Monday, September 28, 2009

Film Review: The Sin of Madelon Claudet

"The Sin of Madelon Claudet" *** (out of ****)

Helen Hayes was nicknamed "the first lady of the American theater". "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931) was her debut feature length "talkie". It won her an Academy Award that year for "Best Actress".

Sound pictures of course offered a new challenge for Hollywood. Many a stars faded away with the advent of sound. Their voices did not match their screen persona. John Gilbert has always been a classic example of this. So Hollywood did perhaps the only natural thing it could. It took talent from the stage. These actors had already proved to have commanding voices which audiences accepted. That is how Helen Hayes came to have a film career.

I've seen "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" twice now. It never struck me as a great film, but, Hayes makes it watchable. She gives one of the best performances in the film. For its time it was probably a brave film and a daring role.

"The Sin of Madelon Claudet" is a kind of classic, liberal fairytale. A whore with a heart of gold lucks out. It is not quite that easy but essential that is the idea. Of course the film does insert some moral preaching despite being what we have come to describe as a "pre-code" film.

Hayes plays the title character, a French woman who falls in love with a struggling American painter, Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton, best known as Commissioner Gordon on TV's "Batman"). The two run off to Paris, (despite her father's wishes) hoping to get married. But after receiving a telegram about his sick father Larry must travel back to America. Madelon fears if he goes away now he will never return. Her instincts prove right but what she didn't expect is she is now pregnant with his child.

Madelon catches a break when a rich sugar daddy comes along, Carlo Boretty (Lewis Stone, whom I've never seen play a sugar daddy before). He was a friend of Larry's. Carlo suggest Madelon live with him so he can spoil her. In return he asks for a little affection. You normally wouldn't find two people living together out of wedlock. She agrees to this but does not inform him about the birth of her son. The boy now lives with some friends; Rosalie (Marie Prevost) and Victor (Cliff Edwards, in a surprising non-comedic role). Once a week Madelon sneaks out to see him and bring him gifts.

Without revealing too much Madelon finds herself in prison serving a 10 year sentence. When she is released she becomes a prostitute to help her son (played as an adult by Robert Young) go through medical school, telling him his real mother has died. She makes the ultimate sacrifice so her son can have a better life.

The film, directed by Edgar Selwyn, based on the play "The Lullaby" by Edward Knoblock, presents Madelon as a honorable woman for making this sacrifice. It is the right thing to do. But I find the film has a dark misogynistic message saying women should stay pure or terrible things will happen to you. Also, women must learn to sacrifice their needs and desires in order to please a man. Every female character is matched with a lesser man, or a man they think is lesser, but they all go out of their way to support them.

This idea of the mother sacrificing everything is not entirely new. Bette Davis even made a film similar to it called "The Great Lie" (1941). I wonder though how audiences responded to this back in 1931. America was in a depression at this point. Did parents feel by bringing life into this world they were doing the wrong thing? Would it be better for them to leave their child at some stranger's doorstep?

I suppose what makes "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" work, if it does, is the strong sentimentality of the situation. The film tries to raise the emotional stakes very high. It wants us to bust out in tears by the end. One of the characters actually does. But a more modern audience watching this film will probably not like it. Too old-fashion they will say. Too sentimental. And for today's audience they will have a point.

What I think hurts the film the most is it is too short, 75 minutes. It brushes over large events. We see Madelon go to jail and in the next scene she is released. 10 whole years have passed. The Larry vanishes from the story. Madelon's venture into prostitution provides no inner conflict. It happens in a split second. Nothing about the film seems realistic. On some level I suppose it wasn't suppose to. It is a kind of fairytale and it has a moral message. So of course events are exaggerated for dramatic effect, I understand that, but the message doesn't feel sincere. It feels exploitative at best.

The depression actually offered a lot of these kind of hard on their luck stories of families being torn apart. If you do watch this film, may I also suggest watching the original, "The Champ" (1931) with Wallace Berry. In that film it is a father and son who separate. Many consider it the king of "tear jerkers".

