Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Top Ten Silent Films of the Past Decade.... No, Not Really

The end of 2009 is very nearly the anniversary of Silent Volume, you know. On January 23, 2009, I posted my rather long, very detailed assessment of The Man Who Laughs (1928). It seemed like a good choice, and I still think it was. The Man Who Laughs is a good film, fairly modern in feel and possessing a certain resonance for modern audiences.

That’s all I was really looking for, then. I figured it like this: people don’t watch silent films because they don’t know what to look for. What they do see is alien to them. Clips of old actors, acting in an old style, very often shown only as emblems of their oldness. The images are rarely left to stand on their own. Rather than be appreciated for their often extraordinary beauty, they are made to bid us a held breath, before the next clip, perhaps from a dismal-sounding early talkie, supplants them. ‘We’ve moved on,’ such montages say. But it needn’t be so.

I like to think I make a convincing case with my entries. I’m not a bad writer, at least when I really believe in what I’m writing about. But it was naive to assume I could convert people to silent film, because those uninterested in silent film do not, for the most part, read Silent Volume. ‘Duh,’ you say. Clearly, I’m no marketing genius.

On the plus side, I’ve garnered a small, but slowly growing group of readers who do like silent film and do like Silent Volume. To you, I am very grateful. Please spread the word. And know that while I’m not one of those bloggers who injects a lot of personal emotion into his posts, I am always moved whenever a reader expresses thanks for what I’ve written. Obviously, a blog on silent film isn’t designed for a mass audience—my entries are long because I care about them and I make the time because of people like you. Thank you.

What else have I learned this past year? I think I’ve become a better writer; definitely a better reviewer. You’ll notice that earlier entries are heavier on plot summary (and sometimes, spoilers) than later ones. It took me time to find my own way of doing things. My current attitude is this: when you see a movie you love, and tell other people they must see it too, they’ll ask you why. And what do you respond with? You tell them of its amazing cinematography, or a particular performance, or a particular scene that stays with you still. You don’t rehash the whole damn movie. This is now my guidepost for writing. It will be well on display this weekend, when I post my next review.

I’ve been asked if my reviews will be shorter in the future. Nope. Less than 800 words is tough for me—at least, it’s tough when I’m describing a film that’s worth your time to see, and that’s mostly the kind of film I write about on Silent Volume. I promise to (almost) never go over 1,200 words, though.

I’ll also continue trying to capture some short films in verse. I don’t know if I’m much of a poet, but composing is fun. And in case you’ve noticed that many of these pre-1900 films seem to be from the same collection (Edison: The Invention of the Movies), well, I happen to own that set. I’m hoping to get a definitive set of Georges Melies films from Amazon, soon. That’ll even things out.

This is the beginning of what I hope will be many more years of blogging on Silent Volume. These films are a unique artform and their power still deserves spotlight, because, whether viewed or not, that power persists. I’m proud to play a tiny role in making it felt again. To that end, please have a look at some of my personal favourite reviews from the last year: Frankenstein (1910); Coney Island (1917); The Golem (1920); Sparrows (1926); It (1927); and Modern Times (1936). (I won’t tell which ones are my least favourites!)

Thanks again for your support, and your continued readership. And of course, Happy New Year to all.

Chris Edwards

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Gentlemen of the press, and assorted members of the fledgling cinematic community: let this serve as an official statement from the Ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots, upon viewing a filmed re-enactment of her execution. Today is September 9th, in the year of our Lord, 1895:

To the first of your queries (per our garments that day),
selected we scarlet-hued, humble array;
for it’s red that most martyrs do bear to the blade—
not blurry and trembling gradations of grey!

More’s the pity that colour’s but one detail lost;
for’s gone too the weeps of my loved ones, aghast
at the Virgin’s base cruelties, crudely here glossed.
Oh! rueful we ’member dismemberment’s cost.

And the laughs, and the giggles, and snickers loud snuck
when up came the dummy’s cut-head from the muck!
Would that we’d had even that mannequin’s luck—
for twice ’pon our head that brute-iron struck!

To our subjects: are tragedies viewed in this way
e’er a proper or noble excuse to be gay,
or be they but dumb-shows; indecent displays;
a flickering glimpse of a Crown sad betrayed?

A pox on you bulb-shining, lens-profiteers!
A curse from our ghost that’ll haunt future years:
may your films grow most lengthy, orchestral and smeared
with the colours of true life from whence now you veer.

