May 25, 2012
Suppressed for over thirty years, Let There Be Light has never received the attention it deserves as one of the most moving and honest of wartime documentaries. A new restoration undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration and hosted on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website may help bring this John Huston film to a wider audience. With help from Fandor.com, the NFPF is making this restoration available online from now until August 31, 2012.
I’ve written about Let There Be Light before, on this blog and in my book about the National Film Registry. I also contributed to Sara Fishko’s recent piece about the film for WNYC radio. I relied on the available prints: scratched, dupey 16mm copies with muffled soundtracks and frequent splices. The restored version makes it clear that Huston was among the best documentarians of his time.
Huston was an established screenwriter (Jezebel, Juarez) and a promising young director (The Maltese Falcon) when World War II broke out. Like many of his colleagues, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which made instructional films for members of the armed forces, as well as propaganda for more general audiences.
Huston worked on several Signal Corps films, but devoted his full energies to a trilogy of documentaries: the Oscar-nominated Report from the Aleutians (1943), about the building of an airstrip in Adak; The Battle of San Pietro (1946), about a small Italian town recovering from an extended fight with the Nazis; and Let There Be Light (1946). The films form an incisive portrait of three phases of war: preparation, fighting, and its aftermath.
Rey Scott, a cameraman on San Pietro, suffered what was called shell shock after the bombardment of Caserta during the Italian campaign. He was treated at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. When Huston, who was working in Signal Corps studios in nearby Astoria, visited Scott, he became intrigued about how soldiers with psychological injuries were being treated.
In the spring of 1945, the Army asked Huston to make a film about the “Nervously Wounded.” (The film’s original title was The Returning Psychoneurotics.) Officers wanted Huston to reassure viewers that there were very few psychoneurotics in the armed services, and that their symptoms had been exaggerated in the press. Most important, Huston’s film would show that someone classified as psychoneurotic in the Army could still be a “success” as a civilian.
Huston began filming without a finished script, but with a good idea of what he wanted to cover. Much as cinema verite directors would do some twenty years later, the director tried to capture the day-to-day routine at Mason General in unstaged, unscripted scenes. He set up cameras in receiving rooms, classrooms and offices, covering both individual and group sessions. The patients were told they were being filmed for a documentary, and in his autobiography An Open Book, Huston wrote that the presence of the cameras had a positive effect on the soldiers. He claimed they became more responsive and recovered more quickly when they were being filmed.
According to film historian Scott Simmon, Huston’s cameramen shot 375,000 feet of film—almost 70 hours—which was edited down to an hour. These interviews—raw, painful, hopeless—form the core of Let There Be Light. They have an immediacy and honesty missing from most films of the time. What haunts me about them is the inability of many soldiers to articulate their problems and needs.
By letting the soldiers and doctors speak for themselves, Huston could build a subtle case about war and its impact without stating it directly. Let There Be Light exposed the racism and class divisions that were a part of the armed services. More troubling was the director’s suggestion that the issues the soldiers faced extended beyond the war itself. Drugs or hypnotherapy were not going to cure problems like unemployment. “Every man has his breaking point,” as Walter Huston warns in a voice-over.
Unfortunately, the Army wanted a film that blamed shell shock on actual shells, not intractable social problems. Although some Army officers and a few civilian critics saw the film when it was finished, Let There Be Light was shelved. Huston left the armed services soon after to work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
That might have been the end of the story, but as Scott Simmon points out, the Army did end up releasing a film about shell shock (in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). Shades of Gray, directed by Joseph Henabery, was released in January 1948. It essentially remade Let There Be Light, but with an almost all-white cast of actors—not soldiers—and with strikingly different conclusions. (You can see Shades of Gray online at the Internet Archive.)
Let There Be Light didn’t surface again until 1980, when producer Ray Stark, motion picture lobbyist Jack Valenti and Vice President Walter Mondale campaigned for its release. (Stark was producing Huston’s adaptation of Annie.) Viewers who saw it then were underwhelmed, perhaps expecting an expose of horrid conditions instead of a sober, quiet examination of how war cripples soldiers emotionally as well as physically.
Since then, Let There Be Light has circulated in poor quality 16mm prints and even worse videocassettes and DVDs. But soundtrack on the NFPF version, restored by Chace Audio by Deluxe, makes audible several passages that had been close to unintelligible. For the picture, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created a new negative from an acetate fine grain master, the best surviving source. NARA is still in the process of preparing a 2K scan of the film in order to make high resolution copies.
Was Huston fair in his portrayal of Mason General? Should the Army have censored his film? The best way to decide is to watch it yourself.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 16, 2012
May 14–18 marks the third annual “For the Love of Film” campaign. Hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand’s Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath’s This Island Rod, and Farran Smith Nehme’s Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon raises money for specific preservation projects.
