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Hollywood: Trick of the Light (1980)
Cinematography and Special Effects in the Silent Era
In its first ten episodes, the Kevin-Brownlow-David-Gill documentary, "Hollywood," examined stars, directors, and genres of the silent era. However, episode 11, entitled "Trick of the Light," provides a welcome focus on technology. Opening with clips from 1928's "The Mysterious Lady," the images illustrate the brilliant use of light and shadow by cameraman William Daniels. Daniels's rich photography of Greta Garbo created a luminous quality in the legendary actress and Daniels became Garbo's favorite cinematographer. The clips also demonstrate the heights to which cinematography rose before the advent of sound. Through narration, interviews, and clips, the documentary then traces cinematography, camera tricks, and early special effects from the invention of the motion-picture camera through early technical developments in both machinery and technique. Interviews discuss the difficulty in maintaining consistent hand-cranking speeds, illustrate various camera models, and talk about the first use of light reflectors. Not surprisingly, such veteran cameramen as George Folsey, Karl Brown, Byron Haskin, and Lee Garmes provide insight and recollections throughout. Karl Brown, who was an assistant to Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith's cameraman, discusses Bitzer and filming 1912's "A Beast at Bay," while director Henry Hathaway tells of Griffith's shooting during the magic hour to capture that special late-afternoon light for 1915's "The Birth of a Nation."
Directors sought thrilling chase footage, and film editor Grant Whytock and cameraman Byron Haskin talk about the challenges and dangers of shooting from platforms attached to cars or strapped to planes or perched on small open boats. The whaling sequences from 1922's "Down to the Sea in Ships" show the perils of filming in open seas, while footage from 1931's "The Viking" was taken during a treacherous location shoot around an ice-bound ship. Even more dangerous was Billy Bitzer's location work with Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish on an ice floe that was rushing towards a steep waterfall; Lillian Gish describes the harsh filming conditions she endured for that exciting climax to Griffith's 1920 film "Way Down East."
Harsh filming conditions were not always outdoors. When the early open stages were closed and arc lighting was introduced, the ultraviolet rays damaged performers' eyes; actresses Viola Dana, Colleen Moore, and Bessie Love describe the pain and damage from working under arc lights. However, the closed sets resulted in dramatic use of light and shadow, illustrated by the work of Alvin Wyckoff for Cecil B. DeMille's "The Cheat" in 1915; by John F. Seitz's photography for 1921's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse;" and by George Folsey's images for 1924's "The Enchanted Cottage."
The trick photography that allowed Colleen Moore's eyes to wander independently in 1925's "Ella Cinders" is explained as is Charles Rosher's work with Mary Pickford on "Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921; Pickford, who plays both young Cedric Errol and his widowed mother, kisses his mother in one remarkable scene. A brief review of model trains and ships includes a brief clip of a marine battle with waves generated by an egg beater and billowing smoke from cigarettes. However, "The Juggernaut" in 1915 dispensed with miniatures and wrecked a real train. Photographic effects had advanced by the early 1920's, and Douglas Fairbanks's "Robin Hood" in 1922 used matte paintings on glass to expand the sets. A year later, Lon Chaney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" utilized hanging sets to create a convincing illusion of the soaring French cathedral when only the street level had been constructed.
The excellent episode climaxes with a discussion of the most expensive movie of the silent era, "Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ." William Wyler, who was an assistant director on the film, describes the film's production, which included the use of early color film, full-size galleys, and a hanging set with moveable miniature people that enhanced the chariot race. Another veteran of that 1925 film, special-effects man A. Arnold Gillespie, expands on Wyler's comments. Extensive footage from the Ramon Novarro epic is excerpted, and the episode closes with the brilliantly edited and still-thrilling chariot race that features Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. The only episode of the Brownlow-Gill documentary to focus on the technical aspects of silent film throws light on some little-known details and ranks among the series's best.
Directors and Their Actress Wives in the Silent Era
Earlier episodes of the Brownlow-Gill documentary, "Hollywood," discussed three of the greatest directors of the silent era, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, and D.W. Griffith. However, numerous other directors of note were at work, and the tenth installment in the series, "The Man with the Megaphone," highlights their work. While some of the directors discussed are better known than others, the treasure trove of interviews with directors, stars, and film crew make the episode among the series' best.
Some became directors by accident, such as Allan Dwan, who, along with Henry King and Byron Haskin, describes the flamboyant personalities that left silent-film directors open to caricature, and an amusing sequence illustrates the use of lions in early pictures. While lions roared and directors barked orders or coached their stars, carpenters built sets for other films and music played to induce emotion; actress Bessie Love describes silent-film sets as anything but silent. Viola Dana, who talks about the use of music to make her cry, also recalls her husband, John Collins, a promising director; largely forgotten today, Collins, who died young in the 1918 influenza epidemic, directed a number of pictures in his short career, including 1917's "Blue Jeans," which starred his wife. Another lesser-known silent director, Marshall Neilan, is also remembered by his wife, Blanche Sweet. Actress Colleen Moore describes Neilan as Mary Pickford's favorite director; which is not surprising, because he directed Pickford in seven of her biggest hits, including "Daddy Long Legs" in 1919.
Best known for "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Rex Ingram was yet another director that worked with his wife, who was actress Alice Terry. Film editor Grant Whytock describes Ingram's artistic sensibility, and a clip is included of the famous execution scene from 1926's "Mare Nostrom," which starred Terry as a World War I German spy. Also known for his artistry as well as his perfectionism, F. W. Murnau is described affectionately by Janet Gaynor, star of Murnau's 1927 film, "Sunrise." Harold Shuster, editor of "Sunrise," elaborates on Murnau's background in German expressionism and his use of false perspective in the city-set construction for "Sunrise."
The engrossing episode concludes with two important films directed by King Vidor, who is interviewed about both movies. 1928's "Show People" with Marion Davies, comically illustrates an overly enthusiastic director directing and the use of live music to induce emotion. Another director who used his wife in his films, Vidor cast Eleanor Boardman in the 1928 feature "The Crowd" about an ordinary man and woman lost in a large impersonal metropolis. Boardman shares her memories of making the film and her feelings about her drab role. Boardman's, Vidor's, and the other interviews are priceless film history. The illustrative film clips are generous in length and provide enough to get a flavor of each film excerpted; the footage runs without commentary and allows the images to speak for themselves; Carl Davis's score continues to enhance both the clips and the documentary as a whole. "The Man with the Megaphone" is an excellent entry in the series and throws light on the careers of several important silent directors and on a couple of lesser-known personalities.
Hollywood: Out West (1980)
Real Cowboys, Real Outlaws, and the Real Old West in Silent Westerns
Realizing the impossibility of doing justice to silent western movies and stars in less than hour, the ninth episode in the Brownlow-Gill documentary "Hollywood" wisely focuses on a handful of western stars and three epic films. Entitled "Out West," the excellent episode opens with the crudely painted backdrops used in westerns shown at the early nickelodeons. The film industry was rooted in the East, and any location trip to shoot out West would have taken longer than making an entire film.
Fortunately, the film industry went west, where the landscapes and atmosphere of the Old West lingered. Genuine out-of-work cowboys found work in western films, and the shootings, drinking, and shenanigans depicted on screen spilled over into the off hours. D.W. Griffith's "The Massacre," made in 1912 with Blanche Sweet, was among the early westerns filmed on authentic locations. The episode's first half is devoted to a small group of western stars, among them, a genuine cowboy, Tom Mix, who could handle horse, ride well, and shoot skillfully. Mix, who also directed, was the most popular of silent western stars. A man who enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, Mix is remembered fondly by John Wayne in a filmed interview. Another real cowboy and outlaw as well, Al Jennings had robbed banks and trains and was imprisoned several times for his crimes; however, Jennings eventually went straight, and he used his experiences when acting and directing early westerns. With little financial backing, Jennings did not romanticize the West, but shot such films as "The Lady of the Dug Out" in 1918 on the streets of real western towns. His films showed the West as it really was and depicted the hardships and primitive living conditions in sod houses as they had been. Other Western stars profiled include the strong, silent, stoic William S. Hart, an iconic western hero who starred in such films as "Hell's Hinges" in 1916. Like Hart, another non-cowboy who loved the West, Harry Carey, teamed with director John Ford on his early Westerns; his widow, Olive Carey, and John Wayne reminisce about Carey's life and work, and Wayne talks of his silent homage to Carey in the final shot of "The Searchers."
