

 

** “Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practised in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste. Master Pedro kept shouting, “Hold hard! Senor Don Quixote! can’t you see they’re not real Moors you’re knocking down and killing and destroying, but only little pasteboard figures! Look—sinner that I am!—how you’re wrecking and ruining all that I’m worth!” But in spite of this, Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.”

Read the whole chapter (or better yet, the whole book—Book I first!), including Gustave Doré’s illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.

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Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)

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You will never get my fabulous headgear! Never! (Yuliya Solnetseva as Aelita)

Well, it’s some kind of thing.

As a portrait of the early Soviet state, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is fascinating. As a film, less so. What makes it interesting is probably also what makes it not a great film. It’s the propaganda. In America, the closest thing to “state propaganda” was probably the moralizing epilogue which would occasionally be tacked on to pre-code films starting in the next five years or so—as though that would wipe an audience’s mind clean of the previous 60 – 80 minutes of extramarital sex, near or total nudity, and crime without punishment enjoyed by the film’s characters.

Naturally, all of what looks like fun in Aelita turns out to be capitalist evil—nice clothes, drinking, parties, edible food, even the cool Constructivist couture worn by Martians. Because Aelita is set in 1921, and the Communists will shortly be in control of what will become the Soviet Republic, most of the film is at pains to distinguish between good Communists and bad Russians. Our hero, and I use that word loosely, is newlywed Engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli). When a mysterious radio signal is heard all over the world, Los’s dreams of going to Mars kick into high gear. In a typical American film, the guy (it’s always a guy) with crazy dreams inevitably has the moral high ground, and his crazy dreams show humanity the way forward. In Soviet Russia (sorry, couldn’t resist), this is, of course, backwards. Individuals with dreams hold society back and lead to all sorts of immoral capitalist shenanigans (in this film, anyway).

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If the main characters were more interesting, they’d probably be on this poster.

Los engineers for the fledgling Soviet state, while his wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), works in what the translated titles refer to as an evacuation center for refugees from the war and demobbed soldiers arriving in Moscow. Yet Anta Odeli Uta, the radio signal heard ’round the world, calls to Los like a siren. As he works feverishly on plans for a spaceship, good Communist things go sideways.

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The Robocop overlords are coming.

Life in Moscow is becoming more communal by the hour, and soon evacuated bad Russians Erlikh (Pavel Pol) and his wife are sent to move in with Los and Natasha. Los is unreasonably jealous of Erlikh, a clandestine black marketeer, who flatters Natasha. Without the example of her upstanding husband, frequently away for work, Natasha weakens and goes to a clandestine party with Erlikh. Suddenly, there is a scene in which everyone is dressed fabulously, their stylish clothes revealed as they strip off their shabby but voluminous outerwear. Natasha removes her prehistoric Uggs (which look they’re made out of cardboard) to reveal some excellent, slinky pumps. Before she is utterly lost to depravity, however, she remembers what pathetic bits of cloth the evacuees often have in place of shoes. Overcome by guilt, she hurries from this den of iniquity, where people are drinking alcohol and eating good food and generally enjoying themselves, back to her dingy, overcrowded apartment and what I assume is a lot of cabbage. Unfortunately, Natasha has missed her husband, who has left on yet another business trip, further estranging the two. When he finishes his six-month gig in outer-wherever, the government sends him a thank-you note. Returning home, he finds his wife talking to Erlikh. It is obvious to Los that they are sleeping together. So our hero shoots her and buggers off to build himself a spaceship. (Don’t forget, he’s the good Russian.)

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Having abandoned his new wife on Earth, Gusev finds the only happy Martian, Ihoskha (the impish Aleksandra Peregonets), and serenades her with his accordion. I think the movie we all want to see is the one this still should have come from.

You might well be wondering, at this point, what the hell happened to Mars, which is, you know, in the title. There are few sequences on Mars, sadly, but they are something—wonderful visions of a Constructivist dystopia with cool names like the Tower of Radiant Energy. The clothes are, well, you can see the pictures. Unfortunately, although the fashion-forward Aelita may be a queen, she is not the ruler, as Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the ruler, likes to remind her. People on Mars are very frowny, if the two of them are anything to go by. Behind Tuskub’s back, she convinces Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the civilization’s Guardian of Energy, to show her other worlds using his new gadget. When she spies the handsome Los, early on in the film, meeting Natasha, and sees them kiss, she turns to the hapless Gor and vamps, “Touch my lips with yours, like humans do, on Earth!” Apparently, there’s no kissing on Mars. But that’s only fair, because Martians are evil (if stylish) capitalists. They send a third of their workers into cold storage.

