THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) -A movie about disfigured people who don’t know their place

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Have you ever gone to see a movie that has been raved up for years and then doubted your better judgment when you weren’t crazy about the movie? That’s what happened to me when I viewed the much-revered silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera for the first time.

(Brief synopsis: Erik [Lon Chaney] has been hiding out in the bowels of the Paris Opera House for years because he is ashamed of his disfigured face. However, Erik has designs on an up-and-coming opera singer named Christine [Mary Philbin], and he will do anything to both further Christine’s opera career [rival singers be damned] and win Christine’s love despite his physical appearance.)

Fortunately, I have Fritzi, who runs the blogs Movies Silently, as my blogging “neighbor.” I quickly consulted her entry on Phantom (click here if you’d like to read it for yourself), and much to my relief, she pretty much agreed with me: The movie is good but not a masterpiece, Chaney does an amazing job with both his makeup and his acting, and Philbin is fluttery and just this side of over-the-top.

However, my major hangup with the movie is in one of its major plot points, which I would imagine is a carryover from the original novel. (MAJOR SPOILERS from this point on!)

The movie’s money shot is when Christine surreptitiously removes Erik’s mask (despite his previous command not to do so) and gets a full view of Erik’s face. This is the shot on which the rest of the movie hinges, and when the movie was first released, Chaney was careful not to take any publicity photos that would show him in full Phantom make-up so as to build the audience’s shock at the unveiling. Mission accomplished. It’s still a pretty powerful moment.

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Surprise!

What really bothers me is that the moment is taken at face value. In other words, Christine uncovers Erik’s face, and this drama queen’s first reaction is basically, “Whew, he ugly! Gotta avoid him like the plague!”, as if she was a high-school cheerleader who just got asked to the prom by the class nerd.

Since I am of the era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — a movie wherein an initially monstrous figure is shown to be human like the rest of us — Christine’s attitude really puts me off. It’s later revealed that Erik, while a musical genius, is also an escaped prisoner from Devil’s Island. The movie showed Christine as having been fascinated by Erik at first. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Christine smitten with this man and his offbeat behavior and looks, only to find out later how dangerous he is? Instead, the story takes the easy route and instantly equates physical ugliness with supreme villainy.

I suppose movie buffs will chastize me for applying contemporary sexual politics to a 1925 movie. But it makes me think that when modern-day moviegoers scoff at silent film in general, it might not be only the antiquated technology they’re pooh-poohing. Maybe it has something to do with the way those movies look down their noses at the more underprivileged among us.

 

 

 

THE MONTY PYTHON MOVIE BLOGATHON – Day 1 Recap

We won’t keep you in suspense any longer, as we know you must be grinding your teeth waiting to see

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It’s appropriate that Terry Gilliam’s visage hovers over this recap, as his movies constitute the majority (3 out of 4) of Day 1’s blog entries. (Click on the appropriate blog’s name to link to their blogathon entry.)

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The Midnite Drive-In has time to kill in more ways than one with their critique of Gilliam’s family-film fantasy Time Bandits.

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Radiator Heaven cannot tell a lie — they enjoyed the otherworldly vision of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

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BNoir Detour detected some sinister noir elements in Gilliam’s futuristic tale Brazil.

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And finally, yours truly opted for a Baron Munchausen-like take on the life of Graham Chapman, as narrated by Chapman himself (with help from fellow Pythons), in the animated film A Liar’s Autobiography.

And there’s more to come, so keep us bookmarked for the next two days. As for the rest of you blogathon participants: It’s time to talk the talk and walk the silly walk!

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My interview with Laurel & Hardy biographer Randy Skretvedt – October, 1987

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With the publication of Randy Skretvedt’s epic “Ultimate Edition” of his book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, it’s time for another of my shout-out, name-dropping, bragging-rights stories.

I lived in Los Angeles for about a year three decades ago. During that time, I was wandering through a bookshop when I came across a Laurel & Hardy biography I’d never even heard of before (Skretvedt’s, of course). I bought it and read it from cover to cover several times, until you’d have thought its information was getting sponged in through my fingertips.

At the time, I was also writing for a small monthly entertainment publication. I used that as an excuse to write to Skretvedt (remember letter-writing?) to ask for an interview. He graciously accepted, and I met up with him a total of three times before I left L.A. (On one occasion, he took me to a lavish meeting of Way Out West, the L.A. “Tent” [fan club] of The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society, a/k/a “Sons of the Desert.”)

From the time he attended junior college, Skretvedt has been documenting every bit of Laurel & Hardy history he can find, and we readers are the lucky recipients of his obsession (particularly with his “Ultimate Edition” — read my review of it here.) As you can tell in my interview with Skretvedt below, he’s one of the nicest people you could imagine, just as willing to share his generous knowledge of L&H’s work in person as he is on paper.