And then, common artists, your schemes will prove naught,
for forced will you be then to fair-paint the Scot!

Where to find The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots:
The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is among the 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 about 30 seconds long. A grainier version can be downloaded from YouTube.

And for dessert, Wikipedia’s entry on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean (1992)

Christmas is a time of family get-togethers, long car rides and gratitude for gifts received. So more often than not, the less said during Christmas time, the better. With this platitude in mind, let’s turn our attention to Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean, a 26-minute short starring an actor who says almost nothing at all.

Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean appeared in 14 episodes of British television between 1990 and 1995. The character was always the same: a fumbling man-child in a cheap suit, wandering through a regular world without bothering to adapt to it. He’s capable of kindness, but is more often selfish, in part because of that inadaptability of his. Sometimes, he’s just a jerk.
Most important, though, is that Bean almost never speaks. He usually grunts and hums to himself and his answers, when he's addressed, are mono-syllabic. He is a silent character and Atkinson, in this role at least, belongs to the same tradition as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

But you know who Bean’s really like? Harry Langdon. Langdon’s not so well-known today, but he was a big deal, once. Possessing none of Chaplin's or Keaton’s acrobatic skill, Langdon relied instead on his facial expressions (usually variations on bewilderment) and a stock character of particular weirdness. Like Bean, this character was a social misfit; an overgrown baby. Like Bean, he could be cruel, though his misdeeds were rooted in a basic misunderstanding of the world around him.

The opening act in Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean could easily have starred Langdon. Bean is seen wandering Harrods department store, looking for decorations. He cannot decide between two tree bulbs. Holding a bulb in each hand, he drops the first, which bounces off the floor. The second one he drops, shatters. So he takes the first one, which is clearly the better product. The acts ends when Bean finds a nativity scene—with moveable figures!—in the toy department. The Holy Family is soon threatened by a Tyrannosaurus rex, a mobile battlesuit from Dr. Who, and other assorted anachronisms. A plastic helicopter saves the day. Neither Bean nor anyone else speaks a word in this first act, though Atkinson does provide several sound effects for the animals, vehicles and robots he pits against the baby Jesus.
Act Two, set outside, is almost as devoid of dialogue. While scouting a Christmas tree (not one for sale), and inadvertently conducting a Salvation Army brass quartet, Bean runs into his girlfriend, Irma Gobb (Matilda Ziegler). Irma has poor taste in men and evidently, very few options; even so, she’s losing patience with Bean. She motions him to a jewellery store and points (jabs the glass, really) at a picture of a huge wedding ring. Then she departs. Irma’s thrilled when she turns back for a moment and sees Bean entering the store.

Act Three finds Bean returned to his flat, where he prepares himself and Teddy (a stuffed bear, naturally) for Santa’s arrival. He hangs three stockings (one for each of them, plus the mouse), then settles in for a glass of wine and a little TV. When the television shows nothing but horror movies, he opens his apartment door, turns around his chair and watches a group of child carollers instead. When they’re done, he slams the door in their faces, just as he’d have switched off the tube.
Bean, clearly, cannot tell the difference. Besides being a nasty good joke, this sequence recalls various Chaplin gags, in which the Tramp would duplicate the amenities of the wealthy with whatever materials he had at-hand. As Chaplin might recreate the luxury of a spaghetti dinner with shoelaces, so does Bean enjoy a Christmas special through his door, rather than on his screen.

Act Four pulls it all together. It is Christmas morning and Santa has come through, bringing new eyes for Teddy, and for Bean, a mate for the sock he already hung. Irma is about to arrive for a quiet dinner and before she does, Bean must stuff, then roast, an enormous turkey. The director places the camera in front of Atkinson, who positions himself behind the carcass like an obstetrician, and reaches in. When he loses his watch, he has to dig deeper. When Irma rings the doorbell, he gets the bird stuck on his head.

The scene is killer—just a laugh-riot as Atkinson bounces off the walls with his head jammed up the turkey’s backside. It looks like they’ve been caught in a sex-game and forgotten the safe-word. It’s also the only time in Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean when any bit of dialogue is used to advance a joke. Irma, somehow, manages to enter the flat without realizing Bean’s predicament. Busying herself at the dinner table, she asks him: “Have you got the turkey on?”