The second half of the episode focuses on three big-budget western epics. Jesse Lasky, Jr, talks about his father, who wanted to film his grandfather's experiences crossing the plains by covered wagon in 1848. Lasky's dream was realized in the 1923 film, "The Covered Wagon," which was directed by James Cruze. With Lasky's financial backing, the film transformed the previously low-budget westerns into big-budget spectacles. Cameraman Karl Brown and star Lois Wilson provide background to the film's production, which employed 500 Native Americans and used genuine Conastoga wagons, which had been kept as heirlooms by descendants of the original pioneers. Influenced by the Cruze film, John Ford made "The Iron Horse" the following year; the film depicted the building of the transcontinental railroad, and a few of the original Chinese workers who built the actual transcontinental railroad worked on the film. Prop man Byron Haskin recounts the hardships of filming and the Wild-West atmosphere that prevailed on the set both during and after shooting. Among the last silent western epics was Henry King's "The Winning of Barbara Worth;" made in 1926, the film dealt with the reclamation of California's Imperial Valley and climaxed with a spectacular dam bursting and flood. Director Henry King's interview adds background and color to the production details.
The ninth segment of the 13-part documentary on silent film realizes its time limitations and pares the scope to significant actors and films, rather the broad-brush approach that marred the previous episode about comedy. With the priceless interviews, profiles of some lesser-known personages, and generous clips and background on three important western films, "Out West" ranks among the best entries in the groundbreaking series.
A Brief Survey of Silent Comedy to Whet the Appetite
Feature-length compilations like "When Comedy was King" and documentaries on Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton have examined various aspects of silent-film comedy. The subject matter and film clips that illustrate the comic geniuses at work during the silent era could fill a 13-part documentary on their own. Thus, "Comedy, A Serious Business," the eighth episode in the Brownlow-Gill documentary, "Hollywood," serves as little more than an introduction to the vast topic. Brownlow and Gill aim to profile four great comedians: Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin; and two great comedy producers: Mack Sennett and Hal Roach; during a 50-minute running time. An impossible task, even for the two skilled documentarians.
However, the episode does boast some priceless interviews and well-chosen clips that should whet the appetites of novice silent-film buffs, yet still engage serious enthusiasts. Comedy producer Hal Roach discusses his counterpart Mack Sennett's fun factory that turned out slapstick gems such as the Keystone Cops and other shorts that were often inspired by the Pathe Freres's trick photography. A former gag man for Sennett, director Frank Capra talks about Sennett and comedian Harry Langdon, while stunt man Harvey Parry explains the ubiquitous prat fall. The film clips alone make the episode worth watching.
During the Chaplin segment, French comic Max Linder is mentioned as an inspiration, and a rare clip of Linder meeting Chaplin depicts Linder imitating Chaplin and Chaplin imitating Linder. After some generous clips from early Chaplin shorts, Jackie Coogan talks at length about making 1921's "The Kid," in which a four-year-old Coogan stars opposite Chaplin. While Chaplin became the most popular figure in the world, others were on the rise. Harold Lloyd began as a Chaplin imitator with Hal Roach, but, once his character with the glassless spectacles had been established, Lloyd rivaled Chaplin at the boxoffice. Clips from such lesser-seen Lloyd films as 1921's "Never Weaken," where the comic maneuvers the scaffolding on a high-rise construction site and 1924's "Hot Water," where Lloyd rides a crowded trolley with a live turkey, illustrate Lloyd's athletic skills and comic genius.
Buster Keaton's early life is quickly covered, and the focus turns to Keaton's spectacular sequences such as the storm in 1928's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and the locomotive on the collapsing bridge in 1926's "The General." Marion Mack, Keaton's leading lady in "The General," offers her reminiscences of the film and Keaton. The fourth, and least known, of the silent comedy quartet, the baby-faced Harry Langdon, appears in a segment from 1926's "The Strong Man," perhaps his best-known work; Frank Capra reveals that Langdon was the only one of the four who did not develop his own on-screen character.
While Brownlow and Gill bravely attempted a broad survey of silent-film comedy and included some good clips and interviews, the topic is immense and much is omitted, notably Laurel and Hardy and Mabel Normand. However, "Comedy, A Serious Business" will remind seasoned viewers of the delights of silent comedy and inspire new fans to seek out the shorts and features that immortalized the four comedy giants of the era.
Hollywood: Autocrats (1980)
DeMille and von Stroheim, One Inside the System, One Outside
After a passable episode that glossily profiled two stars of the silent screen, the 13-part series returned to form; "The Autocrats," the seventh episode in the Kevin Brownlow-David Gill documentary, "Hollywood," compares the careers of two leading directors of the era. Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim had similar autocratic natures, paid great attention to detail, and were blessed with directorial genius; both began their careers as actors, but, later as directors, one worked with the Hollywood system and one worked against it.
The son of playwrights, Cecil B. DeMille started out as a stage actor, although he was overshadowed by his playwright brother, William. In 1913, he struck out on his own, and, with Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn, he founded the Lasky Film Company, which later became Paramount Pictures. DeMille headed west to California the following year, and, in 1914, he produced "The Squaw Man," which was the first feature-length film produced in Hollywood. Always the perfectionist, DeMille emphasized production values in his films and developed his own stars, notably Gloria Swanson.
Initially, romantic sexual films interested DeMille, and among his early works were "The Cheat" in 1915 with Sessue Hayakawa and "Male and Female" in 1919 with Gloria Swanson. Many of his films, like "Male and Female," influenced fashion and interior design, and his star Gloria Swanson became the most imitated woman in America. Among the interviewees who discuss DeMille and his work, his niece, Agnes DeMille, and his most famous star, Gloria Swanson, stand out. Once Swanson left his employ, DeMille replaced her with Leatrice Joy, who starred in "Manslaughter" in 1922 and is also featured in a fine interview. Later, DeMille found great success with a mix of religion and sexuality with films like "The Ten Commandments" in 1923 and "King of Kings" in 1927. Director Henry Hathaway, who was a prop man on "The Ten Commandments," provides insight into the production of that epic. Although he enjoyed continued success until his death in the late 1950's, Cecil B. DeMille's best work was behind him in the silent era.
