Showing posts with label Silent Films. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Silent Films. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Beverly of Graustark (1926) Undercrank Productions

photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive
Undercrank Productions, Library of Congress

Beverly of Graustark (1926) stars Marion Davies as Beverly Calhoun, cousin to Oscar (Creighton Hale), the prince heir of the fictional kingdom of Graustark. Beverly has intimate knowledge of the family and specifically Oscar with whom she was raised almost as sibling. Graustark is expecting his arrival for the coronation but shortly before setting out on the journey Oscar is severely injured in a skiing accident. General Marlanax (Roy D'Arcy) convinces Beverly that she can pretend to be Oscar and complete the journey for him. Oscar hasn't been seen publicly since he was an infant and Beverly is the one person who knows Oscar well enough to play him. Beverly dresses in royal uniform and makes the treacherous journey to Graustark. On the way, Beverly meets Dantan (Antonio Moreno) a dashing and handsome goat farmer who saves Beverly/Oscar from an ambush. Dantan takes on the task of being her bodyguard not knowing that Oscar is really Beverly. The two begin to fall for each other causing a major identity crisis for Beverly who is eager to become herself again.

photo credit: Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive
Undercrank Productions, Library of Congress

This film is an adaptation of George Barr McCutcheon's 1904 novel Beverly of Graustark. McCutcheon wrote a series of books about the fictional kingdom of Graustark a few of each had been adapted. Beverly of Graustark had previously been adapted in 1914 with actress Linda Arvidson in the title role. This 1926 adaptation was made at MGM where Marion Davies was a contract star. A castle set was built specifically for the movie and outside the studio on location shooting was done in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

I enjoy stories about gender and identity and while the conceit of Beverly of Graustark is not terribly believable, Marion Davies does a fantastic job playing both Beverly and Beverly pretending to be Oscar. She looks quite handsome in her royal uniforms! She's matched beautifully with one of the Latin Lovers of early cinema, Antonio Moreno. They both carry the film when the plot is lacking.

Marion Davies also starred in Little Old New York (1923), another film where she plays a young woman dressed like a man. I enjoyed that one better than Beverly of Graustark but also believe both could be enjoyable in a double bill. I reviewed the DVD release of Little Old New York from Undercrank Productions last year.

Beverly of Graustark is available on Blu-ray from Undercrank Productions. The film was digitally restored from a 4k scan of a 35mm nitrate print from the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center. The Blu-ray contains this restoration along with the 2-strip Technicolor sequence and an original score from silent film accompanist Ben Model. There are no extras but the restoration looks fantastic and the Technicolor sequence is a treasure (many others from this era are lost).

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

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #6 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Piccadilly (1929) Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Jameson Thomas and Anna May Wong in Piccadilly (1929)

Directed by E.A. Dupont, Piccadilly (1929) stars Anna May Wong as Sosho, a beautiful young woman who works as a dishwasher at the Piccadilly nightclub in London. Piccadilly is run by Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), a man as keen on making his business a success as he is seducing his leading lady. He's fallen for his star talent Mabel (Gilda Gray), a dancer who, along with her dancing partner Vic (Cyril Ritchard), entertains Valentine's eager crowd. Mabel is caught in a love triangle between Valentine and Vic. Valentine gets rid of the competition by firing the dancer and making Mabel dance solo. But now that Mabel is no longer forbidden fruit, Valentine completely loses interest. He turns his attention to Sosho (Wong). He spots her dancing on a table in the dishwashing room and fires her for goofing off. However, he soon re-hires her as an exotic dancer. Sosho comes to realize that the power dynamic in their working relationship has shifted. She's in control. Sosho takes great care to seduce Valentine, to get him to spend money on an elaborate costume for her and to hire her boyfriend Jim (King Hou Chang) as a musician. Mabel, however, is not about to let another woman steal her spotlight and steal her man. A new and even messier love triangle emerges and quickly starts to spiral out of control.

Piccadilly was released at a pivotal point in Anna May Wong's career and the film industry as a whole. Wong was frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Hollywood and by the time she had been cast in Piccadilly she was exclusively making films in the UK and Germany. Anti-miscegenation laws in the US prevented her as an Asian-American actresses from getting leading lady roles. In this British production, while she's not top billed, she is a central figure and carries on an affair with a white man. 

