Archive for January, 2010

by Allan Fish

(USSR 1927 95m) DVD1

Aka. Tretya Meshchanskaya

King, queen, jack…

d  Abram Room  w  Abram Room, Viktor Shklovsky  ph  Grigori Giber  ed  Abram Room  art  Vasili Rakhals, Sergei Yutkevich

Nikolai Batalov (Kolia), Lyudmila Semyonova (Liuda), Leonid Yurenyov (porter), Vladimir Fogel (Volodia), Yelena Sokolova (nurse), Mariya Yarotskaya,

Over thirty years before François Truffaut redefined the very term ménage à trois in his masterwork Jules et Jim, Abram Room shocked Soviet Moscow with this classic study in sexism, modernity and domesticity in Stalin’s capital.  As some critics pointed out, the central situation has a sophistication that reminds one of Noël Coward, and Room mixed this most dextrously with the style of the montage school so favoured in the silent masterworks of Communist Russia. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

I write literally seconds after hearing of the death yesterday of Jean Simmons.  I think my first memory of her was in the God-awful The Thorn Birds in the early eighties, when I was about 12, but then again, that was also the first I saw of Barbara Stanwyck.  Yet when I think of her now it’s with a burning sense of regret.  Of all the actresses Hollywood has wasted criminally – Deborah Kerr and Claire Bloom were other examples – Jean Simmons must surely rank at the top of the list.

It was in 1945 when she first attracted attention, singing “I’m Going to Marry” at a dance in Puffin Asquith’s classic wartime film The Way to the Stars.  The same year she can be glimpsed among Cleopatra’s maid-servants (along with Renée Asherson) in Caesar and Cleopatra, but it was a year later when she made her first startling contribution as the haughty Estella in Lean’s Great Expectations.  So startling was she she totally overshadowed Valerie Hobson playing the character a decade older enough to make one wish she’d played the role older, too.  (In actual fact, Margaret Lockwood should have been the older Estella).  She was 17, and before turning 18 had also dazzled as the Indian slave girl in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus before taking on the biggest challenge of all, playing Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet.  Vivien Leigh had wanted the role but she was too old at 33 when it went into production.  Olivier got a masterful performance from her that ranks as still probably the definitive interpretation of the role, magnificent in the madness sequences and captured for ever in still photographs as Ophelia drowning like the Lady of Chalot.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1921 51m) DVD1/2

A picture with a smile – and, perhaps, a tear

p  Charles Chaplin  d/w/ed  Charles Chaplin  ph  Rollie Totheroh  m  Charles Chaplin  art  Charles D.Hall

Charles Chaplin (the tramp) Jackie Coogan (the kid), Edna Purviance (the woman), Carl Miller (the man), Tom Wilson (policeman), May White (policeman’s wife), Henry Bergman, Albert Austin,

If ever a caption summed up Chaplin’s combination of humour and pathos, that would be it.  Indeed when people accuse Chaplin of drowning in pathos, there are few more potent pieces of evidence for the prosecution than this, his debut feature from 1921.  It’s absolutely dripping with pathos, and that in itself may be the reason it isn’t as well looked upon now in critical circles as it may have been half a century ago, when it was ranked with his best films.  To this reviewer’s eyes, however, it seems somewhat irrelevant, for as a piece of popular film-making it really is a pretty faultless film which doesn’t outstay its welcome for a minute and has enough memorable scenes, both emotional and comic – and both at the same time – to make up for any inherent mawkishness or cloying sentimentality some might perceive it to have. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1923 70m) DVD1/2

Love thy neighbour as thyself

Joseph M.Schenck  d  Buster Keaton, Jack G.Blystone  w  Jean Haver, Joseph Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman  ph  Elgin Lessley, Gordon Jennings

Buster Keaton (Willie McKay, aged 21), Natalie Talmadge (Virginia Calmadge), Joe Keaton (Lem Doolittle), Buster Keaton Jnr (Willie McKay, aged 1), Kitty Bradbury (aunt Mary), Joe Roberts (Joseph Canfield), Monte Collins (parson), James Duffy (Sam Gardner), Ralph Bushman (Clayton Canfield),

Our Hospitality is Buster Keaton’s homage of homages to life in the old South.  It is also, assumedly quite by chance, the nearest he came to the death-defying world of Harold Lloyd.  Yet Keaton in some ways tops Lloyd, his stunts not only being daring, but reliant on absolutely exquisite timing.  In truth, The General and Sherlock Junior are more recognised as Keaton masterpieces.  Even Leslie Halliwell said that Hospitality is more charming than hilarious, but it’s no worse for that.  It’s still a damned fine film.

