Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Golem (1920)

n. In Jewish folklore, an artificially created human supernaturally endowed with life.

Suppose you had the power to create a being of immense strength, totally obedient to your commands. The being itself would want for nothing, in that it would need neither food nor drink, nor sleep, nor, seemingly, would it desire anything or anyone. It could be gentle as a kitten, or an unstoppable destroyer, directing its force toward whomever you wished. To what use would you put such a juggernaut?

A saintly person wouldn’t create such a creature in the first place. A despicable person would create one ASAP, then set about exploiting its full destructive potential. But most people, I think, would fall somewhere in between these extremes, as does Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), the 16th-century Czech protagonist of The Golem. Löw did not attain his status as de facto head of Prague’s Jewish Ghetto by taking situations lightly—he fully appreciates how serious a situation must be to make the creation of a golem even thinkable. Only when faced with the worst possible challenge: an Imperial edict commanding the Jews to leave the Ghetto, does Löw make his way down to the catacombs beneath his community and begin fashioning a man of clay to become its defender. This is noble intent, for which his people are grateful. However, the Rabbi has problems like anyone else, too. He’s got groceries to buy, and only one puny servant, already busy, to fetch them. And then there’s his pretty daughter, Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), who’s rather too fond of male attention. Boy, it’d be nice to have someone watching her back! Someone who wouldn’t pay so much attention to her front.

Rabbi Löw’s solution proves to be more of a labour-saving device than a saviour. Fittingly then, The Golem turns out to be something much different than the horror film its Expressionist sets and Gothic theme imply. The Golem is, in fact, a dark comedy—one of the funniest silent films ever made.

The destruction of a Jewish ghetto would be unlikely grounds for a comedic film after 1945 (maybe even after 1933), but National Socialism, thankfully, was still a few years away for German artists like actor-director Paul Wegener. Having already produced a pair of golem-themed films in the previous decade, Wegener ushered in the 1920s with a fanciful masterpiece: a movie populated with thick and dusty tomes, ancient scripts and deadly spells, smoking censers, candelabras, and angular, twisting buildings, tapering to tilted tops and filled with funny-hatted citizens who greatly resemble them.

Nothing reduces a powerful man like a funny hat; especially if he doesn’t know how silly it looks. In this regard, the citizens of the Ghetto are matched, then exceeded by the nobles of the Emperor’s court, and none more so than the Knight Florian (Lothan Müthel). Florian is a shallow, self-important twerp (placing him well within the bounds of a German silent film protagonist, by the way). That he’s the one chosen to deliver the Emperor’s message to the Ghetto says way too much about the Emperor. Florian trots his way to the Ghetto on horseback, bedecked in a hat with a three-foot feather atop it. He delivers his devastating message to the Jewish elders as though it were almost too boring to bother with. Only Miriam can hold his attention, and Löw isn’t thrilled about that.

Such stress—you can’t blame Löw for resorting to a golem. Deep beneath his craggy dwelling he smacks and squeezes a mound of clay into human resemblance. The resulting statue is coarse-featured, burly and barrel-chested, with a heavy overcoat and belt, though these clothes too are part of the sculpture. The statue remains inanimate, as Löw must still affix to it a pentagram-shaped amulet containing the ‘life-giving word.’ Löw doesn’t know the word, but he knows a spell that will compel the dreaded spirit, Astaroth, to reveal it. Löw and his assistant encircle themselves with a magical fire and conjure Astaroth, who appears as a disembodied head, spewing smoke. The demon delivers the word, which Löw transcribes on a piece of parchment and places within the amulet. He then presses the amulet into a receptacle in the statue’s chest. Instantly, the Golem is alive.

Just like that. Like, if you switched on your vacuum cleaner—like that. His eyes pop open and Löw and his assistant back up in the same moment. And with this scene, The Golem turns from potential Horror to realized Comedy.

It could’ve gone either way. I’ve always felt the scariest horror films are those that adhere to logic—if the monster is plausible (or at least, acts plausibly within the bounds of the film’s reality), we can better identify with its victims. The Golem’s creation is certainly logical—it is an automaton plugged into its power source, and why shouldn’t it simply ‘switch on’ as any other appliance would? Consider, however, that the Golem is being imbued with Life; an act hitherto attributed only to The Lord, and one for which Löw must either be considered god-like himself, or terribly sacrilegious. If the film were to follow this thread (as, for example, director F.W. Murnau did in his 1926 Faust), it would require some degree of solemnity. Yes, Wegener provides us a batch of special effects before the Golem is born, but the birth itself has no lightning bolts, thunder or scientists shrieking ‘it’s alive!!!”—and we need that.

