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

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Ten Commandments (1923) with Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

What's Easter without a good Biblical epic? When Jeff Rapsis told me he'd be performing at a screening of The Ten Commandments (1923) on Easter Sunday I knew I had to be there. I've been studying Cecil B. DeMille's life and work recently and was really curious about his part-historical part-modern take on the ten commandments story. And as Rapsis often reminds us seeing a silent on the big screen with live music was the best way to watch it.

This screening was one of several in the ongoing Silents, Please! series at the historic Somerville Theatre. There were about 50 in attendance on Easter Sunday. I overheard someone say that seeing a silent film with live music was something on his "bucket list". This intrigued me especially since I've been spoiled by many silent film screenings with live music and I forget that there are people out there who haven't had the pleasure of the experience yet. It's good to remember what a treasure it is to have talented musicians who love to perform alongside silent films and how we are blessed with the availability of many films from the past.

David and Jeff Rapsis at the Somerville Theatre

David, the theatre's projectionist, gave a brief talk before the start of the film. He  told us that Cecil B. DeMille's success with Biblical epics made him a household name. Audiences back then wanted to see a DeMille movie not because of the acting but because of what David called "that peculiar DeMille touch." DeMille knew how to do lavish productions and this was reflected in his work. David also went into DeMille's conservative politics and his involvement in blacklisting during the McCarthy era. I didn't understand why this was brought up except to give some context to DeMille's penchant for Biblical stories. DeMille also really liked to put sex in his films (Cleopatra and The Sign of the Cross anyone?) but that's a story for another time.

The Egyptian set from The Ten Commandments (1923)

The sets used in The Ten Commandments were full scale and not miniatures as Jeff Rapsis explained in his intro the film.  They were built in the Guadalupe Sand Dunes in California, quite a ways away from Hollywood. Since they couldn't bring back the sets to the lot and DeMille was hesitant to have them used for other films, they were bulldozed, covered in sand and hidden for decades. Ninety years later archaeologists found them and are keeping themselves busy digging up the sets to restore them for public display.

Carlos and I right before the film started
The Ten Commandments (1923) is almost two-and-a-half hours long. The story of Moses and ancient Egypt takes up the first hour of the film and is followed by a contemporary morality tale. We essentially get the history of the ten commandments followed by their significance in a post-WWI world.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and it's easy for us to judge the past. We can point our fingers at this film and make fun of it or we can chose to appreciate it for what it is: a fine melodrama with a religious message. I found myself happily lost in DeMille's style of dramatics, visuals and symbolism. I knew about the shift from the distant past to the "modern day" 1920s which helped because otherwise a viewer might be caught off guard.

I was intrigued by the film's consistent use of quotes from Exodus (and Numbers) for the title sequences in the first part. Those larger-than-life Egyptian sets are a feast for the eyes. The special effects used in the parting of the Red Sea will seem a bit hokey to contemporary eyes. To get the effect, the filmed water flowing over blue gelatin backwards. When you see it you can spot the gelatin right away.

The modern story in the film was used to convey several themes and storylines: the breaking of the ten commandments, the moral conflict between older and younger generations during the roaring twenties, a love triangle, sibling rivalry, good versus evil, corporate corruption, etc. They even managed to put leprosy into the contemporary tale.

This is the first film I've seen featuring actress Nita Naldi. She plays the French-Chinese seductress Sally Lung. Her character escapes from a leprosy colony on a shipping vessel and wreaks havoc on the life of Danny McTavish played by Rod La Rocque. Naldi's curvaceous figure and smoldering stare makes her the perfect choice for a silent screen temptress. I was quite mesmerized by her scenes and now I want to see more of her work.

As always Jeff Rapsis did a fine job with the musical accompaniment. I'm not sure how he can keep his energy ip through longer films but he does. I love tapping my feet to the music and am always excited to hear the dramatic music he plays during climactic scenes. He'll be performing again throughout the year at the Somerville Theatre and I hope to catch a few of his upcoming performances.

What film did you watch this Easter?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinefest, Part II: The Films

Read Part I here.

Thursday at Cinefest was a warm-up; it didn’t quite feel like a first day at a festival. I spent most of the day traveling, hanging out with my friend Jonas, drinking a gin and tonic and when I had some energy I took in a couple of films. I caught the tail end of The King of the Kongo (1929), Chapter 10. This serial has been restored chapter by chapter and #10 was presented with its original soundtrack and in the best shape possible. In attendance was Cinefest regular Leonard Maltin. This would be the first of many sightings. The only full screening I caught on this day was the Hal Roach short Lucky Beginners (1935). It was comprised of talented unknowns who won a contest to be filmed for this variety show style short. At this point I was feeling the effects of travel fatigue and while I made my bet attempt to watch Janet Gaynor in The Return of Peter Grimm (1926) I realized I needed more than anything.

This was a good call because by Friday I was refreshed and ready to tackle a full day of rare cinematic treasures. In fact, I caught the entire first block, which started with the Vitaphone short Service Stripes (1931), a military comedy with musical numbers. The first feature of the day was the pre-code Men on Call (1931) starring Edmund Lowe, Mae Clarke and William Harrigan. This rarity was so rare that most of the organizers hadn’t seen the film. But just because a movie is rare doesn’t mean it’s good. Men on Call is a morality tale typical of the era. A woman must be punished for her sexuality but when it comes to light that it was all a misunderstanding everything is okay in the world. This was an okay film with a too-neatly wrapped up ending. I love films that showcase a particular job or industry. The Men on Call in this film were coast guards.

Me and the Boys (1929)

I was very eager to watch the next film on top; the jazz short Me and the Boys (1929). It was considered lost for many years. Luckily for us it was unearthed in 2013. Although it usually takes several years for a film to get funding for restoration, there was so much excitement for this two-song treasure that it all came together very quickly thanks to Hugh Hefner, Cinefest and the Vitaphone Project. The UCLA Film & Television Archive had screened it earlier in the week at their own festival and, after a faulty start, all of us at Cinefest got to delight in this rare jazz era wonder.