The first blogathon helped finance the restoration of two Westerns, The Sergeant (1910), which contains the earliest narrative footage from Yosemite, and The Better Man (1912), a Vitagraph short with tinted intertitles. Both films were rediscovered at the New Zealand Film Archive. Thanks in part to the “For Love of Film” blogathon, they were included in the National Film Preservation Foundation‘s box-set Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938.
Last year the blogathon donated preservation funds to the Film Noir Foundation to restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 thriller starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted Cy Enfield. Physical restoration of the film will take place next year, and a repremiere is scheduled for the 2014 Noir City 12 festival in San Francisco.
This year the blogathon has selected The White Shadow, another New Zealand restoration project I first wrote about here. Directed by Graham Cutts, The White Shadow is an important early credit for Alfred Hitchcock, who would later become one of cinema’s most significant directors. Film restorer Eric Grayson wrote this on his excellent Dr. Film blog:
We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed. It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good. Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see! Why? Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director.
To movie buffs, one of the most frustrating aspects of film preservation is the fact that it’s almost impossible to see the finished products. Archives can restore a feature film, but often can’t show it outside of a museum or festival setting. Donor restrictions on materials, rights issues, the costs of making and shipping prints—all these factors can make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to screen restored titles, or make them available to home markets.
That’s what makes this year’s “For the Love of Movies” blogathon so significant. Rather than fund a restoration (since The White Shadow has already been restored), it is funding access. Once it reaches its goals, the National Film Preservation Foundation will host an online version on its website, complete with a new musical score by Michael Mortilla.
Viewing films online has its drawbacks, but at least it enables people to see what preservationists are doing. Coincidentally, to publicize the Casablanca 70th Anniversary Three-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Edition from Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution is hosting a complimentary screening of the film today on the Casablanca movie Facebook Page at 7:00 p.m. ET and again at 7:00 p.m. PT. You must begin watching Casablanca prior to 9:00 p.m. PT through the film’s Facebook Page. Only one screening per Facebook account is permitted.
Films like Casablanca, Ben-Hur, and Gone With the Wind are first in line for upgrading whenever a new preservation format or standard is established. For instance, Warners released an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Casablanca in 2008. But studios and archives are sitting on thousands of other titles that might not get restored. If you love movies, you should jump at the opportunity to actively target titles you want to preserve and protect.
NFPF director Annette Melville reminded me, “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free.’ The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
The goal of “For the Love of Film” blogathon is $15,000, enough to host The White Shadow online for three months. You can donate directly to the NFPF.
Since those participating in the blogathon are supposed to write something about Hitchcock, I’ll add the following. In addition to being one of the medium’s best directors, Hitchcock understood the business of film better than most of his peers. Fairly early in his career, the director obtained artistic control over his projects. For his British titles, he could pick his stories and cast, determine what and how to shoot, and oversee editing. Apart from some budgetary and censorship limitations, films like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) look exactly the way Hitchcock wanted them to.
However, Hitchcock didn’t own the films themselves. They belonged to his producers, which is one of the reasons why so many of his British titles had fallen into public domain in the US, and are available here in cheap, badly duped versions. [Robert Harris points out that copyrights to Hitchcock's British films were restored in 1996 as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. But many distributors still market illegal copies as "public domain" prints.]
When he came to the United States, Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Their relationship gave Hitchcock access to great stars like Ingrid Bergman and writers like Ben Hecht, but it also limited him to what Selznick wanted to do.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was still working under contract to studios like Paramount, but he arranged to have rights for certain projects revert to him after a specified time. Rear Window, for example, was released by Paramount in 1954 and rereleased in 1962. Hitchcock obtained control of the rights and film elements in 1967. Unfortunately, he decided to scrap what was considered to be extraneous film and sound elements, and to store the remaining camera negative, separation masters, and sound tracks in a non-air-conditioned warehouse.
Using these materials, Rear Window was reissued in 1970. But when Universal tried to reissue the film again in 1983, the negatives were faded and damaged, and the optical soundtrack could not be used.
Robert Harris and James Katz undertook a new restoration in 1997, this time resurrecting a Technicolor dye transfer process that had been dormant since 1974. During their restoration they got an appreciation of just how brilliant a filmmaker Hitchcock was. For example, there are no dissolves from one scene to another in Rear Window. Instead, Hitchcock would have cinematographer Robert Burks fade to black between scenes. Amazingly, these fades were performed in the camera, not in a lab. Hitchcock was so confident about his timing, pacing, and rhythm that he felt comfortable risking his shot on the set rather than waiting to use a film lab’s optical process.
Hitchcock went on to establish a media empire of sorts, making feature films, producing and hosting a long-running television series, and even adding his name to books and magazines. By doing so, he remains one of the most recognizable directors over 20 years after his death.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 27, 2012
As I wrote earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival ends this weekend with a screening of The Avengers, the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation and a linchpin in a marketing plan that now extends to 2016, when The Avengers 2 will be released. The Festival has already handed out its awards, including Best Documentary Feature going to The World Before Her, and a special jury mention for The Revisionaries.
