Showing posts with label 1920s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1920s. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Undercrank Productions: Little Old New York (1923)

What would you do for a million dollars? For Patricia O'Day (Marion Davies), she would go as far as live her life as a boy so that her family could inherit what was rightfully theirs. When Patricia's rich American uncle passes away, she and her father John (J.M. Kerrigan) are visited in Ireland by the uncle's proprietor. The uncle's will stipulates that the sole heir of the $1 million fortune is Patrick O'Day (Stephen Carr), Patricia's brother. Patrick has two months to travel to New York to claim the inheritance or lose it forever. However, Patrick is gravely ill and won't survive the treacherous journey over the Atlantic. 

Upon arrival, Patricia plays the part of her brother by donning a page boy haircut and boys clothes. She meets Larry Delavan (Harrison Ford, the other one!) whom everyone, including Larry himself, thought would inherit his step-father's fortune. The story follows Patricia as she plays the part of Patrick, enters high society, invests in steamboat technology, gets caught up in the world of sports gambling, faces an identity crisis and falls in love.

Little Old New York (1923) was a box office hit for star Marion Davies. The film was so popular that it beat box office sales for the previous record holder Robin Hood (1922). Based on the play by Rida Johnson Young, the film adaptation was produced by William Randolph Hearst's company Cosmopolitan Corporation and filmed at his studio on 127th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City. A fire broke out at the studio while filming was still underway. The negatives for the film, which at that point was two-thirds complete, were miraculously salvaged. However, costumes and sets had to be recreated. 

A big marketing push for the film included a press conference with Davies, an invitation for the public to be extras in one of the scenes and having theater usherettes dress like characters in the movie (not sure if they were made to mimic Marion Davies' boy look or the other female characters wearing 19th century garb). The film premiered at Hearst's Majestic theatre in Columbus Circle and a couple months later premiered in London. Little Old New York was remade in 1940 with Alice Faye in the lead role.

Marion Davies is absolutely charming as the lead character. She uses her feminine wiles and masculine energy to adeptly play this binary role. I'm really drawn to stories about gender representation especially when they spotlight stereotypes in a way that criticizes them (whether intentional or not). I would recommend this film to fans of silents, Marion Davies and period pieces.

At 1 hour and 47 minutes, Little Old New York feels a bit too long. A natural resolution to the story could have happened much earlier in the film. Overall, the movie watched more like chapters in story of Patricia/Patrick O'Day's adventures rather than one cohesive feature film. 

Little Old New York (1923) is available on DVD from Undercrank Productions, in association with Edward Lorusso, and features a lively original score by accompanist Ben Model. According to Undercrank's website, the film is presented from a 2k digital scan made from the Library of Congress's 35mm nitrate print. The DVD is a result of a Kickstarter campaign and also includes an excerpt from Hold Fast (1916).

Shop Little Old New York (1923) DVD at the following retailers.

AmazonBarnes and Noble — Deep DiscountMovies Unlimited

Thank you to Undercrank Productions for sending me a copy for review!

Friday, June 12, 2020

Kino Lorber: Pioneers of Queer Cinema

Releasing in virtual cinemas today through Kino Marquee are three European films from the 1930s that were landmarks in queer representation. Just in time for Pride Month, this trifecta offers some insight into the gay subculture of pre WWII Germany and Denmark and offers classic film fans an opportunity to broaden their horizons with movies they might not have encountered otherwise. These films were way ahead of their time and it seems fitting that they be presented in this new virtual format of theatrical releases. For the full listing of participating theaters, visit the Kino Marquee website.

Madchen in Uniform (1931)
Directed by Leontine Sagan

Sagan's seminal lesbian drama paved the way for queer films to come. Set in a Prussian all-girls school in Weimar Republic Germany, the story follows Manuela (Hertha Thiele), a new student who falls deeply in love with one of her teachers, Fraulein von Bernberg (Dorothea Wieck). As their relationship blossoms, the old-fashioned and strict headmistress threatens order and adherence to Prussian virtues at all costs. I won't go too much into this film as I'm writing a lengthy piece about it for TCM (I'll link it here once it goes live). There is a reason why this is such a landmark film. It broke down barriers in its representation of lesbian romance. Madchen in Uniform was a huge hit during its time. Germany had a thriving gay subculture before the Nazi regime who later would try to destroy this film. It was a hit overseas as well. After being banned during WWII, it enjoyed a revival in the 1970s from feminists and the lesbian community. It's been remade a few times and other lesbian dramas set in all-girl schools, Olivia (1950) (read my review of that film here!) and The Children's Hour (1961), soon followed.

Madchen in Uniform will be available next month on DVD and Blu-ray through Kino Lorber.

Michael (1924)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer's atmospheric drama set in the art world is sophisticated as it is somber. Walter Slezak stars as the titular Michael, an up-and-coming artist who resides with his mentor/lover, the great Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen). Zoret is a great influence to Michael but their relationship is threatened when Zoret's new patron, Countess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor), who is after Zoret's wealth and seduces Michael as a means of getting to the money. Michael is a slow moving drama that can be a bit difficult to get into. It's worth your time just to watch a silent film that is so frank about the characters' sexualities The beautiful cinematography by Karl Freund doesn't hurt either. Furthermore, fans of Walter Slezak's later work, American films like Come September and Life Boat, will find him delightfully unrecognizable and the handsome Michael.

Michael is available on DVD through Kino Lorber and for digital rental or purchase through Kino Now.