This joke offers a great lesson about silent comedy, in that it’s an exception that proves a rule. Silent comedy is not, for the most part, delivered by people who cannot speak. Early-20th century silent comedians were seen to speak all the time; technology simply didn’t allow them to be heard. So, they developed a form of comedy, rooted in vaudeville and the British music hall, which did not require sound to be funny. Audiences of the period would have heard lots of sounds, of course; not only the accompaniment of a pianist, organist or orchestra, but perhaps a live narrator. Some of Bean’s animal sound-effects in Act One could have been easily reproduced by the versatile Mighty Wurlitzer.

Key to this is that no sound effect, tune or word can be the basis for a major gag or turn of plot. Bean mumbles and murmurs a lot in Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean, especially in Act Four, but none of what he says matters much. It is just for colour. Only Irma actually says something that makes us laugh. While there are other, minor moments of speech in the fourth act, leading to a brilliant pay-off for the wedding ring gag set up in Act Two, the rest of Bean and Irma’s meal is executed with physical comedy alone.

It's nice to know this kind of humour can still be a hit. That, for me, is a pretty nice present. Happy Holidays to you all.

Silent Volume has also featured Harry Langdon’s 1926 comedy, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.

Where to find Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean:
The Mr. Bean series is available in several collections. My copy of Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean is from disc two of the three-disc, Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

They Might Have Mimed

I argue for the timelessness of silent films, and the eternal power of great acting. So who, among the bright lights of modern stardom, could have made it in the Silent Days? They Might Have Mimed will be a continuing feature in which I try to answer this question. Also, it’s fun; so I’ll be updating this list as often as I’m inspired to do it. I love movies of all periods, including the current one, and today’s actors, I believe, are as good as any. Nevertheless, my first choice may surprise you.

#1: Hayden Panettiere

Hayden Panettiere (born 1989) is building a successful career for herself, including a recent starring role in I Love You, Beth Cooper (2009). She’s been an actor for most of her life, beginning with a multi-year run on the soap opera, One Life to Live. She’s appeared on several other television shows, voiced a video game character, and produced some pretty good Internet clips on What she hasn’t done (yet) is deliver a breakout, mature performance in a major, mainstream comedy or drama. But she’s awfully young, and her best years are very likely ahead of her.

Panettiere might have done just as well if born 89 years earlier. Why could she have succeeded in silent films? Her beauty, for one thing. The actress is fresh-faced and gorgeous, and can strike a pose. More than that, though, is her ability to project not only different moods with her poses, but almost different identities.

Girlish, sexy, wicked, sweet, powerful, vulnerable, etc. It’s not so easy to do this; like many silent actresses, Panettiere seems capable of embodying several different values or archetypes, and can look convincingly older and younger than her twenty years; she doesn't always let her looks dictate what she can be. While her roles have, thus far, traded on those looks, the photography suggests greater potential. Consider the silent director’s willingness to shoot long takes, focusing on the actors’ faces and allowing their screen presences alone to dictate the action. Panetierre can say a lot without words; without, it seems, doing much more than standing still. She’d have made it big in 1919, just as easily as 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Spite Marriage (1929)

Spite Marriage was Buster Keaton’s final silent film, but nowhere near the last film he appeared in. He would go on to star in several sound features for MGM (with whom he’d signed to produce Spite Marriage, and one previous silent film, The Cameraman). Later, the studio teamed him with Jimmy Durante. Later still, he appeared in short comedies for Columbia Pictures, under the thumb of Jules White, director of the Three Stooges.

This period, beginning with the end of the silent era and ending with the beginning of the television era, chronicles the steep downward slide of Buster Keaton. The MGM deal meant money, but also loss of creative control. All the studio wanted was Keaton’s talent, and it was prepared to squeeze whatever juice it could out of its faltering star, while sticking, risk-free, to formulas that already worked.

Spite Marriage, then, shows us an aging genius in transition—forced, by his own poor choices, to play by the rules of uninspired men. We see vestiges of the old Buster bloom then wither suddenly in the course of 80 minutes of otherwise standard farce, portending the average-to-brutal sound comedies to come. The film is an oddity, with much to enjoy, but never for long.

Let’s begin with Elmer, a typically hapless Keaton character. Like many Keaton roles, Elmer’s is that of a simple, earnest man with a tendency toward obsession, and an inability to recognize it. He is a dry cleaner, more or less; poor, but willing to fake wealth by wearing the expensive suits and tuxedos he cleans as though they were his own. This is an unethical habit, and if Elmer were so inclined, it could make him a very dangerous, manipulative man. However, because he possesses the tunnel-vision of a Keaton lead, tempered with a basic moral core, Elmer uses his false identity only for the purpose of wooing a girl: Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian).