Cinefest had two Hal Roach shows with shorts and footage from Dick Bann’s personal collection. I caught the first of these two shows. It kicked off with Las Fantasmas (1930), an Our Gang movie in phonetic Spanish. As someone who is fluent in Spanish can tell you, the Spanish was pretty bad. Jackie Cooper’s was the worst. One of the actors seemed to be a native speaker and he’s pretty much the only person I could understand. I loved when one of the Our Gang members exclaimed “y, como!” which is the Spanish translation for “and how!”. We also saw a coming attractions trailer promoting There Goes My Heart (1938), introduced by a very young Ed Sullivan, unedited TV footage from the 1950s of the Hal Roach studio before it was torn down, more unedited footage of the old Our Gang introducing the new generation, a beachside family comedy Dad’s Day (1929) starring Edgar Kennedy and the zany Charley Chase comedy short Crazy Feet (1929) which featured Thelma Todd.

Speaking of Thelma Todd I had the pleasure of meeting Scott, a Cinefest regular and a funder of a variety of Vitaphone shorts. He was wearing a watch once owned by Thelma Todd. It was a present from her comedy partner Patsy Kelly. It was definitely a geek moment to see a treasure like that up close!

Thelma Todd wearing the watch in Top Flat (1935)

After lunch we were all treated to the presentation “The Story of Color in the Movies” hosted by film historian Eric Grayson. We saw examples of a variety of color processes including Pathe stencil (each frame painted by hand), Kinemacolor, 2-strip Technicolor (red and green), Cinecolor, Kodachrome, Eastman Color and 3-Strip Technicolor. The goal with color film was to get the technology right so that the filmmakers had the same ease and functionality of black-and-white filming. There were a lot of failures along the way. Cinecolor couldn’t focus, Eastman color would turn red with age, you couldn’t make negatives, and thus prints, with Kodachrome , 2-strip Technicolor had glue problems and Kinemacolor required expensive equipment and a trained technician. 3-strip Technicolor was considered the best because it ran the full gamut of color but it had issues including color leeching. It was a fascinating presentation. There was a Q&A afterwards and I learned that East of Eden (1955), shot in Warner Color, a version of Eastman Color, aged so poorly that it had to be digitally restored and original negatives are pretty much useless.

Up next was the Fox film The Painted Woman (1932). It’s a drama set in the South Seas and it reminded me of pre-code favorites Red Dust (1932) and Safe in Hell (1931). The Painted Woman, Peggy Shannon, is on the lam and being blackmailed by a ship captain. When she learns he is lost at sea, she marries sea rover Spencer Tracy. This one has a very similar plot line to Safe in Hell but with a much happier ending.

Image via Nitrate Diva

One of the highlights of the festival was the bizarre Warner Bros. film The Second Floor Mystery (1930). Directed by Roy Del Ruth it stars Grant Withers and Loretta Young. I’ve never seen a mystery take so many twists and turn as this one did. It was really quite the head scratcher but enjoyable nonetheless. Loretta Young never looked so beautiful and her meet-cute with Grant Withers (they quibble over strawberries and grapefruits while having breakfast at separate tables) is adorable.

The first screening after Friday’s dinner break was The Bride of Finklestein. This was a new short made in the style of the 1930s. It’s a Jewish Bride of Frankenstein meets Wheeler & Woolsey. It was a bit of a gamble to screen this in front of the Cinefest audience but we all enjoyed it.

One of the highlights for me was Richard Barrios’ A Song in the Dark presentation. I’ve read Barrios’ books A Song in the Dark (the definitive guide to early musicals) and Dangerous Rhythym so I was excited to see what he had to offer. Barrios’ presentation included some great clips including the first ever musical number filmed: the New York Philharmonic playing Tannihauser by Wagner in 1926. There were also clips from Rio Rita (1929), Broadway Melody of 1929, Let’s Go Native (1930), March of Time (which was never released but fragments exist in other films), Golden Dawn (1930), College Humor (1933), The Cuckoos (1930), Glorifying the American Girl (1929), It’s a Pleasure (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1946), She’s Working Her Way Through College (1952) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). I was secretly hoping for the I Want to Be Bad number by Zelma O’Neal from Follow Thru (1930) but no such luck. It was probably shown at a previous Cinefest. I had a blast at Barrios’ presentation. He ended it with a surprise clip, a tribute to Cinefest:

Needless to say everyone got a bit teary eyed. After that epic presentation I had no more energy and had to call it quits for the night. This meant I missed watching Norma Shearer in Lucretia Lombard (1923) but seeing as I had a copy at home I promised myself a private viewing later.

Private viewings are a thing at Cinefest. Many folks bring their own projectors and have invitation only screenings in their hotel rooms.

Annette D'Agostino Lloyd and Jeff Rapsis
The Saturday of Cinefest started off with a bang. I went to the morning screening of Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929). Originally filmed as a silent, it was converted to a talkie to meet the current demand. Most folks know the talkie version and the silent version we saw not quite an original but the best that could be put together, is considered far superior. Prior to the screening there was a presentation by Harold Lloyd historian Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (no relation). She discussed the history of the film and how we came to see the silent film version today. The ever-talented Jeff Rapsis delivered an energetic performance and his musical accompaniment received a standing ovation from the audience. And let me tell you it was well deserved. In fact all of the music performed during the festival was quite a treat to hear. Good music and rare films; Cinefest was spoiling us.

Immediately after we had a lunchtime presentation by James Layton and David Pierce, authors of The Dawn of Technicolor. This presentation is also being held at the TCM Film Festival but that one will be 90 minutes where as the Cinefest presentation was shortened to an hour. They figured the well-schooled audience would be bored by information they already knew. But at the end we all realized we would have liked to have seen the entire 90 minute presentation.They showed clips of It’s a Great Life (1929), Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Sally (1928), The Doll Shop (1929) and The Show of Shows (1929). I learned that the coming of sound spurred an interest in color in film. Color was used to enhance production value and in really early cinema it wasn’t economical to make a film 100% color. One or two scenes, a grand finale or most of the picture would be filmed in color but at least something would be black-and-white.