Löw’s scowling, speechless man of clay is on-side right from start. But the Imperial Court hasn’t sent its troops to the Ghetto just yet, so in the mean time, the Golem (played by Wegener) might as well be made useful. And thus the assistant has him chop wood and man the bellows for the house’s stove (he never gets tired, after all). Löw sends him to the local grocer (whom he terrifies) to pick up a few things. Curious onlookers peek out of their off-centre, Expressionist windows to watch the giant lumber through their streets in broad daylight.

He isn’t all muscle, either. The Golem likes the smell of a fresh daisy, and seems to attract the ladies with ease, even when Löw takes him for an audience at the Emperor’s palace. (A smart move on his part, since the visit ends when the Golem saves the Emperor’s life and the Emperor, as a reward, pardons the Jews of Prague. The Ghetto is saved.)

Sadly, astrology is a fickle thing. Uranus enters the House of the Planets, and the Golem turns violent, committing several assaults and causing at least one house fire. It’s still a net-gain for Löw, though, as the Golem’s rampage leads to the conclusive dispatch of Florian.

The Golem’s own story ends in far more poetic fashion. That ending, which is too wonderful a surprise to reveal here, proves a testament to Wegener’s gifts as a social satirist. As a comedic conclusion, it’s perfectly paced. Most importantly, however, it is in keeping with The Golem’s core message: Among the mighty, there are many with feet of clay.

Where to find The Golem:
Der Golem: wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World) is distributed on DVD by Kino International. The disc (one of Kino’s finest, in my opinion) includes a crisp, tinted print of the film, image galleries, an excerpt of Julien Duvivier’s 1936 film: Le Golem, and, for comparison’s sake, excerpts of the ‘conjuring scenes’ in Murnau’s Faust and Chayim Bloch’s book, The Golem (1925).

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

China, Canada, et cetera

Interesting post on the Bioscope blog concerning Chinese silent film, and where to find it on DVD. Like Japanese cinema, Chinese cinema remained silent well into the 1930s, and while the quality of this footage, if nothing else, may deny us finds like Criterion’s Silent Ozu collection, I’m certainly interested. Step one, for a miser like me, is trying to find a place in Toronto that carries this stuff, so I don’t actually have to order it...

An aside: One of the joys of writing this blog is the pressure it places on me to search for new titles to view and present to you. Even though I’ve seen far more silent films than anyone I know, every director and star I stumble upon opens up whole avenues of silent art I’ve yet to see. Could Ruan Lingyu be a future favourite of mine? Perhaps.

It gives me pause, though. The formative cinema of a nation as vast as China is virtually unknown to me—as are the pantheons of fledgling film from dozens of other countries. I think that four-fifths of all the silents I’ve seen (and I may be conservative in writing this) are either German or American. I kind of hate to admit that, but really, that’s four-fifths of what’s readily available to the average joe, at least in North America. Knowing there is SO much more out there is daunting on one hand, and exciting on the other. It’s a promised lifetime of scavenger hunts, rewarding fresh gems.

By the way, I had the pleasure this week of attending a screening of Dreamland: A History of Early Canadian Movies—a 1974 documentary produced by Canada’s National Film Board (NFB). Fascinating stuff, as the history of Canadian-produced cinema pre-1939 is an unrivalled tale of corporate ass-kissing and U.S.-directed genuflection, amounting to nearly zip. It was enough to make you pull your Maple Leaf to half-mast... but on the other hand, there were many Canadians who did all they could to force a national cinema into existence, and their efforts led to some great things, even back then. Too bad the big boys lacked the will, or maybe the balls, to help them.

Oh, and many thanks to Toronto's Revue Cinema for providing the doc (and the Fleischer Superman short that preceded it!) I love those cartoons.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Best Girl (1927)

I don’t love or hate romantic comedies, but the silent era did them better. In the past week, I’ve seen two silent rom-coms—Dollars and Sense (1920) and My Best Girl, and enjoyed them both. Furthermore, I enjoyed them for their own merits. Love conquered, dreams came true, sticky sweetness stuck.

Maybe the stylized fakery of silent film makes romance easier to swallow, at least for cynical boys like me. Or maybe it is the inevitable result of Mary Pickford’s face—surely one of the most magnificent ever filmed.

I could go on and on and on about Pickford’s face. Her classic closeup, with cheekbones lit and eyes trained to the ceiling, sky or her lover’s look, is to me a finished sentence. It contains completely her characters’ mix of vulnerability and perseverance. Pickford is pretty, but she isn’t someone you want to possess so much as protect, or at least, help to persist. She is Good.

