July 17, 2012
The National Film Preservation Foundation recently announced grants to help preserve 60 films over the coming months. These range from a silent 1913 comedy long thought lost to The Sun Project (1956), a collaboration between sculptor Richard Lippold and composer John Cage.
Many of the grants go to home movies, including some by a Pullman porter; a series about downtown Atlanta in the 1940s; a Hitler youth rally shot by brothers on a European vacation; and the Everly Brothers collection. The latter, being restored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum prior to a 2013 exhibit devoted to Don and Phil Everly, includes footage of performers like Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
Home movies are a particularly vulnerable genre of film, as many families are unwilling to pay for conversion of 16mm and 8mm stock to digital formats, yet don’t have the resources to project and store what can be large collections. [Full disclosure: I worked with a mountaineering group to obtain an NFPF grant to preserve 1950s home movie footage of the Adirondacks.]
But all of the films here deserve to be saved, because losing them will erase part of our cultural heritage. For example, the George T. Keating Home Movies from 1929, in a collection at Washington University in St. Louis, contain the only known footage of novelist Ford Madox Ford.
Film buffs will be excited about Drifting, a 1923 melodrama about opium smuggling directed by Tod Browning. Better known for his work with Lon Chaney, Browning used Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong, at the time fifteen years old, here. The restoration will feature new English intertitles.
Art buffs will want to see the titles made in the 1980s by Beryl Sokoloff, a photojournalist known for his films about artists. Maze documents animated sculptures; Drum City, a bus ride through New York City. Sokoloff made a number of films about his life partner, Crista Grauer, and about artists like Clarence Schmidt, Jose Bartoli, and Carl Nesjar.
Grants were awarded to the Center for Visual Music for two films by the influential animator Jordan Belson, who passed away last year. His Vortex Presentation Reels (1957-59) were part of famous multimedia concerts held at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium.
Jeff Lambert, assistant director at the NFPF, singled out the cult favorite 33 Yo-Yo Tricks (1976), being restored for the Harvard Film Archive. Lambert also pointed out That Other Girl, a 1913 comedy starring Pearl White that was long presumed lost. An archivist going through holdings at the University of Southern California found a can labeled “Niver,” and knew enough to guess it referred to film preservationist Kemp Niver. Inside was the only known copy of That Other Girl.
Lambert agreed that preserving films is becoming more difficult. “There are fewer and fewer labs who can do this kind of work,” he said in a recent interview.
Getting the films to interested viewers is harder too. “The preservation on most of these projects will take almost a year, if not more, so there’s always that lag time,” he explained.
One of the requirements of the grants is that the archives make the grant-funded films available to the public, but not everyone can travel to San Diego or Rochester or Keene to see a movie. “At the NFPF we are continuing to put more of our grant-funded films online,” Lambert said, “and more of the organizations out there are doing the same.”
Lambert encourages readers to apply for grants themselves. The next cycle opens in December. You can find more information here.
There are historical and cultural reasons to preserve these films, but they are just as important for the pure pleasure they bring. Like the delightful 1940 home movies by Slavko Vorkapich, one of the masters of montage. Or Brooke Dolan’s 1934 expedition to the Himalayas. Just for their glimpses into the past, I’m looking forward to the educational films by Tad Nichols about Apache and Navajo life in 1940 and color footage from Wethersfield’s Tercentenary Parade (1934).
Being preserved for the University of Oregon: Adaptive Behavior of Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels, a 1942 educational film by Lester Beck that led to Squeak the Squirrel, a film I wrote about in one of my first pieces.
This will be the last posting for Reel Culture, which is going on indefinite hiatus. You can still follow me on Twitter at @Film_Legacy, and I will be posting periodic articles and updates at my Film Legacy website.
I’ve enjoyed writing these pieces. My main theme over the past year is that what we think is new in movies can usually be traced back to earlier innovators, just like our contemporary novels and songs have antecedents in the past. But in today’s marketplace a sense of history has become a luxury.
July 3, 2012
As we celebrate this Independence Day, some might wonder why the Revolutionary War has been shortchanged by filmmakers. Other countries have made an industry out of their past. Shakespeare’s historical plays are filmed repeatedly in Great Britain, where filmmakers can borrow from old English epics like Beowulf and contemporary plays like A Man for All Seasons. Even potboilers like the Shakespeare conspiracy theory Anonymous, or The Libertine, with Johnny Depp as the second Earl of Rochester, are awash in details—costumes, weaponry, architecture—that bring their times to life.