There were several book signings at Cinefest. I got my copies of Barrios’ books signed and I also bought a copy of Layton & Pierce’s The Dawn of Technicolor.

After an extended lunch break, I came back to watch Sea Sore (1934), an RKO short and the Fox film My Lips Betray (1933) starring Lilian Harvey and John Boles. Harvey was a star in Europe but an unknown in Hollywood. My Lips Betray was to be her break out film but it didn’t quite do it for her. Harvey plays Lili, a performer who is desperately trying to get a job so she can pay her rent. By chance she gets a ride in “his majesty’s car” and her neighbors start a rumor that she’s the king’s favorite. The King, played by John Boles, is intrigued and falls in love with spirited but confused Lili. The plotline of this film reminded me very much of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), right down to the beer garten!

Before the big Colleen Moore extravaganza, we all had some fun watching an odd little WWII wonder Tea Making Tips (1941). We quickly discovered we’ve been making tea all wrong!

Joseph Yranski, a friend of Colleen Moore, spoke a few words before that evenining’s special screening. Yranski was instrumental in finding the once lost Syntethic Sin (1929). The film came together when it was discovered that Ron Hutchinson from the Vitaphone Project had the last sound disc and Yranski had the movie from the Milan Archive. Because the film is missing the first 5 sound discs, an accompanist played music for the most of the film and then stopped when the 6th disc played. The film was great fun. Colleen Moore plays Betty Fairfax, a young actress desperate to make it big. She gets a part in a show put on by her love interest Donald (Antonio Moreno) but she lacks the life experience that would make her part believable. So she goes to the city in search of sin. For contemporary fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this silent wonder will be a real treat. It’s ending is a bit of a let down and there is a black-face number that is way too long but otherwise Synthetic Sin was the sinful delight we all expected it to be.

Poster of Synthetic Sin at Cinefest

On the last day of Cinefest, I only had time to catch one movie. The Big Broadcast (1932) brought radio to screen. I thought this one might be more of a variety show but they worked in a plot. The storyline was boring and strange. I just wanted to see the acts! Musical numbers performed by the Boswell Sisters, Kate Smith, Cab Calloway and my personal favorite the Mills Brothers in addition to the main star, crooner Bing Cosby, made this one of the highlights of my trip to Cinefest. I didn’t realize the Mills Brothers were in the film so I squealed with delight when I saw them in the opening credits.

The Mills Brothers

Before we packed it up and called it a day, we stayed for most of the Cinefest auction. It was hosted by film critic Leonard Maltin who did a great job keeping us all entertained even when the items for sale were not that interesting. Items for sale included a James Cagney bookplate, 8mm and 16mm movies, laser disc sets, books, slides, posters and anomalies like a George Burns doll. The big ticket item while I was there was a Gene Autry guitar with case and chord selector. From what I heard afterwards, the also sold all of the projection equipment used for Cinefest. A few items didn’t sell but most objects found new owners.

It was sad to say goodbye to Cinefest, and to Jonas too. I had a wonderful time at this festival and I only wish there was another one to go to. Thanks for the memory Cinefest!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen
by Ruth Barton
Hardcover, 262 pages
ISBN: 9780813147093
October 2014
University Press of Kentucky

Barnes and Noble

Rex Ingram was once a famous director from the silent film era and today is virtually unknown. His name was eclipsed in fame by another Rex Ingram, the actor and some of his films eclipsed in fame by remakes. According to legend, Rex Ingram, whose real name was Rex Hitchcock, once suggested to a young Alfred Hitchcock that a name change was crucial for future success.

"Changing his name was another statement of intent, not just an homage to his mother [Ingram was her maiden name] but a firm break with his father's ambitions for him." - Ruth Barton

Ingram's legacy, or lack thereof, is a complicated matter author Ruth Barton tackles in this new biography. Barton makes the case that Ingram was a talented director with a unique vision but whose career was often sidetracked by his independence, rebelliousness, perfectionism and temper.

"Fired by the idea that the movies might just be the "seventh art," they determined to test the boundaries of this new medium to create films that would be artistic masterpieces of their generation." - Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram was famous Hollywood figure in his day. He was a visionary whose imagination and artistic skill helped sculpt an industry in its early years. He was known for his trademark of open and unexpected endings. Ingram's filmography includes The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924), Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927).   Most of his films were re-made in his lifetime.
 "Rex was torn between the lure of mass entertainment... his own suspicion of mainstream culture, coupled with an embedded reluctance to conform." - Ruth Barton 
Ingram helped launch the careers of legendary actors Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro (note: it's stressed in the book that he didn't discover Valentino). The actress Alice Terry, who went on to become his second wife, was his muse, his leading lady and his travel companion. She was the most important person in his career and even co-directed Ingram's final film Love in Morocco (1933).

Alice Terry and Rex Ingram (Source)

Over the length of his career in film, Ingram bounced from studio to studio. Some of these include Biograph Studios, Vitagraph, Fox, Universal, Paralta Studios, MGM and more. He butted heads with movie moguls including Louis B. Mayer. He worked with D.W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, Erich von Stroheim, Thomas Edison and was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was particularly touched by an anecdote about how Ingram showed kindness to a yet unknown Merle Oberon. She was being neglected by the industry because of her ethnicity. Ingram thought her exotic look beautiful and hired her as an extra in one of his films.

"His refusal to kowtow to Louis B. Mayer or recognized the authority of MGM had made him powerful enemies and placed him outside the most influential film making system in the world." - Ruth Barton

Ingram was born in Ireland but once he left he never came back. Even though he made his home in the US, he fell in love with North Africa and the Middle East and converted to Islam. Ingram also loved the French Rivieria and made films at Victorine Studios. His distaste for Western culture grew over time. After retiring from film, Ingram concentrated on his passions for sculpting, writing and traveling.