Mary Pickford applied—or contorted—this unique screen presence to fit a bizarre range of characters and situations. She often played tomboys, usually uneducated ones, always tough. Sometimes she took male roles, and once played both a young boy and his mother in a dual role. Typecasting concerned her, but she rarely escaped it completely. Many of her films, geared as they were to the tastes of their moment, feel dated today.

My Best Girl does not. It is a late work for Pickford, absent the gimmicks of her peak years, absent even her trademark long hair. She was now 35, still playing a character much younger; in this case, a stock girl named Maggie Johnson, working in a large department store called Merrill’s.

At least, I think Maggie’s meant to be younger than 35—I don’t believe we’re ever told. I do know she’s made little of her life, thanks to her wimp of a father (Lucien Littlefield), needy basket-case of a mother (Sunshine Hart), and trampy younger sister, Liz (Carmelita Geraghty), all of whom look to Maggie for stability and sense. There’s immediate poignancy here, as poor Maggie is a hardworking, decent woman with love to give, no man to give it to, and no time to find one. If she’s also on the verge of spinsterhood, so much the better for My Best Girl.

All this could be solved by the appearance of ‘Joe Grant’ (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers). Joe is a fresh-faced kid, much younger than Maggie, it appears. He doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously, but we don’t mind because he’s young, and because he laughs at himself the most. In his first scene, Joe spies Maggie behind the novelties counter and has her demonstrate various balloon toys to him, as though he were a customer. In fact, he’s a new hire; a stockboy intended to work alongside her. Joe gets a kick out of that one, and Maggie forgives him, because he’s so handsome.

Rogers plays Joe as a man utterly without malice, and this is crucial for My Best Girl, because he does a very cruel thing. He is not ‘Joe Grant’ at all, but ‘Joe Merrill,’ the only child of the department store’s wise founder, Robert E. (Hobart Bosworth). The senior Merrill wants his son to learn the business from the inside out; that is, work his way up in a store without the benefit of the family name. Joe Grant is thus a fake, but so lacking in pretention that Maggie falls in love with him. Joe Merrill is in love with Maggie too, but lets Joe Grant do the talking.

Joe’s impulsive, Maggie’s desperate—neither takes the gradual approach to this affair. The story’s tension, then, rests first on whether Joe’s engagement to a socialite will keep him from the stockgirl’s arms for good, and second, on whether Maggie will want him once she finds out she’s been duped. Joe is too naïve to appreciate distinctions of class, but Maggie is realistic to a fault.

In between the tears and the laughs are scenes of great energy, as Joe and Maggie run gaily through a new life built on lies, blissfully ignorant of the damage each could do the other. Mid-way through the film, we see them cross a dark, busy, rainy street, transfixed by one another and oblivious to the cars, trucks and streetcars narrowly missing them in front or behind, or braking before them with a foot to spare. The vehicles roll in front of the frame as the couple strolls, layering them in a shot of considerable visual depth and perfect timing. It’s funny, too, though most of Pickford’s scenes in My Best Girl are not.

Despite her impressive skills as a comedienne, Pickford mostly shoulders the dramatic weight; her family members, in turn, provide most of the laughs. This is a good idea, because Maggie expresses grief and longing with such force that, in moving the audience, she nearly stops the movie dead.

In her best scene, however, the star summons all her powers. To describe it completely would give away the film’s ending, but I will say it’s one of Mary Pickford’s greatest performances, and for my money, one of the great performances committed to film. After months of being the victim of a glorified prank, Maggie herself commits a fraud, deliberately portraying herself as a Jazz-Age floozy to prevent the one she loves from making the wrong decision—a decision which, in turn, is the one she most wishes him to make. The result is an incredible dramatic juggle by Pickford, who must act the part of a non-actor trying to act bad, but secretly hoping she fails. And it’s got to be funny, too. That Pickford achieves this without implosion speaks more for her talent than all the cement handprints and golden statuettes (honourary or otherwise) in the world.

Films like My Best Girl need little to please their audiences, but this one always brings a little more. And perhaps its genuine spirit is rooted in something deeper than art. For ten years after the film was released, after the arrival of sound and the beginning of Mary Pickford’s permanent decline, she married Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, a man 11 years her junior. He was her third husband, and became her guardian and caregiver as she slipped away from public life. A talented musician, Rogers was known for his upbeat spirit, and so I’ve always wondered, watching his smiling Joe Grant pull Maggie’s tearful face close to his own in My Best Girl, if either of them was truly acting.

