June 15, 2012
In honor of Father’s Day, you could watch some of the noble parents who have appeared in film over the years. Perhaps the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Or the benignly cranky Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950), remade with Steve Martin in 1991. Maybe Life With Father, filmed in 1947 with William Powell as the dyspeptic but loving stockbroker Clarence Day. Or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which won James Dunn an Oscar as the suicidal Johnny Nolan.
Or maybe you find the whole idea of Father’s Day—generally believed to have been invented by Sonora Smart Dodd in 1910, but popularized by merchants like the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers in the 1930s—just another a moneymaking ploy. If that’s the case, a less-than-stellar Dad might be more entertaining.
Movies and television are filled with bumbling, inept dads, like the henpecked Harold Bissonette W.C. Fields played in It’s a Gift (1934), or Arthur Lake as Dagwood in his long series of “Blondie” movies, or our reigning champion, Homer Simpson. Adam Sandler, who already starred in Big Daddy, takes the lead in That’s My Boy, released today to cash in on Father’s Day.
But a darker strain of stories stretching back to the Greeks shows fathers in a different light. More recently, Eugene O’Neill had an ambivalent relationship with his father, the actor James O’Neill, while Tennessee Williams presented a monstrous Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Weak or downright bad fathers abound in the works of Dickens and Faulkner, and in their film adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock’s father once had him locked as a child in a jail cell, an experience that colored many of the director’s subsequent films.
Here are some more bad movie fathers:
1. People Like Us (2012). In Alex Kurtzman’s film, loosely based on real events, hot-shot salesman Sam Harper (played by Chris Pine) has been estranged from his father Jerry for years. When Jerry, a former record producer, dies, the deep-in-debt Sam expects a helpful settlement. Instead, he learns that Jerry had a separate family, and that his stepsister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom and recovering addict, is getting the money he needs. Both siblings have bad memories of their father, which may explain why they are in such terrible shape as the film begins.
2. The Kid With the Bike (2011). Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this small-scale movie focuses on Cyril (played by Thomas Doret), an eleven-year-old living in an orphanage in Belgium. Cyril keeps trying to contact his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), unwilling to accept that he has been abandoned. Few scenes are as cold and heartless as one in which Cyril finally confronts Guy in a restaurant. As an actor, Renier gives an admirably detached performance that adds to the film’s poignancy.
3. Five Easy Pieces (1970). A countercultural touchstone, Bob Rafelson’s film shows why classical pianist Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) ends up a working in an oil field: it’s Dad’s fault. A scene in which Nicholson battled a diner waitress over a chicken salad sandwich helped make him a superstar, but the film inexorably circles back to his crippling relationship with his father. Nicholson, who told one reporter that he does not know who his biological father is, encountered another fearsome parent in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
4. My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford’s great Western is ostensibly about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but once you see the film you will never forget Walter Brennan as Ike Clanton, a villain for the ages. Whether rustling cattle, whipping his sons for failing him or shooting a rival in the back with a shotgun, Brennan’s Clanton is a father to be feared and obeyed. Brennan plays him perfectly, without a shred of decency or honesty.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007). Playwright Rob Potter reminded me of this 2007 film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who cheats and murders his way to oil wealth, with Dillon Freasier as his hapless son. Potter cites this dialogue from Plainview: “Drainage! Drainage, Eli! Drained dry, you boy! If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake—I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
6. Star Wars. Do these films still need spoiler alerts? When writing Star Wars, George Lucas was enamored of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which asserted that a specific hero myth has figured through many cultures. Campbell and TV reporter Bill Moyers even discussed how Lucas used the book in a scene filmed at Skywalker Ranch. The second and best episode to be filmed, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is suffused with an almost Biblical sense of destiny. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) is fated, or doomed, to confront his nemesis Darth Vader, a villain so evil he thinks nothing of destroying entire planets.
There must be other bad dads lurking in movies. What are your favorites?