But it sounds like I'm beating up on this film and I really don't mean to. People should watch the film. It is worth seeing as a curiosity piece. It is good to get familiar with the history of early Hollywood and you will get to see Helen Hayes perform. She didn't have much of a film career. After 1935 her appearances consisted mainly of TV movies or appearances on TV shows. She was in "A Farewell to Arms" (1932) directed by Frank Borzage, which was, for its time, a racy film. It deals with sexual disease. It is a good film, better than this one anyway. Hayes would win another Oscar for her supporting role in "Airport" (1970). Putting her in a special class of being one of the few actors to win an Oscar every time they were nominated.

"The Sin of Madelon Claudet", the very title is a warning to young woman, what exactly was her "sin"? Is a film worth watching for film buffs, though if you are a film buff, you've probably already seen this. It is worth watching if you are starting to gain an interest in classic Hollywood films. It is pretty hard to find. It has not been released on DVD and it is out of print on VHS. Perhaps your local library may carry it (mine does) or a video store such as Facets may have it. By today's standards this is not a wide audience picture. So only a very select few will enjoy this.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Film Reviews: Duplicity & Julia

"Duplicity" *** (out of ****)

Of course it's true they don't make 'em like they use to (the talent simply isn't around any more) but they do try now and then. Tony Gilroy's "Duplicity" (2009) is one of the more recent attempts.

Most readers are probably already aware of who Mr. Gilroy is. He directed the critically acclaimed "Michael Clayton" (2007), which even I praised as one of the year's best films. Here Mr. Gilroy gives us another film which plays around with time structure but goes for comedy. For the most part the film works.

If you think about "Duplicity" long enough, soon you'll be asking questions. Generally that is a bad idea to ask questions when watching a movie. They usually don't have answers. Plus filmmakers don't really want us to think. They want us to shut off our brains and enjoy the show. But what makes "Duplicity" work is some fine dialogue written by Gilroy and the charm of the two lead actors; Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.

As I watched this film I couldn't help but think what if this film was made back in the 1930s. Oh, in the hands of the right director and with the right stars this material could have been turned into a masterpiece. Think if William Powell and Joan Crawford played the leads. Something similar to their wonderful film "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" (1937).

Roberts and Owen play two undercover agents who work for the CIA and the MIG. They meet, not knowing who the other is, spend the night together, only for Owen, who plays Ray Koval, to find out some classified material he had is now missing, the girl is gone and he was drugged. Roberts is Claire Stenwick (supposedly named after Barbara Stanwyck). She's not really what I would consider a femme fatale, but, you'll want to watch your back around her.

Without revealing too much, these people eventually learn who the other was and fall in love. They devise a plan which will become their last big scheme. "Duplicity" is an extremely manipulative film. It is full of twist and turns. In the hands of David Mamet I don't mind that. In fact I look forward to it. Gilroy isn't quite at that same level. He is a fine writer but oddly enough the screenplay sometimes feels as if it is going through the motions. We kinda, sorta know what to expect even if we don't have all the details figured out. We get the feeling we are being taken for a ride. Still, as I already said, the actors do a lot with the material. Credit should be given to them.

Roberts and Owen know the heist genre pretty well. Owen was in the exciting "The International" (2009) earlier this year with Naomi Watts and Roberts of course was in the "Ocean" movies. In supporting roles we have Tom Wilkinson, who was nominated for an Oscar for Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" and Paul Giamatti as rival business heads. They add a lot to the picture. I just wish Wilkinson had more screentime.

"Duplicity" is one of those movies that has events which happen which will leave you saying "only in the movies". Sometimes that is a good thing. It makes us forget the real world and supplies us with something different. This isn't a great movie but it is watchable.

"Julia" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Tilda Swinton is one of my favorite actresses. I often feel we have better female actors than male actors working today. Think of Naomi Watts, Heather Graham, Laura Linney, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. All of them rank among my favorites. And Swinton is just as good as any of them. Here in "Julia" she goes for broke.