Where to find My Best Girl:
My Best Girl and many other Mary Pickford movies, including one of my favourites, Sparrows (1926) are available through Milestone Films. Milestone’s DVD copy of My Best Girl includes newsreel footage of Pickford’s marriage to Buddy Rogers, along with home movies.

For more thoughts on Toronto’s own Mary Pickford, please see my earlier blog entry, Pickford Depicted.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dollars and Sense (1920)

Last night was the 90th anniversary of The Music Hall, one of Toronto’s oldest theatres-that’s-still-a-theatre. A prime part of The Danforth (Greektown) for most of its history, The Music Hall is now preparing for the Toronto premiere of The Toxic Avenger. However, enough time could be taken from the hanging of fake slime* to celebrate the venue’s long life, and so, alongside 750 (!) other patrons, I attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque, followed by several informative and gracious speeches.

Now, I love me a good plaque, but that wasn’t my main motivation for going. I was there to see a silent movie. The Music Hall was promising us Dollars and Sense, a romantic comedy starring Madge Kennedy, a young actress who also starred in Through the Wrong Door—the first film ever screened in that theatre, way back in 1919.

There was more: live accompaniment by the talented pianist, John Kruspe, and several violinists. While I’ve seen a number of silents with live accompaniment, I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to more than a lone piano and, I might add, I’ve never seen a silent film on a screen this large. The Music Hall’s drawing power last night was impressive, and the occasion justified it.

Did the film, however? Maybe it was the size of the event, or the screen, or the sympathetic crowd, but I think yes, it did. In an entertaining speech before the movie began, film historian Paul S. Moore described Dollars and Sense as having ‘almost no plot,’ and while that cannot be true in the literal sense, it is the case that very little happens. Kennedy plays Hazel Farron, a chorus girl turned jobless waif when her show is cancelled. The show, an early intertitle points out, might have been more popular if the rest of the girls looked like Hazel.

Hazel’s looks are well-appreciated by the wealthy, and chubby, Geoffrey Stanhope (Willard Louis). Stanhope’s wingman is George, who happens to know (in the biblical sense) Hazel’s running buddy, Daisy. Despite Hazel’s protest (“I hate men!”), she agrees to double-date with Daisy, though that doesn’t last long, as George and Daisy happily ditch the new pair and start making out in the back seat of a different car.

All this is fluff. But luckily for us, the actors take their material seriously and elevate it. Kennedy has tons of charm and enough comedic timing to hold up her end of things. Louis goes further—a lot further—by injecting a flood of real pain into his character’s face whenever we’re about to pin him as the sneering villain. The events assist him. You have to wonder why a man this well-off needs help finding a date, at least if looks are all that matter to him, as he seems to imply they do. Why, when he and Hazel are seated at dinner, does he ply her with drinks almost right away? This is not a confident man—it is a man who believes he ought to be confident, and considers the possession of a pretty girl as important to his image as a gold watch and a long car. That doesn’t make Stanhope a good guy, exactly, but it doesn’t make him a raw villain, either.

The date is a disaster, and Stanhope departs Hazel’s life with the promise that she will one day ‘need his help,’ which is very much a code-phrase for prostitution. Hazel is broke, but not that broke, yet. Her wanderings soon take her to a bakery run by David Rogers (Kenneth Harlan), a man so decent that he, too, is nearly broke. (A compulsively charitable person should never do business in a ghetto). Hazel and David are brought together by a particularly clever version of the ‘meet cute,’ and Hazel is hired as David’s assistant, providing labour and, she suggests, a level head.

What does Hazel get in return? We’re to think that David’s example softens her, but really, she never seemed that jaded or cynical to begin with. Check that: “I hate men” is pretty damn cynical, but the line reads comic (The Music Hall busted its collective gut) and Hazel is ever the good girl with standards. For her to fall in love with David seems natural, and the only dramatic tension in their relationship rests on the possibility that David’s big heart and lack of business sense will either starve or exhaust him into an early grave. Can Hazel, as David’s employee, save them both? Not on her own.

Ah yes, we know who has the money to do that. And maybe we know what he’ll expect in return. Dollars and Sense now detours down the road of Indecent Proposal (1993), made more interesting by Louis’ increasingly nuanced performance. I love the way Stanhope faces Hazel in the bakery, informing her of her upcoming appointment in his hotel room—he takes the time to place his gloves in his upturned, fancy hat, then places the hat on David’s countertop, all the while fixating on Hazel. It is a precisely choreographed gesture; one we suspect he would not have performed if David were present. Scenes like these enflesh a character that, on paper, must have been bone-thin. When Stanhope’s motives eventually prove to be more complex than advertised, we are suitably prepared.