Barton tries to rescue Rex Ingram from complete obscurity by piecing together his life story and sharing it with readers. Her book is not the first on Rex Ingram but is the only one in print and readily available. Barton also had access to Ingram's memoirs which gave her a lot of insight into his life and career.

I had difficulties both reading this book and writing the review. I didn't know much about Rex Ingram and I had only seen a couple of his films. Not knowing about a figure of film history has never been a barrier to prevent me from reading and enjoying a biography. However, in this case I felt that if I had more familiarity with Ingram's work I would have benefited from when reading the text. It's a double-edge sword because more familiarity with Rex Ingram will allow for his films to become more readily available to the public.

All fingers point to Ingram's story being interesting, especially since he was such a rebel, but it's really not. Ingram wanted to make art and film was just a medium for him. Had he real passion for film and continued to work in the field his story would have been a lot more interesting.

I recommend Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen to serious film students and silent film buffs only. If you really want to dig deep and learn about early film history, this is a good pick. Otherwise, you may want to skip it.

Overview: A difficult read but worth the effort if your interest in the silent film era is strong.

Thank you to the University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lonesome (1928) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with Alloy Orchestra

Coolidge Corner Theatre sign lit up at night is a beauty to behold.
Lonesome (1928) on the Coolidge Corner Theatre marquee.

Last night was simply magical. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Pál FejösLonesome (1928) on the big screen. This event took place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA and was the grand finale of their Sounds of Silents repertory series. It included live musical accompaniment by the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra. I had seen the Alloy Orchestra before at the Somerville Armory back in 2009 for a Halloween screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But that was so long ago and I was over due for another of their fine performances!  The combination of a great silent film and a wonderful musical performance all in a glorious Art Deco theater made for an unforgettable evening.

Before things got started, a contributor to the Sounds of Silents series, Dr. Martin Norman*, spoke briefly about the film. There were about 200 people in attendance but it was fairly certain that most of them were not aware of this hidden gem. In fact Dr. Norman asked the audience to raise their hands if they had either seen Lonesome (1928) before that night or had at least heard of it. My hand shot up proudly. I was one of maybe 7 others in the audience who did so. My good friend Jonas, who has been so instrumental in my education of the early history of film, introduced me to Lonesome. I enjoyed it when I saw it the first time but I fell in love with it deeply on this night.

Coolidge Corner Theatre and Alloy Orchestra's set-up

Lonesome (1928) was a perfect choice for musical accompaniment. The chaos of those first scenes with the hustle and bustle of a busy New York City and the manic hurly burly of the carnival just begged for music and sound effects. Lonesome is a part talkie. It was originally intended to be a silent movie but given the growing popularity of talkies and the major shift in the industry, it was decided to shoot and add three talking scenes to the picture.

Pre-screening talk.

The presenter noted that several critics feel like the talking scenes distract from the picture and he agreed with them. I don't agree. The shift felt strange to some and caused audience members to laugh, but the part talkie element of the film suits it so well in my opinion. 1928 was a time of transition in Hollywood. The industry was moving away from silents and to talkies but was still trying to figure out how to get there and what audiences wanted. It was also a time when the Roaring Twenties were fading away and the Great Depression was just on the horizon. It's my favorite time in movie history because it's so unique. There will never be a time of such change in film history ever again and this film is a beautiful example of that historic shift.

What I find fascinating about the three talking scenes is the fact that they are some of the quietest scenes in the picture. The silent scenes are manic and loud and the talking scenes are of quieter and more reflective moments. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect! Lonesome (1928) is probably the loudest silent film I’ve ever seen.

Alloy Orchestra at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

The Alloy Orchestra entertained the crowd with their magnificent accompaniment. The three man orchestra plays with a variety of instruments. I always enjoy the sound effects in particular the whistle used to accompany the high striker in one of the carnival scenes. Irving Berlin’s Always is integral to the plot of the story and is featured twice in the movie. In the final scene, one of the members of the Orchestra sings the song through a cone which gave his voice the effect of sounding like an old record. It was my favorite moment of the performance!

Lonesome (1928) is a timeless masterpiece that is unfairly overlooked. It’s message is still relevant today: if we don't take the time to connect with our fellow man we can be lonesome even when surrounded by many. It's message is still relevant to audiences more than 80 years later. The hectic hustle and bustle of 1928 as depicted in the film is very similar to the chaos of 2014. Our technologies are more advanced and our culture is very different but at the root of it all we still suffer from the same disconnect that is a result of a life frantically lived.

It’s a short film but it makes quite an impact on anyone who watches it. The film's stars Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon are not big names but are perfectly suited for their roles. I particularly love the scenes of every day life. Jim and Mary getting ready in the morning, having breakfast, commuting to their jobs, working and clocking out at the end of the day. This movie is a time capsule of the late 1920s.

I went to see Lonesome (1928) all by my lonesome. I always used to always have a friend, or two or something 10 along with me to see a classic film on the big screen. Nowadays I'm lucky if I can drag my husband to a screening. Otherwise I just don't go. This made me think about reaching out to old friends, making new friends and also not being afraid to be lonesome. Being alone and putting yourself out there opens you up to the opportunity of meeting new people. And as we all know the new person dynamic is life changing.

Alloy Orchestra takes a bow.
Thank you to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Alloy Orchestra for a magical night!

*I'm not 100% of the presenter's name as I didn't write it down. If it's wrong, please let me know.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

Why Be Good? from Warner Bros.

The late silent film Why Be Good? (1929) was considered lost for many years. Not only has it been found but also restored and released on DVD much to the delight of classic film fans across the globe. The film stars Colleen Moore as Pert Kelly. She’s a shopgirl by day and a wild flapper by night. Pert’s reputation as as partier is all smoke and mirrors. She’s a good girl at heart and only wants the appeal the flapper lifestyle provides. Pert has caught the eye of Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). He’s mesmerized by her vivacity and beauty but equally perplexed by her reputation. Winthrop is now the head of staff at his father’s department store. Little do the pair know that Pert is a shop girl at the same store and it’s against the rules for him to date the staff. With added pressure from his father to seek out a virtuous girl, Winthrop sets a trap to find out of Pert is virtuous or if she’s just like all the other flappers.