aelita-queen-of-mars-1924-001-00n-5vi-faceless-martiansLos finally makes it to Mars, along with good Russian soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) in drag (it’s a long story) and a detective who means to find Natasha’s murderer. The representative of law and order is presented to us as a laughable fellow whose dedication to holding someone accountable for a murder is obviously absurd. When this three-ring circus lands on Mars, what could happen but a bolshevik revolution, fueled by the stout-hearted Gusev. Los romances Aelita and the three of them free the workers, but at the last moment, Aelita betrays them. She tells the guards, in outfits clearly inspired by the 1987 version of Robocop, to open fire on the “insurgents.” The insurgents all look like they have televisions on their heads, by the way, as though they had wandered off the set of a Devo video. “Devo” is actually a pretty good description of the Martian aesthetic, created by art director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky and costume designer Alexandra Exter. (The blog Teleport City has a great post on Aelita with lots of detail about its context and history, including the book it’s adapted from and who Exter was.)

I don’t want to ruin the whole plot for you, which, in any case would take a lot longer, and you’d get bored. But, I doubt I’m ruining anything when I tell you that our fine hero comes to his senses, and sees that, without the wife he murdered, “the only joy for [him] was the realization that he, too, could take part in the great work of building the new Russia.” All’s well that ends well, eh? That mysterious radio signal, Anta, Odeli, Uta, is finally revealed to be a capitalist plot—a publicity ploy created by a tire company, Anta Odeli Uta. All crazy dreams of exploring the universe have been patriotically squashed, and the film ends as Los burns his notes, stares heroically into the middle distance, and tells Natasha (yeah, turns out she’s not completely dead—maybe she was just mostly dead), “Enough of dreaming. A different, real kind of work is awaiting all of us!”

Hooray.

Aelita: Queen of Mars is disappointing if you’re looking for the first sci-fi film, as it is sometimes called. But it is absolutely worth a look if you’re interested in Russian/Soviet history, and the Martian sequences, particularly the uprising, are pretty fabulous. Watching the failed Martian revolution (to be fair, I bet it’s hard to pull off a revolution when you’ve just been released from a freezer), it’s easy to be reminded of the much greater Metropolis, which Fritz Lang will finish three years after Aelita is released. They’d make a great double-bill.

The Internet has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that all the best things about Aelita take place on Mars. And so, you’ll be hard pressed to find images of Los or Natasha, though they are the film’s central characters. What you will find are scads of images of the scowling Martians in their proto-Devo Constructivist gear. Enjoy.

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This post is part of the awesome Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by maven of all things silent, Movies, Silently. There are some fantastic posts about both famous Soviet/Russian films and the less-famous. Enjoy!

Madeleine Carroll Blogathon: I Was a Spy (1933)

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One of the great pleasures of blogathons is discovering an old film, or an actor, or director and realizing that there’s still so, so many wonderful classic films yet to see. It’s sort of like knowing that there’s still a bunch of Graham Greene novels I haven’t read. Maybe the Graham Greene thing is just me.

Anyway, before the Madeleine Carroll blogathon, hosted by the delightful Silver Screenings and Tales of the Easily Distracted (we sympathize), the only film of hers I’d ever seen was, unsurprisingly, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). I haven’t seen The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), or The General Died at Dawn (1936), Lloyd’s of London (1936), Blockade (1938), or Honeymoon in Bali (1939). Not even the other Hitchcock movie she did, Secret Agent (1936). To be fair, many of these films are annoyingly hard to get a hold of unless you’re in the market to buy. Or live near a video store that is a) still in business and b) happens to stock them. The first is so unlikely as to make the second all but moot.

As I was saying, I am simply not up on my Madeleine Carroll. I Was a Spy (1933), directed by Victor Saville, wasn’t a bad place to start. It costars Herbert Marshall and the glowering Conrad Veidt. Saville would later direct Carroll in Loves of a Dictator (1937). The film is based on the 1932 autobiography of Belgian nurse Marthe Cnockhaert, who spied for the British during World War I. Initially reluctant, she becomes a devoted Belgian patriot—and falls in love with Herbert Marshall, who plays Stephan, a fellow spy.

There is a brief, wonderful scene of her heading down a suddenly deserted alley, to deliver a message. Rounding a corner, Marthe seems to have stepped out of her familiar town and into a Dr. Caligari set. She stops and knocks at window, removes the note from her under her braid and gives it to a mysterious hand that materializes in the window. It’s worth pointing out that the cinematographer, Charles Van Enger, whose first film credit is from 1918, also shot Alla Nazimova’s fabulous 1922 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé

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Down the rabbit hole.

