LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’s (1965) – Nice compilation of L&H silent comedies

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Although Laurel & Hardy’s “talkie” short subjects finally got their due on a lavish American DVD set in 2011, their silent shorts aren’t as readily available in the U.S. (because they are owned by different hands). So if you have trouble obtaining L&H’s terrific silent shorts as a set, your best bet is to check out Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, one of the many silent-comedy compilations lovingly put together by film historian Robert Youngson in the 1950’s and ’60s.

Youngson’s efforts, well-chronicled in the L&H biography Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward, were instrumental in rekindling interest in silent-film comedy in general and L&H in particular. Though Youngson’s narration tends to be a bit verbose, his affection for Laurel & Hardy’s peerless comedy is obvious and infectious. And this compilation, especially, presents most of its subjects virtually complete (except for subtitles) and, with modest but effective musical scoring, nearly as lovingly as the originals.

Among the L&H gems presented here are: Liberty (1929), one of my personal L&H faves, with Stan and Ollie doing a “Harold Lloyd” stunt number atop an unfinished skyscraper; From Soup to Nuts (1928), with Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc as waiters at a dinner party; and The Finishing Touch (1928), with the duo building (or, more exactly, not building) a house. The film’s closer features climaxes (and only the climaxes, unfortunately) from L&H gems such as The Battle of the Century (with its famous pie-throwing melee) and Two Tars (a hilarious traffic jam that inspired much in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).

(Also included are very funny excerpts from short subjects of L&H’s contemporaries  at the Hal Roach Studios, Charlie Chase and Max Davidson.)

To a film generation acquainted only with color, sound, and fury, the methodical pace of Laurel & Hardy’s silent work is almost like a foreign language to be learned. But the beauty inherent in a second language is on ample display here, especially as an anecdote to latter-day bodily-function comedies.

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The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 3

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Here we are in Day 3 of my 12 Days of Blogmas, in which I “gift” movie and TV clips to some of my favorite bloggers. (Click here if you haven’t been following my scenario for the past couple of days.)

Today, I open up my bag of Christmas goodies for Lea, hostess of the delightful silent-film blog Silent-ology. Lea and I agree on so many wonderful silent films that it pains me whenever the subject of Roscoe (“Fatty”) Arbuckle comes up. As far as Lea is concerned, she might as well have been one of his adoring fans from 1920. Me, I can’t say he does much for.

But there is a single instance in which I found Arbuckle as charming as Lea does throughout his entire career. That is when he was paired, early on, with Charlie Chaplin in the 1914 Keystone comedy The Rounders. It has always amazed me that, as much as Chaplin absconded from alcohol and detested alcoholics throughout his life, he often played an alkie with balletic finesse. And here Arbuckle matches him, drink for drink. It’s a pity that this duo wasn’t pitted together more often in Chaplin’s Keystone era.

Spare 13 minutes for the joyous The Rounders, and see you tomorrow for Day 4!

 

LONDON SYMPHONY (2017) – Silence is golden

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“It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way round.” – Mary Pickford

Thanks to 265 Kickstarter backers, director-editor Alex Barrett was able to grant Ms. Pickford’s wish — for one magnificent movie, at least.

London Symphony is a bracing, beautiful, cinematic stay-cation. You watch Barrett’s ode to life in London — flawlessly photographed (by Barrett and several others, in glorious black and white) and ethereally scored (by James McWilliam) — and 72 minutes later, you’re relaxed and refreshed.

The movie is split into four “movements” — city, nature, places of worship, and night life — and that’s about all I want to divulge about the movie’s outline. (Rahim Molendina gets a writing credit — but, not to belittle his work, how do you write something like this?) Beyond the film’s countless settings, the point of the movie seems to be that there’s beauty in everything. And Barrett goes out of his way to prove it, with alternately static and sweeping imagery that makes even discarded trash look as though it had a preordained shape to it.

Sometimes the movie shows the simple beauty in stasis, and then sometimes it captures movements that look candid, yet provide their own lovely commentary. A passing train is reflected in an oval light, and the light ends up looking as though it’s smiling at us. There’s a long shot taken on a bridge that shows a flowing river below, and suddenly feet appear at the corner of the screen. Is somebody going to jump off the bridge? No, he’s just standing on the bridge’s glass walkway.

It’s amazing how often people use visual media to record an event, and then they’re so worried about their audience getting bored that they have to insert useless talk into their recording. (Would it kill TV’s football-game announcers to shut up once in a while?) London Symphony lets the images speak for themselves, and it reestablishes your faith in the human spirit.