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
May 11, 2012
Like the rest of the world, Hollywood has a soft spot for mothers, even though expressing that love can be difficult. Predictably, the film industry has devoted considerable screen time to the subject of motherhood, with mothers and babies figuring into the earliest cinema actualities. Once narratives developed, mothers became central figures in many movies. Edison’s The Klepto-maniac (1905) showed what happened to a poor mother when she stole food for her children. In Lubin’s Mother’s Dream (1907), a mother has a nightmare about what would happen to her children if she died.
But just as often mothers in movies were peripheral characters who either approved the actions of their children, or not. Filmmakers found it easier to examine the romance and courtship that led to marriage and motherhood, subjects that might not evoke feelings of responsibility and guilt from their male viewers. When it came to mothers themselves, early filmmakers tended to adopt the Victorian sensibilities that pervaded American culture at the time. In D.W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart (1913), for example, Lillian Gish’s character, a recent mother, flies into a rage when her husband rejects her for a cabaret dancer.
The depiction of mothers, and women in general, changed dramatically as movies matured in the 1920s. The industry also began to target women as an audience. Films like Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and Are Parents People? (1925) made fun of Victorian stereotypes, and even a melodrama like Miss Lulu Bett (1921) was more sympathetic toward deceived women than earlier titles might have been. In films like Where Are My Children? (1916), director Lois Weber took on birth control, abortion and other controversial topics. Film historian Richard Koszarski described Our Dancing Mothers (1926) as “a Jazz Age version of A Doll’s House.” (The play itself was filmed three times between 1917 and 1922).
Motherhood remained sacred in mainstream culture—magazines, popular songs like “Mother Was a Lady.” The novel Stella Dallas (1923) struck a particular chord that has resonated to this day. Written by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas took motherly sacrifice to painful extremes, forcing its mother to give up her daughter so she could enjoy a better life. The novel became a play in 1924 and a film the following year. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Henry King, and starring Belle Bennett and Ronald Colman, the movie was an enormous hit.
Stella Dallas became one of the first and most successful soap operas on radio, broadcasting almost twenty years. It was also the basis of a Bette Midler vehicle—Stella—in 1990. But the version that succeeds best was directed by King Vidor in 1937 and starred Barbara Stanwyck in one of her signature roles. Brash, vulgar, Stanwyck’s Stella is a difficult woman to like, but one whose maternal instincts are impossible to fault.
Characters like Stella spread throughout popular culture. Some actresses refused to portray mothers, worried that it might date them in their fans’ eyes. But in Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich became an especially glamorous sacrificial figure. Ginger Rogers worked around the age issue by adopting an abandoned infant in Bachelor Mother (1939, later remade with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher as Bundle of Joy).
Mothers faced other issues in movies, notably race in the two versions of Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959). More matronly actresses developed careers as mothers. Beulah Bondi, for example, who brought extraordinary nuances to her many roles. In Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) she has to cope with being betrayed by her children. In Of Human Hearts (1938, a Civil War-tearjerker, she begs President Abraham Lincoln to spare her son from a court-martial verdict. In Remember the Night (1940) she balances her son’s happiness with his lover, a pickpocket who could destroy his career. And in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) she has to help her son through a lifetime of emotional crises. Jane Darwell was a memorably steely Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The sentimental Ford usually had a stalwart mother somewhere in his movies, like Dorothy Jordan in The Searchers.
Movie mothers in the 1940s became more psychologically complex, just like film in general. A star like Olivia de Havilland might suffer the moral stigmata of unwed motherhood in To Each His Own (1946)—and win a Best Actress Oscar in the process. But in Now, Voyager (1942, based on an Olive Higgins Prouty novel), Bette Davis had an ambiguous relationship with her domineering mother. Barbara Stanwyck was torn between caring for her two boys and pursuing her own happiness in My Reputation (1946, based on the novel Instruct My Sorrows by Clare Jaynes). And for Oscar-winning Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), motherhood meant competition with her daughter Veda (played by Ann Blyth). Kate Winslet starred in the 2011 remake, an HBO miniseries.