The film is a morality tale but also a showcase of all the fun excesses of the flapper era. Fans of the 1920s will delight at all the party scenes, the dancing, the booze and the flapper dresses. Why Be Good? (1929) is in a very awkward spot in history. The film industry is transitioning to talkies and silent films are falling out of favor with the public. However, the silent films of the late 1920s have become more sophisticated in their story telling and their use of sound effects and music. It’s an often overlooked era in film but one that should be given plenty of attention. Also, the movie was released in early 1929 and serves as one big party before the stock market crash later that same year which sets off the Great Depression.

Below is a wonderful article by Jonas Nordin of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. He'll be posting it on his site but is giving me the pleasure of sharing it here first! His article gives a lot of background about actress Colleen Moore's career just before she made Why Be Good?, the making and critical reception of the film, details of the once lost film's discovery and restoration.

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

On February 28, 1928 Colleen Moore signed what was going to be her last contract with First National. Moore had been the company’s prime money maker since her big break in Flaming Youth back in 1923. Her previous contract had included four films made 1927-28, Her Wild Oat, Happiness Ahead, Oh Kay!, and the blockbuster Lilac Time.

The Swedish poster for Lilac Time

Early 1928 Colleen Moore was in a very good position to renegotiate her contract. One could say that the contract she was to sign was quite favorable. It stipulated that Colleen was to have final say over scripts, continuity, directors, photographers, male leads and cutting. She was obliged to make four photoplays and receive $150,000 per film. This made her just about the best paid actress in Hollywood at the time. Her husband and producer John McCormick who also was included in her contract didn’t believe in the coming of talking pictures so there was no mention of any singing or talking in the contract. One must also keep in mind that in February of 1928 talking pictures were just The Jazz Singer and some vaudeville shorts, nothing else.

The first film to be produced within her new contract was Synthetic Sin, a script which she approved of in March 1928. The script itself had been under development for over six months and Colleen was eager to shoot it. She still had to finish work on the last two films in the old contract first, Happiness Ahead and the silent version of the Gershwin musical Oh Kay!. Both were made during spring 1928 and opened in May and August respectively. Lilac Time was already finished and waited for the fall season with an August premiere and a general release in October. With its enormous sets and multitude of extras, Lilac Time had cost more than the other three films together, so it was crucial it became a hit. By the end of its lengthy run it turned out to become the second most grossing film during the 1920’s. The biggest money maker until 1939 was The Singing Fool which coincidentally went up side by side with Lilac Time in the fall season of 1928.
Work on Synthetic Sin started in September 1928 but the other three films in the new contract were not yet decided. Normally the studio had a fair amount of forward planning, and when a four picture deal was settled it was often known which films were to be produced. Scripts were usually approved and directors appointed well in advance. Sometimes things didn't run as smoothly. McCormick had a script called The Richest Girl in the World which he thought suitable as Colleen’s next offering. William A. Seiter was to direct it. Even a starting date for it was set to November 5th.

Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin (1929) - Film Poster

Hollywood movie making was quickly changing and with the thundering success of Warner’s second talkie, The Singing Fool in late September 1928, the other studios quickly had to reconsider their shooting schedules. First National decided that it would be favorable if Colleen agreed to do a talking picture since that was the new thing everyone was talking about. Colleen was the biggest star of the studio but her contract also granted her complete control and the possibility to refuse to talk on film if she felt like it, she had at least no contractual obligation to comply with this request. The studio cancelled The Richest Girl In The World because the script wasn't sufficiently developed (it was later revised into a 1934 Miriam Hopkins talkie, still with William A. Seiter directing it). First National suggested several titles to replace it, including When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Funny Face and Dangerous Nan McGrew, and it had to be a talkie. That was if Colleen would agree to renegotiate her contract.

In October 1928 Warner Brothers bought two thirds of First National and since Warner’s was the leading studio of the talkie craze the demand to release talking pictures grew day by day. Before renegotiating Colleen’s contract the studio wanted to make sure she had a voice. She recited the nursery rhyme Little Bo Peep as her voice test. Colleen’s voice recorded just fine and was indeed considered suitable for talkies. However, she still had to go to a voice coach and even take singing lessons like everyone else who wanted to be a star of talking pictures. The coming of talkies was clearly a way of the studios to clean out all sorts of disadvantages and put pressure on their stars.

By this time Synthetic Sin was almost finished and a script for a second silent comedy was quickly decided, probably to buy some time to prepare for Colleen’s first talkie. The script was initially called That’s A Bad Girl but the studio finally settled on Why Be Good? as the title. Mid November, just as shooting of Synthetic Sin wrapped, Colleen and McCormick took a week off and went through the heaps of suggested scripts to find the next film, Colleen’s first talkie. The choice fell on When Irish Eyes Are Smiling later renamed Smiling Irish Eyes, but it needed a lot of work to be turned into a working talking picture. Well home again, work on Why Be Good? started immediately. With the success of MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters that had been running since September, First National wanted a similar vehicle to cash in on the youthful shop girl movie fad.

In January 1929 Colleen agreed to renegotiate her contract with First National. The revision consisted in that the final two films left on her February 1928 contract were to be all-talking. She would get an additional $25,000 for each talking picture which meant she would get $175,000 per movie. McCormick who still was included in his wife’s contract was to get $35,000 per movie, a raise with $2,500. The contract more or less settled that the last silent picture Colleen was to appear in was Why Be Good?.

Magazine ad for Synthetic Sin

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?