Victor and Victoria (1933)
Directed by Reinhold Schünzel

Love Victor/Victoria (1982)? Here's your opportunity to watch the original! Victor and Victoria (1933) is a vivacious German musical that had me absolutely transfixed. It has an energy that is just infectious and kept me wanting more. Renate Muller stars as Susanne, a singer looking for her big break. She befriends Victor (Hermann Thimig), a vaudeville entertaining known for performing in drag as his alter-ego Victoria. When Victor falls ill with a cold, he convinces Susanne to pretend she's a man performing as a woman to cover for him. Susanne makes an unexpected splash as Victoria and continues the ruse by pretending to be a man who dresses up as a woman on stage full time. When she starts to fall for Robert (Anton Walbrook) things get a bit complicated. This was my favorite film of the three. And heck I'll go as far as to say it's even better than Blake Edwards' remake. I'd watch this again and again and it's already on my wishlist to get this on Blu-ray.

Victor and Victoria is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray through Kino Lorber.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Coquette (1929)

Directed and produced by Sam Taylor, Coquette (1929)A Drama of the American South stars Mary Pickford in her first ever talking picture. Pickford plays Norma Besant, a "silly little coquette", as she calls herself, who enjoys being the toast of the town. She's the beloved daughter of Dr. John Besant (John St. Polis), and the sister of the equally frivolous Jimmy (William Janney). Norma comes from a wealthy family and could have any guy she wants, including Stanley Wentworth (Matt Moore) who is absolutely smitten with her. Instead she's fallen in love with Michael Jeffrey (Johnny Mack Brown). He's from the bad part of town, has never had a steady job and can't afford the suit he'd be required to wear to take Norma to the Summer social. And Dr. Besant wants nothing to do with him. It's clear that their relationship is not off to a great start. Determined to earn Norma's affection fair and square, Michael leaves for a few months to make something of himself. He returns earlier than expected and the two lovebirds are reunited. When a scandalous rumor makes its way through the town, Michael and Dr. Besant come face-to-face and a tragic incident changes Norma's life forever.

"He's a diamond in the rough."

Coquette was based on Jed Harris' stage play and adapted by George Abbott, Ann Preston Bridgers, John Grey and Allen McNeil. Sam Taylor contributed to the dialogue and the film was produced independently and distributed by United Artists. Sets were designed by William Cameron Menzies.

This film's historical significance is more interesting than the film itself which I found to be quite dull and lifeless. The period between 1927-1929 was crucial as the industry was transitioning away from silents. A talkie debut was a big deal. For Mary Pickford it launched the next leg of her acting career and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. The Academy Awards were still brand new and Pickford, ever the visionary, decided to campaign for the coveted prize. She did a publicity tour to drum up interest in the movie as well as in her nomination. This is commonplace now but was a brand new concept back then. Pickford's plan worked, the film was a success and she won the award. However, because Pickford was a founding member of the Academy, some felt that favoritism came into play.

Coquette is a silly Southern drama that I found needlessly frustrating. There is a lot of talk especially between Johnny Mack Brown and his rival for Mary Pickford's attention, John St. Polis, but no real action or reaction. Michael is never given a chance to prove himself and Dr. Besant is an elitist jerk. Overall the film lacked the emotional gravity and nuance that would have me feeling invested in the characters and their journey.

Watch Coquette for the delightful Mary Pickford's talkie debut, for the utterly handsome and underrated Johnny Mack Brown and for Louise Beavers who has a small role as the Besant family maid and Pickford's confidante.

Coquette (1929) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection and can be purchased at the WB Shop. When you use my buy links you help support this site. Thank you! 

This is Coquette's DVD debut. George, D.W. and Matt of the Warner Archive Podcast discuss this film in the Dynamite Dames episode.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of Coquette (1929).

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache

"Here is a woman who helped invent cinema, and there is a silence around her. It's absolutely intolerable and even stupid that we can't see these films." - Nicole Lise Bernheim, circa 1975

I’ve heard it said many times that we must preserve Alice Guy-Blache’s legacy. I didn’t fully appreciate the weight of this statement until I saw Pamela B. Green’s documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache. This early filmmaking pioneer was present for the birth of cinema and helped shaped it at its very inception. She wrote, produced and directed and used filmmaking techniques such as close-ups, tinted color, synchronized sound, double exposure and various special effects that would become essential to filmmakers in the silent film era and beyond. She worked with various studios and in 1910 co-founded Solax Studios in Fort Lee, NJ with her husband Herbert Blache and business partner George A. Magie. After two decades of work and a thousand films, she disappeared from the industry and was mostly forgotten. In the years that followed and as film history was taken more seriously, Guy-Blache’s contributions were not recognized in the same way as her peers, including other women filmmakers like Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner. Her legacy fell victim to deceit and the spread of misinformation. At the end of her life, she fought to set the record straight on many matters and her daughter Simone Blache even published her memoirs. But history still threatened to forget Guy-Blache forever. What needed to change? Her surviving films needed to be found, restored, viewed, studied and discussed. The more we learn about Alice Guy-Blache and her work, the better we can maintain an accurate depiction of the early days of cinema and the people who made it all happen.