How far a mother would go to protect her children became the basis of The Reckless Moment (1949), a first-rate suspense film directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Bennett. It was updated recently as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton. The 1950s saw the flowering of Douglas Sirk’s overheated soap operas. In All That Heaven Allows (1955), children exert a malevolent influence on their widowed mother Jane Wyman.
But the 1950s also produced several films about large and extended families. Myrna Loy played real-life efficiency expert Ernestine Gilbreth Carey in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). (In-name-only updates starring Steve Martin appeared in 2003 and 2005.) Betsy Drake and her then-husband Cary Grant grappled with the problems of an adopted child in Room for One More (1952). By the 1960s, the genre had evolved into Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), with Lucille Ball mothering eighteen kids, and Doris Day in her last feature film to date taking on four that same year in With Six You Get Eggroll. (Yours, Mine and Ours was remade in 2005 with Rene Russo.)
Two of the most frightening film mothers from the period can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the 1962 film adaptation of the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy.
The 1960s also saw the rise of television sitcom mothers in shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show.” More recent examples include Roseanne,” “Reba,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
In the past few years motherhood has become the provenance of the Lifetime cable channel, which has built an audience around mothers deceived and defrauded when they and their children aren’t being stalked by psychopaths. So it was a relief to encounter Michelle Pfeiffer in Dark Shadows. As matriarch Elizabeth Collins, she stands up to vampires, witches, and werewolves fearlessly—the kind of mother you want in your corner.
April 4, 2012
In a sense baseball and the movies grew up together. While the game’s roots stretch back to the 18th century, many baseball rules weren’t codified until the 1880s, when Thomas Edison first started thinking about a device to record and play moving pictures. Baseball may have been a well-established sport, but in many particulars it would be almost unrecognizable to us today, as a still from 1899′s Casey at the Bat or The Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire indicates.
By some accounts, baseball’s modern era began in 1903, when rules were standardized, the two dominant professional leagues reorganized, and the first World Series scheduled. It was also the year the first American movie blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery, was released.
The “dead ball era,” roughly 1900–1920, resulted in a phenomenal rise in baseball popularity, one that was paralleled in the movie industry. It was a time that saw the construction of large stadiums like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, soon to be matched by ornate movie palaces. Scandals struck both baseball and movies, like the Black Sox of the 1919 World Series and the still-unsolved murder of movie star William Desmond Taylor.
Baseball was depicted on film as early as 1899, but apart from newsreels the sport is almost always used as a background or setting, and not as the main thrust of a movie story. Like football, baseball became an all-purpose metaphor, a way to examine character, to reflect on society, to question or affirm authority.
His Last Game (1909), for example, tied together illegal gambling, alcoholism, and capital punishment into its plot about a Choctaw baseball player who is forced to throw a game. The lead character in The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912), directed by John Ford’s older brother Francis, learns integrity as well as physical skills from the sport, which come in handy when he is sent to a bandit-heavy Arizona frontier. Both films are part of a compilation of silent movies from Kino called Reel Baseball.
Real-life baseball legend Babe Ruth appeared as himself in the amusing and highly fictionalized Headin’ Home (1920), also featured on Reel Baseball. You can catch glimpses of other baseball stars in newsreels of the time, although they sometimes show up in unexpected places. For example, Cleveland Indians manager and center fielder Tris Speaker has a cameo in Heroes All, a Red Cross fund-raising film.
To see athletes actually playing baseball on screen, it’s best to turn to comedy. Hearts and Diamonds (1914), starring comedian John Bunny, features footage shot at a pro ball stadium; the comedy shorts Butter Fingers (1925) and Happy Days (1926) both include extended playing sequences. (All three are on Reel Baseball.)
Buster Keaton loved baseball, and included jokes about it in several of his movies. He even plays a prehistoric version in The Three Ages. A wistful vignette in The Cameraman shows Keaton miming pitching and batting in an empty Yankee Stadium.