As talking pictures became increasingly more popular, silent films like Piccadilly were on their way out. There was a lot of pressure in the industry to retrofit silent films with talking sequences in order to capitalize on the craze. They added a five minute all-talking prologue to Piccadilly which sets up the movie as a flashback. It features Jameson Thomas as Valentine Wilmot, now running a beer shack after the scandal ruined his career. His conversation with a customer sets up the story to follow. It's incredibly boring and stilted and adds nothing to the story. Lucky for us, Piccadilly is still shown to modern viewers in its original form with the talkie add-on as an bonus feature.

Piccadilly was successful enough to serve as a springboard for Anna May Wong to return to her Hollywood roots. It helped her get a contract with Paramount studios which lead to her best-known role opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932). Wong is so dynamic in 

I enjoy Piccadilly mostly for Anna May Wong's performance. She’s so dynamic and enchanting in this film. I'm intrigued by how her character Sosho recognizes her worth and her power because this mirrors Anna May Wong in real life. She knew she had what it takes to make it as an actress and really leveraged that as best she could even though she lost out on so many opportunities because she was Chinese-American. 

The dance numbers in this aren’t great. Gilda Gray’s dance numbers really show that she wasn’t much of a dancer. Wong’s dance number is meant to be exotic. The dancing here is not an athletic feat. It’s supposed to titillate and tantalize. Wong draws attention to her body by swaying her hips and using seductive arm movements.

Piccadilly was released last month by Kino Lorber in collaboration with The Milestone Company and the BFI. This Blu-ray includes a beautifully restored and remastered print from the BFI. I love how the restoration really enhances the sepia tones and the blue tint used throughout the film. My only complaint about this edition is the musical score which doesn't really seem to suit the film, especially when it comes to the dance sequences.

Extras on this disc include the talkie introduction, a documentary on the making of the score, a panel discussion at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival about Anna May Wong. I enjoyed listening to the audio commentary by film historian and critic Farran Smith Nehme who offers a lot of biographical information on the different players involved in Piccadilly.


Piccadilly (1929) is available wherever Kino Lorber Blu-rays are sold.

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #3 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of this Blu-ray for review!

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Interview with Ben Model of Undercrank Productions


June 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions, a DVD distributor founded by silent film accompanist Ben Model. I've had the privilege to interview Ben Model at the TCM Classic Film Festival a few years ago. And now he's back with an interview for Out of the Past.

Check out my interview below. And if you're interested in buying some DVDs, Undercrank Productions titles are discounted on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

Raquel Stecher: I really enjoyed your recent performance at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival for the Rin Tin Tin movie Clash of the Wolves (1925). It was a festival favorite for sure! Can you tell me a bit about how you became a silent film accompanist?

Ben Model: I got my start accompanying films while I was a film production student at NYU. I was a big silent film fan growing up, and also played piano. The first semester of the basic overview film history course we all took Freshman year was silent films. And I do mean silent – these were screened in 16mm prints that had no soundtracks. I don’t know what possessed me but the next year I volunteered to play for the silent film screenings, and found myself playing for 2 or sometimes 3 classes a week. I made a point of meeting film accompanists in NYC to get advice. William Perry – who was MoMA’s film pianist 1969-1982 and scored films for “The Silent Years” on PBS – was a big help. Lee Erwin, who was the organist at the revival theater “The Carnegie Hall Cinema”, became a friend and mentor – Lee had been a movie theater organist in the 1920s

Still from Clash of the Wolves (1925)

TCM's Jacqueline Stewart with Ben Model at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival

Raquel: Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions! How did your label come about and how did you come up with the name?

Ben: A few things I was interested in kind of came together at the same time. I was looking for a way to do more scoring for silent films on home video than I was being hired to do already, I was interested in the process of how DVDs get made and released, and I was looking at ways of getting some obscure and rare silent comedy shorts I owned in 16mm out to fans who’d want to see them. During 2012, I figured out the various pieces of how this could happen, and also became aware of Amazon’s just-launched manufacture-on-demand DVD platform. Around the same time, I learned about Kickstarter, which had only been around for a couple years, and realized that involving fans of silent films in the process by crowdfunding my first DVD project, that would take care of the production costs. I’m pretty sure the Kickstarter I did to produce and release Accidentally Preserved was the first time this had been done with a silent or classic film home-video release. The whole thing worked, and I kept doing one or two of these every year. 