Trilby is the female lead in a smash-hit theatre production; a Civil War-era pot-boiler, in which she plays the Southern belle-made-prey opposite a rapacious crew of Yankee soldiers. Elmer knows her part—and everyone else’s—by heart, having attended more than 30 performances, always dressed in someone else’s finery. Trilby has noticed this apparently wealthy man in her audience, but she has eyes only for her co-star, the arrogant ‘Lionel Benmore’ (Edward Earle). Lately, Lionel’s been flirting with a lovely society girl, and Trilby doesn’t like it. Lionel appeals to her reason: “Can I help it if I’m good-looking?” he asks her.

Unlikely events soon lead Elmer to take a role in the production (though Trilby is unaware of it, since he’s hidden under a bushel of badly-applied, nineteenth-century-style whiskers). This, predictably, leads to disaster both on the stage and behind it, and we’re reminded, perhaps, of Keaton’s more tightly-packed 1921 vaudeville spoof, The Playhouse. Elmer manages to return to his own role of phony millionaire without Trilby catching on. And this ruse, plus Lionel’s blooming affair with the society girl, plus Elmer’s sheer proximity to the theatre, soon causes Trilby to snap. She marries Elmer on a whim, just to stick it in Lionel’s craw.

What a wonderfully nasty piece of work Trilby Drew is, and how Spite Marriage squanders her. Sebastian’s prettiness is perfect for the part, because it possesses not a spark of warmth; there’s no generosity or excess in that skinny frame or pinched bud of a mouth. She’s a mean, entitled princess, and following her nuptials to the simple, smitten Elmer, we sit back and wait to see this marriage blow up. It ought to be good comedy.

But it’s over so soon! Yeah, we have an extended sequence (the film’s best) of Elmer taking a drunken and depressed Trilby to a nightclub (on her money, presumably), followed by the farce of puny husband trying to get blacked-out wife into bed. Here’s the clip. The next morning, though, we cut straight to a scene of Trilby, flanked by her morose manager and Lionel, being told about the devastating effect this kind of PR could have on her. Getting married is not the problem—what looks bad is getting married to a nobody. They want her divorced and she readily agrees.

I’m conflicted. On one hand, you feel like you can’t complain, since Trilby really would find Elmer out right away, and how often are comedies criticized for drifting too far from believability? Further, the effect of a quick divorce on the Trilby-obsessed Elmer could have led Keaton in several interesting directions. On the other hand, we’re giving up the potential of a clothes-hopping, inveterate liar wedded to a bed-hopping diva who lies just as much—the very spite marriage the title describes. That’s a lot to give up, considering what Keaton could have made of it. That’s always what made Keaton’s films shine—his capacity to view the simplest scenarios as pregnant with possibility. This is a man, after all, who placed one train after another on the same piece of track and turned it into one of the greatest chases of all time, encompassing nearly all of The General (1926), one of the greatest movies ever made.

Spite Marriage happily discards it all. Elmer, depressed and bitter, ends up as a deck swab on a yacht, where he’s eventually joined by both Trilby and a slew of pirates. The gags that follow are basic slapstick mechanics, worthy of Keaton’s stunt-double (MGM assigned him one), but not the master. Keaton fans, like me, will again recall his better work: in this case, The Navigator (1924), which turned a derelict ship into a labyrinth on the waves.

Even the ending of Spite Marriage rings hollow, in that it’s too nice. Keaton was a cynical comic: when he got the girl, it was usually after a series of trials that girl should never have put him through to begin with. He knew even true love remained imperfect. And, as he reminded us in College (1927), ‘happily ever after’ depends on when you stop telling the story. By 1929, Keaton was living that lesson.

Where to find Spite Marriage:
TCM’s The Buster Keaton Collection is a two-disc set featuring The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage and Keaton’s first sound picture, Free and Easy (1930). Also included is a documentary, So Funny It Hurts: Buster Keaton at MGM. All of this sounds good, although I’ll admit I haven’t seen it; my copy of Spite Marriage is from an old VHS tape.