Whenever he was stuck during production, Keaton would stop shooting and put together a game with his crew. (According to friend and actor Harold Goodwin, Keaton gave this questionnaire to prospective hires: “Can you act?” “Can you play baseball?” A passing grade was 50%.) He also staged many charity exhibition games featuring other movie stars.
One Run Elmer (1935), a sound short he made for Educational Pictures, pulls together his favorite baseball jokes: an enormous bat, a base attached by elastic string to the player, a spitball that sticks to the bat, an onlooker who switches a grapefruit for the ball, and so on.
That same year comedian Joe E. Brown starred in Alibi Ike, adapted from a 1915 short story by Ring Lardner. Bob Meusel and Jim Thorpe have cameos, a tradition that continued in several features. Doris Day manages to get Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra thrown out of a game in That Touch of Mink (1962), for example. (Mantle and Berra also appear in the 1958 musical Damn Yankees.)
Cartoons had a field day with baseball. Felix Saves the Day (1922), starring Felix the Cat, mixes animation with live-action footage. In The Twisker Pitcher (1937), Popeye and Bluto battle each other on the diamond. Some of the gags in this Fleischer brothers cartoon end up in Baseball Bugs (1946), a Bugs Bunny outing in which he single-handedly takes on the Gas-House Gorillas. Clips from Baseball Bugs were incorporated into His Hare-Raising Tale (1951), while the jokes themselves were recycled Gone Batty (1954), a Warner Bros. vehicle for Bobo the Elephant. (I still haven’t tracked down Porky’s Baseball Broadcast, a 1940 short directed by Frez Freleng.)
Perhaps because so many viewers dream of playing pro ball, fantasy has been a durable genre for baseball films. Usually the story comes with a tidy moral attached. In It Happens Every Spring (1949), a college professor played by Ray Milland discovers a compound that repels wood. He parlays his find into a career as a major-league pitcher, only to learn that he must rely on himself, and not potions, to succeed. In Angels in the Outfield (1951), angels use miracles help the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates to the big game, but only if they give up swearing. (Disney released a loose remake starring Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 1994.)
The worst fantasy-related baseball film may well be Ed, a 1996 Universal picture in which “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc befriends a baseball-playing chimpanzee. The best, or at least the one that has resonated with viewers the most, is arguably 1989′s Field of Dreams, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson and based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Field of Dreams got everything right, from its depiction of a troubled farmer on his last legs (played by Kevin Costner) to its memorable catch phrase (“If you build it, he will come.”). It’s a film whose meaning becomes clear only during its final shot (which I will not spoil here). While the ultimate fate of the real-life “Field of Dreams” is unclear, you can still visit this summer.
What is your favorite baseball movie? Let us know in the comments below
March 9, 2012
Well before its premiere this Saturday on HBO, Game Change was generating controversy. A docudrama about how Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain’s running mate in his campaign for President, the film was adapted from the best-selling book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The cable broadcaster trumpeted the film’s accuracy in press releases, stating that “The authors’ unprecedented access to the players, their wide-ranging research and the subject matter itself gave the project a compelling veracity that has become a signature of HBO Films.” Even though there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the film quickly came under attack, with Palin aides calling it inaccurate and Game Change screenwriter Danny Strong defending his work as “as fair and accurate a telling of this event that we believe could possibly be done in a movie adaptation.”
The biggest surprise about Game Change is that it’s more about campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) than about either of the two candidates. (Actor Ed Harris plays McCain.) Much of the film is told from Schmidt’s point-of-view, which means that he gets to analyze the candidates’ motives and abilities. Since Palin and McCain declined to be interviewed for the film, Game Change can’t get into their minds the way it does with Schmidt. And the candidates can’t rebut his account of what happened.
Hollywood screenwriters love flawed heroes, and if there’s one theme that ties together films about campaigns and politicians, it’s the idea that candidates are afflicted with hamartia, a tragic flaw that determines their fates. In films as old as Gabriel Over the White House (1932) and as recent as The Ides of March (2011), candidates and politicians alike are pried apart on screen for viewers to inspect.