The name comes from my fascination with the way undercranking was used and utilized throughout the silent film era and was a ubiquitous part of the movie-making process for the camera operators and the performers. I thought naming my DVD company “Undercrank Productions” would help promote awareness of this. I also was looking for a name that had a few of “K” sounds in it. 

Raquel: How have you used Kickstarter as a platform to help create awareness and fund your projects?

Ben: I’ve found Kickstarter to be a great way to democratize the process of funding these projects. For the video I made for my 2nd or 3rd Kickstarter I came up with the tag-line, “Why not be part of the ‘someone’ in ‘why doesn’t someone put that out on DVD?’”. I try to emphasize the fact that if we all get out and push, we can make this happen. Ten years ago, it felt a little funny to be going hat-in-hand on social media, but by now – even 5 years ago – I think everyone gets it.

Raquel: What is the workflow like for your releases in terms of curation, restoration, accompaniment and distribution?

Ben: If it’s a disc of comedy shorts, Steve Massa and I start with picking an overlooked or forgotten comedian and then seeing if there’s enough of their films extant and available – through collectors or, more often, from the Library of Congress – to fill up a disc. Sometimes we’ve been able to add to a playlist of shorts with a title that we’d get, through the Library of Congress, from MoMA or the EYE Filmmuseum. We’ll screen the material for completeness and image quality and make a decision from there. Because these are fan-funded, manufacture-on-demand projects, that takes the issue of whether or not we’re going to sell 1000 or 2000 units off the table. Who the heck is Marcel Perez? Or Alice Howell? Nobody knows or remembers them, but that doesn’t matter. Once I have the funding from the Kickstarter, scans are ordered from the Library of Congress, and I get high-end video files of the film or films. 

If the Kickstarter campaign goes way way over the funding goal, then there’s a budget for digital restoration. Then there’s inter-title recreation, if needed. Then the restored version of the files get graded, which means someone goes shot by shot and corrects exposure, and will also reinstate color tinting if we know what it was supposed to be originally. Once we have the final version of the restored film, then I create a screener for myself, and create the scores on either piano or theatre organ.

Once I’m at that phase, Marlene Weisman begins work on the graphic design of the Blu-ray and DVD case. She is beyond fantastic, and I think the artwork on a release is crucial. It’s your first line of defense online, and makes an important impression – just because a release is self-published it doesn’t have to have a self-published look to it. Once all the video and audio pieces are done, then the “authoring” happens, when the files get woven into something that can be burned into a disc and play in your physical media player.

For distribution, I’ve been using Alliance Entertainment to do all the manufacturing, order fulfillment and online listings on the various platforms like Amazon and DeepDiscount, et al. The final files and graphics get uploaded to Alliance, and I set the street date. I write a press release and send it out to my press list, and we mail out copies of the finished disc to reviewers… and hope for the best.

Raquel: Tell me about your partnership with the Library of Congress and your Found at Mostly Lost series.

Ben: Rob Stone, who is a Curator in the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center, came up with the idea of doing this. He’d worked out a co-branding deal with Kino Lorber in 2012 for their release of King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis. I’m one of the resident silent film accompanists at the NAVCC’s Packard Campus Theatre, and am down in Culpeper VA for a show a handful of times a year. I was set to Kickstart and produce my 2nd project, The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (1916-1917), a slapstick comedy serial, and Rob got the idea to apply what had been done with Kino with me and Undercrank Productions. It meant I’d have to put the Library of Congress’ logo at the head of the film and on the DVD case, which was a huge plus for me. I had no name recognition, but the LoC sure did. 

Anyone can pay for scans of films from the Library, as long as they’re public domain films and have no donor restrictions, and get them as files or on a disc. My co-branding relationship with the LoC allows me to do a slightly deeper dive into the collection when I’m considering a film or bunch of shorts. It’s made it possible for me to release silent films that the more established labels might not be interested in, which is a win for the Library as it helps get films they’ve preserved and worked on get out that ordinarily wouldn’t see the light of day.