 

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Carroll projects an enviable competence as Marthe, until she meets Commandant Oberaetz (Veidt). Veidt is perhaps the original movie Prussian (shortly to become the original movie Nazi), and he is, as always, impossible not to watch. Oberaetz is the embodiment of the danger Marthe is running and his physical presence is the one thing that seems to unnerve her. It is, however, hard to imagine preferring Herbert Marshall over Conrad Veidt.

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This guy?

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Or this guy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Marshall, but I’ve never found him the suave hero he was so often cast to be. Faced with that penetrating stare on the right, though, who could resist?

Tearing myself away from Conrad… I Was a Spy was a great vehicle for the beautiful Carroll, and she has no trouble carrying the film. She and Marshall have an easy chemistry. Carroll is a bit cold, but it suits her here, and Hitchcock would make good use of it two years later in The 39 Steps. Which I now need to rewatch. I was inspired to watch Hitchcock’s Secret Agent, made the year after The 39 Steps, with John Gielgud in the Robert Donat role. Gielgud and Carroll are so awkward together, it’s almost like they’re in different movies.

As much as I’m looking forward to watching Carroll in her other films now, I have to say that my favorite discovery so far is Peter Lorre in Secret Agent as a Mexican general. The whole film is available on YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and if you’re not sure you want to watch it, start here and wait for the temper tantrum. Then watch the rest of it.

NPG x135035; Victor Saville and Madeleine Carroll on the set of 'I Was a Spy' by James JarchÈ, for  Daily Herald

Victor Saville and Madeleine Carroll on the set (James Jarchè)

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SBIFF 2015: Second Chance (2014) & Confession (2014)

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Taiwanese film number two of the festival was the frothy Second Chance, directed by Wen-yen Kung. Okay, maybe not frothy exactly, but definitely bubbly. Second Chance is (I assume) one of the only action movies about pool. Yes, that kind of pool, where you stand around a table and firmly poke a series of colored balls. Sure, there’s The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)—did you remember Tom Cruise is in that?—but those are hardly action films. Although, Poolhall Junkies (2002) does have Christopher Walken, which is reason enough to watch it. Obviously.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfHAiIq-Yeo&w=560&h=315]

Seriously, the man is a national treasure. But I digress. This is what I was talking about:

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Why are they standing in front of a rock slide? Don’t worry—it doesn’t matter.

Second Chance is a sweet and entertaining mishmash of redemptive sports story, redemptive family story, crime story, comedy, drama, and action. Within the first five minutes, it seemed like two different films, with two entirely different tones, had started. The film doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or invite deep contemplation. It’s easily the most fun I had at SBIFF this year—and that’s an oft-underrated virtue at film festivals.

A disgraced former pool champ, played by Jason Wang, is forced back to the table when his independent, spunky orphaned niece has to find a way to hang on to her family’s pool hall (and convince her social worker that she doesn’t need to go to a foster home). Formulaic? You bet. Does it matter? Not at all. Asian films often seem much better at taking formulas and recycling them without making the audience feel like it’s eating a 7-Eleven egg salad sandwich that probably wasn’t very good even before you accidentally left it roasting on the dashboard of your car. Maybe Asian filmmakers choose better formulas than Hollywood studios. (It certainly seems easier to get decent distribution in that part of the world for that sort of film, on which much less money is riding.)

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Peijiang Wang plays Shine, the budding billiards champion who finally gets her uncle Feng to stand up and fly right, i.e., quit drinking and find a way to pay off the gambling debts that have brought his old rival to the door of the family pool hall/home, the Outstanding Pool Hall. There are the requisite training montages, which are a lot more entertaining than what is, essentially, golf on a table has any right to be. It’s a tribute to good storytelling that the film doesn’t need a lot of locations, doesn’t need a lot of characters, and doesn’t need a complicated plot to be such a good time.

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Also on the agenda was the South Korean “neo-noir” Confession, directed by Do-yun Lee. If the characters from Partners in Crime grew up, they might have ended up like the three boyhood friends in Confession. 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpRDHVlG2zk&w=560&h=315]

Confession is a solid, enjoyable crime thriller, the first feature by director Do-yun Lee. The three friends grow up to be very different from but still devoted to (or maybe just tied to) each other. Slick insurance agent In-chul (Ju Ji-Hoon) has more in common with the greedy mother (Lee Whee-Hyang) of his friend Hyun-Tae than with either Hyun-Tae (Ji Sung) or their friend, the slightly damaged Min-Soo (Lee Kwang-Soo). The center of the film’s plot is the robbery In-chul and Min-Soo stage at the gambling hall owned by Hyun-Tae’s parents. Playing to the surveillance camera, In-chul and his friend’s mother mime a violent robbery while offering directions to each other. (Which is absolutely as silly as it sounds.) The camera can’t hear them, of course, so why not?