The most intriguing awards went to Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s feature drama about three young Cubans. The film won for Best New Narrative Director (Mulloy), Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature Film (Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder), and Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (Dariel Arrechada and Javier Núñez Florián). Arrechada picked up his award at the Festival, but Florián and a third costar, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, dropped from sight at the Miami airport and may have defected in real life.
CinemaCon, billed as “the largest and most important gathering of movie theatre owners from around the world,” ended its four-day run at Caesars Palace on August 26. The annual trade show of the National Association of Theatre Owners, CinemaCon featured panels on marketing, employee relations, demonstrations of equipment (e.g., “Light Levels: Optimizing Screens and Lamps”); awards to stars like Jeremy Renner, Charlize Theron, and Taylor Kitsch; and corporate suites, cocktail parties, and dinners emceed by the likes of Jack Black.
More important, CinemaCon is a chance for studios to preview their summer blockbusters. Attendees saw excerpts from Pixar’s Brave, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows and The Dark Knight Rises, and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson stirred up some controversy by asking theater owners to project The Hobbit in a version that runs at 48 frames per second, a speed he said would produce greater clarity and be “more gentle on the eyes.” (24 fps has been the standard since the industry switched to sound at the end of the 1920s.)
CinemaCon is targeted toward theater owners and only incidentally to moviegoers. The Orphan Film Symposium, on the other hand, covers films that have no audience, and in many cases no clear owners either. Made to Persuade, the eighth edition of the symposium, ran from April 11–14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, offering almost 100 films and as many speakers. (I also wrote about the 7th symposium for Smithsonian.)
The symposium lets archivists and historians meet and share work, and also screen restoration work before it becomes available to the public. Funding for archives and for preservation work in general is a bigger problem than ever, and several of the over 300 attendees had stories of lost jobs, curtailed projects, and rejected grants. A greater surprise for me was the sharp rise in digital as opposed to film presentations, which I hope to explore in more detail in a future posting.
Some of the highlights of the symposium included a screening introduced by Jay Schwartz of a newly restored version of The Jungle, a 1967 film about gang violence made by actual members of a North Philadelphia gang. A stark, haunting combination of documentary and staged footage, The Jungle is an uncompromising portrait of an urban nightmare.
Walter Forsberg screened a series of computer animation films from AT&T/Bell Labs, highlighting the difficulty in preserving art that began as software code.
Jon Gartenberg showed excerpts from films shot by Tassilo Adam in the Dutch East Indies in the 1920s. Although preserved digitally, the material had the lustrous sheen of the nitrate on which it was originally filmed. Adam filmed with the cooperation of authorities, who staged processions and gatherings for his camera. Nevertheless, his footage shows a considerably more sophisticated vision of Bali than other films of the period.
A session devoted to Sheldon and Lee Dick included School: A Film about Progressive Education, a 1939 documentary that predates cinema verite techniques by some twenty years, and Men and Dust (1940), about the effects of silicosis on mine workers. A publisher and photographer as well as a filmmaker, Sheldon Dick was also an heir to the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine fortune. He is perhaps more famous today for murdering his third wife and then committing suicide.
More lighthearted fare included a series of advertising films I will discuss in a future posting, Presidential campaign ads from 1948, a film produced by several Hollywood studios promoting 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” and Past and Present in the Cradle of Dixie, a silent short from the Paragon Feature Film Company that used romance and the threat of a house fire to promote Montgomery, Alabama as a great place to live.
Sergei Kapterev of the Moscow Research Institute of Film showed the beguiling educational film The Flight to Thousands of Suns, made by Aleksei Yerin at Popular Science Films, a Leningrad studio founded in 1933 as Techfilm Factory #1. The studio released some 4,000 titles. Equally as fascinating was Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated short by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used in psychological studies.
Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash, previous winners of the Helen Hill Awards for animation, hand-drew directly onto a reel of 70mm clear leader to take advantage of the Museum of the Moving Image’s 70mm projectors. The 2012 Helen Hill Awards went to Jeanne Liotta and Jo Dery. In films like Loretta (2003), Liotta builds menacing worlds from strips of film, exposed rayograms, and abstract sound. Dery’s films use cutouts, animation, and a mordant sense of humor to make accessible if unsettling cartoons. Woodpecker in Snow Shoes (2008) was particularly strong.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project, announced that the next symposium will be held in 2014 at the EYE Film Instituut in Amsterdam. Streible just co-edited, with Devin and Marsha Orgeron, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States for Oxford University Press. He also received a 2012 Academy Film Scholar grant for his book proposal Orphan Films: Saving, Screening, and Studying Neglected Cinema.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
March 30, 2012
Many film fans first heard the news in a Los Angeles Times article by Bob Pool, “Storied West Hollywood studio buildings to be demolished.” “The Lot,” a movie studio complex with sound stages and editing rooms, will be demolished by its new owner, CIM Group. As Pool wrote,
[T]he first phase of work involves the demolition of the studio’s Pickford Building—built in 1927 and remodeled in 1936—and Goldwyn Building, which was built in 1932 and is used for sound editing. Later phases will involve the removal of the studio’s Writers Building, Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building and a block-long row of production offices that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Replacement buildings will rise to six stories.