The two Found at Mostly Lost DVDs are actually comprised of films that were identified at the “Mostly Lost” film identification workshops held at the Library of Congress in the 2010s. These films had been scanned and scored for a DVD included in the “swag-bag” attendees got each year. My idea was to make these available for the general public, for the folks who were interested. The workshop hasn’t happened for a few years, due to the pandemic, and while there aren’t any concrete plans for when it will happen again, I’m hoping that it’s just hibernating and will resurface in the next year or so.

Raquel: You've done a great job releasing the lesser known work from some key figures from film history including Lon Chaney, Marion Davies, Frank Borzage and Edward Everett Horton. Why is it important that these rare silents be preserved and shared with silent film enthusiasts and beyond? 

Ben: The silent movies I release, thankfully, have already been preserved by the film archives. I feel like my role in the overall process is one of feeding and enriching the interest and fandom of silent cinema, including my own, by helping to fill out the landscape of silent cinema beyond the “usual suspects” tentpole films. These are the movies everyone went to see and enjoyed back in the silent era while they were waiting for the next Mary Pickford or Harold Lloyd film to be released.

Raquel: Is there one release that you're particularly proud of?

Ben: It’s hard to pick just one. But I’m really pleased with what we’ve done to make the films of comedian Marcel Perez available. Steve Massa got me interested in these, and they’re all excellent comedies. Perez was one of the many comedian-filmmakers of the silent era, physical comedians who also had a unique and recognizable directorial style. His own grandchildren–who Steve had connected with– had never seen Perez’s films and believed them to be lost. Most of his U.S.-made films are missing and we’re hoping more of them turn up so we can do a third volume.

Raquel: I really loved The Alice Howell Collection! Can you tell me more about how you came to curate and release that collection?

Ben: We have Steve Massa once again to thank for this project. Alice Howell is on the cover of his book Slapstick Divas, which is a huge book all about the women of silent film comedy. The more of her films we tracked down, watched, and showed in film programs we worked on, the more I thought a DVD of her films needed to happen. She starred in her own series of comedy shorts for about ten years and was popular and successful. You can see a link – even if it’s one you’re threading yourself – from Alice Howell to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett and onward. She’s also got an important Hollywood legacy: her daughter married film director George Stevens, and her grandson George Stevens, Jr. is a filmmaker, founder of the American Film Institute and is co-creator of the Kennedy Center Honors. The Alice Howell DVD wound up being a 2-disc set, and was another Undercrank Productions release that was done through my co-branding arrangement with the Library of Congress. 

Raquel: During the early days of the pandemic you and Steve Massa started The Silent Comedy Watch Party series which now has over 90 episodes on YouTube. Can you tell me how this came about?

Ben: I’d had the basic concept for this for a few years. Somewhere here I have a drawing I made of how the equipment and the piano would be set up. The second week of March 2020 we all knew something was coming and we didn’t know what, but things were beginning to close up a little, and we were starting to hear about staying 6 feet away from each other. I live-streamed the show’s pilot, sort of a proof-of-concept to see if I could do it and to see if it worked for viewers. The reaction we got was enthusiastic and heartfelt – people who posted comments or sent emails thanked us for giving them some laughs. It was that release from the stress we were anticipating we’d be under, and then a couple days later I watched every gig I had get canceled, and the shutdown happened. 

We now had to do the show, and had to continue doing it. There was nowhere for anyone to go, and we knew people really needed the laughs. This was more than just putting on a silent film show, we realized we were now helping people get through what they were going through. Marlene created the title logo for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, I figured out how we would bring Steve on from his place for his intros – for the pilot, he’d come over to my apartment – my wife Mana had to learn how to operate a camera and tripod, and she and Steve’s wife Susan worked out how they’d stage-manage the show together via text while we were “on the air”. And I now found myself in the position of silent film accompanist-presenter and also the director of a live television show, both at the same time. 

It was the comments we’d get every week from people who were watching around the globe that let us know how much the shows and getting to laugh and forget everything for 90 minutes every Sunday meant to them. Now I meet people at in-person shows who recognize me and come up and tell me how The Silent Comedy Watch Party helped get them through the pandemic. It’s very moving.