Films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Kagemusha do the same for earlier Japanese culture. The Hong Kong film industry would not exist without its films and television shows set in the past, and mainland Chinese filmmakers often use period films to skirt present-day censorship restrictions.
In the golden age of the studio system, Western films provided more income and profit than many A-budget titles. And the Civil War has been the backdrop of some of the industry’s biggest films, like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. But successful American films set in the Revolutionary period are hard to find. You’d think that filmmakers would jump at the chance to recreate our country’s origins.
Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times. D.W. Griffith released The Birth of the Nation on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some moviegoers could remember the fighting, and many of the props in the film were still in general use. When Westerns first became popular, they were considered contemporary films because they took place in an identifiable present. Many of Gene Autry’s movies are set in a West that features cars and telephones.
Westerns were so popular that an infrastructure grew up around them, from horse wranglers to blacksmiths. Studios hoarded wagons, costumes, guns. Extras who could ride got a reliable income from B-movies.
That never happened for films set in the Revolutionary period. Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?
Still, some filmmakers tried, as you can see below:
America (1924)—The Birth of a Nation made D.W. Griffith one of the world’s most famous filmmakers, but it also put him in the position of trying to top himself. After directing movies big and small, Griffith found himself in financial trouble in the 1920s. When a project with Al Jolson about a mystery writer who dons blackface to solve a crime fell apart, the director turned to America. According to biographer Richard Schickel, the idea for the film came from the Daughters of the American Revolution via Will Hays, a former postmaster and censor for the film industry.
Griffith optioned The Reckoning, a novel by Robert W. Chambers about Indian raids in upstate New York. With the author he concocted a story that included Revere, the Minutemen, Washington at Valley Forge, and a last-minute rescue of the heroine and her father from an Indian attack. When he was finished, America was his longest film, although when the reviews came in Griffith quickly started cutting it down. Critics compared it unfavorably not only to The Birth of a Nation, but to work from a new generation of filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks, Ernst Lubitsch, and James Cruze.
1776 (1972)—Turning the second Continental Congress into a Broadway musical may not seem like much of a money-making plan, but songwriter Sherman (“See You in September”) Edwards and librettist Peter Stone managed to parlay this idea into a Tony-winning hit that ran for three years before going on the road.
Edwards and Stone teamed for the film adaptation, directed in 1972 by Peter H. Hunt, who also directed the stage show. Many of the actors repeated their roles on screen, including William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum and Howard Da Silva. The film received generally poor reviews. Vincent Canby at the New York Times complained about the “resolutely unmemorable” music, while Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie was an “insult.”
What strikes me, apart from the garish lighting scheme and phony settings, is its relentlessly optimistic, upbeat tone, even when delegates are arguing over slavery and other demanding issues. When the play opened many liberals thought it was commenting indirectly but favorably on the Vietnam War. On the advice of President Richard Nixon, producer Jack Warner had the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” cut from the film because it presented the delegates as elitists trying to protect their wealth.
Revolution (1985)—Not to be confused with the 1968 hippie epic with music by Mother Earth and the Steve Miller Band, this 1985 film starred Al Pacino as a New Yorker drawn unwillingly into fighting the British in order to protect his son. Blasted by critics on its release, the $28 million film reportedly earned less than $360,000 in the US.
This was the debut feature for director Hugh Hudson, who went on to helm the international smash Chariots of Fire. For the recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Hudson complained that the film was rushed into release before he could finish it. His new director’s cut adds a voice-over from Al Pacino that helps hide some of the production’s bigger flaws, like an inert performance from Nastassja Kinski and a laughable one from Annie Lennox, as well as a plethora of dubious accents.
In “Is Hugh Hudson’s Revolution a neglected masterpiece?” Telegraph writer Tim Robey is willing to give the film a second chance, commenting on Bernard Lutic’s gritty, handheld camerawork and the squalor on display in Assheton Gorton’s production design. But Revolution was so ill-conceived, so poorly written, and so indifferently acted that no amount of tinkering can rescue it. It remains in the words of Time Out London “an inconceivable disaster,” one that nearly destroyed Pacino’s movie career.
The Patriot (2000)—Mel Gibson has made a career out of his persecution complex, playing a martyr in everything from Mad Max to Braveheart. The success of Braveheart, which won a Best Picture Oscar, may have encouraged Gibson to make The Patriot, essentially the same plot with a Revolutionary setting. (With variations, that story engine also drives We Were Soldiers, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, even his remake of Edge of Darkness.)
The Patriot was a big-budget film, with a cast that included rising star Heath Ledger, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and careful treatment from the directing and producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Devlin even credited the Smithsonian for adding to the picture’s historical accuracy.