            The story is a variation on the legendary McKoy and Hatfield feud of nineteenth century repute, beginning in 1810 with John McKay celebrating the first anniversary of the birth of his only son.  Also on his mind is the continuing feud with the local neighbours, the landowning Canfields.  When he is killed, his infant son is sent to live with his aunt far away but, come his 21st birthday, he is summoned back by executors of his father’s estate to reclaim what is his.  He dreams of large cotton plantations out of Gone With the Wind and sets off by train to the town of Rockville.  Once there he again runs foul of the Canfields, but unwittingly falls for their daughter, with whom he had travelled on the journey.  Once he gets to his estate, he sees that the reality is somewhat less salubrious than he had imagined (think of Bill Fields’ orange grove shack in It’s a Gift and you’ll get the idea). (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Georges Bizet’s Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in history, and it’s almost never off the yearly schedules of the largest and smallest companies.  Only Puccini’s La Boheme is in its stratosphere of adoration,  and it stands alone as the indoctrinating vehicle for neophytes to the form.  The opera’s central role is perhaps the defining one for a soprano, and over decades it provided some of the greatest singers with their most electrifing moments onstage.  For the second time this season, the Metropolitan Opera has replaced a long-running Franco Zeffirelli staging, (and a shorter one after it)  but unlike the first instance, where the desision drew ire from traditionalists, (Tosca), this new incarnation by Richard Eyre stands among the season’s most distinguished stagings, with an outstanding Carmen and Don Jose and some virtuoso conducting by a gifted newcomer.  The new Carmen, wields the raw power of the 1875 work, but the underpinnings are more contemporary than the Zeffirelli production, which typically was traditional.

     Carmen, which contains some of the greatest passages in all of music (“The Toreador Song”,” “The Flower Song” and the “Habanera” are musical masterpieces) is a work of superbly balanced construction and extraordinary precision, on in which Bizet is able to express in 16 bars what almost any other composer would need 160 for and might still not succeed.  The opera with it signature sexuality, smoldering passions and violent denouement, has often been understood as a story of ill-fated love between two equal parties whose destinies happen to clash.  But to read the opera in this fashion is really to ignore the faultlines of social power that organize it, for while the story’s subject matter may appear idiosyncratic to us, Carmen is actually only one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that are known to have circulated in nineteenth-century French culture.   Most interpretations of the opera either assume Carmen’s treachery or else try to eradicate the differences in class, race and gender between Carmen and Don Jose.  To be sure, the illicit sexuality of the opera continues to be acknowledged; but as it took it place within the canon many decade ago, Carmen became a locus for socially-sanctioned titillation rather than a cause for moral indignation.  A self-congratulatory smugness seems to characterize much of what was written about Carmen after it became a staple of the repetory, as subsequent critics gloat when recounting the prudery of Bizet’s initial audiences, along these lines: “The libretto is effective, but far from shocking a generation that now considers Strauss’s Salome tame.  The tragic ending is so seasoned a convention that we accept it without thought.”  In any case the popular literature on Carmen tends to highlight the elements of femme fatale and male victim, often rendering the plot in a gleefully naughty, insinuating style. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1927 119m) DVD1/2

The Hole in the Sock

p  William Fox  d  Frank Borzage  w  Benjamin Glazer  play  Austin Strong  ph  Ernest Palmer, J.A.Valentine  ed  H.H.Caldwell, Katharine Hilliker  m  Michael Mortilla  song  “Diane” by Erno Rapee, Lew Pollack  art  Harry Oliver  cos  Kathleen Kay