Raquel: What's next for Undercrank Productions and where can people follow you?

Ben: We’re releasing a disc of restored Raymond Griffith silent comedies on June 13th, and a disc of restored Tom Mix westerns on July 11th. We’re in the midst of production on a project of restorations of films starring and directed by Francis Ford, and I expect to announce a Kickstarter later in the year for our first collaboration with the UCLA Film & TV Archive. The month-long anniversary sale on all our releases during June will hopefully give silent film fans a chance to discover some of the many silent comedy gems we’ve released, and for any loyal fans to fill out their Undercrank Productions media shelf. My website’s the best place to check out my blog or sign up for my emails, check out my Silent Film Music Podcast, and find out where I’m performing. My Twitter and Instagram handle is @silentfilmmusic, and my YouTube channel is

You can buy Undercrank Productions DVDs at a discounted price on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood

The Savvy Sphinx
How Garbo Conquered Hollywood
by Robert Dance
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496833280
288 pages
November 2021

Greta Garbo was extraordinary in many ways. She was one of the most beloved and sought after celebrities of her time. Her level of fame was astonishing for the era and nearly unmatched today. Despite coming to America not speaking English and also despite her deep aversion to publicity, she quickly became one of MGM's most bankable stars and was embraced by the public. Everyone knew who Garbo was and audiences flocked to see the majestic star on the big screen. MGM carefully curated her silent film career and her transition to talking pictures. With her growing fame and continued success at the box office, she gained more control over the particulars of her career. In an age when many actors fell victim to movie studio machinations, Garbo thrived at MGM and never worked anywhere else. When her career ended in 1941 when Garbo was 36 years old, her celebrity persisted in the decades that followed. Her elusiveness made her an object of curiosity for the press and the public. She never embraced fame and preferred to live a private life with a small circle of confidantes. Even so, she remained one of the most recognizable movie stars even though she never worked again.

Portrait collector and film historian Robert Dance's book The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood explores the many facets of Garbo's fame and how it conflicted with her personal life. The book boasts extensive information about Garbo's acting career in particular, one that lasted through the 1920s and 1930s. We also get a peek into her personal life, her romantic relationships, her friendships and her retirement years. Because of Dance's interest in portrait work, readers are also given extensive insights on how movie studios utilized photographers like Clarence Bull, George Hurrell, Ruth Harriet Louise, Arnold Genthe and others. The book is slightly oversized, printed on glossy paper and features many professional portraits of Garbo as well as personal photographs of the star from over the years. 

Arnold Genthe portrait of Greta Garbo, circa July 1925

Here are some interesting takeaways from the book:

  • Garbo preferred to associate with European ex-pats or those who respected her need for privacy. She was quick to kick someone out of her inner circle.
  • Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller was Garbo's mentor and pivotal to bringing her to Hollywood and getting her a contract with MGM.
  • Garbo chose her scripts, her romantic leading men and which portrait photographer she would allow to photograph her. She would also only agree to short term contracts. This level of control was quite rare in the era of the Hollywood studio system.
  • Garbo avoided fans, autographs and any kind of publicity. She preferred focusing on her work.
  • She was considered for films like Red Dust, Dark Victory and Song of Russia.
  • Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo a household name thanks to her on screen and off screen chemistry with her costar John Gilbert.
  • The Divine Woman (1928) is the only Garbo film considered lost.
  • For Anna Christie (1930), they decided to warm up the audience with 5 minutes of Marie Dressler before they introduced Garbo in her first speaking role.
  • She frequently got out of MGM obligations including group photographs as well as bit parts in studio productions like Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Christmas Party (1931).
  • Garbo insisted that Laurence Olivier be replaced with John Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933).
  • She played Anna Karenina twice: Love (1926) and Anna Karenina (1935).
  • Irving Thalberg was a pivotal player in Garbo's career at MGM. When he died in 1936, it was the beginning of the end for her studio career.
  • Despite starring in many serious dramas and prestige pictures, her final two films Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941) were comedies.