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Steve Bailey: What is it you particularly like about Laurel and Hardy?

Randy Skretvedt: The two characters are so interesting, and they have much more depth than other film comedians. They said something about human relationships without making it explicit. They can’t live with each other, and they can’t live without each other. They’re two innocents in a hostile world, and they’re the only allies they’ve got.

I can also appreciate how well the films are structured. I like how carefully they’ve timed everything, and how they’ve set up the scene so your eye is led to exactly what it should be looking at. they have a limited bag of tricks, but they’re very inventive in the ways they use the same gags over and over. And the slow tempo of their films works well, because Stan and Ollie’s minds don’t work very fast.

SB: How long did it take you to compile and write the book, from the time you actually decided you were going to write it?

RS: Some of the interview material goes back to 1974. But when I finally said, “Nobody’s done it right, I’m gonna do a book,” that was in 1979, when I was in junior college.

SB: How did Laurel and Hardy’s contemporaries feel when this kid came to interview them?

RS: That’s a good question. I think a lot of them were surprised that I was so interested. It’s a little unusual for someone to be so crazy about something that went on in 1927. But if you do your homework before the interview, that helps break down barriers, rather than just asking, “Gee, were they really fun to work with?” But most of them loved the Hal Roach Studios [where Laurel and Hardy made films from 1927 to 1940] so much, they almost got misty-eyed when they talked about it.

SB: Why did it take Hal Roach and others so long to regard Laurel and Hardy as a team? As you point out in your book, they’d make one movie where they were a bonafide team, and then a movie where they both starred but never appeared together.

RS: Leo McCarey [a Roach director who went on to direct the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Cary Grant’s An Affair to Remember, among many others] was the first one to say, “Laurel and Hardy, together. Great idea!” But even Stan Laurel wasn’t terribly receptive to the idea when McCarey first suggested it, because he preferred working behind the scenes.

SB: You quote Hal Roach many times as saying Stan was great on gags but terrible on story construction.

RS: Hal Roach was a creative filmmaker, and the one who insisted that more emphasis be placed on storyline and characters — a major contribution to film comedy. But I don’t think he was always the man to construct the story. [Frequent Laurel and Hardy director] George Marshall said, “We’d be in the writers’ sessions, and Roach would stop in from a business meeting to say, ‘Hey, fellas, I just got a great idea for a story. Laurel and Hardy are sailors. You know what I mean?'” Then he’d walk out, and the gag writers would stare at each other and say, “Do you know what he means?”

SB: Why didn’t Stan Laurel ever take screen credit for the writing, directing, and editing he did for their films?

RS: He wasn’t concerned about getting credit, but he did make certain he got control. And it was kind of an unwritten law on the lot, anyway, that Stan was the guy in charge. If Stan didn’t feel a certain bit of business was right, the director was not about to say, “I’m the director, so you do it anyway!”

In 1938, Hal Roach said, “When you create a picture, you want it to look like it has importance. And if you labeled everything that Stan Laurel did, his name would be on there about ten times.” But Laurel never considered himself the auteur of the films, even if he unconsciously was. And I think that hurt their careers later on, because it wasn’t trumpeted in the press that Stan was the primary shaper of the films.

SB: Why did Laurel and Hardy go to 20th Century-Fox and M-G-M in the 1940’s, where they were forced into bad movies over which they had no control?

RS: Stan had many story disagreements with Roach. When Fox hired them, they said, “We’ve got writers, we’ve got editors. We just want Laurel and Hardy for their box-office value.” I think Laurel and Hardy were naive in not realizing conditions were going to be so different at another studio. They were obviously not aware of how regimented the procedures had become.

SB: What do you think of the colorized versions of the Laurel and Hardy movies?

RS: I saw the colorized Music Box [Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar-winning 1932 short subject] the other night, and the color has gotten to the point where it’s not too bad, as long as they don’t leave huge chunks of black-and-white in it, as they often do.

But then they tamper with the films in other ways. They add music where there was none before, and they cut parts of them so they can get new copyrights. And I’m a purist — if there wasn’t any music in the original, don’t put music in there now. It’s not as if all the critics who saw The Music Box said, “I think the film would be ten times better with music in it.” And I think black-and-white fits Laurel and Hardy’s films better. They’re set in the Depression, they have a grimly realistic tone to them, and I think black-and-white helps to accommodate that.

SB: If you were talking to someone completely unfamiliar with Laurel and Hardy’s work, which movie would you tell them about?

RS: There’s a short they did called You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928). At the beginning of it, Laurel and Hardy have jobs and a home. Systematically throughout the film, they lose it all until, at the end, they’re standing on the street in their underwear. All they have left is their friendship, and they go off together. That’s their statement: The world will crumble around us and we will utterly fail at everything we try, but we’ll still have each other. That’s a pretty profound statement to come from a two-reeler that was shot in 10 days.