Synthetic Sin opened January 6th 1929 but wasn't a big success according to period reviews. However it wasn't exactly a bomb either as the public quite liked it, even more so with Why Be Good? that opened two months later. It was clearly considered the better of the two. Why Be Good? was basically an updated remake of Flaming Youth and was marketed as such. The press called it “peppy and entertaining”. None of the two films were seen as remarkable or outstanding by any sense, just typical Colleen Moore comedies.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were shot almost back to back late autumn 1928, both had a synchronized score and sound effects but no dialogue. They were no high budget melodramas but quickly produced rapid paced comedies. Like so many other of Colleen’s comedies they were directed by William A. Seiter. As silent pictures quickly were falling out of fashion, the fan magazines and the press in general mostly neglected this type of movies in favor of bigger productions and all talking extravaganzas. We should be grateful that these two films have survived at all. Both actually did very well at the box office, each earning more than $750,000 against an initial cost of about $325,000, which was outstanding for silents in 1929, especially considering not very favorable reviews.

At the time when Why Be Good? was released there were rumors running that Colleen would make one talkie and then end her career. This may very well have been her initial thought but to fulfill her contract she had to make two talkies before she could bow out. Smiling Irish Eyes and Footlights and Fools, shot during the spring and very hot summer of 1929. Both were lavish all-talking productions that included big production numbers and several Technicolor sequences. Sadly, neither of the two survives today. Colleen was not at all pleased with how she turned out in them. She later said that especially Smiling Irish Eyes was a frightfully dull film and she wasn't surprised it flopped. Looking back this may explain why both her 1929 talkies were unsuccessful. She was clearly uncomfortable with the new way of making movies even though she had a voice. After fulfilling the contract Colleen took a break from movie making concentrating on dollhouses, successful investments and personal matters. Her days as a movie star were over.

Colleen divorced John McCormick in 1930. She returned to the screen briefly in 1933 and made four films for four different studios of which the first film, The Power And The Glory (Fox) is the one she liked best according to her memoirs Silent Star (1968).

The Restoration
Until the late 1990s both Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were thought to be lost. There is an extremely high mortality rate for films released during the 1927-29 transition period. A large fire at Warner Bros. in the 1950s destroyed the then-known prints.

Fast forward to 2002 and New York's Film Forum. Prior to a screening, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project updated the audience on the project’s latest activities. He casually mentioned that he recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore's Why Be Good?, and said something to the effect that "unfortunately, this is a lost film."

Film historian Joe Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center, had been a longtime friend of Colleen Moore's and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out "No it's not! I know where it is!" The full house at Film Forum cheered.

Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project

Ron immediately connected with Joe, and learned the sole known 35mm nitrate prints for both Why Be Good? and Synthetic Sin were in an Italian archive, donated to them decades before by actor Antonio Moreno. Thus began a decade long effort to negotiate the loan of both films for full restoration and synchronization with the existing Vitaphone disks. While the entire soundtrack to Why Be Good? survived in Ron’s collection, only the disk for the last reel and exit music was known for Synthetic Sin. Fortunately, a full list of Vitaphone music cues existed and was used to recreate the soundtrack.

Ned Price, Warner Bros. Chief Preservation Officer and the driving force behind the studio’s support of nearly 150 Vitaphone short restorations, personally interceded with the Cineteca di Bologna and negotiated a mutually agreeable arrangement to have both films restored and copies of both finished efforts given to the archive.

Work began late in 2012, with the professional transfer of Ron’s Why Be Good? disks and the lone disk for Synthetic Sin by sound engineer Seth Winner. The restoration effort represents a true partnership between Warner Bros., UCLA Film and Television Archive, Joe Yranski, and The Vitaphone Project, and was completed in June 2014.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were recently screened, for the first time in over 80 years, in 35mm and sound. The 2014 screenings in Bologna, Pordenone, London, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York were all literally packed to the last seat. One could assume that Colleen Moore's fan base is growing with these discoveries.

Seen today both films are definitely well budgeted, have strong First National art direction with a heavy art deco slant. In the case of Why Be Good?, there is the added attraction of Jean Harlow as a prominent dress extra (seen making out with a guy on a couch), and a super musical score with top jazz musicians of the period.

Jean Harlow in the background as an extra in Why Be Good? (1929)

Why Be Good? is available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive Be sure to get a copy of it.

The preservation state of the movies discussed above:
Her Wild Oat (1927) - Survives complete
Happiness Ahead (1928) - Lost
Oh Kay! (1928) - Lost
Lilac Time (1928) – Survives complete

Synthetic Sin (1929) – Survives with sound fragment
Why Be Good (1929) – Survives complete
Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) – Lost, sound survives
Footlights And Fools (1929) - Lost, sound survives

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Why Be Good? (1929) from Warner Archive for review. I promptly mailed that copy off to Sweden to Jonas and bought a separate copy for myself. Thank you to Warner Archive for the review copy!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peter Pan (1924) with Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis


On November 17th, Carlos and I headed to the Somerville Theatre to watch the silent film Peter Pan (1924) on the big screen with live music performed by my favorite accompanist, the talented and tireless Jeff Rapsis.

Watching this film was a treat considering how special it is. Peter Pan (1924) was the first film adaptation of J.M. Barrie's famous play by the same name. The play was also adapted by Barrie into a full-length novel which I listened to as an audio book before I attended this screening. I wanted the original story to be fresh in my mind while I watched the film. (You can check out my review of the novel on my book blog.)

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan

Author J.M. Barrie was directly involved in the production of this film. All of the inter titles are taken directly from the play's text, Barrie had approval of the actress who would play Peter Pan (it went to Betty Bronson after a very lengthy audition process) and because of his involvement the story stays as true to the original as possible. All of the special effects are done with as much creativity and ingenuity as possible in a time well before computers became a part of filmmaking. The children fly with the aid of wires that are virtually invisible, close-ups of Tinker Bell were filmed with actress Virginia Brown Faire alongside larger-than-life props and Nana the dog comes to life with the help of stage actor George Eli and a custom dog suit. If you are familiar with the original story, Nana the dog has remarkable abilities. She can bathe the children, feed them, tuck them in and otherwise care for them. It would not have been possible to accurate portray Nana with a real dog. However, a trained actor in a very elaborate dog suit will do just the trick. The costume comes complete moving eyes and mouth and a wagging tail. There are other animal/animal-like costumes in the film too, most notably the crocodile. The costumes are creepy by contemporary standards and they take some getting used to. The audience at the screening nervously laughed when Nana the dog made her first appearance. But once we all came to accept the weird looking dog, the other weird looking costumes seemed to fit in just fine. Legendary Edith Head is listed as an uncredited textile designer for this film. I wonder if she worked on the animal costumes?