Dollars and Sense, like its antagonist, has two sides. Part of it looks backward, to the clear-lined morality plays of the 1910s and earlier. The (ostensibly) virginal heroine preyed upon by lascivious high-livers, the portrayal of charity and humility as antidotes to social ills—this could easily be the meat of a Biograph short. But the decade following this film would introduce a hungry audience to sexy, unapologetic darlings like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo, any of whom might have chosen Stanhope, not for his own merits, but because life isn’t fair and doesn’t look to be getting fairer anytime soon. The points of flux in Dollars and Sense: sex, self-worth, cashflow and compromise, evoke the Jazz Age more than any Victorian fable. It still works.

* Who am I kidding? I’ll see it.

Where to find Dollars and Sense:

The Library of Congress? I believe that fine institution was responsible for the DVD we got to watch. A quick Internet search tells me the film is unavailable, and that is a shame. Dollars and Sense isn’t a lost masterpiece, but it is a lot of fun.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)

In the flickers of this bygone moment
Annabelle fair undulates her serpent’s dance;
and I, by but another press of Play
do toy with her, and new joy in her sway.

But oh, what’s ‘fifty feet’ of film today—
but fifteen seconds? Brutal brevity,
dear Belle, when you’re the one upon the stage,
or through the scope; though your looks mute your age.

My Annabelle, ’gainst your backing of black:
your alabaster face and arms glow strong, and
’gainst their white, your flaming, styled curls
pulse hot, and top your timeless act’s unfurling.

By steps precisely stepped a century past,
with flowing robes old generations sewed,
your grace evokes the twist and torque of Snake;
but by your pace a bright-lit beast it’s made.

Sweet-gentle, slight-built Annabelle, your sleeves
the spectrum-wide traverse, from orange-ish bursts,
to white, then from your shoes, quick-rising blue;
dead painters’ dabs evoke five colours true.

Another turn, and sweep, and cocky step;
another silken, rippling column rolls; then,
arms held high you start your dance’s end,
you prancing Angel; with a prideful Sun in your wake.

Where to find Annabelle Serpentine Dance:
The hand-tinted Annabelle Serpentine Dance is one of many brief, 19th century films found Disc One of Kino International’s must-have, four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is preceded by a short commentary from several film scholars. Look for it here. A grainier version of this serpentine dance (as well as many others like it) can also be downloaded from YouTube.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vacay and a note of thanks

A little time off--partly anticipated, partly not--means no real update today. However, I'm hoping to get a new film article posted this weekend. If I do, it'll be something a little different. And next week, I'm hoping to feature TWO new films, one of them based on a live viewing.

Speaking of twos (and terrible segues): I'm proud to report that Silent Volume received its 2000th visit not long ago. For a blog this young, covering a subject like silent film, I think that's pretty good. And of course, I owe it to all of you. Many thanks.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

I don’t know what kind of man Harry Logan’s supposed to be in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp. Whatever techniques his father used to raise him did not work, as Harry (Harry Langdon) is a profoundly maladjusted young fellow. On the other hand, the world portrayed in this movie makes no sense, either. When a man can defy social, then rational, and finally physical bounds, what value is there in being normal at all?

Harry is a typical Langdon character: an awkward little creature who responds to challenges with bewildered, dissembling blinks and gestures, moments of hesitation and bursts of bashful circular motion. Everything is new and puzzling to Harry, who is not so much a man-child as a man-infant. If he were left to his own devices he would, we suspect, be destroyed.

This view is challenged by Amos Logan, Harry’s wheelchair-bound father. Amos (Alec B. Francis) is founder and proprietor of Amos Logan & Son, a Burton, Mass.-based purveyor of hand-made shoes. Unfortunately, Burton is also home to the colossal Burton Shoes factory, which is why Amos Logan & Sons resembles a shack. Burton’s buying power is bolstered by its lovely billboards, featuring Betty Burton (Joan Crawford), daughter of the founder. Her tagline: ‘Walk with me.’

Harry loves that girl in the poster with his whole heart. Nothing else in life seems important to him. Decide for yourself whether that makes him indifferent to his circumstances, or simply unaware of them; for indeed, his circumstances aren’t great.

Amos is facing eviction, says his John L. Sullivan-like landlord, Nick Kargas. Amos calls Harry into the room, and explains to him that in fact, they do not own Amos Logan & Son; they’re renters, and they’ve got three months to pay their debt. Harry blinks. "Does this mean I don’t get my new bike?"