Randy Skretvedt’s LAUREL & HARDY: THE MAGIC BEHIND THE MOVIES – ULTIMATE EDITION – Manna from heaven for L&H buffs

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As a feverish Laurel & Hardy buff, when I read Randy Skretvedt’s Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies in 1987, I didn’t think that any L&H biography could top it. Nearly 30 years later, Skretvedt himself has proven me wrong. Skretvedt has published a massively updated “Ultimate Edition” that far surpasses even the high standards of the earlier book. (This is actually the second update of Skretvedt’s magnum opus, but who’s counting?)

Everything you could possibly want to know about every movie featuring both Laurel & Hardy (not always as a team, as in their early movies) is contained in this 630-page volume. The past 30 years have seen remastering of the original prints of L&H movies, as well as rare L&H movie “finds” that were thought to be lost to history; Skretvedt meticulously documents those as well. In addition, the book generously details L&H movie locations, then and now; vintage press releases, promotional photographs, and posters for L&H movies; and surprisingly fun and useful information on L&H’s many co-stars.

But don’t think it sounds like some massive homework assignment. As with the ‘87 book, Skretvedt writes in the manner of a detailed but most articulate Laurel & Hardy buff. As a result, the book’s breezy style draws you in and lure you through dozens or hundreds of pages before you stop to take a breath.

We might never find Hats Off or any other Laurel & Hardy movie rarities (at least in our lifetime). But having Skretvedt’s encyclopedic Laurel & Hardy tome at hand is akin to finding a long-lost film that you never even knew was lost. It’s a gem.

(This is a limited-edition book that will not be republished, so click here to get it at Amazon.com while you can!)

Don’t run away — THE MONTY PYTHON MOVIE BLOGATHON is here!

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To honor the 47th (!) anniversary of the world premiere of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” this blog is spending the next few days letting bloggers chime in on their favorite movies (group and solo) from members of the British comedy troupe Monty Python. Join us as we celebrate this groundbreaking comedy team!

If you are one of the blogathon entrants, please post the URL to your blog entry in the “Comments” section below, and I will link to it as soon as possible. Please have your entry posted by the end of the day on Monday, Oct. 3 (and if I may, the sooner the better!).

If you are just stopping by for some great reading, please give this blog bookmarked, as entries will continue coming in for the next three days. Enjoy the silliness!

Here are the blogathon’s entrants:

Movie Movie Blog Blog – The movie version of Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography

BNoirDetour – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

Cinematic Frontier – Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King

lifesdailylessonsblog – Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Serendipitous Anachronisms – Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The James Bond Social Media Project – John Cleese in the James Bond films The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day

Moon in Gemini – John Cleese and Michael Palin in Fierce Creatures

The Midnite Drive-In – Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits

Radiator Heaven – Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Reelweegiemidget Reviews – Eric Idle in National Lampoon’s European Vacation

 

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY (2012) – Graham Chapman tells a few stories

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The following is my entry in The Monty Python Movie Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Oct. 1-3, 2016. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of group and solo efforts from the members of the British comedy group!

 

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If you’ve fantasized that the Monty Python troupe could get together one more time for one final, very special episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” A Liar’s Autobiography could be just about enough to fulfill your fantasy.

It certainly isn’t for the Pythons’ lack of trying. Based on the late Graham Chapman’s semi-autobiography of the same name, the movie uses Chapman to “narrate” his own story. (He recorded an oral version of his book shortly before he died of throat cancer in 1989.) And in best Python, multiple-casting style, most of the voices in this animated film are provided by nearly all of the remaining Python members, even Carol Cleveland. (The only holdout was Eric Idle, who was having a row with the other Pythons at the time of filming.)

The main difference between the movie and “Flying Circus” is that, other that a few clips from live interviews and the “Circus” TV series, the entire movie is animated — quite boldly and bawdily (by 14 different animation companies, no less). Otherwise, Chapman turns his life into a flight of fancy worthy of “Flying Circus,” starting out at actual points of fact in his life and then veering off into far more interesting and humorous flights of fancy.

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Chapman was quite frank about both his homosexuality and his battle with alcoholism, and those subjects get Pythonesque treatment here, with no holds barred. But it’s also fascinating to see how humor got him through more mundane aspects of his life — his formative years with parents who never quite “got him,” his collegiate years with self-satisfied professors, and his eventual boredom with the Hollywood lifestyle once he became famous.

As with most Python-based work, if you’re not tuned into their sense of ultra-dry humor, this movie is unlikely to make you a convert. As for myself, I enjoyed it the way I’ve enjoyed most of Python. It’s refreshingly honest about subjects from which more conservative folks simply shy away. It’s well-animated on all counts (think Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine). Plus, it’s damn funny.