Ironically, it’s usually the candidate’s willingness to compromise that brings about his or her downfall. On the one hand, everyone wants politicians to have integrity. But isn’t the ability to compromise central to politics?
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941), Spencer Tracy in State of the Nation (1948), Henry Fonda in The Best Man (1964), Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972)—all lose support when veer away from their personal beliefs in order to attract voters. The Great McGinty (1940), which won director and writer Preston Sturges an Oscar for his screenplay, offers a wonderful twist on this idea of a character flaw. A bum-turned-party hack (Brian Donlevy as McGinty) is elected governor in a crooked campaign, only to throw his state’s politics into turmoil when he decides to go straight.
The theme is muted but still present in Game Change. Palin flounders when she tries to obey campaign strategists. Only by returning to her roots can she succeed as a candidate. What I found more interesting in Game Change is how the filmmakers borrowed so many scenes and settings from The War Room.
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, The War Room (1993) gave moviegoers unprecedented access to the people who ran Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. By concentrating on strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, The War Room showed how campaigns are waged, decisions made, and the press manipulated. (The Criterion Collection has just released The War Room on Blu-Ray and DVD.)
The War Room has inevitable parallels with Game Change. Both films deal with scandals that were fed and amplified by the media; both focus on conventions and debates. And both concentrate not on the candidates, but on their handlers—in previous films largely objects of scorn. But The War Room is a documentary, not a docudrama. Hegedus and Pennebaker weren’t following a script, they were trying to capture events as they happened.
Tellingly, Pennebaker admits that the filmmakers won access to the campaign’s war room in part because Carville and Stephanopoulos felt “somehow we were on their side.” Pennebaker was one of the cinematographers on the groundbreaking documentary Primary, in my opinion the film that first opened the political process to the public. An account of a Wisconsin primary in 1959 between Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, Primary took viewers behind the scenes to see how campaigns actually operated.
Primary set up a contrast between Humphrey, shown as isolated, out of touch, and Kennedy, a celebrity surrounded by enthusiastic crowds. It was a conscious bias, as Pennebaker told me in a 2008 interview. “Bob [producer Robert Drew] and all of us saw Kennedy as a kind of helmsman of a new adventure. Win or lose we assumed he was the new voice, the new generation.” As for Humphrey: “We all saw him as kind of a nerd.”
As influential as Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1960, Primary set a template for every subsequent film about campaigns.
February 22, 2012
Of the three Oscar categories devoted to short films, Documentary (Short Subject) tends to be the most rewarding. Filmmakers can focus on one item, covering it fully but not at an indulgent length. The format opens up a world of potential topics, from character studies of individuals both renowned and obscure to examinations of specific moments or events on to explanations of beliefs or policies. Travelogues, criminal cases, oddities of the natural world, history—all have received Oscar nominations over the years.
There may not be a readily recognizable Academy style, but looking back it’s clear that voters favor specific subjects and genres. Artists, for example. Short documentaries about Leon Fleisher, Jim Dine, Norman Corwin, Mark O’Brien, Sally Mann, Red Grooms and Paul Rudolph, among others, received nominations. War is another favorite genre. The first years of the award were devoted almost exclusively to war-related shorts, and recently nominations were given to films about wars in Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq.
Academy voters love films about social justice. In recent years, A Time for Justice examined endemic racism in the South; The Blood of Yingzhou District told about AIDS orphans in Fuyang, China; Freeheld showed the problems Laurel Hester had assigning her pension benefits to her partner.
These three trends continue with this year’s nominees, which cover extraordinary individuals, social justice, and war, as well as an account of post-earthquake Japan.
Decades ago shorts were a part of most theatrical programs. Now it is difficult to see shorts of any kind, let alone documentaries. The best filmmakers can hope for is a run on PBS or HBO (the latter will be showing three of the five nominees, starting in March with Saving Face). As it did with animated and live-action shorts, ShortsHD has packaged the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts online and in theaters. On February 21, many of the Oscar-nominated shorts will become available on iTunes.