The story spread quickly to LAist (“Historic West Hollywood Studio Lot Will Soon Meet The Wrecking Ball“), The Cinementals (“Save The Pickford-Fairbanks Studios!“), HollywoodPatch (“Developer Plans to Demolish The Lot, Rebuild Studio Buildings“) and other sites. A Save Pickfair Studios! petition went up on Care2, and filmmaker Allison Anders and historians Hala Pickford and Sal Soul-Pilot Gomez formed Save the Pickfair Studios!
A studio existed on the site since Jesse Durham Hampton began construction in 1917. In 1919, four of the movie industry’s most important figures—D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford—formed United Artists, prompting the comment from a rival executive that, “The inmates are taking over the asylum.” Griffith and Chaplin had their own studios, but Fairbanks and Pickford needed a place to work, and renovated the Hampton site.
Their complex has been known by many names, including the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, the Pickfair Studio, United Artists Studios, the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Warner Hollywood Studios, and most recently as simply The Lot. Just about every significant name in the motion picture industry worked there at one time or another: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando. Movies made there (in whole or in part) include Wuthering Heights (1939), Some Like It Hot (1959), West Side Story (1959), and the cantina scenes in Star Wars (1977).
The loss of such a facility would be a significant blow to our cultural heritage, one of the reasons why petition efforts have attracted members of the Fairbanks family as well as filmmakers Guy Maddin, Joe Dante, and Nancy Savoca; actors Gabriel Byrne, Tony Shalhoub, and Rosanna Arquette; critics Roger Ebert and David Ansen; and Antoine de Cazotte, an executive producer of The Artist. But as Hollywood Heritage points out,
[T]his is a case which stretches back a number of years and received approval at that time for the scope of work then submitted. The original development plan was approved in 1993. In 2006, the City of West Hollywood issued a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a revised development plan, focusing on the project’s impacts on historic resources.
Both the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage testified at the Planning Commission and the City Council hearings, focusing on the Supplemental EIR’s failure to consider alternatives to demolition. In May 2007, the West Hollywood City Council approved a revised development plan that included the demolition of some, but not all of the buildings at the site.
In other words, not all of the studio site will disappear. Some of the historical buildings will remain. As noted on Nitrateville.com, the demolition plans were approved more than five years ago. Protests against them should have occurred then.
By coincidence, the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education announced on March 27 that it had lost funding from the Mary Pickford Institute, a charitable trust founded by the actress. Ironically, the coming months will see the release of several Pickford features from Milestone Films, which currently offers Rags to Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection for institutional sale.
In researching this story, I was surprised to learn from film buff Greta de Groat of another studio loss, this one in New York City. As film historian Paul Gierucki informed me, 318 East 48th Street was originally built as a warehouse before it was purchased by Joseph Schenck and converted into a multi-level film studio. It housed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, the Constance Talmadge Film Corporation and Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation.
The sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge were two of the most popular movie stars of the 1920s. Norma started out at Vitagraph, where she worked with comedian John Bunny, moved to Triangle Pictures under D.W. Griffith, then formed her own company when she married Schenck. Constance also started at Vitagraph, had an important role in Griffith’s Intolerance, and specialized in comedies, many of them written by her friend Anita Loos.
Roscoe Arbuckle, probably better known by his screen nickname Fatty, worked on the third floor of the building. It was here that he introduced Buster Keaton to moviemaking in the slapstick short The Butcher Boy, the start of their prolific and creative partnership. Keaton’s first job was to get hit in the face with a sack of flour. As he wrote later, “I said, ‘How am I gonna keep from flinching?’ He said, ‘Look away from me. When I say turn, it’ll be there.’ He put my head where my feet were!”
Arbuckle and Keaton made six films at the 48th Street studio before moving to the Balboa Studios in Long Beach. The Talmadges remained at their studios until 1922, when they moved to California. (Keaton would later marry a third Talmadge sister, Natalie.) Gierucki believes that Lewis Selznick (father of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick) may have controlled the studios for a while, but the building was converted at some point into a parking garage. (For more information on the Talmadges, visit de Groat’s first-rate Norma Talmadge Website.)
Film historian Ed Watz found an undated news release online with this information: “The Republic of Singapore has purchased 318 East 48th St., a 45,000 s/f garage that will be converted to a UN Mission. The sale price was $29.5 million…Singapore will reconfigure the building to house its Mission to the U.N.”