Silent Volume has featured several other Buster Keaton films. Have a look at The Playhouse (1921), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), College (1927), and Coney Island (1917), in which Keaton played a supporting role opposite one of his mentors, Fatty Arbuckle.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Check this out when you have the chance:

I’ve wanted to see this 1983 production for a while, and it did not disappoint. Narrated by James Mason, and written and directed by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the Thames-produced Unknown Chaplin is a three-episode series revealing Charlie Chaplin’s working methods. Those methods were, to say the least, unique. Chaplin worked out his routines on-film (his form of brainstorming, basically) and though most of this footage naturally met the bonfire, enough remains to provide a fascinating look at the master and his work.

Even today, Chaplin is famous for his perfectionism. He would reshoot the same scene hundreds of times, exhausting actors who could detect no difference between the take they’d just performed and those performed hours, days or even months before. If they couldn’t master a gesture as Chaplin desired it, he simply acted out their parts in front of them, as a guide—female roles included. As one commentator suggests, the clown’s greatest regret was his inability to be both in front and behind the camera simultaneously.

If an actor was wrong for a part, Chaplin was willing to scrap months of work in favour of recasting. He worked without a script, improvising many of his own scenes, so a film had no truly defined shooting schedule and literally no end in sight. How could he do it? As Mason explains, it was due to Chaplin’s already enormous fame and box-office clout. Episode One, “My Happiest Years,” catches the artist around 1916, as he begins work for the Mutual Film Corporation. Mutual was already Chaplin’s third production company, and this one was willing to pay him a then-ungodly $670,000 (plus bonuses) to produce 12 short films. He was otherwise unrestrained. And so Chaplin handpicked a stock company of talented actors, including the menacing Eric Campbell and favoured ingénue, Edna Purviance, and got to work.

Everything rested on the genius’ whim. For The Floorwalker (1916), he commanded a department store set to be built. There was no story to go with this set, mind you; nor was there a story to go with anything else; Chaplin simply waited for inspiration, and eventually, it arrived.

Episode Two, “The Great Director,” starts with a behind-the-scenes look at Chaplin’s filmmaking for First National, which paid him $1 million to produce only eight films over an unspecified period. This arrangement led to several classics, including Shoulder Arms (1918), Sunnyside (1919) and Pay Day (1922). We also see the sometimes troubled (and incredibly slow) development of his United Artists features, The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931).

Episode Three, “Hidden Treasures,” is mostly a collection of long outtakes and rarities, including home-movie-style clips of Chaplin entertaining dignitaries, such as Winston Churchill. They invariably ask him to perform a bit, and he does. As Mason explains, Chaplin was always performing, always working out ideas—he had ‘a mind like an attic,’ said one friend. Nothing was forgotten, only squirreled away. To prove the point, we see footage of a dinner party where Chaplin entertains his friends by juggling a globe. He used a variation of this gag years later in The Great Dictator (1940).


Chaplin’s unparalleled artistic freedom allowed him to work in his own way, and from that, produce a series of masterpieces that compromised on nothing. He used his popularity, and the perks that came with it, to do this. More power to him, not only for being inspired, but damn shrewd, too.

Look for Unknown Chaplin here.

Silent Volume has featured several of Charlie Chaplin’s films. Have a look at essays on Shoulder Arms, Pay Day, The Circus and Modern Times (1936).

For some quick Chaplin facts (plus a truly gorgeous photo of the artist playing the cello—I LOVE this pic) visit Noir and Chick Flicks.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jack and the Beanstalk (1902)

Jack’s not exactly a model for capitalism, is he? A young man, the son of a hardworking single mom, no less, he’s charged with selling a valuable cow in the village market, hopefully for a hefty price. Instead, he sells it for magic beans. When the beans turn out to produce a giant beanstalk, Jack neglects to charge admission fees for viewing this biological marvel. He doesn’t even chop it down and yield a record volume of plant matter for harvest—which would have recovered the cost of the cow. Instead, he ignores his poor mother and climbs the thing. Once aloft in the cloudy kingdom above the stalk, Jack ingratiates himself to the kindly wife of a Giant. She invites him into her castle, and he proceeds to rob the house of several bags of gold, a singing harp, and a goose that lays golden eggs. When the Giant understandably pursues Jack, it’s the Giant who is murdered. Jack’s reward for incompetence, then theft, and finally, murder? A life of luxury.

The less said about Jack’s motivations, the better. Appropriately, then, the film considered here says almost nothing about Jack at all, except once, when it does so quite memorably. Jack and the Beanstalk, a ten-minute film dating to the very dawn of narrative film-making, is more an act of translation than a think-piece. You know the story, you know the players. What you haven’t seen (at least, if you’re alive in 1902) is the whole thing in front of a camera.