Janet Gaynor (Diane), Charles Farrell (Chico), Gladys Brockwell (Nana), David Butler (Gobin), Brandon Hurst (Uncle George), Ben Bard (Colonel Brissac), Albert Gran (Boul), Jessie Haslett (Aunt Valentine),

Seventh Heaven’s reputation has risen, fallen and risen from the ashes again much like that of its director Frank Borzage.  It won him an Oscar in 1927, and for a few years he was the Academy’s darling, winning another award a few years later.  Yet for many years, after World War II, Borzage’s doomed romanticism seemed phoney, out of date with the prevailing cynicism.  Only in recent decades have Borzage and his films undergone a bit of a revaluation.  He’s now seen as a master by many, and though I don’t think he ever made an outright masterpiece, of his silents this came the closest.

            The setting is Paris in 1914.  Diane is a timid mouse of a girl who lives with her bullying, absinthe addicted whore of a sister in a slum dwelling.  One day news reaches them that their aunt and uncle have returned from overseas to take them under their wing, but will not do so if the girls have not been good.  Despite vicious arm-twisting and threats from her sister, Diane cannot lie, and when her aunt and uncle depart, tossing money on the floor like a client leaving payment on the dresser, Diane’s sister beats and whips her savagely (McDowell acting like she’s in an Erich Von Stroheim or Cecil B.de Mille film).  To the rescue comes Chico, a live-for-the-moment sewer worker, who threatens the sister with violence of his own if she doesn’t leave off.  But the sister, having been caught by the gendarmes, volunteers Diane as a vagrant, and Chico pretends they’re married to keep the law off her back.  He takes Diane up to his rooftop garret on the seventh floor, closest to heaven (hence the title).  Needless to say, they fall in love.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1919 130m) DVD1

Aka. I Accuse

I am accusing war…I am accusing man…I am accusing universal stupidity

p  Abel Gance  d  Abel Gance  w  Abel Gance  ph  Léonce-Henri Burel, Marc Bujard  ed  Andrée Danis, Abel Gance  m  Robert Israel (DVD restoration)

Séverin-Mars (François Laurin), Romuald Joubé (Jean Diaz), Marise Dauvray (Edith Laurin), Angèle Guys (Angèle), Maxime Desjardins (Maria Lazare), Mancini (Maman Diaz), Elizabeth Nizan, Pierre Danis,

The tagline was Abel Gance’s famed response to the general who, upon seeing the soldiers being formed to spell out the letters of the title, asked “who are you accusing?”  Over the years Gance’s reputation has dimmed somewhat, and his later failed historical extravaganzas have led to charges of vulgarity and naivety in their plots and narrative structure, and even their sentiments.  The very opening title card, “a tragic film of modern times”, might seem somewhat archaic ninety years on, and yet at the time it was the height of both realism and cinema with a message.  It’s a film that was shot in the closing months of the war, often containing footage of real life soldiers on the front line.  True, I cannot argue against some of the charges laid at Gance’s feet, and yet the same can be said to be true of other major silent milestones, from The Birth of a Nation to Metropolis, as that’s the very nature of the passage of time; tastes change along with techniques.  J’Accuse remains every bit the milestone in cinema history it always was, a mixture of Victorian melodrama and 20th century malaise.  (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1925 148m) DVD1/2

Lion of the tribe of Judah

p/d  Fred Niblo  w  June Mathis, Carey Wilson, Bess Meredith  novel  Gen.Lew Wallace  ph  Karl Struss (and René Guissart, Percy Hilbum, Paul E.Eagler)  ed  Lloyd Nosler  m  Carl Davis (modern score)  art  Cedric Gibbons, A.Arnold Gillespie, Horace Jackson, Camillo Mastrocinique  cos  Hermann J.Kaufman  models and miniatures  Kenneth Gordon McLean  2nd unit d.  B.Reeves Eason  tech.d.  Col Braden