This film is stunning in what it could achieve with costumes, camera tricks, props and clever set design.

George Eli in costume with Philippe De Lacy

There were two versions of the film made: an Americanized one and a British one. Even though the original story is absolutely British, the filmmakers thought an edited version would be more welcomed by an American audience. The term "British Gentleman' is swapped out for "American Gentleman" and there is an American flag and a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is performed.

The cast is made up of actors who are relatively obscure today. The most recognizable name is that of Anna May Wong who plays Tiger Lily. Actresses Betty Bronson (Peter Pan) and Mary Brian (Wendy) and actor Jack Murphy (John Darling) got their start with this film.

The most bizarre and tragic trivia fact about the movie is related to the two young actors who play the Twins, real life twin brothers Winston Doty and Weston Doty. Not only were they born on the same day, they also DIED on the same day. The Doty Twins were victims of the New Year Flood of 1934 and perished at the tender age of 20. So sad!

There is another interesting bit of trivia which had the makings of a tragedy but eventually achieved a happy ending. Disney made Peter Pan into an animated feature film and released it in 1953 (J.M. Barrie died in 1937). And in one of those stories that make us all shake our fists at the mass media corporation, Disney sought to destroy all copies of Peter Pan (1924) so there would be nothing to compete with their film. And for many years everyone thought they had mostly succeeded with there only being some defective copies available. In the 1990s, one original copy, in good condition, was discovered at the George Eastman House. It was restored and all existing copies of this film are from that one original.

Now onto the screening! Jeff Rapsis gave a very informative introduction before the film. A lot of the information I shared in this post came from both this introduction and his posts about the film on his blog. Rapsis gives us much needed context which has proven to be crucial for a contemporary audience to be able to understand and appreciate a film from so long ago. Rapsis is passionate about the films he screens, always very personable and approachable, loves to interact with his audience and always very creative with his music. The music during this screening was excellent. I loved how Rapsis did variations of the Pirate Song (Yo ho ho and a bottle o' rum) during the climactic scene which features a face-off between Captain Hook and his band of pirates and Peter Pan, the Darlings and the Lost Boys. 

Carlos and I had a lot of fun at the screening. It was a great film, great music and incidentally the popcorn so delicious we devoured it all in a couple of minutes. Note to local fans of the Somerville Theatre, they are celebrating their 100th anniversary next year. The celebration will include lots of classic movies, including some silents with live music performed by Jeff Rapsis! I'll be attending as many of those screenings as I possibly can.

Peter Pan (1924) is available on DVD from Kino Lorber. It's also in the public domain and available to watch in it's entirety on YouTube. I included the movie below. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Twenty Movie Musical Marathon & a Boxed Set Review

While I was at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the lovely folks from Warner Bros. let me chose one of their boxed sets to review. I chose their 20 Film Collection: Musical set because it had a lot of films that I hadn't seen yet. 

The Best of Warner Bros.: 20 Film Collection - Musicals boxed set contains 20 musicals spanning just over 60 years of time from 1927 to 1988. The set has a slipcase and on the back is a list of all the movies inside. There are three sets within which break up the movies into three different time frames: 1927-1951, 1951-1964 and 1967-1988. It's obvious from looking at the discs that they were meant for other DVD packages. Some say "Disc One" so you know there is a Disc Two with extras that lives in another DVD set somewhere. Most of the DVDs in this set have extras anyways so I didn't count this as any great loss.

Inside the set there is also a full color booklet. Each page of the booklet is devoted to a movie and has an image from the film, the title, a paragraph about it and lists Academy Award nominations and/or wins wherever relevant. This is a nice added bonus to this set.

The Jazz Singer (1927) - This was my first time seeing The Jazz Singer and I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. I'm not sure why but I was expecting a creaky clunker with little or no entertainment value but instead I got something quite different. The Jazz Singer is considered to be the very first talkie. It's really a part talkie and was intended to only have synchronized singing but with Al Jolson's ad libs there was some dialogue too. It's based on Al Jolson's own life and follows his rise to become a great entertainer.

The Broadway Melody (1929) - I had seen this film before and enjoyed it but on this viewing I became frustrated with Anita Page's character Queenie and felt compelled to smack her on several occasions. It's not a perfect early musical but definitely one to watch if you are interested in the time period and in the history of early talkies.

42nd Street (1933) - I have seen 42nd Street a few times before and the title song always seems get stuck in my head when I do watch it. The cast is magnificent: Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Una Merkel, Guy Kibbee, etc. It's notable especially for the Busby Berkeley choreographed/directed sequences and for the wonderful songs.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) - Oh my, this was quite a long movie wasn't it? This was my first viewing and going in I didn't realize it would clock in at 3 hours! The film is about the life of producer Florenz Ziegfeld and stars the dapper William Powell. His wives are played by Luise Rainier (perhaps the only surviving cast member?) and Myrna Loy, who doesn't appear until half way through the movie. This was a very entertaining film but overly long. I loved seeing a very young Dennis Morgan singing in one of the musical numbers.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) - I have always thought this movie was just plain weird. However, I have had a change of heart and that is primarily because I recently read the L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz earlier this year and fell in love with it. What made me want to read the book? Anne Hathaway did a marvelous reading for an Audible audiobook series. I really wanted to listen to her narration so I ended up reading the book that way. Also, I have been curious about why Dorothy wanted to go back to dreary old Kansas ever since I heard Director John Waters question this in the documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011). You can read my book review and my thoughts on Dorothy's attachment to Kansas here.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) - A new favorite! I can't believe I hadn't seen this film before. Another biopic musical, this time about the life of entertainer, playwright and songwriter George M. Cohan. 
This film reminded me how much I adore both James Cagney and Joan Leslie. Cagney's sister plays the Cohan sister and I found it very amusing that Walter Huston plays the patriarch of the Cohan family. Great film, wonderful musical numbers, great cast, entertaining all around. Will definitely be watching this one again.