What could go wrong with this plan? Nearly everything, as you might expect.

As with Second Chance, it doesn’t matter a whit that we can see what’s coming. Indeed, in a genre picture like this, being able to see what the characters can’t—the absolutely inevitable disaster they have stupidly, arrogantly set in motion—is essential. As Hitchcock pointed out, that dynamic is what creates suspense. It’s not not knowing what’s going to happen; it’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen when the characters don’t that makes us squirm in our seats and talk pointlessly at the screen.

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Min-Soo, In-chul, and Hyun-Tae

One of the things that makes both of these films better than their average American counterpart (assuming it ever got a distribution deal) is that they both spend quality time developing their characters, so that we care about them. Rather than being told the main character’s backstory in dialogue— “My parents were killed in front of me!”*—or having the plot laid out for us in dialogue— “I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”**—we watch characters do things and interact with each other. And so the characters seem like people rather than placeholders, and the plot appears to be generated by who the characters are rather than by the dictates of a marketing campaign aimed at 14-year-old boys.

I’m sorry. Did I say all that out loud?

Confession calls to mind another South Korean crime thriller traveling the festival circuit, A Hard Day. Seong-hoon Kim’s film about a corrupt cop having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is, I think, a better movie (though it’s hard to tell having only seen each once). Nevertheless, Second Chance and Confession are both a good time, and if you’re lucky enough that you can get to and afford a film festival, check these out. If not, don’t despair…they’ll be streaming soon.

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Up next from my SBIFF adventures… the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).

 

Colombiana (2011)

** Taken (2008) Really? You didn’t recognize that?

SBIFF 2015: Partners in Crime

SBIFF_2015_Barbara_BorosO woe is me, attending film festivals is getting in the way of my watching classic film. Luckily, I’ve got several blogathons coming up (see banners at right) to get me back into the classic swing of things.

Before we return to our regularly scheduled programming, however, I’d like to tell you about a few of the films I saw at the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It’s a good festival with lots of potential celebrity-spotting, as it’s so close to LA. Unlike the heavenly AFI Fest, though, it ain’t free. Movies are $15 a pop. But…they do a great deal on late-night movies—you can get a Remains of the Day pass for $60, which gets you in to every movie that starts after 10pm. If you went to every late-night screening, that more than halves the price of the films. So put that in your back pocket. (You know, for next year.)

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Partners in Crime (2014, Jung-chi Chang)

One of several Taiwanese films I saw, Partners in Crime is about high school bullying. Sort of. Three boys who don’t know each other well discover the body of a mysterious classmate on their way to school, Chia, who has thrown herself off her balcony. One of those boys, Huang, becomes peculiarly interested in what happened. He invites the other two boys to their classmate’s funeral. At first, he’s simply lying to the girl’s grieving mother, to make her feel better. Within short order, however, he’s escalated to bringing his new friends, Lin and Yeh, along to break into the girl’s house.

They find a diary suggesting Chia was bullied. Soon after this, things go (more) off the rails. Describing much more of the plot will spoil things. I can tell you that this film boasts the worst school counselor I’ve ever seen on film. In one of the two or three meetings she bothers to have with these kids who’ve found the (bloody) body of a schoolmate who committed suicide, she gives them an essay assignment. In their last meeting, she tells them, “If things come up…deal with them yourself.” The film is more complex than it first seems, just as the plot is more complicated than it first appears to be.

As you might gather from the two stills here, the film is also about loneliness, much more than it is about bullying.

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It’s engrossing, and there are beautifully set up shots like the one in which one of the boys, in the foreground, watches a heated discussion between another boy and a girl, just out of focus, twenty feet away. Definitely recommended.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cecCpLP75-s&w=560&h=315]

 

If you’re in the area, or fancy a trip, there are more films coming up this weekend, for free (!). It’s the festival’s “3rd weekend,” during which they show a series of festival favorites. Click here for the schedule.

Also coming up locally are two “The Wave” mini-festivals:

April 23rd  – May 3: Contemporary Films from Spain & Latin America

July 15 – 19: Contemporary Films from France

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