In alphabetical order:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, this nineteen-minute short introduces James Armstrong, a barber who participated in the 1955 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Armstrong is a wonderful character whose upbeat personality is infectious. “Things are changing!” he exclaims, and how much the world has changed since 1955 is one of the points of the film. “The worst thing a man can do is live for nothing” becomes a motto of sorts for Armstrong. The film itself is a bit too discursive, but it has something to teach everyone.
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this half-hour short profiles Dolores Hart, a Hollywood starlet who abandoned her acting career in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun. Now in her seventies and a Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Hart reminiscences about her films and plays, her religious vocation, and her personal sacrifices. Cammisa also interviews Hart’s colleagues and provides a somewhat romanticized portrait of life in the abbey. Hart has a glowing personality, but God Is the Bigger Elvis skims over her story in a superficial manner. The film will premiere on HBO on April 5.
Incident in New Baghdad—Produced, directed, and edited by James Spione, this short is built around notorious aerial surveillance footage (released by Wikileaks) of a U.S. assault on a photojournalist in Baghdad that left eight dead. Ethan McCord, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, was one of the solders seen in the video trying to help two Iraqi children wounded in the attack. Back in the U.S., McCord explains how the incident affected his family, and why he aligned himself with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Spione’s style pushes emotional buttons without connecting narrative dots, making Incident in New Baghdad at 22 minutes seem simultaneously forced and unfocused.
Saving Face—Although grueling to watch, this film about Pakistani women whose faces have been scarred by acid is precisely the type of story that attracts Oscar voters. According to the film, over 100 such attacks occur each year, with victims as young as twelve having their faces ruined with battery acid, gasoline, and other corrosives. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy use Dr. Mohammad Jawad as an entry into the story. A plastic surgeon in London, Jawad donates his time to work at a burn center in Islamabad, offering facial reconstruction surgery to the victims. The directors focus on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, in particular, following them to their homes and interviewing their relatives and lawyers. Saving Face is a film of great honesty and conviction and even greater courage—on the part of the victims but also the filmmakers. In one chilling scene they confront one of the attackers, showing us just how difficult it is for women in that situation to obtain justice. Saving Face will debut on HBO on March 8.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom—The standout among this year’s nominees, this forty-minute film shows the horrifying aftermath of a natural disaster, but also focuses on the endurance and resiliency of its survivors. Director Lucy Walker received an Oscar nomination for her last film, the feature-length documentary Waste Land, which against all odds found hope among scavengers of a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she traveled to the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region. Adopting a cool, quiet tone, Walker tours the region, interviews rescue workers and residents, and connects ancient traditions to current events. Her great feat is to take a story we think we already know and show it in a new light, using the words and memories of the survivors to give a sense of how their lives changed. The film (with cinematography by Aaron Phillips) finds beauty in the midst of destruction, but never lets us forget how cataclysmic the tsunami was. This is journalism lifted to a new level of artistry, a remarkable achievement by a talented filmmaker. (Learn more at http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com)
February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
February 1, 2012
Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, will be one of the highest-rated shows on television this year. (Last year’s game was the most watched show in television history; it was also the fourth consecutive Super Bowl to set viewership records.) Advertising revenue for the broadcast will top well over a half-billion dollars. The game and its surrounding pageantry are so significant that some churches have closed rather than compete, while a counter-programming industry has sprung up to capitalize on disaffected consumers.
Football hasn’t always been so dominant in American culture. In fact, for years the sport barely registered outside of college alumni fans. Baseball was considered the “national pastime,” and as such was frequently a setting in film. Prizefights, on the other hand, played a major role in legitimizing the entire medium, as Dan Streible points out in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. (Interestingly, boxing had a similar function with television.)