Jack and the Beanstalk’s director is Edwin S. Porter, the Edison Company’s most significant contribution to film history. The earliest movies were about a minute long at most—they were really just scenes, self-contained and unable to support developing action. Porter, a former film distributor, was one of the men who proved those scenes could be strung together to tell a tale. His movies look primitive today, with their fixed camerawork, theatricality and uneven pacing, but they are real achievements.

Jack and the Beanstalk opens on a very stage-like set, featuring an obviously painted backdrop of a medieval village and countryside. An old charlatan is given a hatful of magic beans by an enchantress, who (thanks to the wizardry of stop-motion camerawork), disappears. The charlatan is startled by this, but recovers himself before the arrival on-screen, and on-stage, of Jack. Jack is leading the cow, which is quite clearly two men in a cow-suit. (Thumbs down to the actor in the front-end of that suit, who does his damndest to steal the scene by performing a two-step during the transaction.)

Porter’s major weakness was his tendency to let scenes meander on. Once Jack leaves the stage, this portion of the film should end, yet it doesn’t. Instead, we’re treated to a short knockabout sequence between the cow and the older man. Another such moment occurs midway through the film, when Jack, who's already climbed up the beanstalk, out of camera-range, attracts the attention of other children below. The scene should cut immediately to Jack in the clouds, but instead, we have to watch the children join hands and dance around the base of the stalk. Moments like these are sometimes necessary in stage productions, where time is a constant and actors may need extra seconds or minutes to move from one place to another, or change wardrobe. In a movie, it’s just excess.

Jack’s scaling of the beanstalk (a step ladder swathed in vines) is achieved by having the actor climb from the base to the peak of two successive stage sets, then into the middle of a third one. The three backdrops are inconsistent in their use of media: the first appears to be painted, the second (to my eyes) looks like a charcoal rendering, while the last is a moonlit junglescape with a highly reflective, plain white floor. Here is another theatrical convention (one I wish modern directors would occasionally revisit). Porter, aware that he cannot fool the viewer’s eye, instead contents himself with letting the viewer’s imagination knit the visuals together. Among other things, this allows him an extra level of abstraction that strengthens the film’s visual power, rather than simply making it look fraudulent.

Jack is naturally weary after the climb. He’s awoken from his slumber by the enchantress, who first appears in a reclined pose on the crescent moon above him. And that’s appropriate, because the actress playing her is about as disinterested in her role as you could get. Usually, actors from this period are too animated, but this one just stands still, waving her wand with one hand like a fat guy handling a garden hose on a hot day. The enchantress makes the moon disappear and projects in its place a circular window, in which Jack can see the Giant’s castle. ‘Loot it,’ she must be telling him, though she doesn’t seem the vicious type.

The Giant, it turns out, is merely tall. He plays his role with gusto, however, and is dismissive enough of his wife to make us sympathize with him a little less. Porter, with fairly limited time on his hands, wisely condenses Jack’s three robberies into one.

Two scenes rescue Jack and the Beanstalk from mere quaintness. One is a piece of superior film technique, showing what the newer medium was really capable of. We know that Jack, scurrying down the beanstalk with the Giant in pursuit, must chop the beanstalk down. This will cause the Giant to fall to his death. Porter has no choice here but to use a dummy, but he uses his camera to make the most of it. With Jack already on the ground, we see the Giant’s foot poking down from the top of the set. Porter now cuts, and we see the dummy’s foot instead. It is the dummy that crashes to the earth, and as soon as it connects, Porter cuts again, reinserting the actor. The whole mass of the beanstalk drizzles down across his body, turning into his burial mound. It’s a smooth scene for the period, dramatically effective, and well-paced.

Jack’s second notable scene is a dream sequence, which takes place during the evening the beanstalk grows. Jack is asleep in bed, on the extreme left of an attic set. The rest of the frame is empty. Porter now occupies the space with a vaguely vine-like shape, with a hole in the bottom. Out of the hole pour bags of gold, followed by a dancing harp and a goose. Finally, there is an egg, which grows bigger and bigger, until it splits open to reveal his mother, dressed in fine robes.

The composition of this scene is not new; really, it’s no different than seeing a comic strip character with a thought balloon. But the energy of the vine’s contents, particularly the aggressive growth of the egg, is off-putting and weird. That’s a good thing. We have a sense of turmoil—even guilt—in Jack’s mind. It’s the only glimpse we’ll ever get, and it’s thanks to a series of stop-motion techniques no stage production could manage.