Be Natural takes an investigative approach as it explores Alice Guy-Blache’s life and career, uncovers information, seeks out family members and interviews contemporary filmmakers in an effort to give Guy-Blache the recognition she deserves. The documentary employs mixed media visuals, archival photographs, interview footage with Guy-Blache from the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The film is narrated by Jodi Foster who also served as executive producer. While I was watching the film I thought to myself that this would be just the sort of project that Hugh Hefner would have invested in and I was right! He was also an executive producer along with Robert Redford and Regina K. Scully among others. There are so many talking heads in this documentary that it’s a bit overwhelming. Some discuss Guy-Blache at length and others appear for just a quick soundbite. Filmmakers featured include Peter Bogdanovich, Geena Davis, Agnes Varda, Diablo Cody, Ben Kingsley, Ava DuVernay, Kathleen Turner, Gillian Armstrong, Janeane Garofalo, etc. There are also interviews with family members, historians, professors, authors and archivists. Classic film enthusiasts will recognize some familiar faces including Kevin Brownlow, Anthony Slide, Cari Beauchamp and Jan-Christopher Horak. The documentary was inspired by Alison McMahan’s book Alice Guy Blache, Lost Visionary of the Cinema and director/producer Pamela B. Green established a Be Natural research team who did the investigative work on the film.

The documentary is choppy and jumps around a lot. Sometimes at a dizzying pace. I wish it could have slowed down and taken its time a bit. That doesn’t diminish the documentary’s importance which is profound. The film speaks to those of us who believe in the preservation of history and the acknowledgment of great works of those who have since passed on. Time and neglect can erase history and its up to us to speak Alice Guy-Blache’s name, to watch her films and to let future generations know about her story. Be Natural leads the charge in the name of Alice Guy-Blache.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache is a profoundly important and enlightening documentary on an early filmmaking pioneer that time threatened to forget.

screens in select theaters this summer and fall. Visit the official website for more information. The film will be available on digital July 23rd and DVD August 20th from Kino Lorber.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Alice Howell Collection

Distilled Love (1920)

Ben Model's Undercrank Productions has released The Alice Howell collection, a two DVD set featuring 12 short films from master silent film comedienne Alice Howell. A mix of screwball and slapstick comedies, Howell knew how to entertain audiences with her knack for physical comedy, her amusing expressions and signature look. Model offers the following description:

"The character that she had developed was a slightly addled working-class girl with a round Kewpie-doll face topped off with a mountain of frizzy hair piled high on her head."

Howell reminds me a lot of British comedienne and actress Dawn French. As as a silent film star Howell pretty much stands on her own. Howell's career began when she and her husband relocated to California when he fell ill. Howell found work as an extra for Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company. She eventually graduated from extra to supporting cast to leading lady. In addition to Keystone she also worked for L-Ko Komedy, Century Comedies, Emerald Film Co., Reelcraft and Universal. 

Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917)

The shorts in The Alice Howell Collection have been digitally remastered from 35mm and 16mm print. Sources include the Library of Congress, the BFI National Archive, the Danish Film Institute among others. Each film is presented with an original musical score written and performed by Ben Model himself. A brief intro explains what's been done to restore each film and points out any missing scenes/reels, title cards or notable damage. The films are all offered in the best presentation possible making this collection of early comedies well worth the investment of any silent film enthusiast.

The films in the set include: 

Disc One:
Shot in The Excitement (1914) 
Father Was a Loafer (1915) 
Under New Management (1915) 
How Stars Are Made (1916) 
Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917) 
In Dutch (1918)

Disc Two:
Distilled Love (1920) 
His Wooden Leg-acy (1920) 
Her Lucky (1920) 
Cinderella Cinders (1920) 
A Convict's Happy Bride (1920) 
Under a Spell (1925)

I didn't know anything about Alice Howell until I received this set and she's been a delightful discovery. My favorite shorts in the set include the boozy and whacky adventure comedy Distilled Love (1920) which features Oliver Hardy in a very early role, the madcap screwball comedy where Howell has triplets (in addition to her four kids) and her loser husband tries to abandon the family with hilarious results Father Was a Loafer (1915) and the backstage comedy (with an explosive ending!) where Howell pretends to be an actress to appear on promotional float How Stars Are Made (1916). Other notable films include Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917) which is the only surviving film of the six shorts she made with Century Comedies and His Wooden Leg-acy (1920), one of several films Howell made in Chicago and is a side-splitting rags to riches to rags tale.

Alice Howell was a daredevil comedian and some of the stunts she did in the film are as impressive now as they were back then. She's largely forgotten today but is well overdue for a comeback. If you've never heard of Howell but love silent comedies or you're a well-established fan, you need to get your hands on this set!

Thank you to Ben Model for sending me a copy of this set for review!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Found at Mostly Lost Vol. 2

Found at Mostly Lost Vol. 2
On sale October 30th

Earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival I attended a presentation on the Mostly Lost workshop and let’s just say I was utterly fascinated. For those of you unfamiliar with Mostly Lost, it’s a film identification workshop run by the Library of Congress at their National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA. Started in 2012, the workshop gathers historians, experts and fans to collaborate on identifying silent and early sound films. These are movies, pulled from the LoC’s film archive, that are missing titles or other identifiers or have been previously  misidentified. Attendees are encouraged to shout out anything they recognize whether it’s an actor or actress, a film studio logo, a location, a period style of dress or hairdo, car models, or anything that will provide some information about the film. Live music, by silent film accompanists like Ben Model, is performed at these screenings. Attendees bring laptops, smartphones, books, etc. to help them in their research. This sounds like such a fun workshop especially for any film historian who loves research. It's also another way in which the Library of Congress contributes to film preservation and knowledge.

Thanks to Ben Model and his distribution company Undercrank Productions, a selection of films identified during the workshop are now available on DVD! In Found At Mostly Lost: Volume 2, Model offers 10 shorts ranging from 7-22 minutes in length. These films were identified by the Mostly Lost team during 2015-2017 workshops and features new piano scores by accompanists Philip Carli, Andrew E. Simpson and Ben Model.