Unlike DeMille, Erich von Stroheim's directorial career did not survive into the sound era. But, like DeMille, von Stroheim began as an actor in the D.W. Griffith studio and was among the few directors who acted in his own films. Typecast as a sadistic German, von Stroheim seemed to relish his nickname "The Man You Love to Hate." Uncompromising and self destructive, von Stroheim made his first film for Universal in 1919; "Blind Husbands" was successful, but, although he wrote, directed, and starred, he was paid only for acting. The film's success led to backing for his next movie, "Foolish Wives" in 1922; he famously recreated the Monte Carlo Casino, and, a stickler for detail, von Stroheim shot enough footage for three films, until the studio called a halt, because of his extravagance and waste. Despite problems with the studio, von Stroheim was allowed to film the novel McTeague by Frank Norris in 1925. He retitled the film "Greed" and practically filmed the book cover to cover. Starring Jean Hersholt and Zazu Pitts, "Greed" was filmed on actual locations, including Death Valley, where the temperatures soared to 125 degrees. Von Stroheim shot 42 reels, an unmanageable length for a theatrical film, and producer Irving Thalberg took the film and ordered it cut to 10 reels for release. Reduced to a contract director at MGM, von Stroheim had a success with "The Merry Widow," which starred the temperamental Mae Murray, but was taken off production of the extravagant and overlong "The Wedding March" in 1928. Gloria Swanson then hired von Stroheim to direct "Queen Kelly" in 1928, which was financed by Joseph Kennedy. However, von Stroheim spent lavishly on the film and shot questionable scenes that sent Swanson walking off the set; the actress called Kennedy, who fired von Stroheim; Swanson talks at length in an interview about the experience. "Queen Kelly" was never shown in the United States and ended von Stroheim's career as a director. Besides Swanson, the director's wife, Valerie von Stroheim, is interviewed, and she fondly recalls her husband and dispels some misconceptions.
Ironically, von Stroheim appeared as a failed silent-film director opposite Gloria Swanson in 1950's "Sunset Blvd," in which Cecil B. DeMille played himself; Billy Wilder added further irony by using clips from "Queen Kelly" to show Swanson's character, Norma Desmond, at the height of her fame. Although the entire series is priceless film history, the seventh episode of "Hollywood" boasts a more informative profile of two contemporaneous silent-film careers than does the previous episode on "Swanson and Valentino." However, like all the episodes, the film clips, while generous, are not pristine, and the interview sequences are faded and low resolution.
Hollywood: Swanson and Valentino (1980)
They Had Faces Then
The sixth episode of the Brownlow-Gill silent-film documentary, "Hollywood," profiles two of the greatest stars of the silent era: Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. Unfortunately, the twin mini-bios contain little new material, and each segment plays like a glossy entry in the "Hollywood and the Stars" or "Biography" series. Any opportunity to tie the two careers together and make a statement about stardom during the silent era was lost. However, "Swanson and Valentino" is still worth watching, if only for the interviews with Gloria Swanson, Alberto Valentino, Allan Dwan, and Ben Lyon.
Viewers unfamiliar with her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, will discover that Gloria Swanson began her career in Mack Sennet comedies, although she claims not to have understood the jokes. Unhappy as a straight woman to comics, Gloria teamed with Cecil B. DeMille, who transformed the petite actress into a glamorous star with such films as "Male and Female;" that 1919 film includes a scene with Swanson and a lion, which the actress discusses at length and reveals why, despite the risk, she was insistent on filming it. Unwilling to continue as a clothes horse, Swanson proved herself an actress in two films by Allan Dwan, "Zaza" in 1923 and "Manhandled" in 1924; Dwan describes filming the famous subway scene in "Manhandled," in which Swanson endures a chaotic rush-hour ride. Restless at Paramount, Swanson completed "Stage Struck" in 1925 and then left to join United Artists. However, sound was fast approaching, and her career encountered some bumps. After the success of "Sadie Thompson," she had a disaster in 1928 with Erich von Stroheim's "Queen Kelly," which was never seen in the U.S. Ironically clips from that film appeared in Swanson's best-remembered role as the faded silent film star, Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Blvd." in 1950. Adela Rogers St. Johns summed up Gloria Swanson thus: Gloria did not do what others did, she did what she wanted to do, and others followed her.
Rudolph Valentino's life is arguably more familiar from biographies and films than Swanson's, although myths abound, and Valentino's brother, Alberto, attempts to set the record straight. Valentino came from a comfortable Italian family and arrived in New York at age 18. Initially a male taxi dancer in a café, he went to Hollywood, where he was typecast as gigolos and villains. However, cast a Julio in Rex Ingram's 1921 adaptation of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," Valentino used his dancing skills to tango his way to stardom. Although a star as Julio, Valentino's smoldering performance in 1921's "The Sheik" made him a sensation with female audiences, but earned disdain from males. However, after his marriage to Natasha Rambova, Valentino's films and popularity were negatively affected by his wife's effete influence. With films like "Monsieur Beaucaire," his career faded, while his marriage faltered. Although his 1925 film "The Eagle" was a success, depression and money problems ensued. While Valentino had a sure-fire hit with 1926's "Son of the Sheik," a perforated ulcer later that year led to peritonitis and an early death at age 31; footage of the hysterical mobs at his New York funeral and the parade of stars at his Hollywood funeral illustrate the immense popularity of silent stars; Ben Lyon adds a fascinating footnote about Pola Negri's attempt to insert herself into the funeral with a white floral blanket that included "Pola" spelled out in red roses.
The interviews, film clips, and reminiscences ensure that the two short biographical episodes are worthy viewing. However, some analysis to connect the two bios and comment on stardom during that era would have added value. While there is no question that Swanson and Valentino were among the biggest stars of the era, others rate equal attention: Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. "Swanson and Valentino" is a good episode in the "Hollywood" series, but missed opportunities and overly familiar material place it among the lesser entries.
Hollywood: Hazard of the Game (1980)
The Stunt People Star
Rear projection, matte shots, and CGI have made the impossible seem possible; but during the silent era, before even rear-projection had been invented, the action depicted on the screen had to be actually performed. The fifth episode of the Brownlow-Gill documentary on American silent film sings the often unsung accomplishments of Hollywood's stunt men and women. Appropriately, the interviews highlight veteran stunt people such as Harvey Parry, Yakima Canutt, Paul Malvern, Mrs. Buck Jones, and Bob Rose. Hungry for work, extras would often take a job without asking what they had to do; employment was scarce, and the competition for a day's wages was fierce. While some stunt people came from the circus, others were inexperienced novices. At some studios, stunts had a price scale; so many dollars per foot of a jump from a tall building, so much to be dragged behind a stage coach or a car, a fixed fee to a roll down a stone wall. The brutal, unplanned nature of the stunts often resulted in injury, occasionally death.
Some specialized in specific areas; stunt man Harvey Parry was expert in car accidents and crashes, while deceased stunt men Dick Grace, Gene Perkins, and Ormer Locklear were recalled for their daring work in aerial battles and plane crashes for such films as 1927's "Wings" and 1928's "Lilac Time." During one moving segment, actresses Leatrice Joy and Viola Dana remember the handsome Locklear, who took each of them flying in his plane. Dana and Locklear evidently fell in love, and she was moved to tears and unwilling to continue, while remembering his death when the plane he was flying crashed during filming.
Audiences had to believe that the stars did their own stunts, although few did; the athletic Douglas Fairbanks was among those who performed some of his own. His son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., talks about his father's work on the "Black Pirate" in 1926, and he reveals the secrets behind the famous sequence in which Fairbanks slides down a main sail while holding onto the handle of a knife. Harold Lloyd also did some of his own stunts, and, in an older interview, the comic recounts his climb up a building facade in 1923's "Safety Last;" however, Harvey Parry said that he doubled for Lloyd, a secret kept until Lloyd passed away. Yakima Canutt describes the challenges of working with a particularly dangerous horse named Rex, during the filming of "Devil Horse" in 1926, and Paul Malvern shares memories of "Beloved Rogue," a 1927 film with John Barrymore. Stuntman Bob Rose describes the hardships and loss of four men in icy rapids during the production of "Trail of '98" in 1928.
Directors Allan Dwan and Al Rogell and camerman Byron Haskin provide further anecdotes and depth to the daring work of stunt people during the silent era. Car crashes, runaway covered wagons, wild horses, leaps aboard speeding trains, battles in the air, on the sea, and on the land; the fearless stunt people were there. "The Hazard of the Game" is another fine episode in the landmark series, and the previously unexplored subject matter is valuable and rewarding.