Apart from newsreels and actualities (like this 1903 Edison film of a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan), Hollywood took a bemused attitude towards football, using it largely as a setting for collegiate humor. In 1925, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and MGM’s Brown of Harvard, starring William Haines and Jack Pickford, covered similar territory: plucky collegians, gorgeous co-eds, proms, cheers, betrayals and the Big Game. The Marx Brothers took a blowtorch to the genre in Horsefeathers, but cartoons like Freddy the Freshman also mocked the raccoon coats, Model Ts, and convoluted offenses that were how most viewers perceived college football.
These films inadvertently pointed out a problem with portraying the sport on screen. When newsreel companies like Fox Movietone and Pathé covered big games, their cameras were almost always situated high in the stands, at the equivalent of the 50-yard line—the best position for cinematographers to cover a play that could extend to either end zone. In Horsefeathers or Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923), on the other hand, filmmakers could break plays into individual components, concentrating on one or more players, cutting from a quarterback to a receiver, switching from sideline to end zone, even tracking along with runners as the play and story demanded.
Football became increasingly more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because of how it was broadcast on television. Just like they did with baseball, sports directors learned to turn football games into narratives. As CBS director Sandy Grossman put it, “The reason [the gridiron] is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there’s 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it.”
Now just about every player on the field can be isolated during a play, allowing the director to build a story line from different takes. Slow motion enables viewers to see precisely where a play succeeds or fails. Off-field graphics and interviews inserted into the game build personalities for the players, who otherwise might appear anonymous.
Contrast a football game with hockey or soccer, where play is essentially nonstop, forcing cameramen to revert to a high-shot from the middle of the rink or field. Or with basketball, where games are usually decided only in the final minutes. (Baseball, with its many points of stasis, trumps even football in terms of how successfully it can be televised. Because players are more or less stationary for most of the game, directors can hone in on them in close-ups so tight even Sergio Leone would have been impressed.)
As the means for depicting football evolved, both on television and in movies, so did the way the game was treated. From comedies that emphasized the frivolity of the sport, Hollywood moved to biopics like Knute Rockne All American (1940). Here football served as an all-purpose metaphor: for our struggle with adversity, as an affirmation of the American way of life, as an example of how we will defeat our enemies. Knute Rockne grew out of the Warner Bros. version of history, in which figures like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola received reverential treatment in biopics, and was constructed as a morale-builder as the country faced the onset of World War II. It’s known today mostly for Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. (One football film that’s often overlooked is the engaging Easy Living, starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, which took a relatively hard view of the sport’s injuries and their consequences.)
Like movies in general, sports films became more psychologically complex in the 1950s and beyond. Titles like Paper Lion, Brian’s Song, and North Dallas Forty presented a more realistic view of the game and its players, albeit while romanticizing football overall. But filmmakers still tended to treat the sport as a metaphor: disapproving in Everybody’s All-American, uplifting in Rudy.
Rudy marked another recent shift to true-life stories centered around football. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, Invincible, Gridiron Gang, The Express and Radio are a few examples of films based on true stories. 2009′s The Blind Side, based loosely on a book by Michael Lewis, hit the jackpot, winning Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
While The Blind Side was being filmed, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were shooting a documentary on the Manassas High School Tigers. The finished film, Undefeated, received an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature. Again, the filmmakers insist that Undefeated isn’t a “football” movie.
“One of the biggest challenges is telling people what Undefeated is about,” Martin told me in a phone conversation. “If you say, ‘It’s a high school football team…’ they answer, ‘Oh, like Friday Night Lights.’ But it’s not, Undefeated is about something different than football.”
And in fact Undefeated paints a touching and at times troubling portrait of North Memphis youths struggling to find their way in the world. As coach Bill Courtney says at one point, “You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.”
Which gets me through this posting without having to deal with Black Sunday, in which a suicidal lunatic played by Bruce Dern tries to blow up the Goodyear Blimp at Super Bowl X.