But the script reduced the Revolutionary War to a grudge match between Gibson’s plantation owner and a callous, cruel British colonel played by Jason Isaacs. Of course if the British murdered your son and burned down a church with the congregation inside you’d want to hack them to pieces with a tomahawk.
Northwest Passage (1940)—Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.
Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.
July 2, 2012
Megan Gambino’s The Top 10 Books Lost to Time inspired me to think about the movies that we’ll never be able to see. Not movies that were actually “lost,” like the thousands of titles that have decomposed or otherwise disappeared over the years. Some estimate that 80 percent of all silent features are gone, for example. They include movies starring Laurel and Hardy (The Rogue Song), Greta Garbo (The Divine Woman), and Lon Chaney’s sought-after “vampire” film London After Midnight.
This posting instead is about movies that were never completed, or in some cases never filmed at all. Every filmmaker has a list of projects that just didn’t work out. Either they couldn’t find financing, or schedules were too complicated, or situations suddenly changed. William Wyler prepared How Green Was My Valley, but due to scheduling conflicts John Ford ended up directing it. Frank Capra had planned to make Roman Holiday, but eventually gave the project to Wyler. Steve Soderbergh was ready to direct Moneyball until Sony replaced him at the last moment with Bennett Miller.
Directors and other creative personnel invested a lot of time and money into the five films below. In some cases, the fact that they could not complete the films seriously affected their subsequent careers.
1. I, Claudius—After helping make Marlene Dietrich an international star in seven visually astonishing films, director Josef von Sternberg burned a lot of bridges at Paramount, made two minor films at Columbia, then fled Hollywood. In London he accepted an offer from producer Alexander Korda to film an adaptation of I, Claudius, a 1934 novel by Robert Graves about the first-century Roman emperor. The cast included Charles Laughton, one of the most respected actors of his time, and the imperiously beautiful Merle Oberon.
Korda was hoping to build on the success of his film The Private Lives of Henry VIII, while Sternberg, who had filmed Dietrich as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, relished the chance to explore the Roman court. But the production was troubled from the start. Sternberg couldn’t establish a working relationship with Laughton; in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry he wrote: “when he was not in front of the camera he seemed no more abnormal than any other actor.” The director also infuriated the British crew with his autocratic methods.
The final straw came when Oberon had a serious car accident a month into shooting, bringing the production to a halt. (At the time, some suspected that her £80,000 insurance settlement helped offset shuttering the film. Oberon would go on to marry Korda in 1939.)
In 1965, director Bill Duncalf assembled the surviving footage—about 27 minutes—in the documentary The Epic That Never Was. Sternberg was a master at melding production design and cinematography to build atmosphere, and his I, Claudius would have been a stunning achievement.
2. It’s All True—Orson Welles was still a wunderkind when he left the United States for Brazil in 1942. Behind him: Citizen Kane, an unedited version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and the sophisticated pulp thriller Journey Into Fear. Asked by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to make pro-Brazil propaganda as part of the country’s “Good Neighbor” policy, Welles was greeted like a star when he arrived in Rio de Janiero with a $300,000 budget from RKO.
In a treatment to potential backers, Welles wrote, “This is a new sort of picture. It is neither a play, nor a novel in movie form–it is a magazine.” The director envisioned a four-part feature, later reduced to three. It would include My Friend Bonito, written and produced by documentarian Robert Flaherty and directed by Norman Foster, about the friendship between a Mexican youth and a bull. For The Story of Samba, Welles shot black-and-white and Technicolor footage of Rio’s Carnaval.
Welles read a Time article, “Four Men on a Raft,” about four fishermen who sailed 1650 miles in a “jangada,” little more than a raft, to protest poor working conditions. He decided to reenact the trip for the centerpiece of his film. Unfortunately, Manoel Olimpio Meira, the leader of the fishermen, drowned during filming.
The mood of the country turned against the director. He also lost the support of his studio when executives were replaced. Rumors have RKO dumping It’s All True footage into the Pacific. Welles later claimed the film had been cursed by voodoo. The surviving footage was assembled into the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
3. Napoleon—The famously obsessive Stanley Kubrick started and dropped many projects over his career. For years he tried to film Aryan Papers, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, giving up the project when Steven Spielberg started Schindler’s List. A short story from The Moment of Eclipse by Brian W. Aldiss became A.I., which Kubrick never started because he was waiting for better computer effects. It was eventually completed by Spielberg.