Do Me a Favor (1922)

The DVD includes the following:
Adolph Zink (1903) - Thomas A. Edison Co. - 11 minutes
And the Villain Still Pursued Her; or the Author’s Dream (1906) - Vitagraph - 8 minutes
Derby Day (1922) - Monty Banks - 12 minutes
Do Me a Favor (1922) - Snub Pollard - 10 minutes
The Faithful Dog; or, True to the End (1907) - Eclipse - 8 minutes
The Falling Arrow (1909) - James Young Deer - 8 minutes
Fresh Fish (1922) - Bobby Bumps (animated)  - 7 minutes
In the Tall Grass Country (1910) - Francis Ford, Edith Storey - 10 minutes
The Noodle Nut (1921) - Billy Bletcher - 8 minutes
The Sunshine Spreader (1920s) - 22 minutes

Monty Banks and Lucille Hutton in Derby Day (1922)

My favorite film of the collection was Derby Day, a hilarious 12 minute short starring Monty Banks as a guy who just wants some lunch. In his pursuit for food, he gets caught up in random, bizarre situations that culminate with him racing in a local Derby. The only downside to the short is that it came with German title cards, one of which I stopped to translate online just to figure out what was going on.

Another comedy short I enjoyed was The Noodle Nut, a zany story about two noodle factory workers vying for the hand of one woman. They compete to sell a pack of 5 foot long noodles to a Mack R. Roni, a noodle buyer. The man who sells the noodles gets the girl. Things go awry and hilarity inevitably ensues.

Fresh Fish was an interesting short, a mix of live action and animation. This cute story features a young boy hand cranking an animated movie while his cat watches on. Within the animation is the story of a boy going fishing with his dog. Eventually the animated dog and the live action cat interact with each other.

The collection also features a few dramas. My favorite of those was The Faithful Dog, a tragic tale of a blind beggar and his beloved companion who sticks with him to the bitter end. I also enjoyed In the Tall Grass Country, a modest story of a country boy in love with a girl who has mistaken his sister as a rival love interest.


Found at Mostly Lost: Vol 2 DVD goes on sale 10/30/18. This would make a great gift for the silent film enthusiast or film history buff in your life.

Thank you to Ben Model of Undercrank Productions for sending me a copy for review!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille and his crew headed to the Nipomo Dunes of Guadalupe, California, a small town 160 miles north of Hollywood. DeMille brought with him carpenters, electricians, sculptors, painters, set decorators and many more to build a giant set for his new film The Ten Commandments (1923). His crew got to work on building a 900 feet wide and 100 feet tall set which included 20 Sphinxes and four 35 ton statues of Ramses. It was one of the biggest sets in movie history. Too big to build on the Paramount Studio lot, DeMille needed a wide open space that could double as Egypt and the Guadalupe dunes was just the location. The whole project was one of Biblical proportions well-suited for a film director whose approach to films was nothing less than epic. Too large to move back to Hollywood, the set's fate was up in the air. What would DeMille do with it? If he left it there, rival filmmakers would discover it and take advantage of their masterpiece to make their own movies. DeMille would have none of that. So he decided to bury the set, the entire set, in the sands of the dunes.

"If, a thousand years from now, archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian Civilization... extended all the way to the Pacific coast of North America. The sphinxes they will find were buried there when we had finished them." - Cecil B. DeMille

Fast forward 60 years later. It was the early 1980s and filmmaker Peter Brosnan and his team had set out to find the buried set of The Ten Commandments. It was a project that would be plagued by setbacks and bureaucratic red-tape. Brosnan's documentary, The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille (2016), tells the story the archaeological dig that spanned over 3 decades. What seemed like a relatively straightforward dig became anything but that. The film also explores the making of DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923). Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Brosnan and his team searched for those who worked on the film and Guadalupe locals who either witnessed the production or were extras on the set. As a result of their work to capture these stories, Brosnan provides a plethora of archival footage. In this we find lots of interviews with extras, witnesses and with other figures including Agnes DeMille (Cecil's niece), screenwriter Jesse Lasky Jr., actor Pat Terence, actress Leatrice Joy (audio only) plus many of the people involved in the archaeological dig. There are also contemporary interviews with Peter Brosnan, his team members including Bruce Cradozo, Richard Eberhardt, Kelvin Jones, and DeMille's granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley. And to my surprise the documentary also covered the making of the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments which helps complete this almost century long story.

What the film lacks for in production quality it makes up for in a riveting story. The archival footage of the dig and the last surviving witnesses to the 1923 filming add much value to this documentary. I was riveted by the story of Brosnan and his team's quest to uncover the buried set. This is a fascinating documentary and well worth the time of any serious classic film buff.

The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille is now available for digital download. I encourage you to give this one a try. You can find the movie on iTunes.

Additional links: My review of The Ten Commandments (1923).

Friday, September 29, 2017

Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life (1928)

1928 is one of the most fascinating years in film history. Hollywood was in a state of transition, quickly trying to learn how to match visuals with sounds to deliver talking pictures to an eager public. The industry had already mastered the silent film making process and were churning out good quality movies. Many projects in the works were put on hold until talkie versions could be created. Other completed works were retrofitted with talking and singing sequences and synchronized sound to create part-talkies. Beggars of Life (1928) was one of those movies.

With all the other studios racing to create talkies, Paramount presented their first ever contribution with Beggars of Life. Synchronized sound of music, gun shots, moving trains, etc. added to the silent picture. A singing sequence filmed with Wallace Beery was added to the movie after it was completed. The retrofitted scene was used to market the movie. Advertisements proclaimed "come hear Wallace Beery sing!"

Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life (1928)
Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life (1928)

 "Even them people in feather beds ain't satisfied -- we're all beggars of life." - Jim, as played by Richard Arlen

Inspired by the popular memoir by Jim Tully, Beggars of Life follows the story of Jim and Nancy, two hoboes on the move. Nancy (Louise Brooks) is an orphan who killed her adoptive father when he tried to rape her. She encounters hobo Jim (Richard Arlen) and the two set off. They don't intend to stick together. It's only when Jim learns that Nancy is wanted for murder and there's a $1,000 reward for her capture that he feels protective of Nancy. They plan to train hop their way to Alberta, Canada to escape the police and find a better life for themselves. On the road, they meet a band of hoboes and Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery), a booze-loving member of the crew who takes a particular interest in Nancy who is dressed like a man but later revealed to the others to be a woman. With the cops on their tail, Nancy, Jim, Oklahoma Red and the rest of the hoboes set off on a train-hopping adventure complete with a spectacular crash.

Beggars of Life was directed by William Wellman for the then Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation. Wellman once called the film " the best silent picture I ever made." Beggars of Life was considered lost until Kevin Brownlow discovered 16mm print in London during the 1960s. The original soundtrack for the film is still considered lost so while we see Wallace Beery singing and title cards with lyrics help us out, we can't hear him.

Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life (1928)
Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks in Beggars of Life (1928)

Beggars of Life displays the sophistication of silent filmmaking that was possible in that era. The quality would significantly change while studios were getting over the learning curve of making talking pictures. Beggars of Life teamed up Louise Brooks and Wallace Beery for a second time. They appeared in the 1927 film Now We're In the Air. Louise Brooks was reaching the peak of her fame and sports her trademark Lulu haircut in the film. I enjoyed her performance and that of Richard Arlen who plays her love interest Jim, based on the real life Jim Tully. The film suffers from some antiquated notions especially with Edgar Washington's stereotyped African-American character. This sort of thing is unfortunately part and parcel with movies of the era. Real life hoboes were hired to play themselves in the film and overall the film is given a very gritty realistic feel even with the glossiness of it's high production value.

Kino Lorber recently released the DVD and Blu-Ray as part of their line of Kino Classics. Their home video releaseis a digital reproduction of George Eastman Museum's 35mm restoration. The preservation was funded by The Film Foundation and the DVD and Blu-Ray release features a new score by The MontAlto Motion Picture Orchestra. The Blu-Ray includes audio commentary by William Wellman Jr. and Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society. The Blu-Ray edition is of spectacular quality. I can only imagine what we have access to now looks even better than what was screened in 1928.

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me this movie to review!

Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel by William Wellman Jr.
Beggars of Life Huffington Post article by Thomas Gladysz
Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zaza (1923)

Zaza (1923)

In 1923, Gloria Swanson was a bonafide star. She had over 40 films under her belt and a few more years of silent film fame ahead of her before the industry transitioned to talking pictures. Then there is her fabulous comeback with Sunset Blvd. (1950) which is a completely different story.

Hollywood director Allan Dwan, inventor of the camera dolly, had his eye on Zaza, a French play by playwright duo Pierre Berton and Charles Simon. The play was a major hit, capturing the end of the Gay Nineties of Paris for future generations. It was adapted into film a couple of times before Dwan got his hands on it. Dwan convinced Adolph Zukor of Paramount to buy the rights for a film adaptation and he had one star in mind for the lead role: Gloria Swanson.

Dwan and Swanson had met briefly at a Hollywood party before but had never worked together. The director's reputation preceded him and Swanson knew well that he had worked with countless other big name film stars. It was inevitable that they would work together. However Swanson was worried that Zaza would prove to be just another period costume picture. She'd been in several leading up to 1923. According to her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Dwan told her "I want your costumes to be authentic and exciting, sassy and vulgar, and Norman Norell will give me exactly what I want." In this film adaptation, Dwan and his team switched things up to portray the story in a more modern setting with costuming to match.

Swanson was so excited for the role that she delayed having minor surgery in New York City to be in the film. Dwan convinced Paramount producers Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor to speed up the filming schedule for Swanson's sake. They found a mansion on Long Island that doubled as a French chateau. Swanson stayed in actor Richard Bennett's NYC apartment and commuted to Astoria and the mansion for filming each day. This was back when Paramount had a studio in Astoria, Queens and did a lot of filming on Long Island.

To star alongside Gloria Swanson, Paramount enlisted H.B. Warner, an actor whom contemporary audiences will recognize as Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Back in the early '20s he was a well-known stage actor and went on to play Jesus Christ in Cecil B. Demille's King of Kings (1927). Also in the cast is Mary Thurman who plays Florianne, Zaza's on stage rival. Tashman had much promise as a film star but tragically died in 1925 at the age of 30 when she caught pneumonia while making Down Upon the Suwanee River (1925). (Side note: that film also stars Charles Emmett Mack who also tragically passed away while making another film two years later.) Fans of Helen Mack will delight in seeing her at the age of 10 playing the role of Lucille Dufresne.