Ramon Novarro (Judah Ben-Hur), Francis X.Bushman (Messala), Carmel Myers (Iras), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (The Virgin Mary), Claire McDowell (Miriam, princess of Hur), Nigel de Brulier (Simonedes), Dale Fuller (Amrah), Mitchell Lewis (Sheik Ilderim), Frank Currier (Quintus Arrius), Leo White (Sanballat), Charles Belcher (Balthazar), Winter Hall (Joseph), Myrna Loy (Hedonist Mistress),

William Wyler’s Ben Hur swept the board at the academy awards for 1959 winning eleven Oscars, including best picture and director.  The record was only matched by James Cameron’s Titanic 38 years later.  And if an ancient Roman religious epic and a grossly inferior saga of a doomed megatonne ocean liner may have nothing in common narratively speaking, but in terms of film history they are very similar.  If either had failed at the box office it would have spelt ruin for the production companies, in the case of Ben Hur, MGM, in the case of Titanic, Paramount and TCF.  (more…)

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James Cameron, Winner of Golden Globe for Best Director for “Avatar” which won for Best Drama

 by Sam Juliano

      I had a very difficult week, and now to cap it off I’ll been in bed all day with a fever.  I came downstairs to the PC to post this weekly thread, but I won’t be able to post any links, as I frankly need to get back into bed as I have a massive headache and am shivering.  My deepest apologies for this.

     I didn’t see any films at all this week, though I tried to see Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK on Saturday night at the IFC, but after Lucille, Bob and I bought tickets, I came down with severe nautiousness, and I was unable to leave the men’s room.  Lucille and Bob then drove the car over to the front of the theatre, picked me up and we headed home.  I did see the Metropolitan Opera HD simulcast of the new production of Bizet’s Carmen on Saturday afternoon at the Edgewater multiplex, which I hope to eventually post a review on.  Suffice to say it was quite a production.  Back on Monday night, I saw the theatrical production based on Cassevetes’ HUSBANDS, (at the Public Theatre downtown) and it was a train wreck of a play, a complete mess, which violated the great director’s work through excess.

    The Golden Globes were held tonight, and suprisingly, James Cameron won Best Director and his film Avatar won Best Motion Picture Drama.  The evening’s best speech was delivered by Monique who won Best Supporting Actress for Precious.  Martin Scorsese’s special prize was also a highlight.

     Congratulations to Dan Getahun for the success of his beloved Minnesota Vikings, who advanced to the NFC finals, as well as to the Jets fans, after their shocking win in San Diego against the Chargers.

     So what did you do this week?

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by Allan Fish

(UK 1926 78m) DVD1/2

To-night Golden Curls

p  Michael Balcon, C.Wilfrid Arnold, Carlyle Blackwell  d  Alfred Hitchcock  w  Eliot Stannard, Alfred Hitchcock  novel  Mrs Belloc Lowndes  ph  Baron Ventimiglia  ed  Ivor Montagu  m  Paul Zaza  art  C.Wilfred Arnold, Bertram Evans  tit  E.McKnight Kaufer

Ivor Novello (Jonathan Drew, the lodger), June (Daisy Bunting), Arthur Chesney (Joe Betts, detective), Malcolm Keen (Mr Bunting), Marie Ault (Mrs Bunting),

In 2006, the BBC and BFI co-produced a programme entitled Silent Britain, in which cineaste Matthew Sweet tried to convince us that, contrary to general opinion, British silent film was not the poor cousin of either Hollywood’s glamour or artistic Europe, but a national cinema in its own right.  Certainly there are certain British silent films of merit – Dupont’s Piccadilly and Asquith’s Underground and A Cottage on Dartmoor to name but three – but it’s generally fair to say that British silent films revolve around the reputation of one man; Alfred Hitchcock.  In fact he made two great silent films which can be considered masterworks, though one of them was never seen for over fifty years.  That film was the silent version of Blackmail, shelved after they reshot scenes as a talkie, but surfacing later as better than the original.  The first, and probably most important and best known, was The Lodger.  Hitchcock himself said it was rather like his first film, and it’s certainly his first major work. (more…)

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