Hollywood: Hollywood Goes to War (1980)
Hollywood Follows Shift in World War I Sentiment
While World War I ravaged Europe and the European film industry, Woodrow Wilson campaigned for president on a platform that would keep the U.S. out of the European war. The country wanted peace, and Hollywood films reflected that desire. "The Battle Cry of Peace," a 1915 propaganda movie, illustrated the effects of an invasion of the United States, while Thomas Ince's "Civilization" depicted Christ watching the misery inflicted by war. D.W. Griffith's spectacular "Intolerance," his follow-up to "The Birth of a Nation," included scenes of war and carnage that stemmed from man's intolerance towards his fellow man.
However, after the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, the nation's mood shifted, and Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917. Hollywood followed the mood change, and stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks were enlisted to sell Liberty Bonds both on screen and in person. While brave cameramen filmed on the battlefields for propaganda and newsreels, the true horrors of war were edited out; carnage did not sell bonds. Eventually, D.W. Griffith was encouraged by the British government to film "Hearts of the World" with Dorothy and Lillian Gish in 1917; while parts of the film were shot on battlefield locations in Belgium, most was completed in Hollywood. However, the film had some realistic battle scenes and introduced Erich von Strohem in a small part as a villainous German officer, which launched his career as "the man you love to hate." Soon, however, film-makers were ordered to cut back on scenes of German atrocities, such as von Stroheim's tossing a baby out a window, and the war was soon over.
In the years following the Great War, Hollywood was the film production center of the world, although audiences were weary of conflict. War films did not return to the screen until the mid-to-late 1920's, when four big-budget movies appeared that were successful with both critics and audiences. "The Big Parade," starring John Gilbert, premiered in 1925 and was the first film to show the brutal effects of battle. Director King Vidor talks at length about the production and filming, and the clips are generous and well chosen. Raoul Walsh's "What Price Glory" came out a year later; while the film is not given the same coverage as the Vidor film, Walsh's interview provides background at a first attempt to show war could be fun.
Two Academy Award winners climax the episode, 1927's "Wings" and 1930's "All Quiet on the Western Front." Director William Wellman and star Charles Buddy Rogers share their memories of making "Wings," a spectacular epic of war in the air, which was enhanced with sound effects. Sound had fully emerged by the time "All Quiet on the Western Front" was made, but not all theaters were equipped to show them; thus both sound and silent versions were released. Director Lewis Milestone talks about the film's production and offers insight into the development of the unforgettable final scene.
Episode Four of "Hollywood" is solid and includes, not only generous footage from several important movies, but also extensive documentary film of battlefields, the home front, and Hollywood at war. Like other episodes, the film clips are rough and show the ravages of time; fortunately, blu-ray editions of "The Big Parade," "Wings," and "All Quiet on the Western Front" are available, and the interviews with directors Vidor, Walsh, Wellman, and Milestone are the real highlights. Despite minor quibbles, "Hollywood Goes to War" is another essential installment in the Brownlow-Gill masterwork on the American silent film.
Scandals and Nearly Forgotten Stars
Notorious Hollywood scandals, the rise of the Motion Picture Association, and the establishment of self censorship are covered in the third episode of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's 13-part documentary for Thames Television, "Hollywood." Prohibition was the law of the land, and incensed by scandals and perceived licentious behavior, puritanical Americans set their sights on Hollywood.
Brownlow and Gill extensively detail the career of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a loveable and now nearly forgotten comedic star, and his fall from stardom after the death of Virginia Rappe, a young actress, at one of his parties in a San Francisco hotel. Tried in the press and prosecuted by an ambitious district attorney, Arbuckle was eventually acquitted by a jury, but his career was finished. However, generous clips of Arbuckle's work, both solo and with Mabel Normand, highlight his talents, which included female impersonation. Although another notorious scandal, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, is glossed over, viewers can find a detailed account in A Cast of Killers, a book by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, that relates director King Vidor's investigation and eventual solution of the long-unsolved crime. A third less public scandal, the drug addiction of matinee idol Wallace Reid, is less well known; after an on-set accident, a doctor prescribed morphine for Reid's pain, the handsome actor became addicted, and the studio facilitated his addiction to maintain his value to the company.
Clips from Reid's films introduce the less well-known actor, and extensive footage from Cecil B. DeMille's original "The Ten Commandments" illustrates the penchant for wallowing in on-screen sin, before addressing the wages of such behavior. The episode briefly deals with the formation of the Motion Picture Association, the selection of Will Hays as head, and the establishment of a self censorship that frowned on such behaviors as illegitimacy, women drinking, and married couples sharing a bed. Hollywood fan magazines are mentioned, as well as the countless young women drawn to Hollywood by dreams of stardom; many of them ended up as high-class prostitutes or in stag films. Well-chosen clips from Colleen Moore's "Ella Cinders" provide a family-friendly view of one such woman drawn to Hollywood in pursuit of an elusive stardom.
Like other "Hollywood" episodes, the interviews with stars, writers, and directors are the jewels of the series. Adela Rogers St Johns discusses the Arbuckle scandal, Viola Dana talks of the parties at the Hollywood Hotel and the injustice of the Arbuckle accusation, while writer Sam Marx, actresses Gloria Swanson and Colleen Moore, and actor Ben Lyon add depth with their recollections. The third episode in the Brownlow-Gill series is solid and engaging, although it definitely suffers from slights to the Desmond Taylor murder, to the influence of fan magazines in creating star myth, and to Hays and the Motion Picture Association; however, the quibbles are slight, and the episode, like the series, is essential viewing for silent film enthusiasts.
Hollywood: In the Beginning (1980)
The Origins of Hollywood as a Film Community
"In the Beginning" is the appropriate, if uninspired, title of the second episode in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's superlative documentary on the American silent film, "Hollywood." The episode explores factors that prompted the budding U.S. film industry to move from Fort Lee, New Jersey, west to California and details the emergence of Hollywood as a community and the center of film-making. Cecil B. DeMille's daughter, Agnes DeMille, provides fascinating anecdotes and details of life in early Hollywood, and, not surprisingly, her father's 1914 film, "The Squaw Man," was the first feature made in Hollywood.
Brownlow and Gill illustrate the rise of movie stardom and fan worship through newsreels of the crowds attracted by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on their foreign travels, and they show the growing cultural influence of Hollywood stars such as Colleen Moore, the flapper in "Flaming Youth," whose straight hair and bangs revolutionized women's hair styles. The engrossing interviews include not only Colleen Moore and Agnes DeMille, but also actresses Leatrice Joy and Lillian Gish, stunt man Harvey Parry, writer Anita Loos, and directors Allan Dwan and Henry King. Producer Hal Roach touches on the rise of the opulent movie palaces, although the subject deserves a stand-alone documentary, and four big-budget spectacles are generously excerpted: D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," Cecil B. DeMille's "Joan the Woman," and Douglas Fairbanks's "Robin Hood" and "The Thief of Bagdad."
The contribution of composer Carl Davis to the series cannot be underestimated. From his nostalgic-romantic opening theme to the accompaniment of the various film clips, Davis's score is appropriate and memorable. Not surprisingly, Davis has subsequently composed scores for such restored silent classics as "Napoleon," "The General," and "Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ." As with the series as a whole, viewers can argue the subjective inclusion or exclusion of specific films and individuals, and they can bemoan the superficial glance at subjects that deserve more depth, but those are small quibbles about an invaluable documentary that preserves so much about a period in film history that was quickly fading from living memories when it was made.
Fine Prolog to an Exceptional Series on Silent Film History
Kevin Brownlow's superlative written history of the silent film, The Parade's Gone By, led to "Hollywood," Brownlow's 1980 documentary collaboration with David Gill for Thames Television. The 13-part series, while incomplete and subjective as to the stars, directors, and films included, is nevertheless, a priceless, irreplaceable contribution to the preservation of film history.