As Gierucki wrote, “Unfortunately, the word “reconfigure” was a bit of an understatement. Not a single thing remains. Another critical link to our motion picture past has been lost forever.”
Thanks to Paul Gierucki, Greta de Groat, and Ben Model for help with this post.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 7, 2012
For 60 years, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been the gold standard for how to film a fairy tale. It was the most successful musical of the 1930s, out-performing Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Show Boat. It popularized such best-selling songs as “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And it was the first in a remarkable run of animation classics from the Disney studio.
Two new live-action movies will look to unseat Disney’s version of Snow White in the coming weeks. First up, and opening on March 30: Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen. It will be followed on June 1 by Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a huge risk for Disney, but also the only direction he could take his studio. Disney’s cartoon shorts helped introduce technological innovations like sound and color to the moviegoing public, and characters like Mickey Mouse became famous the world over. But Walt and his brother Roy could not figure out a way to make money from shorts—the Oscar-winning Three Little Pigs grossed $64,000, a lot at the time, but it cost $60,000 to make. Like Charlie Chaplin before them, the Disneys needed to commit to feature films to prosper.
Disney picked the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” because of a film he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and starring Marguerite Clark, the 1916 Snow White was distributed by Paramount. As a star, Clark rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. She had appeared on stage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Winthrop Ames and produced in 1912. By that time Snow White had already reached the screen several times. Filmmakers were no doubt inspired by a special-effects laden version of Cinderella released by Georges Méliès in 1899 that was a favorite Christmas attraction in theaters for years.
A popular genre in early cinema, fairy tale films included titles like Edwin S. Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which took six weeks to film; a French version of Sleeping Beauty (1903); Dorothy’s Dream (1903), a British film by G.A. Smith; and William Selig’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1903).
Ames borrowed from the Cinderella story for his script, but both the play and film feature many of the plot elements from the Grimm Brothers tale “Little Snow White.” Although Snow White the film has its dated elements, director Dawley elicits a charming performance from Clark, who was in her 30s at the time, and the production has a fair share of menace, black humor, and pageantry. The film is included on the first Treasures from American Film Archives set from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Young Walt Disney attended a version in which viewers were surrounded on four sides by screens that filled in the entire field of vision. “My impression of the picture has stayed with me through the years and I know it played a big part in selecting Snow White for my first feature production,” he wrote to Frank Newman, an old boss, in 1938.
Disney was working on his Snow White project as early as 1933, when he bought the screen rights to the Ames play. That same year the Fleischer brothers released Snow-White, a Betty Boop cartoon featuring music by Cab Calloway, who performs “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The short owes little to the Grimm Brothers, but remains one of the high points of animation for its intricate surrealism and hot jazz.
The Fleischers, Max and Dave, had been making films for almost twenty years when they started on Snow-White. In 1917, Max patented the rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace the outlines of figures—a technique still in use today. He was making animated features in 1923, introduced the famous “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons the following year, and captivated Depression-era filmgoers with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye.
The pre-Code Betty Boop was a bright, lively, sexy woman, the perfect antidote to bad economic times. Soon after her debut she was selling soap, candy, and toys, as well as working in a comic strip and on a radio show. Snow-White was her 14th starring appearance, and the second of three films she made with Cab Calloway. Her other costars included Bimbo and Ko Ko, to me the eeriest of all cartoon figures.
(For flat-out weirdness, I don’t think anything tops Bimbo’s Initiation, but all the Fleischer brothers’ films have something to recommend them.)
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had an enormous impact on Hollywood. Variety called it “a jolt and a challenge to the industry’s creative brains.” The film ran for five weeks in its initial run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing to some 800,000 moviegoers. Although it cost the studio $1.5 million to make, the film grossed $8.5 million in its first run. Its success helped persuade MGM to embark on The Wizard of Oz. The Fleischers, meanwhile, set out to make their own animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman will make, but they are following some tough acts.
February 29, 2012
During a four-hour interview with Fast Company, director Martin Scorsese cited 85 film titles. Not so surprising for someone so steeped in cinema history, as screenwriter John Logan pointed out in my posting on Hugo: “Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
Author Rick Tetzeli repurposed snippets and outtakes of the interview to come up with Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film. Not really a fair title, as it’s doubtful that Scorsese intended to improvise a course curriculum while publicizing Hugo. On any given day the director might have mentioned 85 other films, 85 other directors, 85 other memorable cinematic moments.
And why 85? Had the interview lasted longer, he might have hit 100 films, the sweet spot for the many, and increasingly maligned, AFI lists. Asked point-blank which films he thought were essential, Scorsese might have limited himself to 10, 20 or 25 titles.