Harry is thrust into the world. A chance meeting nets him work as Kargas’ gofer; we learn that Kargas is also a world champion long-distance walker, and intends to compete in a walking race to California, sponsored by Burton Shoes. Harry’s help invariably proves dangerous, and he is soon fired by his barrel-chested boss. But Betty takes pity on Harry and enters him in the race as a consolation.

Too bad we never learn the rules of the race. We do see walkers march from the starting line in Burton, Mass., wearing short trousers, backpacks and sweatshirts emblazoned with ‘Burton Shoes.’ Walking to California takes a while, so we’ll assume they’ve got three months—Harry’s deadline to get the money. But as to the path the walkers take, we’re never given a clue. Nor do we see them eat or sleep, and so the enormous comic potential of the walking race is frittered away.

Perhaps Langdon’s heart wasn’t in it. Buster Keaton, with his superior athleticism, could have made more of the race itself. The spectacle-minded Harold Lloyd might have devoted the film’s entire second half to it, mimicking his format in Safety Last! (1923) and Speedy (1928). But Langdon’s comedy shone brightest when things were quiet.

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp’s best scene is no stunt, but the sublime first meeting between Harry and Betty. He’s staring longingly at one of her posters when she spies him, then sneaks up behind him. Betty knows exactly what drives Harry, and still she expresses warm pity toward this weird little man--it tells us just as much about her as it does him.

When Harry turns around, it’s, well, remarkable. He doesn’t overreact, at least in the manic sense; he simply wanders the little patch of park they’re standing in, sitting down, standing up again when she joins him; half-talking to her, half-talking to himself. Langdon’s reaction, a single take lasting more than a minute, confirms the man’s pantomime chops. And the pacing of the scene is almost modern. If Langdon has a successor today, it is Will Ferrell, who has also built his career on meandering scenes that are funny, in part, because we’re aware they are overly long.

Harry is convinced he’ll be marrying Betty soon. We’re not so sure, but Betty is certainly a good soul. With her best wishes to power him, Harry proves a formidable walk-racer, narrowing the field to him and Kargas alone. This, despite being incarcerated for at least two days in the middle of the race.

Harry ate berries, you see; fruit belonging to a farmer near the race-route. He’s placed in a chain-gang to pay his debt, and ordered to break rocks. Unable to lift any of the available tools, Harry tries to break a large stone with a tiny ball-peen hammer, which makes no sense. He tries to be more industrious by switching to smaller stones, but the ones he smashes are already small enough, and so his labour is worthless. Finally, one of the prisoners uncovers a cache of weapons and stages a (gang?)-break; Harry is handed a loaded pistol, which he looks at clearly before using the butt-end in place of the hammer.

How could anyone be so stupid? Are we to assume Harry has never seen a pistol before? If he has, why doesn’t it bother him? Gags like this were common enough in slapstick, but usually, the comic would be handed the gun without seeing what it was. The gag works because the man’s unaware of the danger he’s in. Yet Harry is both aware of the gun, and seemingly unaware that guns are dangerous. This man is not credible. And the most unlikely scene is still to come.

Weeks later, Harry and Kargas reach the western town of Sand City, where Betty and the Burton executive team are waiting to greet them. Before long, a cyclone strikes the town, sending the residents to their storm cellars. Harry, however, seems not to notice the storm for what it is. “Ah!—at last a breeze.” he declares, and fights the obviously gale-force winds to make it to a nearby barbershop. His top priority is a shave after that trek through the desert. When he finally does face the mighty funnel, Harry defeats it (literally driving it away) by hitting it with a brick.

The intertitle following this sequence seems to acknowledge its foolishness, reading:

“David slew Goliath; Daniel tamed the lions; Joshua stopped the sun—and Harry made a cyclone take the air.”

But two of those examples, far-fetched though they are, can at least occur. Harry’s outcome so untethers Tramp, Tramp, Tramp from reality that it would only make sense if the hero were someone like... Harry.

Oh. Well then, what’s left to say? An irrational creation finds fame, fortune and beauty in a world built, it seems, by an irrational creator? If your only rule is that there are no rules, I guess Harry Logan is, indeed, the man to call. And Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is the film to watch.

Where to find Tramp, Tramp, Tramp:
Kino International’s Harry Langdon... The Forgotten Clown includes Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, along with two of Langdon’s other feature films, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927). Look for it here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reflections: Approval ex nihilo

Today I’m going to devote a few lines to one of my least favourite words: Cute.