Part I of the series, "The Pioneers," is a two-part prolog that begins by dispelling common misconceptions about silent film, such as sped-up movement, blurry images, and complete silence. With a narration by James Mason, the episode then illustrates, with well-chosen clips, the fallacy of those assumptions. When projected at the proper speed, the crisp photographic images were accompanied by music, at times played by an orchestra in film palaces of incomparable splendor. The episode then moves back in time to the dawn of film and the earliest film-makers and exhibition venues, such as Edison and his Vitascope. When the novelty of film began to fade, "The Great Train Robbery" revitalized audience interest and "The Birth of a Nation" excited and inflamed the country.
Film clips are not only appropriate, but long enough to provide a feel for the movie excerpted. The interviews with Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Blanche Sweet, Hal Roach, King Vidor, and others are a unique legacy; while some are better than others and a few are preachy and dated, all have great historic value. The ongoing controversy over D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" is discussed and the racism not excused; however, the furor caused definitely illustrates the power of film to incite emotions.
The one flaw in both the initial episode and the series stems from the era in which the documentary was made. The interviews were completed in the 1970's, and the series first broadcast in 1980; thus, the image quality of the interviews is barely passable by VHS standards; the color is faded and washed out, and the image fuzzy. The film clips also suffer as they were excerpted before many of the movies featured had undergone extensive restoration. Aficionados of silent film will be familiar with much improved copies of these classics. However, nothing should deter anyone remotely interested in film history in general or silent film in particular from viewing this essential series. Whether or not the money and effort required to restore "Hollywood" to blu-ray standards is ever found, the first and subsequent episodes of the series are addictive and enthralling to film enthusiasts, who should seek out The Parade's Gone By if they have not already read that exceptional book as well.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001)
Memorable Cruz, Forgettable Cage in Guilty Romantic Pleasure
Based on a popular novel by Louis de Bernieres, John Madden's 2001 adaptation of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" is a pleasing, if flawed, film that may enrage fans of the book. Filmed on the Greek island of Cephalonia and set during World War II, the story revolves around the romance between Pelagia, daughter of a local doctor, and Captain Corelli, an Italian soldier stationed on the island with his company. Romantic entanglements ensue when Corelli is billeted in the doctor's home; Pelagia is already engaged to Mandras, a hunky local fisherman, and danger escalates when German troops arrive to assume command after Mussolini surrenders to the Allies.
Enhanced by John Toll's gorgeous cinematography of the Adriatic island and Stephen Warbeck's beautiful score that includes the haunting "Pelagia's Song" or "Ricordo Ancor," which is sung over the closing credits by Russell Watson, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" could have been a classic romance of love amidst war. The casting began well with Penelope Cruz, who is perfection as Pelagia. However, after Cruz, the casting falters, before ultimately flopping. While John Hurt is a stretch as a Greek doctor, his skill as an actor makes him credible in the role. Christian Bale as the young Greek fisherman is a bigger stretch, but he too tries valiantly, although his accent comes up short. The biggest problem is Nicholas Cage as Corelli; while Cage is of Italian descent, he reeks American and is completely wrong for the part. Cage's performance seems as forced as Cruz's is effortless; her attraction to the big lumbering oaf with a bent for opera is unconvincing and leaves the film with a gaping whole at its center. The script by Shawn Slovo abbreviates the novel and also sidesteps a critical point; Slovo cuts the pivotal character of Carlo to little more than a cameo and thus obscures the motivation for a crucial moment in the story.
While the film was a major disappointment when the novel was fresh in mind, time has been kind, and, with expectations lessened, the pleasures of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" emerge. Penelope Cruz is Pelagia, and her lovely performance is the film's major asset. Add the location cinematography, a small role by the incomparable Irene Papas, and the unforgettable song "Ricordo Ancor," and many fans of romantic movies may enjoy a film that throws light on a barbaric near-forgotten episode during World War II. Some viewers may also be inspired to seek out the novel, which expands and deepens the events depicted in the film. Otherwise, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" can be classified as a guilty pleasure for a rainy afternoon.
Any Day Now (2012)
Heartfelt Story with Credibility Issues
Travis Fine's "Any Day Now" is a heartfelt drama set in the 1970's, well before marriage equality and acceptance of gay Americans took hold; actually, the film itself was made before the Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land. A struggling middle-age gay man, Rudy, works as a female impersonator in a bar. He befriends the neglected special-needs son of a drug-addicted neighbor, and, when the mother is incarcerated, takes him in and cares for him. Meanwhile, Rudy begins an unlikely relationship with a handsome recently-divorced lawyer, Paul, who aids Rudy in the legal custody battles to come. Needless to say, Rudy's noble intentions to be a foster parent to the young boy, Marco, run afoul of the conservative establishment of the period.
The performances are all winning. Alan Cumming is especially good as Rudy, although his character should have realized that cutting his scraggly long hair would have improved his image in the courtroom. Also, Cumming is unconvincing as a drag queen, and his much-lauded voice does not merit the praise given. Garret Dillahunt's Paul is a bit bland, not unusual in a lawyer, but his attraction to Rudy is unconvincing, and their odd-couple pairing generates no heat. However, young Isaac Leyva is Marco, and his endearing performance likely rests on his being himself, which in this case is a major asset to the film.
"Any Day Now" also suffers from a generic title that elicits no interest and relates to little in the story. Marco's tale of woe certainly tugs at the heart, and Rudy and Paul's desire to support and nourish the badly treated boy is admirable and understandable, but their obstacles are also understandable in the context of the period. The film lacks nuance, and the script presents the issues as black and white; Rudy and Paul are the heroes with few allies, while the judges, lawyers, and social workers are the villains. However, audiences who can overlook some credibility issues and a lack of a balance in presenting the case will relish a good performance by Cumming and lose their hearts to Leyva.
Corny, Campy, Mis-Cast Cleo
Cecil B. DeMille's vain attempt to squeeze the epic saga of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra into a 100-minute film resulted in a rushed, unconvincing, at-times campy, and superficial take on history. Shakespeare split the tale into two plays, and, in the early 1960's, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz intended a six-hour spectacle of political scheming and intrigue, which was unfortunately plagued by scandal and drastically cut. Even the version based on Shaw, which only focuses on Caesar and Cleopatra, runs more than two hours.
While DeMille's take on "Cleopatra" has many flaws and is more historical curiosity than epic movie-making, the 1934 film has enough assets to warrant a viewing; these are principally the two male leads, who ably play their historic figures. Warren William as Julius Caesar has the physical bearing and voice of a Caesar, and his commanding presence convinces as the ambitious Roman politician and general with plans to become emperor. Handsome Henry Wilcoxon also makes a fine Roman as Marc Antony, who was one of Caesar's generals and fatally fell under Cleopatra's spell; Wilcoxon's performance is quite good, and he retains his bearing even during the silly banter he shares with a hiccupping Cleopatra. Unfortunately, the gaping hole in DeMille's film is the actress in the title role, Claudette Colbert. Colbert was expert at playing light comedy, and, fresh from her Oscar-winning role in "It Happened One Night," Colbert plays the Egyptian queen as a coquettish young woman, interested in flirtations, clothes, and parties; she poses in her costumes, gossips with her handmaidens, and carelessly plots murder as though planning a cocktail party. Any regal bearing fails her until the final scenes, after she hilariously declares she is no longer a queen, but a woman; frankly, she had that statement backwards.