Most actresses wouldn't want to play "Julia". It would be too much of a challenge for them. Maybe only the ladies I have already mentioned would tackle the role. It would take someone with discipline and a devil may care attitude. Julia is a drunk. Every time we see her she is drinking, passing out and sleeping with strangers. But, that is only the beginning of her nightmare. That was the easy part believe it or not. Events will soon become much more complicated and go beyond her control.

"Julia" (2009) is a film which came out back in July, played in only a few theatres and didn't make much of a splash at the box-office. There wasn't much of an advertise campaign for it. I remember when it was released but, it was in and out of theatres so fast, I simply didn't have time to see it. What a mistake opportunity for the studio. Here is one of the great performances of the year and the studio heads are just sitting on it. Tilda Swinton deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance but her chances of getting it are nill. Who has seen this movie to give her attention?

Some people might think "Julia" is an art-house film. Originally that is what I thought and to be completely honest, that is why I wanted to see it. However it is a thriller. "Julia" is the movie for people who didn't like "Taken" (2009) the big hit earlier this year with Liam Neeson. Ah, now maybe I've told you too much. If you've seen "Taken" now your mind is starting to work trying to figure out how does "Julia" relate.

But "Taken" isn't the only thing you can compare "Julia" to. Try John Cassavettes "Gloria" (1980). At one point in the film Julia, trying to hide her identity says her name is Gloria. And now I've pretty much let the cat out of the bag.

Julia attends AA meetings. There she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo). Elena tells Julia a story about her son, whom she no longer sees because he is living with her father. The grandfather will not allow Elena to see her son. As a result of this Elena wants to kidnap her son but needs Julia's help. She will pay her handsomely for her help. And with Julia just getting fired, she needs all the money she can get.

But Erick Zonca, the film's writer and director, has many, many tricks up his sleeve. The film is full of backstabbing and deceit. With Julia going through a sort of cliche transformation. The character simply couldn't have remained the same from beginning to the end. Audiences would not accept such a thing. I cannot discuss it any further.

This is one of Swinton's great roles. Most people had discovered her after her wonderful performance in "The Deep End" (2001). I liked that movie a lot. But it wasn't until I saw her in "Young Adam" (2004) that I really became a fan. I've seen nearly all of her films since "The War Zone" (1999) on. She is a very brave actress. With her performances here and in "Stephanie Daley" (2007) she really raises the bar for herself. Oddly enough she won the Oscar for "Michael Clayton", perhaps her most conventional role. "Julia" is what deserves an Oscar.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The 1920s

I've been sort of postponing this list. This is my final list. I will not make a list of the best films pre-1920, mostly because I haven't seen many and secondly, the films I have seen are primarily comedies. And that was a problem I had with this list. Many of the films of the 1920s which I love most are comedies, but, I didn't want this list to turn into a "top ten comedy" list. So I had to chose some more serious films. Some choices came extremely easy for me, because there are a handful of serious films which I do admire greatly, other choices were more difficult because choosing one meant leaving another off the list.

With that being said I'd also like to point something out. These list that I have made are not a national consensus. When I write about the best films of a decade I'm not reciting what the most acclaimed films of the decade were. Though sometimes my choices do reflect that. My favorite film of the 1930s is "Gone With the Wind" (1939), by no means an obscure title. However these list deal with my personal favorite films and as a result I might throw serious film buffs for a loop with some of my choices. Many times I will mention films that are not generally accepted as defining an era. Some of my choices are not very well remembered. But that's what separates true film lovers from the casual joe. We know these movies.

As these lists come to an end I must say I am happy that my final lists were from decades I enjoy the most. I've always said my favorite films are from the 1920s-1940s. My favorite decade is the 1930s. To me, by the time of the 30s, Hollywood had the glitz and glamour we often associate with it. The star system was coming in place. While there were definitely stars of the silent era, I find Hollywood to be a little rough around the edges. The glamour wasn't quite there. Hollywood was still in the learning stages.

Of course great films were being made and great movie stars were born. Hopefully I've mentioned some of those great films. But as I said in my opening paragraph, it was the silent clowns which inspired me most. I remember when I was very young, before I was old enough to go to school, how I would watch Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. I didn't even fully realize these were silent films. I couldn't read at the time, so the inter-titles were completely useless to me, but it didn't matter. I was still able to follow the stories and laugh.