Why here? Because ‘that was cute’ is the phrase I hear most often from non-silent film fans after I’ve introduced/subjected them to some piece of soundless brilliance they mustn’t live without. Some gem I just can’t imagine them sliding into their graves having missed. Oh, this movie is sublime, I’ll tell them, and sure enough, they’ll enjoy it, I guess, sort of—do you enjoy something when the corners of your smile only reach the bottom of your earlobe?

‘Cute’ is never meant as an insult, but it is the damnation of faint praise, most assuredly. It is a quiet compliment with omissions that bellow. And while it’s pointless to bitch about what other people don’t like, or why they don’t like it, or how express their dislike, let me say that I never describe anything as ‘cute,’ even if I like it, especially if I love it, and I don’t think you should either. Consider other applications of ‘cute’ in daily life, and ask yourself how praiseworthy it really is:

1. “OMG, SO CUTE!!!”
Usually found in the comments field, directly beneath your Facebook friend’s newest batch of posted baby pictures. Usually written by a female, to the mother. The baby/babies may be doing something or nothing. If doing something, it may be succeeding or failing. And the baby may, in fact, be homely. Not all babies are cute, though we never admit that, and even very cute babies take silly, unflattering or boring pictures once in awhile. Miracle of life, beauty of first steps, etc.... the fact remains that the picture is ‘cute’ because babies are cute, and this picture contains a baby.

2. “Your [dog, cat, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, ferret, seal] is so cute!”
The baby rule mostly holds for beasts, too. ‘Cute’ is rarely applied outside the realm of the juvenile animal, and almost never to an animal without fur (tarantulas are a separate matter). I don’t know why birds aren’t ‘cute’—maybe they look too reptilian. When adult animals are cute, it’s usually because they’re doing something vaguely human (cowardly dog covering his eyes just like your cowardly uncle does, for example). In other words, they’re cute because they’re trying to resemble, by means of their limited faculties, us.

3. “She’s a cute girl.”
Better than being homely, sure, but I don’t know many women who appreciate being called ‘cute,’ even when a guy’s complimenting her features directly. ‘Cute’ usually means ‘short,’ and it does not mean ‘sexy,’ even though petite women can be very sexy. I’d argue that when a guy calls a girl cute, he’s mostly saying she’s not ugly. And notice how no one ever says ‘cute woman.’

4. “You’re a cute guy.”
Even I’ve received this one a few times, and I’m nothing special. That’s part of the problem. For a man, as for a woman, ‘cute’ does not equate to hot, must-have human real estate. Nor does it mean ‘masculine,’ and most guys like to think they can rely on the masculinity they project. A man shouldn’t be cute. Teddy bears are cute; fat, fuzzy things that make ladies smile and encourage them to dole out hugs aplenty, but probably no more than that.

So what is ‘cute’? I argue ‘cute’ is an adjective that opens more doors than it closes—a way to end a sentence without ending it at all. Call a silent film ‘cute’ and you’re complimenting it for managing to entertain you despite its limitations—like a cat wearing your sunglasses. A cute silent movie isn’t necessarily something you liked at all; it’s just something you think is likeable. But what, then, are you really saying? That it’s not ‘un-cute’? That it’s interesting, but cannot reach your vital self, take hold, and keep holding?

I can live with silent film being an acquired taste, really I can. I’m no better than anyone else anyway—take me to the ballet and watch my eyes wander to the orchestra pit to observe the tuba. Just please, when someone calls a movie ‘cute,’ ask him or her to be more specific. It’ll be better for us all.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

He Did and He Didn't (1916)

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had a story to tell, I think. That he got only a few chapters into it before scandal destroyed him is tragic; not just for his fans, but for his medium. Where Arbuckle’s work ends, so stops a peculiar vein of slapstick comedy that was never revived.

The ‘chapters’ are his short films; they were made mostly between 1912 and 1921 and cover, I’d argue, the maximum breadth of knockabout comedy. Arbuckle pushed the envelope as much as he could, getting more out of every Keystone chase and harmless gunshot to the bum than anyone else could have. Yet his restrictions clearly got to him, and if you doubt that, please watch He Did and He Didn’t today.

He Did and He Didn’t is a taste of might have (and ought to have) come from Arbuckle’s thwarted feature-length career. It’s not very funny, at least by the standards Arbuckle set in films like Fatty Joins the Force (1913), The Rounders (1914), and Coney Island (1917). But it is a bold comedic short, describing darker conflicts than even most dramas of the time. And when slapstick can’t get it done, Arbuckle happily looks elsewhere.