After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a figure he had studied for decades. Jan Harlan, his brother-in-law and executive producer of his later films, says Kubrick was fascinated about how someone so intelligent could make such costly mistakes.
Kubrick and MGM announced Napoleon in a July 1968 press release. The director hired 20 Oxford graduates to summarize Napoleon biographies, and filled a file cabinet with index cards detailing the dictator’s life. “I must have gone through several hundred books on the subject,” he told journalist Joseph Gelmis. “You want the audience to get the feeling of what it was like to be with Napoleon.” His relationship with Josephine was “one of the great obsessional passions of all time…So this will not be a dusty historic pageant.”
Staff found locations in Romania, and procured the cooperation of armed forces there for extras. Thousands of uniforms were prepared. Kubrick experimented with special low-light lenses that would enable him to work with candlelight.
According to Harlan, shooting was ready to start when Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, was released. The failure of that film caused Kubrick’s backers to pull out. While the director continued to amass research on the subject, he could never find enough funding to restart the project. He did incorporate some of his findings into his adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975). Alison Castle has edited a remarkable book from Taschen, Napoleon, that gives an indication of how much Kubrick put into the project.
4. Elective Affinities—Playwright, scientist, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, artist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the towering figures of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. His Sorrows of Young Werther swept Europe, changing the culture’s concept of masculinity and inspiring a rash of suicides. (Napoleon carried a copy with him to Egypt.) Faust became the source of a half-dozen operas and symphonic works. Goethe inspired everyone from Nietzsche and Beethoven to Francis Ford Coppola.
Elective Affinities, Goethe’s third novel, was published in 1809. The title refers to how elements bond chemically; the plot describes how relationships change with the addition of a new person. A husband falls in love with an orphaned niece; his wife, with The Captain, her husband’s childhood friend. In chemical terms, AB + CD → AD + BC. Goethe implied that passion and free will were subject to the laws of chemistry, an idea that playwright Tom Stoppard developed further in Arcadia by bringing in chaos theory to the argument.
In 1979, few filmmakers were as respected as Francis Ford Coppola. He had won an Oscar for writing Patton, then directed three of the most accomplished films of his time: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. While working on the calamitous epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola conceived of adapting Elective Affinities into a multi-part film that would combine Eastern and Western influences.
Coppola was not a dilettante about the East: along with George Lucas he was helping to produce Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Coppola studied Kabuki theater, intrigued by how the form abandoned realism for illusion in scenery, story, and actors. He pictured Elective Affinities as four episodes taking place over a ten-year period in both Japan and America, a series that would examine the couple and their lovers in detail.
Walking through the Ginza section of Tokyo, Coppola was reminded of Las Vegas, which became the setting for One from the Heart, “a little musical Valentine,” as he described it to an interviewer. The poor box-office performance of that film, coupled with the crippling debt he assumed for Apocalypse Now, scotched any chance of filming Elective Affinities.
5. Nostromo—David Lean, the director of such epic masterpieces as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, had his share of aborted projects. In the 1970s, after he completed Ryan’s Daughter, he and screenwriter Robert Bolt spent years on a two-part adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty. When Bolt suffered a stroke, Lean eventually abandoned the project, which ended up being directed by Roger Donaldson as The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian.
Lean’s outstanding adaptation of A Passage to India won two Oscars. For his next project he chose Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, a 1904 novel that examined the corrupting influence of a silver mine in a fictional South American country. Director Steven Spielberg agreed to produce the film for Warner Bros. Lean worked with playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and later reunited with Bolt on a newer draft.
Conrad’s novel is filled with adventure on a massive scale, as well as penetrating psychological analyses of flawed characters. It’s also a gloomy, depressing story with a downbeat ending. I read a draft of the script when I was working at HBO in the 1980s, and it captured the scope and feel of the novel while adding Lean’s own jaundiced take on society. It was also a seriously ambitious project for an ill director in his 80s.
Delays followed delays as Spielberg, Hampton and Bolt all departed the project. Lean persisted despite the throat cancer that was killing him. He assembled a cast that included the European actor Georges Corraface as well as Isabella Rossellini and Marlon Brando. Screen tests were shot. Millions were spent constructing sets. Lean wanted to shoot with the Showscan Process, a high-speed, large-format, and very expensive stock. At the very least he insisted on 65mm. Cinematographer John Alcott came up with an ingenious solution for lighting a scene that takes place in a dark mine: make the silver appear phosphorescent.
What a film Nostromo would have been: bold, sweeping, magisterial, mysterious. Lean died six weeks before the start of shooting.