As a snapshot of the director’s tastes on one particular day, the list displays an impressively broad range, reaching back to early silent films and on up to titles made by contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Robert Altman (who gets 6 titles, including HealtH, cited by Ronald Reagan as “the world’s worst movie”). Does the absence of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas mean anything, especially considering Scorsese was finishing up his first film aimed at children? Can we infer anything from the other films and directors that didn’t make the cut?
Some hasty observations:
- Nineteen (or 20, if you consider The Third Man British) of the 85 films are foreign, roughly 20%.
- Nine titles were directed by Roberto Rossellini, over 10 percent of the films you would see at the “Scorsese Film School.”
- Countries and regions not represented: Asia, Africa, South America, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Russia. So, no films by Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray. No German expressionism, Soviet montage, Bollywood, or martial arts.
Scorsese cites three silent films, one understandably by Georges Méliès. The other two are an Italian short I frankly know nothing about (I segreti dell’anima) and Rex Ingram’s epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a significant film to be sure but at its time a pretty mainstream crowd-pleaser. Omitted: Edison, the Lumière brothers, Biograph, and D.W. Griffith. No Mary Pickford, Thomas Ince, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. De Mille. More important, no silent comedy, perhaps the crowning achievement of silent film. Chaplin, Keaton, Mack Sennett, Max Linder, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey, Laurel & Hardy — all missing.
For that matter, where are the sound comedies? The “Scorsese Film School” ignores the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ernst Lubitsch, Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, and too many others to list. The list lacks any animation (no Walt Disney, no Bugs Bunny, no Popeye), documentaries (goodbye, Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman), or experimental films (adios Ralph Steiner, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr).
Among the really glaring omissions: Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Huston, Nicholas Ray. Five Orson Welles films, but no The Magnificent Ambersons? Three Anthony Mann films, but no The Naked Spur?
Heck, the list doesn’t even include films that Scorsese loves so much that they appear in his own movies, like The Searchers and The Big Heat (in fact, Fritz Lang didn’t make the cut at all). Or movies whose restorations he helped finance, like Once Upon a Time in the West (no Sergio Leone anywhere else either).
By now I hope you can see how pointless this exercise is. It’s insulting to suggest that Scorsese doesn’t know or care about the films that aren’t on his list, just as it’s wrong to pretend that seeing this list of 85 films will make you an expert on cinema.
Is there a list that will make you an expert? The National Film Registry, which now has 575 titles, makes a stab in that direction. (29 of Scorsese’s 85 movies are on the Registry.) In writing two books about the Registry, I’ve bumped into some of its flaws (why no Woody Woodpecker or Coal Miner’s Daughter?), but the big problem with the list is that it’s becoming a bit unwieldy. Right now it’s almost a two-year course.
Roger Ebert has made his feelings about lists well known (like this Wall Street Journal article), but he’s also offered a different approach: lists that don’t mean anything. Take his Top 16 movies involving parakeets, which immediately drew its own controversy (no Oscar-winning, super-saccharine Bill and Coo?)
On the NitrateVille forum, film preservationist David Shepard wrote, “When AFI was promoting a run of its ‘hundred greatest’ this-and-that lists, some friends and I made a list of films with ‘Greatest’ in the title that actually weren’t much good.” He’s right — try it yourself on IMDb.
In the long run, how valuable are these lists anyway? Doctors cite list-making as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and luckily enough, here is a list of the top OCD-related films. (But where’s Conspiracy Theory?)
Here’s a list format that can’t cause any trouble: titles that when combined, form a sentence:
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948)
Without Honor (1949)
Four Jacks and a Jill (1942)
Down in the Delta (1998)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
How many can you compile?
January 17, 2012
It was the highest-grossing film of the year, and helped inspire an entire genre of movies about aviation. And for several years it was one of the most difficult Best Picture Oscar winners for fans to see. Now, as part of the studio’s centennial celebration, Paramount Pictures is presenting a restored version of its World War I blockbuster Wings. The film is screening tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24—the missing link, as it were, since it is the last of the Best Picture Oscar winners to appear on those formats in this country.
Wings helped launch several careers when it was released in 1927, including John Monk Saunders, who went on to write The Dawn Patrol, and director William Wellman, director of such classics as The Public Enemy and A Star Is Born. Nicknamed “Wild Bill,” Wellman was an ambulance driver in the French Foreign Legion before joining the Lafayette Flying Corps as a pilot after the United States entered the war. Barnstorming after the war, he met and befriended Douglas Fairbanks, who helped him get established in Hollywood.
Wings was Wellman’s first big project, and he responded by securing some of the most thrilling aviation scenes ever filmed. Seventeen cameramen received credit along with cinematographer Harry Perry, and Wellman even had cameras installed in cockpits that actors could operate. Location footage was shot mostly in Texas, where the production received the cooperation of the Army’s Second Division, garrisoned in San Antonio. As a result, a single shot in Wings might include machine gunners, a tank spinning left, planes flying overhead, a tree exploding, and a full complement of fighting troops.