The production values are pure DeMille; cluttered over-done sets with Art Deco flourishes; shiny gold costumes that squander countless yards of fabric; quasi-Egyptian poses and gestures. Cleopatra's entry into Rome is pathetically low-budget, and the special effects are hopelessly dated. However, Victor Milner's handsome black and white photography retains its allure and is a major asset that won a well-deserved Academy Award. C. Aubrey Smith and Ian Keith offer able support, but, with a badly mis-cast Colbert in the title role, the film is hopelessly adrift and swings from stately Roman politics to silly giggling. DeMille's declarations of painstaking research and historical authenticity ring hollow in this interminable 100-minute version of "Cleopatra."
The Mountain Between Us (2017)
Two Fine Performances in Overly Familiar Survival Tale
Survivors of a plane crash in the mountains struggle for survival against the odds in "The Mountain Between Us." Photo-journalist Kate Winslet and brain surgeon Idris Elba are stranded at an airport by a fierce storm; their flights have been cancelled, and, with similar urgencies, the two strangers pair up to charter a small plane from Beau Bridges. Bridges and his dog, named Dog, agree to fly them to their connection with flights to the East Coast. Winslet as Alex Martin must attend her wedding the next day, and Elba as Ben Bass has a 10-year old awaiting surgery in Baltimore the following morning. Despite the characters' type A behavior with regard to making appointments, the film's moral is "don't be stupid, flights are cancelled for a reason."
The tale is familiar; a crash in the snowy wilderness, lack of food, painful injuries, insurmountable obstacles, quarrels, bickering, bonding. Nothing really new here. However, the film is elevated by two fine star performances, and Winslet and Elba shine as the two haltingly get to know one another, while they struggle to survive. Winslet is inquisitive and nosey as befitting her journalistic background, while the reflective Elba is more withdrawn and harbors inner pain. Alex is impulsive and reckless, while Ben is cautious and careful. Austin and Raleigh, who together play the scene-stealing Dog, romps through the snow, chases rabbits, and seems totally oblivious to the situation.
Director Hany Abu-Assad generally paces the action well, although there are a few unnecessarily artsy sequences and some barely credible coincidences. The screenplay by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe, which was adapted from a novel by Charles Martin, treads no new territory and offers no surprises. However, Mandy Walker's fine cinematography of rugged snowy British Columbia is a particular asset, and the music by Ramin Djawadi, who composed "Game of Thrones," is quite good. While "The Mountain Between Us" is an overly familiar survival story, the movie is passably good entertainment. The two lead actors perform as though the script were fresh, and their talents make the film worthwhile.
Wrongfully Accused (1998)
Movie Buffs' Delight
A late entry in Leslie Nielsen's career-rebooting series of movie parodies, 1998's "Wrongfully Accused" treads familiar territory. However, the film will likely be catnip to fans of "Airplane," "Naked Gun," and "Police Squad." Written, produced, and directed by Pat Proft, a veteran writer on the "Police Squad" TV series and the "Naked Gun" movie trilogy, the movie is an endless string of hit-or-miss sight gags, bad puns, and slapstick. While showing his age, the 72-year-old Nielsen manages to keep up with the frantic pace. Proft's first and only directorial effort is a take-off on Harrison Ford's "The Fugitive," and Nielsen plays Ryan Harrison, a moniker among numerous obvious references, who is a music virtuoso also known as Lord of the Violin. Nielsen is passingly involved with the wife of Hibbing Goodhue, played by Michael York, and, when York is murdered, Nielsen is convicted of the crime, jailed, and sentenced to death. The set pieces imitate the original film with a train-bus wreck in which Nielsen escapes, a pursuit in the sewers, and a daring jump into a raging river. On the run, Nielsen seeks to prove his innocence by finding a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed man, all the while pursued by Richard Crenna, a garrulus cop named Lieutenant Fergus Falls.
For movie buffs, the references to old movies are enough to make the film entertaining; from extended scenes that mimic "The Usual Suspects," "Mission Impossible," "Titanic," and "North by Northwest," to passing references to "The Empire Strikes Back," "Field of Dreams," and "Braveheart," to dialog lifted from "Casablanca," Proft's movie is great fun. Viewers are advised to sit through the wacky end credits, which like those of earlier Nielsen spoofs, include a number of genuinely funny attributions. Unfortunately, unlike other Nielsen spoofs, the cast is light on star cameos, and only York and Sandra Bernhardt are well known among the cast. While Melinda McGraw plays Nielsen's sidekick and love interest, she fails to make a strong impression, and the more than 35-year age difference between Nielsen and McGraw is borderline icky. However, the May-December attraction is a small quibble. The audience for "Wrongfully Accused" knows what they paid for, and the film generally delivers. However, those who hated "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" are warned to stay clear.
Johnny O'Clock (1947)
Fairly Good Dick Powell Noir
A well acted, above average film noir from the late 1940's, "Johnny O'Clock" stars Dick Powell as the title character. His "juvenile" roles in such films as "42nd Street" long behind him, Powell's Johnny is a tough gambling-house operator, who is involved with a mobster named Guido and a crooked cop named Blayden. When Lee J. Cobb as Inspector Koch arrives to investigate the murder of a gambler, the plot thickens. A vulnerable Nina Foch plays a hat-check girl in Johnny's establishment, who is involved with Blayden. However, Blayden disappears, and Foch evidently commits suicide. Convinced of Blayden's involvement, both Koch and Foch's sister, played by Evelyn Keyes, pursue the missing cop. A blood-stained coat fished from the water, an expensive engraved watch, a bright new Mexican coin; the clues surface along with the betrayal and duplicity in Robert Rossen's taut screenplay, which was adapted from a story by Milton Holmes.
The sharp tough dialog is delivered by pros, with Powell, Cobb, and Keyes especially good. However, lovely Ellen Drew is a standout as Nelle, the alcoholic moll, who is Guido's wife, but harbors a history with and a persistent yen for Johnny; watching her expressions, even when silently in the background, is a lesson in film acting. Film buffs will spot a young Jeff Chandler as Turk, one of Guido's boys, in a small uncredited part. Nicely directed by Robert Rossen, the film features shadowy black and white photography by Burnett Guffey and a good score by George Duning. While not film noir of the first caliber, "Johnny O'CLock" is nevertheless an entertaining entry in the genre, and watching Powell during his tough-guy period is always a pleasure.
Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)
Anemic Tale of Sponge Diving Rivalries
A thin, predictable tale of romantic and inter-ethnic rivalry among Florida sponge divers, "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef" was likely intended as a break-out film for the studio's young handsome star, Robert Wagner. However, while Wagner is energetic and toothsome as the cocky young Greek, Tony Petrakis, his acting lacks depth and experience, and, with generally lackluster support, he fails to carry the film alone. Wagner's romantic interest, Terry Moore, an ingenue at the time herself, is even less convincing as Gwyneth, daughter of a rival sponge diver. Among the three above-title stars, only veteran Gilbert Roland, as Tony's father Mike, has presence and credibility. Peter Graves and Richard Boone are also on hand, but their undemanding roles are two dimensional.
The skimpy storyline, written by A. I. Bezzerides, has little to recommend, but serves as an excuse for Edward Cronjager's Oscar-nominated cinematography, which includes extensive underwater footage that was undoubtedly impressive at the time, but now slows the film's pace. Bernard Herrmann's score is a major asset to a film that otherwise does not merit the composer's often brilliant work. Directed by Robert D. Webb, the movie focuses on a Greek-American father-son sponge diving boat and does include a few engaging scenes that depict Greek traditions brought from Europe to Florida. However, little happens over the course of 100 minutes and only die-hard Robert Wagner fans will sustain interest throughout.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
A Magnificently Diverse Seven
Possibly inspired by the successful remakes, or better said, retakes on the classic westerns "True Grit" and "3:10 to Yuma," director Antoine Fuqua's "The Magnificent Seven" is an appealing take on the 1960 classic, which starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. Fuqua's version cannot compete with the John Sturges original in star power; Denzel Washington is the only cast member in the same league with Brynner, McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn. However, the film boasts a few fine supporting players like Peter Sarsgaard as the slimey Bartholomew Bogue, who is out to ruthlessly grab land from under a town of peaceful God-fearing homesteaders; Sarsgaard is only missing a black mustache to twirl as the personification of the Bad Guy. Vincent D'Onofrio is colorful as Jack Horne, whose girth nearly qualifies the film to be "The Magnificent Seven and a Half," and Ethan Hawke is fine as Goodnight Robicheaux, a gambler with issues and a Chinese sidekick.