It wasn't until I got older, probably into my teens, that I started to watch the more dramatic silent films, though I did watch Greta Garbo when I was younger. My grandmother loved her films. It was in my teens though I first saw Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) and "Battleship Potemkin" (1925). I was truly amazed. In some ways I regret seeing those films. Never again can I go back to the same state of mind. There can never be another "first viewing experience". I can recall the great excitement I felt after watching those movies. They were so powerful even to a teenager.

I find most people don't like silent films. In my years as a film student in college I never discussed one silent film with a fellow student. I never heard a student mention a single title. But silent films should be appreciated. In some ways I can understand the reluctance to watch them. Younger viewers may have the notion these films are slow and boring. How on Earth can they be expect to watch a film with no sound. But I have found that when it is a truly great film, the emotion of the story will carry you through. It is for reasons such as this I generally avoid discussing movies with people. I like dramatically different things then most. I've never met someone who has seen all the films I have.

With every list I leave off from great titles and try to make up for it in the runner's up list and often even that is not enough. The 1920s is no exception. But I want to clear something. If a title is not on my list please don't assume I don't like that particular title or it is not worth seeing. If I could go back in time I would make several changes to all of these list. I sometimes simply forget or overlook certain films. For this list I have left off King Vidor's "The Big Parade" (1925). It is NOT a bad movie. It has war scenes on par with "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), my favorite of the early war films. You should see that movie. I only left it off because I decided to select another Vidor title, one of my favorite films ever made, "The Crowd" (1928). I have also left off Cecil B. Demille. But that is not because I don't like him or feel his films should not be viewed. I've left off several great works of the German expressionist movement. You should see all of these films. I believe you should view as much as you can. Grab hold of as many films as you can so you can expand your knowledge of the history of cinema.

Here now are my favorite films of the 1920s!

1. BEN-HUR (1927, Dir. Fred Niblo; U.S.) - An easy choice for me. I remember the first time I saw this film (it played on TCM) I sat there stunned. The energy and excitement of the story captivated me. Most people are probably more familiar with the 1959 sound version, but this silent version is just as spectacular. The film stars Ramon Novarro, whom the studios were hoping would turn into the next Valentino, he even reprised his most famous character in "The Sheik Steps Out" (1937), but he didn't quite make it to immortality. It has been rumored this film was one of the most expensive silent films ever made. Supposedly a cast of 125,000 people were employed, as extras. In the famous chariot race scene several of the leading Hollywood stars were used as extras in the crowd including John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and a young (and unknown) Clark Gable. I honestly feel if the Academy Awards had been created one year earlier, this would have won the first Oscar. It is a true masterpiece.

2. THE CROWD (1928, Dir. King Vidor; U.S.) - As I already said, this is one of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think Vidor has ever made a film which has touched me more. I reviewed his film "The Patsy" (1928) with Marion Davies on here before. I remember the first time I saw this film. I felt so deeply for the characters, a young couple (Eleanor Boardman and James Murray) trying to separate themselves from the big crowd as they face heartache. One of these days I'll have to include this in my "Masterpiece Film Series". The film was nominated for 2 Oscars including "Best Director".

3. SUNRISE (1927, Dir. F.W. Murnau; U.S.) - The great German filmmaker's first American film is generally regarded as one of the finest films ever made. A sheer technical and aesthetic accomplishment which was way ahead of its time. It was a box-office flop when first released but it did manage to get 4 Oscar nominations at the first award ceremony including "Best Actress" (Janet Gaynor) and "Best Cinematography". It even won a special Oscar "Best Picture for Unique and Artistic Production". In my review for Murnau's "Faust" (1926) I said it is hard for me to chose one film which would be considered his best. And I still feel that way. Any of his other films could have been on this list.

4. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925, Dir. Sergei M. Eisenstein; Russia) - Made to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution the film is often seen as the greatest piece of Soviet Propaganda of all time. But what a powerful film is it. Charlie Chaplin once said it was his favorite film. I already mentioned how I felt the first time I saw this film. It was such a visceral experience for me. Eisenstein is believed to be the greatest Russian filmmaker of all time. If you see this movie and enjoy it other classics are "Oktyabr" (1928) and his "Ivan the Terrible" films (1944 & 1958)

5. (TIE) THE GOLD RUSH / THE CIRCUS (1925, Dir. Charlie Chaplin; U.S.) / (1928, Dir. Charlie Chaplin; U.S.) - There was no way I wasn't going to include the work of my favorite comedy filmmaker Charlie Chaplin. For me the greatest thing to happen to the movies since the invention of the camera. These two films are among Chaplin's great films of the silent era. I did leave out "The Kid" (1920) which is also a masterpiece. "The Gold Rush" is the film Chaplin said he wanted to be remembered for. There are two versions of this film. The original silent version and a 1942 re-released edition which features a narration by Chaplin. I have seen both. At one time I preferred the original version. But after watching the 1942 version it has come to grow on me. The film features some of Chaplin's most famous gags such as the dance of the rolls and the shoe eating scene.

"The Circus" is not considered one of Chaplin's great comedies by the general public but every film historian and critic I know, from Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen and Robert Osborne have all said the film deserves a greater audience. It does have several great comedy sequences. And perhaps one of Chaplin's most famous endings. It is a very good fast-paced story which has the elements of pathos we associate with him. Movie lovers have to see these films. The film was even given an honorary award at the first Oscars for Chaplin.

6. (TIE) SHERLOCK JR. / THE GENERAL (1924, Dir. Buster Keaton; U.S.) / (1926, Dir. Clyde Bruckman/ Buster Keaton; U.S.) - Two of Keaton's best known comedies. I have written about "Sherlock Jr." in my "Masterpiece Film Series". It is one of Keaton's most innovative films. "The General" is usually the "correct" answer to give when asked what is Keaton's best film. It does have some brilliant comedy sequences. I think I prefer "Sherlock Jr." among the two.

7. (TIE) GRANDMA'S BOY / THE KID BROTHER (1922, Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer; U.S.) / (1927, Dir. Ted Wilde/ J.A. Howe; U.S.) - I know, I know. How dare I not put "Safety Last" (1923) and "The Freshman" (1925) on this list. Who the heck do I think I am to express my own opinion!? I told you these list are my favorites not a national consensus. I chose these two Harold Lloyd comedies because they do something Lloyd's other films don't do. One of the reasons I like Chaplin more than any of the other silent comics is for the exact reason other say they like Keaton more. I like that Chaplin's films have a social message. I love the combination of comedy and pathos. His films are not just about the laughs. I grow more interested in Chaplin's characters and feel he deals with relationships better. These Lloyd comedies are similar. They are funny but they have stories. The plots are more fully developed compared to "Safety Last". I wrote about "Safety Last" on here already. It is a masterpiece but the film is a collection of comedy sequences. These two films have a plot.

8. THE CAT & THE CANARY (1927, Dir. Paul Leni; U.S.) - Paul Leni was one of the great German expressionist filmmakers known for making horror films like "Waxworks" (1924) and "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). I wrote about this movie on amazon and at the time I said this film belongs on a list with "Battleship Potemkin" and "Citizen Kane" (1941) as one of the most innovative early films. "The Cat & the Canary" is one of the early haunted house stories and does a great job creating mood and atmosphere. The camera movements are so advance. Leni was a true artist whom most film fans may not know. He seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle compared to Murnau and Lang. This is a great film. Perhaps I'll review it on here next month in honor of Halloween. The film was remade in 1939 starring Bob Hope. It is considered one of Hope's best comedies.

9. THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929, Dir. Harry Beaumont; U.S.) - The only sound film on this list. The film won the Oscar for "Best Picture" becoming the first musical to win the award. Most people know "The Jazz Singer" (1927) was the first film to use sound but most of the film is silent. "The Broadway Melody" was the first full sound film. I have written about it already on here in my "Masterpiece Film Series". The film, compared to today's standards, is cliche. Two sisters come to New York to make it on Broadway and along the way face hardships. The film starred Anita Page, Bessie Love and Charles King. It features a great score which anyone who has seen "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) can recall. The songs include the title song, "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" and "You Were Meant For Me". The film was nominated for 3 Oscars.