This is the third Edwin S. Porter film featured on Silent Volume. Why not have a look at The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Little Train Robbery (1905), too?

For a description of another dream sequence, similar to the one used in this film, but very different in tone, see my essay on
Richard III (1912).

Where to find Jack and the Beanstalk:

Jack and the Beanstalk can be found on Disc One of Kino International’s four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies. The film is preceded by a short commentary from two film scholars. A grainier version (though not by much, frankly) can be downloaded from YouTube.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Searching Ruins On Broadway for Dead Bodies, Galveston (1900)

Broken timbers. Lots of timbers.
Lots of broken.
Large and small timbers tilted
diagonal, upon
diagonal upon diagonals, resting.

Stacks before the static lens, the
rubble of the homes of Galveston.
In them
the men and women
and children
of Galveston.
Hidden, broken, beneath the beams.

(Upper left) Man swinging axe atop girder.
Timbers hacked by constant downward motions.

(Upper right) Church, by hurricane-wind’s force blasted.
Church persisting.

(Centre right) Rescuer hurling timbers to his right.
Timbers launched like javelins toward unrecorded space.

(Centre) Man with businessman’s hat and white shirt—
man with no task before the camera—
back turned to the lens,
finds object.

Stands in rubble.
Studies object.

Viewer’s aside:
(What must a man fear finding here?
The wise ones stick to industry.
The shattered ones alone would choose to ponder
this mountain of timbers and what holds it up; this
pile of corpses and wood.)

Man with businessman’s hat and white shirt
places object down most delicately.
Eases self to bottom of frame
most gingerly.
Bottom of frame,
not bottom of pile.
Bottom of pile’s below the frame—
twenty feet below or more.
You cannot see beyond the lens,
to the bloating core of blasted Galveston.

Where to find Searching Ruins On Broadway for Dead Bodies, Galveston:
This film, a one-minute piece of footage documenting the rescue effort following the Galveston, Texas flood of 1900, is one of many brief, early films found Disc One of Kino International’s must-have, four-disc set, Edison: The Invention of the Movies.

A somewhat blurry version can be found at Wikipedia Commons. No audio here, I’m afraid.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Crowd (1928)

Most of us aren’t destined for greatness. Yet many of us have been told we’ll do tremendous things. Our loved ones see themselves in us, and pull for us. If confidence proves our only barrier to success, it won’t be due to their efforts. They’re our cheerleaders.

But really: what makes us special? The loved ones scoff at the question, but the world--the crowd--needs proof. The crowd: that uniform crush of mediocre men and women, far more alike than not, demands proof.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

THEM! (1954)

Okay ONE MORE Doomsday Marathon review for Row Three. I love this movie. Love it.

The most important scene in THEM! has not a single giant ant in it. In fact, there’s no screaming, bold declarations or violent acts to be seen—just the quiet after-effects of all three. State troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) are searching ‘Gramps’ Johnson’s badly vandalized general store, located in the New Mexico desert, not far from where the Manhattan Project exploded its first atomic bomb, nine years before. Gramps is missing. The store has been half-demolished by something seemingly stronger than a man, and the cash register remains full. The cops step through the wreckage, baffled and silent, while behind them, Gramps’ radio cackles away. Malaria, the radio announcer declares, is being eradicated in many parts of the globe. Another victory for modern science.

Who wouldn’t encourage scientists to eradicate malaria—a disease that kills millions? The men and women working toward a vaccine must have the best of intentions. Likewise, the cops sifting through Gramps’ store are just professionals, doing their jobs. When they find Gramps’ mutilated corpse, flung to the bottom of his cellar steps, they report it. Neither jumps to conclusions, even though they’ve had a weird day already. Earlier, they found a catatonic five-year-old girl wandering the highway, clutching a doll with a broken face. They traced her back to a deserted travel trailer, destroyed much like the store.

The premise of THEM! is that atomic testing in the closing days of World War II has caused an aggressive species of ant to mutate. The beasts now measure in excess of nine feet, but otherwise, they behave exactly like their tiny cousins. This, according to leading ant expert Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), is an apocalyptic state of affairs for the human race.