Paramount was responding in part to The Big Parade, a similarly massive WWI film made by MGM the previous year. Wings starred Clara Bow, soon to be the nation’s “It” girl, as well as Charles “Buddy” Rogers (who later married Mary Pickford) and Richard Arlen, who flew with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during the war. Arlen’s career stretched into the 1960s. Featured prominently in a key scene is Gary Cooper, on the verge of stardom after supporting roles in several movies.
Wings would be a “road show” movie for Paramount, one that would screen in big cities like New York and Chicago with a full orchestra, sound effects, and something called “Magnovision,” basically a lens attachment that enlarged the image. When Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount since 2009, began overseeing the restoration of Wings, she and her staff researched periodicals and other materials to pin down exhibition details.
Kalas also spent months looking for the best possible picture elements before lab work began. “The actual process of restoring the picture and rerecording the original score took about four months,” said Kalas.
The materials presented several problems. “There was printed-in nitrate deterioration that I really didn’t think we could get past,” Kalas said. “We managed to actually fill the spaces of what the nitrate deterioration had eaten away at the image.” Special effects software enabled the team to duplicate the Handshiegl stencil process used for the original film’s bursts of color for gunfire and flames during air battles. A vintage continuity script gave the team cues for the tints used in other scenes.
Paramount not only hired a full orchestra to rerecord the original score by J.S. Zamecnik, but had Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and the engineers at Skywalker Sound record an effects track that used authentic sounds from period library collections.
Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing a special edition of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24, but some lucky viewers will be able to see the film in theaters. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be screening Wings on January 18 in conjunction with “Paramount’s Movie Milestones: A Centennial Celebration,” an exhibition of photographs, posters, design sketches and personal correspondence highlighting some of Paramount’s most celebrated films and filmmakers over the past 100 years. Wings will also be showing on February 13 at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.
The first manned flight had occurred only about 20 years before Wings was released. For many viewers of the time, this was the closest they would ever come to experiencing what flying was like. “It was an amazing time for aviation,” Kalas said. “People were really fascinated with World War I aviation.” Wings would be Paramount’s way to cash in on that curiosity. “I think they really wanted to do The Big Parade with planes,” was how Kalas put it.
Kalas also enthused about seeing the film in a theatrical setting. “It’s a highly reactive film—there are thrills and gasps, and you really do feel the movie in a much different way when you’re seeing it with an audience.”
Interestingly, Kalas recommends viewing a Digital Cinema Print (DCP) over film. “With 35mm film, you basically have to cut off a part of the silent film frame in order to fit a soundtrack on it. With a digital cinema print, you can actually see the entire full frame silent image and hear what I think is a really incredible rerecorded soundtrack.”
Wings is one of several box-office hits Paramount released in the silent era, but only a handful are available for home viewing. “It’s hard out there for silent films,” Kalas acknowledged. “There’s preservation and restoration in archives, and then there’s the actual release of the films, and those are two different steps. We will keep preserving and restoring and hoping that people will distribute.”
December 30, 2011
Each year the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films to the National Film Registry. This year’s selections include four silent films, five documentaries, and such popular features as Forrest Gump. I’ve already written about one title, the Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s).
One of the goals of the Registry is to alert the public to the need for preservation. Another is to draw attention to movies that reach beyond features, like Jordan Belson’s experimental Allures. Belson died this year, as did George Kuchar, whose I, An Actress was also added to the Registry.
Several titles mark return visits for filmmakers like John Ford (with the sprawling Western epic The Iron Horse), Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century, an early screwball comedy starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), Frank Capra (the WWII documentary The Negro Soldier), Walt Disney (Bambi), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, an expose of alcoholism), and John Cassavetes (Faces).
This is the first appearance on the Registry for noted filmmakers like Chick Strand (Fake Fruit Factory) and Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street). Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs may provoke some debate, but the selection that has bewildered film buffs the most is Stand and Deliver, a message drama with patently good intentions but not much sophistication.
I will be writing more about the individual titles in the future, but for now I’d like to point out A Cure for Pokeritis, a 1912 comedy starring John Bunny. Bunny and his frequent foil Flora Finch were probably the most accomplished and funniest of the early film comedians in the United States. Bunny was an international star before a cult of celebrity developed; when he died of Bright’s disease in 1915, it was front page news. Had he lived a little longer, he might be more widely known today. But Bunny’s influence stretches on over the decades, in the works of everyone from W.C. Fields to Carrol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson.