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

“What is clear is that Garbo possessed great ambition and self-assurance, two qualities critical for success.” 
“Garbo’s voice turned out to be ideal for sound pictures. Her deep alto with its rich timbre and slight continental accent, not quite Swedish, but not quite anything else, recorded beautifully.”
“Here was a new sort of screen siren. Blond, beautiful, irresistible to men, and irresistible to audiences, Garbo displayed an overt sexuality that was revolutionary. Never before on screen had a woman been depicted as an equal romantic partner.”

“To looks and talent must be added to Garbo's magic. Something happens in the space between the faces projected on the shimmering silver screen and the eyes of the patrons filling movie theater seats.”

The Savvy Sphinx is richly rewarding. I came away from the book feeling like I just graduated with a degree in all things Greta Garbo. Reading this book cover to cover will take a while as there is quite a lot to take in and absorb. But it's well worth your time.

I did have a few problems with the book. There were typos scattered throughout which hopefully will be fixed on future reprints. The author is protective of his subject which at times can be frustrating because of the inherent bias. Garbo's romantic relationships, especially with John Gilbert, are downplayed a great deal. Even with that said, I still enjoyed the book immensely.

I highly recommend The Savvy Sphinx to anyone who already loves Greta Garbo or anyone wanting more insights on her special brand of celebrity and fame.

This is my third review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me The Savvy Sphinx for review.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Camera Man: Buster Keaton by Dana Stevens

Camera Man
Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century 
By Dana Stevens
Atria Books
Hardcover ISBN: 9781501134197
432 pages
January 2022

“I think I have had the happiest and luckiest of lives. It would be ridiculous of me to complain… I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that it continually surprises and delights me.” — Buster Keaton

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more beloved figure from film history than Buster Keaton. He's wowed generations of moviegoers, some born several decades after his death in 1966, with his physical comedy and incredible stunt work. And he did it all with a straight face. Who can forget the house frame falling over Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), the death-defying stunts in The General (1926), Keaton running over train cars and onto a water tower in Sherlock Jr. (1924) or the epic chase scenes in Seven Chances (1925)? He did it all himself, no stuntman needed and made it look effortless. Keaton was also a pioneer in filmmaking. He thrived in the era before studios took over Hollywood. With his years of vaudeville training, he knew what audiences liked and developed that on a bigger scale for moviegoers. With the birth of cinema, he learned as he went, preferring to work independently and often writing, "choreographing" and directing his own feature films and shorts. Today Keaton's work is appreciated by many, even those who are new to classic movies. You'll hear those who are normally adamantly against watching black-and-white movies from the past being open and willing to watching Keaton perform his magic on screen.

Film critic Dana Stevens offers a look at Keaton's life and career in her book Camera Man: Buster Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the 20th Century. This is a life-and-times style book rather than a traditional biography. And what I mean by that is the book offers the reader equal parts biography and cultural history which places its subject, in this case Buster Keaton, in context with the eras they lived through. You won't get a play-by-play on everything that happened in Keaton's life and career. Instead, Stevens offers a look at Keaton through a cultural history lens and readers with reap the rewards from all the historical context.

The chapters are thematic essays that follow the course of Keaton's life chronologically but each focus on a particular subject with a couple of context points. Some of these include women filmmakers, child cruelty regulations, the birth of radio, film and television, movie magazines, collegiate culture, racism, indie filmmaking vs. Hollywood studios, etc. There is also in-depth biographical information on key figures from Keaton's life and career including Keaton's three wives, Roscoe Arbuckle, Robert Sherwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Charlie Chaplin and more. These context points make for some illuminating reading and really help readers understand Keaton's world.

Stevens is a fantastic writer and I kept stopping to write down a quote I liked. Here are a few:

“For Keaton, every potential home is a space of danger and transformation; no facade stays standing for long… The ephemerality of the built world reveals the foundational homelessness of Buster’s character, whose defining trait is his ability to move through chaos while remaining miraculously unperturbed.”

“The Hollywood economy was large enough that Wall Street, another institution that rose to new heights of power and cultural influence in the 1920s, had started to play a key role in the financial and creative decisions of the top movie moguls…the big banks of the East Coast, where the money side of the business was still based, got skittish about lending large sums to small studios with spotty box-office records. To get back their investment, they needed a reliable flow of commercial hits.”