(Many thanks to the lovely Lea at the blog Silent-ology for passing this movie along to me, and to Flicker Alley for distributing it.)

WINGS (1927) – After 90 years, it still sends viewers soaring

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For years, I’d heard about Wings, a silent feature film that was the first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. For some reason, I imagined that it would seem as cliched as it sounded, perfect for its time but not aged well. Moral: Don’t listen to everything your subconscious tells you.

Wings is breathtaking and is one of the most beautifully composed movies I’ve ever seen. William Wellman was hired to direct it because at the time, he was the only director in Hollywood who had World War I combat pilot experience — and it shows in the movie’s details. This sprawling, 144-minute film has every kind of shot you can imagine — conventional, specially framed, documentary-style war footage — and there isn’t a wasted shot in the movie. Every frame is there to either push the narrative forward or make you stay bolted upright in your seat to see what happens next.

The movie’s main storyline is a bit more predictable than the eye-popping aerial footage, but even this part of the movie is put forth effectively. Neighborhood boys Jack Powell and David Armstrong (Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen) have two things in common: they both want to become airplane pilots, and both of them vie for the same neighborhood girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, frisky Mary (Clara Bow) flits around David like a cute hummingbird and can’t figure out why Jack can’t see she’s madly in love with him — the stupid man!

The movie’s original story was rewritten to play up Clara Bow, who was America’s “It” Girl at the time. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Clara Bow movie — sorry, folks, I’m not the hardcore silent-film buff I pretend to be — and it’s easy to see how and why she won moviegoers over. She radiates joy and happiness throughout this macho-based scenario, and you quickly get the feeling that if she can’t win Jack over, he doesn’t deserve her.

Kudos also go to Rogers and Arlen as the military rivals who can’t seem to make up their minds whether they should like or despise each other. Even the supporting actors add weight to the story. In an early but memorable role, Gary Cooper displays the charisma that gained him fame in the movies. And comic relief El Brendel takes a hoary stereotype — the silly Dutchman — and imbues him with character and charm.

As expected, the sweeping aerial footage is mesmerizing, shot from so many different angles that it looks as though it would take a general to make sense of it — but as Hollywood noted, Wellman certainly was the man for the job. And even though you can see the climax of the love-triangle subplot coming a mile away, it turns out to have an almost Shakespearean inevitability about it.

The best silent movies still hold up after numerous decades of viewing, and Wings certainly makes the grade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH (1925) – The mother lode of Chaplin comedy

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The following is my entry in The Colours Blogathon, being hosted at the blog Thoughts All Sorts on Sept. 8 and 9, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ reviews of movies with very colorful titles and themes!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

There’s not much praise that hasn’t already been bandied about for The Gold Rush, but I’ll add my two cents’ worth anyway.

If you want to introduce Charlie Chaplin to someone who has never seen his work, this one has it all. There’s, of course, Chaplin’s Tramp (here dubbed “The Lone Prospector,” trying to survive during gold- and cold-strikes in Alaska); a lovely heroine (Georgia [Georgia Hale], a dance-hall girl with whom Charlie becomes smitten), and villains big (Black Larsen [Tom Murray], one of those great, wordless silent-movie villains who exists just to be mean), medium (Jack [Malcolm Waite], who thinks he deserves Georgia more than Charlie does), and small, at least threat-wise (Big Jim McKay [the wonderful Mack Swain], who starts out tolerating Charlie and then takes him to heart).

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The movie also has set pieces that are now silent-film folklore (the boiling of the shoe in lieu of a Thanksgiving turkey, Charlie entertaining his guests with a “roll” dance) and a roll-call of memorable gags (gotta love Chaplin doing the chicken). And the pathos is perfect here, never done to excess (Who couldn’t feel for Charlie, all alone on New Year’s Eve when Georgia had half-heartedly promised she’d visit him?).

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Countless critics have complained about Chaplin’s cheapness, how he often spared a buck to do a realistic special effect. Have you ever noticed that nobody complains about cheapness for The Gold Rush? There’s probably little of this movie that couldn’t be done just as effectively on stage as a play. But when Charlie and Big Jim are about to go over the cliff inside their cabin in the movie’s climax, I don’t care if that cabin is a model or not, you feel every inch of that potential fall. (My favorite moment in the entire movie is when Big Jim, having made his way safely out of the tottering cabin and found his lost gold stake, suddenly breaks out of his reverie when Charlie yells for help. Cut to a wide-eyed Charlie, beckoning a single finger to Big Jim, as if he was just asking for help cleaning up the cabin.)