We can tell something’s wrong from the opening minute. Arbuckle’s billed not as a righteous farmhand or a wealthy drunk—he’s a successful doctor. Usually, characters like that are foils or plot-drivers for the comic, who is not, himself, socially powerful. The first intertitle reads: ‘Their Usual Evening’ and we see Arbuckle the Doctor fumbling with his tuxedo collar while his wife, Mabel (Mabel Normand) brushes her hair. The husband is clearly fond of himself, and treats his wife more like an irritant than a lover. When she gets in his way, he lifts her off her feet like a piece of furniture and sets her elsewhere. When she asks him to help her adjust her dress, he fixes the clasp with a slight punch. It hurts her.

Arbuckle’s physicality always had an undertone of menace, but only in this film is it fully realized. In other shorts, he tempered his characters’ strength and size with either cowardice or simple-minded righteousness, as befit the circumstance. This Doctor, though—he might be a real abuser. We have reason to wonder after the arrival of Mabel’s old flame, Jack (William Jefferson). He and Mabel dated once; based on a photo Jack produces, it must have been when she was about thirteen. No matter; the moment Jack leaves the room, the Doctor rips the photo to pieces.

What a cruel thing to do. Yes, Mabel was fawning over Jack a bit, but we suspect that simple joys are rare for her. To his credit, the Doctor instantly regrets his action, but how like an abusive spouse to make his point and only afterward ask forgiveness.

He’s a lousy host, too. He laughs at Jack’s jokes but the smile leaves his face awfully quickly. He makes sure to be between—literally between—Jack and Mabel whenever possible. The scenes are truly uncomfortable, and they drift farther from farce than any Arbuckle film I know of. You see, Jack’s not a cad, nor is he oblivious to the image he projects. He’s simply caught between a wife who is thrilled to see him and a husband who clearly hates him. And it is hate. The film’s pivotal early scene, in which Jack and the Doctor face each other across the dinner table with Mabel in the middle, makes the Doctor’s feelings very clear.

Consider the effect of Arbuckle’s bloodless, boiling stare, absent of any humour and aimed right at you, the viewer. Could a man of his size make good on his violent wishes? How should that make you feel? For comparison’s sake, watch Buster Keaton’s atypical short film, The Frozen North (1922), in which the comic plays a murderous bandit. Keaton, a giant of cinema, was puny in body; his portraying a thug of any kind is funny, because he doesn’t look big enough to threaten your grandmother. But what if the thug was this guy?

How mad could he get... and what could Mabel do about it? In a telling follow-up scene, the worried wife returns to her makeup table, tries to lean on it with her elbow and misses, smacking her head against the table’s edge. It is a typical slapstick spot, but Mabel’s only reaction is annoyance. She pulls the table closer and continues to brood. This is no time to goof around.

The Doctor is eventually led away by a phony housecall, set up by a pair of thieves looking to rob his home. One of them is played by Al St. John, a jumping-jack of a comedian whose taste I’ve never acquired. Arbuckle worked with St. John many times (they were related), but his role in this film is especially interesting, as Arbuckle seems intent on letting his nephew shoulder almost all of He Did and He Didn’t’s knockabout action sequence—the obligatory closing minutes of any Keystone film. With the Doctor away, pistol-packing Jack must chase St. John through the house, firing wildly as the robber bounces off furniture, a chandelier and various servants.

St. John’s defeat is not the end of the film—in fact, he’s pitched out the window by Jack with several minutes to spare. Only then does the Doctor return to the house, even angrier than before; convinced the housecall was a ruse on his wife’s part. He discovers Jack comforting a frightened Mabel, and tries to kill him. With Jack dispatched, he strangles his wife, and walks calmly off-camera.

No, he doesn’t wring her neck in exaggerated fashion; he just chokes her down to the floor and exits. And when we discover, to our relief, that Mabel is not dead, we are soon shocked again at the retribution she takes on the Doctor. Just what are we watching here?

Arbuckle does pull back from pure melodrama in the end—quite creatively, too. However, you won’t remember his tidy summation so much as the fearsome anger his character contains in this film. Fatty could act, and I’ll always wonder to what different, darker place he might have taken his artform, if he’d been given the chance.

Where to find He Did and He Didn’t:
It’s not even on YouTube. However, it is available on the excellent Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a four-disc set that includes more than 20 of the comedian’s other silent shorts, plus several films he directed (under the pseudonym ‘William Goodrich’) following his blacklisting. The set is distributed by Mackinac Media.