An American in Paris (1951) - This movie has always felt a bit flat to me. My opinion didn't really change with this viewing. The visuals are great, Gene Kelly's dance numbers are divine and it is an amusing movie to watch but the story is a bit of a bore and I have little interest in the characters.

Show Boat (1951) - I had never seen this one before and it wasn't high on my list of films to watch. I tried to keep an open mind and watched it. It was meh. I found the musical numbers in the beginning to be entertaining but I found the film to be tiring. I enjoyed Joe E. Brown's performance and I thought Ava Gardner's character was the most interesting part of the film!

Singin' in the Rain (1952) - Pink. That's all I could think of during this viewing. PINK! I was watching a YouTube video in which a popular athlete says that he thought some bridesmaid's dresses his wife was going to chose for their wedding was too 1920s because they were Pepto Bismol pink. Well clearly he was a fan of Singin' in the Rain because there is a lot of pink worn in the film. Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, even Gene Kelly all wear pink in one scene or another. Repeat viewings of favorites always bring something new to the table.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) - This musical is one of my top favorite films so I'm glad to finally own a copy. I think it will look spectacular if it ever gets release on Blu-Ray. On this viewing I paid special attention to the choreography. The barn-raising dance scene is one of the most exquisitely choreographed and well-executed dance numbers ever. The impressive acrobatics just add to the entertainment. Every time I watch this movie I am reminded why I should never watch a wide-screen movie in pan-and-scan. Thanks for that TCM!

A Star is Born (1954) - There are quite a few gaps in my viewing of major motion pictures and I filled one in by watching A Star is Born. Yes, this is Judy Garland’s movie but I was much more fascinated with James Mason’s performance. There are two discs in the set and the version included is the full before 30+ minutes were cut for the theatrical release. About 5 minutes were missing and those were filled in with audio and publicity photographs. The ending almost came as a surprise until I remembered Don Draper in Mad Men talking about it in a scene from the show. Oh well! Not a new favorite and I still found it a bit too long but I appreciated seeing it in full.

The Music Man (1962) -  I was already disposed to not like this film but I was over by two things: the performance of the adorable little Ronny Howard and the film’s glorious ending. The Music Man in question is a traveling con artist and while he tries to swindle the townsfolk of River City out of their hard-earned money, he ends up giving the people something much more valuable in return: hope and a belief in themselves. This touched me greatly and I had a good sob by the film’s end.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) - I’ll watch anything that takes me back to the Las Vegas of the 1960s. If they ever invent time-traveling vacations, I would book a trip to that time and location straight away. I’m not a fan of Elvis but I nonetheless enjoyed this film immensely. I adore Ann-Margret and the music and dance numbers were a lot of fun. The plot is pretty interesting too! Overall this was a very enjoyable film to watch.
Camelot (1967) - Oh boy. I was majorly disappointed in this film and it's hard for me to articulate why It never captivated my imagination or attention and I didn't care for the songs. I was more fascinated by the on-screen and real-life affair between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero.

Perhaps my previous history with The Wizard of Oz made me a bit wary about this musical adaptation of a children’s book. I’m glad I watched it because what an entertaining film! It was a great study of how greed transforms us and how we should reevaluate what’s truly important to us. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the film as much as I did if it wasn’t for that moral to the story. I was particularly fascinated the curious fact that this is the only film Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie, ever did. What a way to both start and finish an acting career!

Cabaret (1972) - This was my first viewing and I was oddly fascinated by this film. 
This was my first viewing and while I was oddly fascinated by this film at the end I felt dissatisfied. I didn’t care for the vision of the 1930s through 1970s lenses and found myself annoyed by most of the characters. It was an entertaining movie, great plot and wonderfully raunchy musical numbers.

That's Entertainment! (1974) - Let’s just get one thing straight. This is a documentary type film that celebrates MGM. And it’s in a set celebrating Warner Bros. This confused me immensely and while it’s a great addition to a musical boxed set I thought it stuck out like a sore thumb in this set in particular. Lots of folks rave about That’s Entertainment and I had never seen it before. It was a bittersweet experience watching all those stars (Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, etc.) walking around the decrepit and abandoned MGM lot, talking about their glory days. However, even with my MGM-Warner Bros. objection, I think this is a great introduction for people who are not familiar with earlier musicals. I laughed when Frank Sinatra called the show girls from Broadway Melody of 1929 “overweight”. Yeah, okay buddy.

Victor Victoria (1982) - I don’t know why I compare Victor Victoria with Cabaret but I did and I found myself loving the former much more than the latter. Maybe because they were both nostalgic, featured Americans abroad and had gay characters. I have a new appreciation for the divine Julie Andrews after watching this film. The film is only a little campy, has loveable characters and great musical numbers. Enjoyable all around and I can’t wait to watch it again.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986) - I had seen this before but my husband hadn't so I decided we could watch this together. This film is the stuff of nightmares. I think I enjoyed it much more on my second viewing. The songs are wonderful, it's quite a unique story and I do enjoy a good Greek Chorus! Also, certain Family Guy episodes make much more sense after you've seen this film.

Hairspray (1988) - I knew almost nothing about this film when I sat down to watch it which I think was the best way to experience it. Hairspray is more a film with music rather than a musical film. It has John Water's signature touch: it's both bizarre and fun. I love the 1960s nostalgia but my favorite thing about the movie is it's message: don't ever be afraid to be who you are. That alone makes this film a winner.

With the Holidays right around the corner, this boxed set would make a perfect gift!

The Best of Warner Bros.: 20 Film Collection - Musicals
Available at the following online retailers:

Barnes and Noble

Turner Classic Movies Shop
Warner Bros. Online Shop

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