Here is the complete list of titles for 2011:
The Big Heat (1953)
A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)
The Cry of the Children (1912)
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
El Mariachi (1992)
Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Growing Up Female (1971)
Hester Street (1975)
I, an Actress (1977)
The Iron Horse (1924)
The Kid (1921)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
Norma Rae (1979)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Twentieth Century (1934)
War of the Worlds (1953)
December 28, 2011
In a perfect world, Top Ten lists would entertain as well as illuminate, without condescension or elitism. In practice, “Top Ten” or “Best of” lists either confirm or deny your tastes, at the same time calling into question your standards and your commitment to the subject at hand. I have to say it’s a bit dismaying to look over a Top Ten Rock Singles or Ten Best Novels and realize I don’t know any of them.
Film critics—some of them anyway—get paid not only to see movies, but to impress you with their opinions. Too many use the latter as an opportunity to show off, to remind you that you didn’t get to go to a festival in Cannes or Venice, that you didn’t chat with this director or that star, that your town might not even support a repertory theater.
I’m just as starstruck as anyone else, and I still get excited when a big-budget mainstream film turns out beautifully, or when someone screens an obscure title that turns out to be great. But rather than tout a film that you probably already decided to see (or avoid), I’m going to use this space to describe my most memorable screening experiences this year.
1. Amateur Night. I’ve written about this collection of home movies before, and was lucky enough to view the film back in January. I didn’t expect Amateur Night to be so moving, but catching glimpses of the past in these unguarded, innocent pieces proved surprisingly poignant. Watching Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, in a backyard frolicking with his daughter Patricia transormed him from a remote “great artist” to a more approachable proud father. I hope that filmmaker Dwight Swanson—who assembled the film with the help of several archives—can schedule more screenings in the coming year. As he pointed out before, it’s unlikely that Amateur Night will ever be available on home video.
2. Vitaphone Vaudeville of 2011. For the past several years, Bruce Goldstein at New York’s Film Forum has scheduled a night of Vitaphone shorts, introduced by Ron Hutchinson of the invaluable Vitaphone Project. Vitaphone shorts were one of the ways the Warner Bros. studio introduced sound to moviegoers in the late 1920s. At first just filmed records of stage acts, they later evolved into mini-playlets that featured future movie stars like Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy. Fortunately for us they also captured an era of vaudeville that was just about to disappear. This is what entertained the masses back then: musicians, dancers, comedians, and novelty acts, one after the other in dizzying succession. My favorite of the night was Conlin and Glass in Sharps and Flats, a slice of raunchy, roughhouse slapstick that kept veering into bizarre tangents.
The Vitaphone Project has helped locate and restore these shorts; more important, Hutchinson and his colleagues have made them available to the public in screenings across the country. Even better, you can obtain dozens of them, including Sharps and Flats, from the Warner Bros. Archive.
3. 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! Back in October, Stefan Drössler delivered a talk at the Museum of Modern Art that covered 3-D processes from around the world, including clips of shorts and features from Russia, Hungary, and Hong Kong. I hadn’t seen the program when I wrote about it in October, but it turned out to be as thrilling a show as I attended all year. Used properly, 3-D can make you a participant in a film narrative in a way that no flat process can duplicate. The problem is, so few filmmakers know how to use it, as titles like Sucker Punch!, The Green Lantern, and Priest proved.
Drössler’s well-chosen clips ranged from martial arts to erotica, but it was otherwise negligible films like an Alpine travelogue that really impressed me. Snow churned up by skis was so realistic it seemed to fly into your face. And two films by Georges Méliès (who has to be regarded as the film comeback of the year) were simply astonishing. To try to prevent piracy, Méliès used a two-camera set-up: one negative for Europe, the other for North America. Thanks to modern computing, these complementary negatives can be adapted to 3-D, as Drössler showed with The Oracle of Delphi and The Infernal Cauldron, both from 1903. The films themselves didn’t change: the sets, the acting, the editing all remained the same. But the 3-D process gave them a wonderful depth and gravity. The characters’ movements seemed more lifelike, and the sets and props more substantial. As viewers it felt as if we were being drawn into the actual filming process, eyewitnesses to Méliès and his actors at work. The experience made a project to convert Charlie Chaplin shorts to 3-D a lot more palatable.
4. A Trip to the Moon. One of my first pieces for Reel Culture was about the restoration of this landmark of early cinema. I didn’t get to see it until Serge Bromberg brought it to the Museum of Modern Art in November, along with his expertly made and moving documentary about Georges Méliès, The Extraordinary Voyage. Learning about the restoration process behind the film was one thing. Actually seeing A Trip to the Moon projected in 35mm, with Bromberg accompanying it on piano, connected me and the rest of the audience with the very beginnings of cinema.
Sadly, bad screenings outweighed the good in 2011. Whether it was Russell Brand in a crushing, clanking remake of Arthur, or the blaring, overstuffed Cars 2—Pixar’s first disappointing film—terrible movies lurked everywhere. Just last night my wife and I saw enough of Undercover Christmas to realize that the filmmakers had not just stolen the premise from Remember the Night, but transformed that remarkable film into a degrading mess.
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.