Led by an African-American law officer, Fuqua's seven are an almost comically diverse group of strays that reflect today's America far more than the earlier cast. Denzel Washington is Chisholm, who is enlisted by the beleaguered townspeople, headed by a strong-willed widow, Emma Cullen, played by Haley Bennett. Reluctantly accepting the challenge to rid the town of Bogue, Chisholm assembles a motley crew that includes a Comanche Indian with a Mohawk haircut, the Chinese sidekick, an overweight senior citizen, the aforementioned widow, a Mexican, a Confederate veteran, and a hunky white guy played by Chris Pratt. These magnificent seven are about as politically correct as any central casting could conceive.
Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," the story is simple, straightforward, and familiar. Penned by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, the film arguably lingers too long on the introductory sequences for each character. However, the threads pull together and lead to an effective action-packed climax, which is fun, but as implausible as is the assembly of such a diverse group of gun people on the late-19th-century frontier. The film features a fine score by the late James Horner, but the iconic Elmer Bernstein theme is missed, although heard briefly over the closing credits. With Washington as a solid lead, "The Magnificent Seven" is an above-average western remake that just misses the high marks hit by "True Grit" and "3:10 to Yuma," but remains entertaining nevertheless.
In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Flawed, but Still Exciting and Entertaining
Inspired by true events, Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea" is a literate, often exciting tale that is at once historical and informative, exciting and action filled, grueling and tragic. Charles Leavitt's well-written screenplay was based on a book by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which purports to show the events that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. In the middle of the 19th century, the young Melville travels to Nantucket and seeks out the last survivor of the whaling ship Essex, which disappeared thirty years earlier with much controversy. After some persuasion and with enough cash, Melville, played by Ben Wishaw, convinces Brendan Gleeson as Tom Nickerson to relate the shocking story, which Nickerson has not even shared with his wife, played by Michelle Fairley. The film's acting honors go to the seasoned trio featured in the Melville-Nickerson scenes, which flash back to the story of the Essex as Gleeson relates the events.
The actual tale of the Essex begins with Owen Chase, a strapping young seaman, who aspires to be captain of a whaler and has been promised a captaincy by the local shipowners. However, he is forced to accept first-mate status under an inexperienced captain, who has family connections. Chris Hemsworth certainly looks the part of Chase, a role that would have suited the young Sterling Hayden. Hemsworth's heroic looks, which at times resemble the youthful Nick Nolte, are perhaps too California-surfer to be convincing as a rugged seafarer. However, while he does have physical presence, a better actor could have deepened the characterization. The same comments apply to Benjamin Walker, who plays Chase's nemesis, Captain George Pollard, an untested captain who steers his ship and men carelessly into peril. Meanwhile, Cillian Murphy as Matthew Joy and Tom Holland as the young version of Nickerson provide able support among Pollard's crew.
Set to a beautiful score by Roque Baños, the film features exciting whale-hunting scenes, a fierce storm at sea, and a harrowing tale of survival. However, "In the Heart of the Sea" illustrates the importance of a strong lead even in a film rich with special effects and action at sea. Without Russell Crowe, "Master and Commander" would not have succeeded as it did; with actors of Crowe's caliber in the roles of Chase and Pollard, the film could have been a titanic clash of wills set against the forces of nature in the guise of a monstrous whale. However, even with its flaws, "In the Heart of the Sea" is fine entertainment, despite its failure to attain the heights to which director Howard aspired.
The Laramie Project (2002)
In October 1998, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming was found badly beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. After several days lingering in a coma, 22-year-old Matthew Shepard died in Laramie, Wyoming, an event that created a national uproar and calls for legislation against hate crimes. Shortly after the infamous crime occurred, members of the Tectonic Theater Project descended on Laramie and conducted about 200 interviews with local people, both those involved and those uninvolved with the crime. The results were edited, compiled, and consolidated into a play entitled "The Laramie Project." Written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play premiered in 2000 and was filmed in 2002 for HBO.
Moises Kaufman directed this HBO film adaptation, and he assembled a large distinguished cast to play the multitude of characters. Among the most notable are Peter Fonda, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, Dylan Baker, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofolo, Bill Irwin, Amy Madigan, Margo Martindale, Christina Ricci, Frances Sternhagen, and Terry Kinney. Surprisingly, the appearance of so many well known faces enhances, rather than disrupts the film. Instead of a grainy documentary that features a series of self conscious interviews with unfamiliar people, this largely engrossing film is a series of dramatized interviews by seasoned professionals, which focus viewer attention on the words and their import.
The excellent cast play town residents, both gay and straight; as well as religious, police, medical, and legal people involved after the crime; some knew Matt, while others only knew of him from the news. The Laramie bartender, who remembered Mat on the night of the crime, disputed the story told by the two murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, whom he also remembered in the bar that night. The young boy, played by Ben Foster, who found the dying Matt, describes the grisly scene and the beaten victim. Amy Madigan is the policewoman, who aided the HIV positive Mat without gloves and inadvertently exposed herself to the AIDS virus; Frances Sternhagen is her understanding mother. Bill Irwin plays one of Laramie's gay residents, who tell of closeted life in the town and his reaction to the crime and its aftermath. Peter Fonda is the doctor who treats the dying young man, and Dylan Baker plays a town spokesperson to fine effect. However, not everyone interviewed is likable; Laura Linney is a conservative resident who does not understand all the fuss over the death of one gay man. While a local Catholic priest expresses sympathy, a Protestant preacher is outspoken about his hostility to gay people, and members of the despicable Westboro Baptist Church make an unwelcome appearance at Shepard's funeral. In the courtroom, the two defendants, McKinney and Henderson, talk of their feelings about gay people and attempt a lame "gay panic" defense that would be laughable, if not so tragic and pathetic. During the trial's final moments, Terry Kinney as Matthew's father, Dennis, makes a closing statement that effectively brings the film to a satisfying, moving, and sad close. Between the interviews and the comments on prejudice and homophobia, related newscast footage depicts politicians, marches, and candle-light vigils.
"The Laramie Project" is a fine work, both as a play and a film. While hate-crime legislation lags and the civil rights of the LGBT community remain under attack, films like "The Laramie Project" are increasingly important to illustrate the tragedies and injustices that hate can cause, irregardless the targets; this film is important and, hopefully, enduring.
Fine Dramatization of Great British Train Robbery
An extended near-wordless sequence, punctuated by Johnny Keating's tension-building staccato music, follows a cleverly planned diamond heist. Followed by an exciting high-speed car chase through the streets of London, the opening scenes of Peter Yates "Robbery" illustrate cinematic story-telling at its best. Although following the diamond job, the film slows to a more sedate pace, nevertheless, director Yates keeps the focus on plot and detail with a minimum of filler. After the diamond robbery, Stanley Baker as Paul Clifton re-groups his men, and, with added members, they buy into another robbery, which he promises will be the big one and net three or four million pounds. The target is the Royal Mail Train on the eve of a three-day bank holiday. Clifton's planning is meticulous and includes springing Robinson, played by Frank Finlay, from prison with an all too easy diversion ploy. While Baker and his boys proceed, police inspector Langdon, played by James Booth, heads an investigation into the diamond heist, which hones in on Clifton and other members of Baker's group.