Some movies go straight past the logical side of your brain and head for that primal spot where the kid in you still resides and responds. When such a movie fails or goes over-the-top, you find yourself embarrassed to look at the screen; when the movie is operating on all cylinders, it’s something like The Gold Rush.

THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) – Cinema’s first popular “talkie” has not aged well

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Despite its place in movie history, The Jazz Singer must be approached with a caution usually reserved for radioactivity.

The backstory is better than anything in the movie. The Warner Bros. studio, on the brink of folding, risked investing in a sound-on-film system in the silent era. The movie was based on a popular Broadway play. The starring role went to Al Jolson, a singer whose wild popularity was the ’20s version of Beatlemania.

The movie was not the first “talkie,” and it is largely dialogue-free. Jolson’s singing was the initial sound draw. But the movie’s success is believed to have come from Jolson’s improvised dialogue, where twice he declares, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” — five words that changed movie history.

So much for the interesting part — now we come to the movie’s story. It’s a creaky conflict between good Jewish boy Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) and his cantor father. Papa wants Jakie to sing beside him at his New York synagogue. But Jakie forsakes his heritage for a musical career in California.

Jakie anglicizes his name to Jack Robin, gets a girl, and is called to appear on Broadway. Jack’s stubborn father takes ill and expects Jack to sing “Kol Nidre” at the synagogue — on the night of Jack’s Broadway premiere. Could any more buttons be pushed here??

The story is melodrama in full bloom, and it has not aged well. (If you need further proof, check out the 1980 remake with Neil Diamond and Sir Laurence Olivier.)

The movie’s cause is not helped by racial stereotyping that was common in its day but is jaw-dropping now. Jack’s hand-wringing papa is played by Warner Oland, later to caricature another race as the star of the Charlie Chan movie series.

And the DVD’s packaging does its best to hide the movie’s dirty little secret: Nobody loved blackface more than Al Jolson. (In the movie’s finale, a “blacked up” Jolson belts out “Mammy” to his mother.) Google this movie on the Internet, and you’ll find countless promo posters of Jolson happily emoting in blackface. Strange, isn’t it, that the DVD’s cover (shown above) shows Jolson only in silhouette?

The DVD set’s extras are lavish, with a documentary about cinema’s “talkie era” and over three hours of early sound short subjects. But then there’s that irony-free story of a singer aiming for fame not only by denying his own racial heritage, but defaming another race while doing it. It hangs over this historic movie like a pall.

(Here’s another creaker — the movie’s original theatrical trailer, which is a full seven minutes long.)

 

THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ (1991) – Modern-day silent movie

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that some major actors performed in a silent movie in 1991. I wouldn’t have known it myself if PBS hadn’t broadcast the movie on “Great Performances” two years after the movie was released.

The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez is written and directed by Peter Sellars, a theater director who is famous for his unconventional takes on operas and plays. One example was his 1980 staging of Don Giovanni as a “blaxploitation” movie, with the title character shooting up heroin at one point. Opera News called the production “an act of artistic vandalism.”

Dr. Ramirez is likely to inspire similar complaints from anyone who is expecting a mainstream film. Basically, the movie grafts the Expressionist themes and look of the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari onto the setting of late-1980’s Wall Street.

Peter Gallagher and Joan Cusack play two young stockbroker/lovers whose personal and business lives are not going so well. That makes them easy bait for mysterious and fiendish Dr. Ramirez (Ron Vawter) and his even stranger partner-in-crime Cesar (Mikhail Baryshnikov).

In an introduction to the movie, director Sellars makes lofty claims about the movie laying waste to Wall Street’s barren greediness. I don’t know about all that. To me, the amazing thing is that this story is told with no dialogue, not even subtitles — a word-free conceit that hadn’t been attempted since F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) — and Sellars makes it work. The movie really makes you work for its pleasures, but the actors are so good, and the staging is so well thought-out, you can really make the connections.

The movie is far from perfect. Its score by John Adams is bombastic at some points, a few close-ups are held way too long after they’ve made their point, and the film’s climax flies all over the place. Yet I could never take my eyes off the movie.

In a movie world where it seems every bit of exposition must be clearly laid out for the dimmest yahoo in the audience, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez flies its freak flag proudly…and lucidly. For that alone, it deserves a place in cinema history.

Below is Part 1 of the movie. The movie is available for free on YouTube in five parts.