Zaza (1923) is a story about famed soubrette Zaza (Gloria Swanson) who dreams of performing in Paris and falling in love. She has her eye on patron of the arts Bernard Dufresne (H.B. Warner) but her drunk Aunt Rosa (Lucille La Verne) is trying to persuade her niece to snag Duke de Brissac (Ferdinand Gottschalk) instead (after all he has a nice wine cellar!). Zaza is a temperamental star, quick to bouts of anger and loves to drive her rival soubrette Florianne (Mary Thurman) mad with jealousy. Both Zaza and Florianne want Bernard but what neither of them knows is that he's married and unavailable. However, Bernard can't help himself and gives into Zaza's charm. She wins him over at her French chateau where she is recovering after a fall. They spend time together before Bernard is called away for a position in Washington D.C. He's been estranged from his wife who comes back into the picture only when she sees his prospects increased. Eventually Zaza discovers that not only is her love Bernard married but he also has a charming little daughter Lucille (Helen Mack). She can't bring herself to break up the family and she runs away from Bernard. The story becomes less about life about the stage and more about the romantic drama caused by Zaza and Bernard's passionate love for each other. The story doesn't end there and you'll have to watch the film to find out what becomes of the two.

Gloria Swanson in Zaza (1923)
Gloria Swanson as Zaza

Even though Dwan promised Swanson that this wouldn't be another costume picture, Zaza (1923) is kind of another costume picture. My fellow vintage fashion enthusiasts will delight in the extravagant and sometimes ridiculous fashions donned by Gloria Swanson in the film. Imagine the merchandising that could have resulted from this film? Swanson wears Z-shaped earrings and a bracelet with Z mark on it that could have easily been sold to young women who wanted to be as fabulous as Swanson. Swanson wears a fantastic flower dress, dons an outlandish feathered hat, 1920s shoes that are to die for and in one scene she has what looks like about 50 earring type jewels dangling precariously from threads of teased hair. It must be seen to be believed.

Gloria Swanson as Zaza. Photo source: Pinterest

The film starts out as a comedy but quickly turns into a romantic drama. It was quite enjoyable and worth watching especially if you have an interest in Gloria Swanson. It does have his bad moments including one racist remark uttered by Zaza and an unfortunate scene with a hunchback. This is one of those films in which the history of the movie is even more interesting than the plot.

Swanson worked well with Dwan and they went on to make 7 more films together. The play Zaza was adapted several times including a 1938 version that starred Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall. Zaza revitalized Gloria Swanson's career, which had been in a funk after all those costume pictures, and it catapulted her fame. Any anonymity she enjoyed prior to Zaza was long gone.

Zaza (1923) Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber

Zaza (1923) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. The music for the film is by my favorite silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis whom I've written about on this blog numerous times. He adapted the music from the original 1923 cue sheet.

Thank you to Kino for sending me a copy of this film for review.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935

The Dawn of Technicolor book

The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935
by James Layton and David Pierce
448 pages - 9780935398281
February 2015
George Eastman House
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells

Technicolor wasn't just a technology. It was a vision, a company, an aesthetic and a movement. Film scholars James Layton and David Pierce gave themselves the monumental task of detailing the early and complicated history of Technicolor. The end result was the book The Dawn of Technicolor published by George Eastman House (now known as the George Eastman Museum). The focus of this book iss the formative time between 1915 and 1935 when the film industry was still growing and changing and when the forces behind Technicolor defied all odds to bring color to the movies.

"In enduring these twenty challenging years, Technicolor solidified its position as a market leader in Hollywood and perfected its technology to set the standard for the industry." - Layton and Pierce

It's important to note that this book does not seek out to tell the history of Technicolor movies. Rather it seeks to tell the story of how Technicolor as a technology was invented, implemented and how it eventually became an industry standard.

"Motion pictures are an art form enabled by technology." - Layton and Pierce

The level of technical detail in this book can be overwhelming. It is not a light read but one that is worth the time of any serious film student or budding scholar. Layton and Pierce thoughtfully lay out the history of the company that started Kalmus, Comstock and Westcott, Inc. in Boston, grew into Technicolor which expanded over the years and eventually made it's permanent move to Hollywood. There is much detail about the important figures in the company, many of whom were engineers from MIT. Biographical inserts go into detail about the life and careers of these figures.

Herbert T. Kalmus and company worked tirelessly to make Technicolor a functional and desirable part of making movies. They worked at a financial loss for many years.  Studios resisted Technicolor in those early years because of cost, availability of equipment and potential for failure. It was difficult for the engineers at Technicolor to ensure consistent quality when creating prints. Color film required more attention and money than a black-and-white film. According to the authors, "the film companies were vertically integrated operations, and they wanted to control as many aspects of their business as possible." 

Making Technicolor work required tenacity, constant tinkering and perfecting of the technology and a strong belief that there was a future in color films. The industry's transition to sound also resulted in a boom for color movies. As you read the book you learn about the ups and downs, the business and technological difficulties with Technicolor as well as it's eventual transition from the two colors of red and green to a three color process.

The Dawn of Technicolor book
Interior spread of The Dawn of Technicolor. Note the green and red tinted pages and custom bookmark.

The Dawn of Technicolor is a scholarly work formatted as a coffee table book. This proved to be a challenge for this read. The text is rich with detail and there were not enough visuals for it to be the type of book that you can just flip through. It took me several hours to read this book and I carried it with me everywhere. It weighs a great deal, is very cumbersome to hold and it was inevitable that the spine would break from the strain. If I were the publisher of the book, I would have gone with a smaller format, still large enough to showcase the gorgeous visuals but small enough that one could spend hours reading it comfortably.

The book has over 400 glossy pages, red and green tinted pages to mimic 2-strip Technicolor and extensive backmatter. After the main body of text, there is an annotated filmography which is worth the price of the book alone. It is over 100 pages long and includes extensive detail on every single early Technicolor film ever made. Not only does it list basic information like title, director, studio, cast, synopsis, release date but also has information on the Technicolor elements, whether they exist, notes about the release and reception as well as the current status of archival holdings. Films in this filmography include all color silents and talkies, feature films with color inserts, shorts, animations and abandoned films like The March of Time (1930). It boggles my mind how much work must have gone into collecting all this information and laying it all out. It's worth going through these and learning about the different films. There is no information about home video release in this filmography.