Yet again, Mankind has toyed with forces it cannot control, and produced results it cannot abide. But where’s the hubris? Consider the arguments posed by some of THEM!’s closest cousins: Mad Max (1979) and The Matrix (1999), for example, blame the state of their worlds on humanity’s relentless sloth and greed. In The Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987) and to a lesser extent, King Kong (1933), destruction is the child of unfocused ambition, ignorance and over-confidence. Even Godzilla (1954), another film about the Bomb, presents its visitation of violence as a response to an earlier visitation of violence. Godzilla is not a natural creature, nor a species of anything. It's an embodiment of a point. But the ants? They’re just animals. And they only kill because food is scarce where they live, or humans have invaded their home.

Their human foes are likewise rational beings, able to work together because the cause of self-preservation unites them. Were something as preposterous as a giant ant infestation to actually occur, I believe it would be this way. And mercifully, the movie spares us any excess dramatics from these people. The FBI agent, Bob Graham (James Arness) is a decent man who gets along just fine with local cop Ben—no clichéd beat cop/agent power struggles to sit through here. Both men find Medford a little scatterbrained (he is), but they respect him, and Gwenn refuses to play a social misfit. Bob and Ben are also attracted to Medford’s gorgeous daughter, Pat (Joan Weldon), but babe though she is, she’s also a scientist, and is treated as such. Nor is Pat a blithering coward once the shooting starts, making THEM! the least sexist film I’ve seen in this genre.

How to stop the ants? Dr. Medford is full of ideas, and they have to be implemented fast, lest the animals spread. The heroes locate the entranceway to the ants’ layer, and Medford suggests saturating it with cyanide gas. “If I can still raise an arm after we get out of this place,” Bob replies, “you’ll see how saturated I can get.” Catch-phrases are easy; one-liners are a lost art.

Having gassed the ants, Bob, Ben and Pat must descend to the bowels of the layer to ensure they’ve been finished off. Watch the script-craft here: the characters’ trip to the egg chamber is not only scary, it also doubles as an expository lecture by Pat on the physiology and reproductive habits of the ant. She explains it to the men, and so explains it to us. By the time they reach the egg chamber, and discover the embryonic husks of two escaped ant-queens, we know how bad that is.

The second half of THEM! moves the action of the sewers of Los Angeles, where one of the queens has landed to start a new colony. And so we watch the police, scientists, politicians and military coordinate their efforts to minimize panic and maximize extermination. How odd to see politicians portrayed without bombast or obvious corruption, and a room a full of generals demanding something other than immediate violence. Watergate changed a lot of things, I guess.

THEM! is a mid-century monster movie—how good does it look today? Well, the ants themselves aren’t too convincing, though director Gordon Douglas uses every trick he can think of to hide the seams. Filming in black-and-white (not the original plan, apparently) helps too. THEM! also rises to the challenge facing every movie with a giant monster—hiding that monster—with predictable logic and economy. Early scenes obscure the beasts in a sandstorm, which is creepy in its own right. Later, Medford explains that the ants would only venture out at night, because only then is New Mexico’s desert comfortably cool for them.

THEM!’s cast-members could have been forgiven for bringing the ham, but none did. It’s quite the cast, too. Arness of course went on to long-running TV fame as the star of Gunsmoke; Whitmore too remained a star for years, including a memorable performance in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Character actors Fess Parker (Disney’s Davey Crockett) and Dub Taylor (you know him, trust me) play small roles. Then there’s Edmund Gwenn. Gwenn had a long career on stage and screen, but you might know him best for his role as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). If you think about it, Miracle has more in common with THEM! than any dystopian fantasy film does.

My main criticism of THEM! would be this: how can an animal with a hard exo-skeleton possibly move, much less fly, at that size? Perhaps this is too much burden for a monster film to bear, but THEM!’s screenwriters thought their way through everything else, so they could have explained this away, too. Here’s an answer, though: on artistic grounds, the fallacy works, because we account for the illogically large creatures by making them the norm; the humans, by contrast, become something small. Once the final battle begins in the sewers, it is clear that the humans are the infestations, not the ants. (I’m sure that wasn’t Douglas’ intent, but it’s fun to argue.)

THEM!’s ambiguous conclusion owes much to human ingenuity. But then again, so did the ants. Among its other qualities, the film is unique in its refusal to judge the morality of progress—progression simply happens, and with it, new challenges. Overlooking a burning ant carcass, Dr. Medford opines: “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened a door into a new world. What we eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” But he never says we should stop trying. That just wouldn’t be reasonable.