“Buster Keaton was ahead of his time in many ways but when it came to the ambient cultural racism of the Jim Crow era, he was unfortunately very much a product of it.” 
"Some accounts of Keaton’s late life—the ones that want to frame him as a tragic figure permanently destroyed by Hollywood—present his time performing with the circus as some sort of comedown… in fact, he held the prize second-act slot at one of Europe’s most prestigious and innovative circuses…”

If you're a fan of Buster Keaton and love cultural history, then Camera Man is a must read. 

Note: For those who will want a more traditional biography, author James Curtis' book Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker's Life also came out this year.

This is my first review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge. 

Thank you to Atria Books for sending me Camera Man for review!

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, 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!

Monday, April 8, 2019

Stan & Ollie (2018)

"They had reached the top..."

The year was 1937. Comedic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, simply known as Laurel and Hardy, were at the top of their game. While filming Way Out West, Laurel, who had been taking a more active role in the writing, direction and production of their films, had a falling out with producer Hal Roach. When Laurel parted ways with Roach, Hardy didn't follow suit and found a new partner in Harry Langdon. But there was no Hardy without Laurel and vice versa. The two quickly reunited and continued their legendary collaboration.

"We're not exactly spring chickens anymore."

Fast forward to 1953 when Laurel and Hardy are about to embark on their second European tour. They traveled all across the UK doing stage productions of their famous skits. The tour's main purpose is to drum up the needed support to make their next film, a spoof on Robin Hood, for the Associated British-Pathe studios. That film was never meant to be. This tour inevitably was to be their last hurrah. Before Hardy shuffled off his mortal coil and Laurel retired, they would prove once again that they could make 'em laugh.

Directed by Jon S. Baird, Stan & Ollie (2018) is a heartfelt ode to two comedic geniuses whose identities were inextricably tied to each other. Written by Jeff Pope and A.J. Marriot, the story focuses on Laurel and Hardy's final European tour in 1953 but dips back to 1937 when they were at a crossroads in their life and career.

The film stars Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver "Babe" Hardy. Coogan and Reilly embody the spirit, the mannerisms, the personalities almost effortlessly. They really captured the magic of Laurel and Hardy's comedic chemistry and how their characters drew from their real life temperaments. It's quite astonishing how Coogan and Reilly transformed themselves into their characters. Reilly wears a prosthetic suit made to look different depending on if the scenes were set in 1937 or 1953. Usually prosthetics look rather fake but the make-up team on this movie did an amazing job because Reilly really indeed look like Hardy. They made several, more subtle changes to Coogan's appearance but they were still incredibly effective.

Coogan and Reilly are playing two sides of Laurel and Hardy. We see them as performers but much of the film is about them as business partners. Laurel is the tireless workaholic always coming up with new ideas and ventures and Hardy is the more relaxed fun loving one who just enjoys performing. Coogan and Reilly do a great job portraying both sides of their personalities and the film shows how these sides sometimes blend together.

Paralleling their story was Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda), the two devoted wives who have their own comedic dynamic as polar opposite characters. Danny Huston plays the irate Hal Roach and Rufus Jones plays Bernie Delfont, the duo's tour manager.

By the end of the movie I was working my way through a box of tissues because I got so emotional. This is a beautiful film. A sincere portrait of a partnership and a friendship. It's essentially one big love story that turned me into a puddle of goo.

I watched this movie with my husband Carlos and he had confessed to me that he'd never seen a Laurel and Hardy film. I stopped Stan & Ollie to show him Liberty (1929) which is my favorite of their films. We also watched the original dance sequence from Way Out West (1937) which is recreated a couple of times by Coogan and Reilly in the film.

You don't have to know Laurel and Hardy to appreciate the film. However, if you are indeed a fan it makes Stan & Ollie all the more special. This film is a treasure. Go seek it out.

Stan & Ollie is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Picture Classics. The Blu-ray extras include three vignettes: Making of Stan & Ollie (4 min.), Playful Prosthetics (3 min.) and Dancing Duo (3.5 min), a Q&A with Cast & Crew (30 min.), deleted and extended scenes, theatrical trailer and other Sony related trailers.

Please visit my MovieZyng Store for other Sony Picture Classic releases and a wide variety of classic film related DVDs and Blu-rays.

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