January 6, 2012
Purely by coincidence, two new features paint complementary portraits of the South. Although Joyful Noise and Undefeated couldn’t be more opposite in their approaches (a glossy, mainstream feature vs. a gritty, handheld documentary), they share some telling themes. What’s even more interesting is seeing how Hollywood handled similar issues in the past.
Opening January 13, Joyful Noise is a comedy–drama about the travails of a Baptist choir from Pacashau, Georgia. Perennial also-rans in a gospel competition called “Joyful Noise,” the Pacashau choir struggles for survival in the midst of a harrowing economic downturn. Starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, Joyful Noise presents its plot as a series of conflicts and problems that are, in the manner of TV sitcoms, resolved a bit too easily.
But the film also raises worthwhile topics: how to keep small businesses alive in an environment that’s tilted towards national chains, what is the true value of workers in a service economy, how can churches best help the unemployed. Even its ostensible premise—the battle between “old school” gospel choirs and a new generation of pop-oriented singers and dancers—has merit and relevance. And while writer and director Todd Graff generally settles for tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road solutions, he deserves credit for bringing up subjects most films ignore.
After a short run to qualify for the Academy Awards, Undefeated—a documentary about the Manassas Tigers football team—will get a wider theatrical release from The Weinstein Company on February 10. The Tigers are from the Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee, a town that has seen hard times since its Firestone plant closed in 1990. The film covers the 2009 season, as volunteer coach Bill Courtney tries to take his underdog team to the playoffs for the first time in 110 years. Like The Blind Side, Undefeated has wealthy whites helping underprivileged black students, and even has one player, O.C. Brown, move in with a coach’s family for tutoring help. Brown and the other characters in Undefeated will haunt you long after the film is over.
While The Blind Side (which also took place in Memphis) was a factor in making Undefeated, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were clearly influenced by Hoop Dreams, the outstanding 1994 documentary about inner-city Chicago high schoolers and their efforts to play basketball. Hoop Dreams may have more depth and scope than Undefeated, but both films deal honestly with the limited options available to students living in poverty. Like gospel singing in Joyful Noise, football may be the only chance Undefeated‘s students get at a better life.
Joyful Noise and Undefeated present the South as a place in which simply surviving takes precedence over all other problems. Apart from economic inequality, it’s an almost post-racial world, and in fact Joyful Noise boasts not one but three interracial romances handled in such a matter-of-fact manner that no one comments on them.
The movie industry doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to race. Films from the turn of the 20th century can be appallingly insensitive, but at least filmmakers were equal opportunity offenders. Irish, Jews, Hispanics, and Asians were treated just as harshly as blacks, and in the case of Asians that insensitivity extended for an unconscionably long time (just watch Mickey Rooney with taped-up eyes as I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961′s Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But blacks may have received the brunt of poor treatment, from the racial demagoguery of The Birth of a Nation to the countless butlers, cooks and maids who filled out Hollywood features.
The history of racism in the media is too long and messy to do justice to here. That said, I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement. I watched demonstrations, marches, and race riots on television. We walked past “whites only” restrooms and water fountains when we visited an uncle in Washington, and argued at dinners with family and friends over the best way to achieve integration.
Our local theater outside of Philadelphia wouldn’t even show movies like A Time for Burning or Nothing But a Man, citing the potential for riots. (The same argument would later be used for films like Do the Right Thing.) I heard neighbors complain about Sidney Poitier in the relatively innocuous Lilies of the Field, let alone the more charged In the Heat of the Night. For all its simplistic arguments, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner became a sort of acid test: did disagreeing with the film’s premise make you a racist? (When the film was released, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.)
So when I watched Keke Palmer as Olivia and Jeremy Jordan as Randy fall in love in Joyful Noise, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what life was like in Georgia not so long ago. Seeing Undefeated‘s Coach Courtney embrace O.C. Brown at the end of the season, I thought about how Poitier and his costar Rod Steiger were threatened by shotgun-wielding racists when they tried to shoot scenes for In the Heat of the Night in Tennessee. Racial problems are by no means solved, but we have to be encouraged about the real progress that has been made.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”