Cutting between the robbery plans, the inspector's work, and a brief peek at Clifton's domestic life, the film is an excellent thinly-veiled dramatization of the famous British great train robbery, which took place in 1963, four years before the film was made. The scenes of domestic crisis between Baker and Joanna Pettet as his wife are probably the film's weakest; Pettet has little to do, and her presence seems little more than a gratuitous female token. However, the screenplay by Edward Boyd, Peter Yates, and George Markstein is tight otherwise, and the shift between the plotters and the police adds suspense, although viewers may identify with the unarmed robbers and cheer them on. Peter Yates's direction is top notch, although he subsequently topped the opening car chase with a more famous one in "Bullit." Featuring good performances throughout from Baker, Booth, Finlay, and Barry Foster, "Robbery" is well directed, well shot by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and provides excellent entertainment.
The Killers (1964)
Tough, Mean, Tight, and Exciting
Eyes concealed behind dark sunshades, Charlie and Lee barge into a school for the blind, rough up the blind receptionist, and shoot a teacher in the presence of his sightless students. Lee Marvin as Charlie and Clu Gulager as Lee are a tough pair; they want answers, they get answers, and take no prisoners. Thus begins director Don Siegel's fine remake of the 1946 original "The Killers," which starred Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Both films were based on an Ernest Hemingway story, but the 1964 version was scripted by Gene L. Coon, who retold the story from the point of view of the two hit men. After the job, the two killers leave town by train, and Marvin begins to wonder why their target, a man named Johnny North, did not run, although he knew they were coming. Other details nag him as well; why were they paid $25,000 for a simple job? Who hired them? and Where was the million dollars missing from a mail job that involved North? Marvin and Gulager pursue the answers to those questions, and a series of flashbacks flesh out a tale of crime, lust, and betrayal. Claude Aikens, who was a mechanic working for North, a race car driver played by John Cassavetes, details how North became involved with Angie Dickinson, who, as Sheila Farr, was a woman with expensive tastes and no visible means of support. Norman Fell, as Mickey Farmer, sidekick to a snarling Ronald Reagan, fills in further gaps, while trapped in a steam cabinet with Gulager at the thermostat. A third final flashback fills in the remaining details.
"The Killers" is a terrific heist film; taut, hard, concise; no filler. The cast is excellent. Marvin and Gulager are convincingly mean; they do not threaten, they act. Overcoming his now-too-familiar image, Reagan, in his last feature film, is a stand-out and matches Marvin mean-streak for mean-streak. Leggy and lovely Angie Dickinson runs the gamut in a role of shifting motives; sexy and soft, tough and cool, victim and victimizer. Always an interesting actor, John Cassavetes as Johnny North is shot to death early on, but re-appears in the flashbacks as a somewhat naive, easily manipulated patsy. Some obvious rear-projection during the racing sequences distracts, but otherwise "The Killers" is an exciting, first-rate effort from Don Siegel, who later directed "Dirty Harry" and earlier was responsible for the sci-fi classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Clint Eastwood considered Siegel his mentor and dedicated "Unforgiven" to him; a clear indication that the best learn from the best.
Let it Breathe First, then Serve Red Blood at Room Temperature in Crystal Stemware
In a world dominated by bloodsuckers, human blood is a precious resource, and, with a dwindling number of flesh-and-blood people, the world's food supply is threatened. A giant pharmaceutical company farms humans for their blood, but is researching a substitute product as their original source dwindles toward extinction. The intelligent intriguing premise lifts "Daybreakers" above run-of-the-mill vampire movies and suggests that capitalism flourishes even among the undead.
Original, well written, and sharply directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, the Australian horror film is entertaining and maintains a decent pace, although the violence and especially the gore are over the top at times; Australia's supply of fake blood must have been exhausted during filming. The Spierig Brother's script suggests that some traditions persist from ancient vampire lore: the undead do not reflect in mirrors, their eyes have an unearthly glow, they bite their victims in the neck, and they savor the finest blood in crystal stemware. Ben Nott's cinematography uses creative color effects to create a nightmarish nether world in the year 2019. While respective of tradition, "Daybreakers" is a 21st-century vampire film; the vamps live in quiet residential neighborhoods in stylish homes sealed from light and not a coffin in sight. The undead have customized cars that shield them from UV rays during daytime driving, and they use underground walkways and overhead tunnels to get around when the sun shines. Cable networks broadcast images and dire news of unrest throughout the world.
A distinguished trio of fine actors bring credence and class to the film. Ethan Hawke is Edward Dalton, a vampire sympathetic to humans, who is researching the blood substitute and stumbles upon an alternate course of action. Hawke's boss is the always malevolent-looking Sam Neill, who plays Charles Bromley, the head bloodsucker at the pharmaceutical enterprise. Veteran of another fine vampire flick, "Shadow of the Vampire," Willem Dafoe plays Elvis Cormac, an enigmatic individual, who has returned from the undead. "Daybreakers" is an intelligent update of an old theme; the acting by a seasoned cast is above average, and the untold pints of fake blood, numerous gratuitous explosions, and countless severed body parts should keep fans of the action-vampire genre satisfied.
Get Your Man (1927)
With One Look, I Play Every Part...
Clara Bow was the "It" girl and the epitome of a Roaring 20's flapper. Bow lit up the screen; she was vivacious, exuded sex appeal, and, with the flash of an eye and the glimpse of a leg, let the audience know she liked men and sex. Whenever she was on screen, all eyes were fixated on her. Well, almost all eyes; in "Get Your Man," the boyishly handsome Charles "Buddy" Rogers has his own charisma, and viewers will be riveted when the pair share the same frame. Unfortunately, "Get Your Man," adapted by Hope Loring from a play by Louis Verneuil, is a lackluster vehicle for the dazzling co-stars, who, like Norma Desmond, definitely "had faces then." Set in a sound-stage French château, Rogers is Robert Albin, son of the Duke of Albin, and he has been betrothed to Simone de Valens, daughter of a Marquis, since he was in short pants and she in diapers. Seventeen years after the betrothal arranged by their respective fathers, Robert and Simone are to be wed. Enter Clara Bow as Nancy Worthington, an American from New York, who quickly sets her eye on Robert, betrothal or no betrothal. After Robert and Nancy meet in Paris and spend some quality time together in a wax museum, Nancy manages to wangle a stay at the Albin château, where ostensibly she is recuperating after a car crash at the gates to the estate. Continuity during the first half of the movie is choppy, because two reels of film have been lost; the action jumps from reel 1 to reel 4, although viewers can easily fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, even the surviving footage is in poor condition at times. Especially distressing are handwritten notes that the characters read; only a few frames of them exist, and they flash by. Viewers must freeze the image to read them.
Beyond the allure of the two stars, "Get Your Man" is a dated production that is generally static and stagey; although made in 1927, the film does not reach the heights of the great movies of the late 1920's, which was the apex of the silent era. The contrived situations are not convincing, such as Nancy's silly flirtation with Simone's father or the nonsensical reason for her staying at the château. Bow and Rogers re-teamed later that same year in the classic "Wings" to much better effect. However, the film does have historical import in that the director was Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood's only female director during the "Golden Age." With but 20 directorial efforts to her name, Arzner was nevertheless the first woman to become a member of the Directors' Guild, and any of her films merits attention.
Patient viewers able to tolerate a partially deteriorated silent film with two reels missing will be rewarded with the glow of two enduring stars, Clara Bow of the flashing eyes and Charles "Buddy" Rogers of the boy-next-door smile. While the theatrical shenanigans on screen belong to a world that vanished nearly a century ago, the film offers the opportunity to sit in the dark and bask in the glow of bygone glamour and discover the work of a pioneering female director.