The films discussed in the book start with The Gulf Between (1917) and end with Becky Sharp (1935). Other films discussed at length include:

Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), The Toll of the Sea (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), Seven Chances (1925), The Black Pirate (1925), The American Venus (1926), The Mysterious Island (1928), The Viking (1928), Redskin (1928), On with the Show (1929), Rio Rita (1929), Sally (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), King of Jazz (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Mamba (1930),  Whoopee! (1930), Doctor X (1932) and more.

A heads up to my fellow Boston area classic film enthusiasts, there is a lot of detail in the book about Technicolor's origins in Boston. Our city was a hub of scientific innovation and it's interesting to see how a city so far away from Hollywood could have such an impact on the film industry.

Painstakingly researched, The Dawn of Technicolor is the definitive book on the history of this technology.  There is no resource anywhere that will have the level of detail and the volume of information on early Technicolor. It sets the standard for future scholarly works. This book comes highly recommend and is a must for your film studies library.

Now I leave you with a new-to-me discovery, the Fashion News color shorts of the late 1920s. I had never heard of these until I read the filmography in The Dawn of Technicolor. I found one from 1928 on YouTube. Enjoy!

This is my third review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. I purchased a copy of The Dawn of Technicolor at Cinefest in 2015 and got it autographed by both authors.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Capitolfest 2016

Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY
Capitol Theatre - Rome, NY
Last week we packed up the car and traveled 300 miles to Rome, NY for Capitolfest #14. This journey was filled with ups and downs but the end goal was always to watch rare movies from the 1920s and 1930s on the big screen with my fellow classic film enthusiasts. We marveled at the newly restored King of Jazz, scratched our heads in confusion as we tried to make sense of Just Imagine and marveled at Capitolfest’s star Gary Cooper whose smoldering good looks and on screen charm was only enhanced by his youth.

Capitolfest is a film festival that is hosted every August in Rome, NY at the historic Capitol Theatre. Each festival highlights one star with alternating years featuring an actress or an actor. This year’s highlight was Gary Cooper and out of the 14 feature films he was the star of 5 of them in addition to shorts and a film fragment.

The festival is three days but I was only able to attend the first two days before heading back home. In addition to the festival films, there were also several screenings of the King of Jazz (1930) in the smaller theatre next door. I took advantage of the opportunity to see a polished up version of this odd yet hypnotizing musical revue.

There are plenty of perks that come with attending Capitolfest. You're welcomed with a badge and a printed festival guide complete with a schedule and very thorough notes on each film. The majority of the movies were shown in 35mm, much preferred over digital by many. It doesn't make much difference to me but it made the world of difference to many of the attendees. Prints of the various films shown were provided Universal Pictures, UCLA Film & Television Archive, MoMA, The Library of Congress, private collectors and other sources. There were intermissions and extended lunch and dinner breaks. This made long festival days much more manageable. The dealer's room was stocked with goodies and festival goers often stepped away from the festival to shop for some gems and enjoy the air conditioning. There was a mixer, a barbeque, lots of snacks at the concession stand and friendly staff members ready to answer any question. And if you were lucky you caught a glimpse of Kallie hanging out in the Capitol Theatre window.

Kallie the Capitol Theatre cat
Kallie the Capitol Theatre cat

Smaller Capitol Theatre screening room

Films at Capitolfest 14 included:

Features – Doomsday (1928), Linda (1929), Dude Ranch (1930), Children of Divorce (1927), Just Imagine (1930), The Texan (1930), Eleven PM (1926), The Poor Rich (1934), Dressed to Kill (1928), Up for Murder (1931), Too Much Harmony (1933), While New York Sleeps (1920), A Man from Wyoming (1930), Wolf Song (1929)
Presentations – George Willeman Presentation on the Edison Kinetoscope and The Dawn of Technicolor: Talkies
Kinetoscope shorts – The Old Guard (1913), The Edison Kinetoscope (1913), The Five Bachelors (1913), The Edison Minsters (1913), The Deaf Mute (1913), The Musical Blacksmiths, Nursery Favorites (1913), Jack's Joke (1913)
Shorts – Lightnin’ Wins (1926), Hit and Run (1935), Under the Daisies (1913), Me and the Boys (1929), Jack Theakston's Short Subject Follies (including a video of Joseph Breen discussing code enforcement)
Cartoons – Merry Mannequins (1936), A Boy and His Dog (1936)
Fragments – Arizona Bound (1927)

Here are some of my thoughts on some of the films I saw:

Linda (1929) – This was my favorite film of the festival. Directed by a woman (Dorothy Davenport, billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid), based on a novel written by a woman, starring a woman Helen Foster in the lead role of Linda and features a strong female character and a good role for the prolific actress Bess Flowers. This film has a nice twist to the married-the-wrong-guy story line and Linda can easily be seen as a feminist heroine. There was subtle hint that Flowers’ character Annette Whittmore is in love with Linda. This theme of suggested same sex relationships showed up in a few of the films at the festival.
King of Jazz (1930) - Out of all the festival films this was the only one I was familiar with. The restoration of this dazzling red, green and silver showcase of musical talent was sight to see. It's an assault of two-strip Technicolor on your eyes. So much so that you'll want to bury your face in some yellows, purples and blues. It's worth it though, especially for the wonderful the Rhapsody in Blue number which tries so hard to be blue but winds up more of a turquoise green.
Lightnin’ Wins (1926) - A short featuring Lightnin' the dog, a canine star of the silent and early talkie era. Features a young Gary Cooper who gets beat up over and over in the movie. It's a fun little movie.
Children of Divorce (1927) - Many were excited for this film but were left disappointed. I wasn't one of them. I quite enjoyed this dramatic silent picture about two girls, growing up as children of divorce whose bond follows them into adulthood. Starring Clara Bow and Esther Ralston as the best friends who are practically a couple themselves, they eventually fall for men, Gary Cooper and Einar Hanson. Bow meddles a bit too much in everyone's lives and things spiral out of control. The story plays with gender roles and even features a tender moment between Cooper and Hanson. It's a Jazz Age morality tale but with a bit of something something that will keep contemporary viewers interested.
Just Imagine (1930) - An El Brendel film from 1930 depicting what life would be like in 50 years time. I was born in 1980, I love retrofuturism so it was a must for me to see what Pre-Code Hollywood thought of my birth year. Man what a doozy. This one was a WTF film if I ever saw one. Everyone has numbers instead of names, people travel in flying cars, couples assigned marriage partners by a court of law which they can appeal, a dead El Brendel is frozen from 1930 and revived in 1980 and there is a trip to Mars. Female leads include Margaret O'Sullivan and Marjorie White.  Actors John Garrick and Frank Albertson have a strong bromance and El Brendel gets a Martian boyfriend. Fun moment during the screening, the Captiol Theatre's resident bat came out to enjoy the film.
Eleven PM (1926) - This film added some diversity to the line up. Directed by and starring Richard Maurice and featured a mostly black cast. It was an odd story and a bit difficult to follow especially after lunch when drowsiness starts to set in. This rare film was recently released as part of Kino Lorber's Pioneers of African-American Cinema.
The Edison Kinetoscope Presentation & shorts – George Willeman of the Library of Congress was on hand for this very special presentation. Willeman discussed the origins of the Edison Kinetoscope, the history of the shorts made and the story of how they were restored digitally synching the visuals and audio. Over the three days, Capitolfest attendees got to see several digital presentations of these shorts. Some of these films haven't been seen by the public in over 100 years.
The Dawn of Technicolor Presentation - James Layton, half of the team behind The Dawn of Technicolor book (I'll be reviewing this one shortly) and the Cinefest and TCM Classic Film Festival presentations, was on hand to discuss Technicolor talkies. The presentation included information about the history of Technicolor, clips from two-strip Technicolor musicals and more. Even though I was familiar with the book and had seen a version of this presentation at Cinefest last year, it was still a delight.
The Poor Rich (1934) - Take a bunch of beloved character actors and comedians put them in a crumbling mansion and what do you get? A hilarious Pre-Code treat. Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Thelma Todd, Leila Hyams, Una O'Connor, Grant Mitchell and Andy Devine star and there are small performances by E.E. Clive, Ward Bond and others. Funny plot, great cast made this film such a delight.
Up for Murder (1931) - A 1930s feast for the eyes! Worth the price of admission alone to see Genevieve Tobin's glorious Art Deco apartment. A baby-faced Lew Ayres stars as an up-and-coming professional at a city newspaper. He falls in love with society columnist Tobin who is having an affair with the boss Purnell Pratt. They could only get away with the film's ending in Pre-Code Hollywood. Had it been made three years later the ending would have been very different. Beloved character actor Frank McHugh has a small role as Ayres' perpetually drunk best friend and coworker.

The Dawn of Technicolor - The March of Time (1930)
The Dawn of Technicolor Presentation

My experience at Captiolfest had its ups and downs. The pain from sitting in uncomfortable seats soured my long weekend (being trapped in a car for hours before and after didn't help either). Would I recommend it to fellow filmgoers? Yes but with one caveat: you must have a love early cinema and have the patience for oddities. Here are what I think were the pros and cons of Capitolfest:

A chance to see rare films
A community of early film enthusiasts
An appreciation of 35mm over digital
An air-conditioned dealer’s room packed with movies, books, memorabilia
Lots of breaks ranging from 15 minutes to 2 hours
Nearby health food store and cafe Brenda’s was a wonderful lunch and snack spot
Coffee and tea available at the concession stand to keep you caffeinated
Two amazing presentations: Kinetophone and Technicolor
Mixer with free snacks and cash bar the day before the festival
Historic theatre with a lot of the original features in tact.
Plenty of free parking
No standing in line, plenty of seats. You're guaranteed a chance to see every film.
Watching Kallie the cat in the Capitol Theatre window

Uncomfortable seats with scratchy upholstery and very little leg room. I was in pain for several days.
August isn’t ideal. The humidity and heat was overwhelming. The theatre is too large to air condition. (Added to note that the Capitol Theatre was indeed air conditioned.)
Little to no introduction to the films. You had to read the liner notes in the booklet.
I kept comparing it to Cinefest.

Original Capitol Theatre seat in balcony with wire rim for holding a hat.
They kept a few of these originals for prosperity.

One of the main draws for me was seeing familiar faces from the TCM Classic Film Festival at a venue that was a lot closer to home. I got to hang out with Aurora, Alan, Anne-Marie, Colleen, Nora, Jeff, Jocelyn, Beth Ann and many more. Below is a family photo of some of us courtesy of Aurora of Citizen Screen.

Capitolfest Family Photo - via Aurora

Capitolfest 15 will be held August 11-13, 2017 in Rome, NY and the featured star will be Fay Wray.

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