10. GREED (1924, Dir. Erich von Stroheim; U.S.) - Originally Stroheim wanted this film to be 9 and 1\2 hours long. MGM took the film away from him and cut it down to 2 hours. TCM remastered the film and adding photo stills bringing the running time up to 4 hours. That is the version I have seen. It is sad to think that we can never see the Stroheim's vision correctly. The photo stills disrupt the flow of the film. It makes it very difficult to judge the performances and the directing since we are watching photo still most of the time. Still the story is powerful. When we do get to watch the acting it grips us at times. "Greed" was thought to be one of the greatest films of all time. I have no idea if people remember the film today but they should see it. The film's ending is incredible. I would put Stroheim in a class with directors like King Vidor, D.W. Griffith and Demille as one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era. This is his most epic film. Notice I left his "The Wedding March" (1928) off of this list. "Greed" is the film to see. Oddly enough the film has given us what is probably Zasu Pitts' most famous performance. I don't know if my readers are familiar with her, but I am. She was a comedienne. I found it so odd to see her in Stroheim's films (she is also in "The Wedding March"). Hal Roach once teamed her up with Thelma Todd hoping to make a new comedy team like Laurel & Hardy.

1. METROPOLIS (1927, Dir. Fritz Lang; Germany)

2. COQUETTE (1929, Dir. Sam Taylor; U.S.)

3. THE JAZZ SINGER (1927, Dir. Alan Crosland; U.S.)

4. THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 (1929, Dir. Charles Reisner; U.S.)

5. MYSTERIOUS LADY (1928, Dir. Fred Niblo; U.S.)

6. THE STRONG MAN (1926, Dir. Frank Capra; U.S.)

7. WINGS (1927, Dir. William A. Wellman; U.S.)

8. PANDORA'S BOX (1929, Dir. G.W. Pabst; Germany)

9. WAY DOWN EAST (1920, Dir. D.W. Griffith; U.S.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Film Review: The Corporal & the Others

"The Corporal & the Others" *** (out of ****)

It has been a long time since I have reviewed a Hungarian movie on here. I did a mini review last month for a new Hungarian film, "Taxi-dermia" (2009), but the last time I wrote a longer review was back in March, after the sad news of Peter Bacso death. I included his masterpiece "The Witness (A Tanu, 1969)" in my "Masterpiece Film Series".

In a strange way that is fitting. "The Corporal & the Others (A Tizedes meg a Tobbiek, 1965)" like "The Witness" are both satires on outside forces occupying Hungary. There was a time "The Corporal & the Others" was a very well known film, to Hungarians. I'm not sure what its reputation is now, but I can assure you it is not known in America. In fact it has never been available on VHS or DVD. I saw a Region 2 DVD, which will be your only way of seeing it.

As someone who tries to keep up with all the masterpieces of cinema, from all countries, it embarrasses me to admit, it was only recently I saw this movie. And as I say, at one time it was considered an important film in Hungarian cinema.

Back in 1969 some Hungarian filmmakers and critics got together and assembled a list of the 12 greatest Hungarian films made between 1948 and 1968. "The Corporal & the Others" made the list. Also included were "Szindbad" (1971), at one time thought to be the single greatest Hungarian film ever made, Zoltan Fabri's "Korhinta (Merry-Go-Round, 1956), I've included this in my "Masterpiece Film Series". It was the movie which put Hungary on the cinematic map. And Istvan Szabo's "Apa (Father, 1967)", which signaled the beginning of the Hungarian New Wave. So "The Corporal & the Others" was in very good company. It even swept the Hungarian Film Week Awards, the major film festival in Hungary. It won the grand prize for "Best Picture", "Best Director" and "Best Leading Actor".

But why am I telling you all of this? Because I would like to persuade you to see it. Maybe if I recite all of the film's accomplishments it will excite you to see it, because you will feel you are seeing something "important". I'd also like people to see this because I feel in America people overlook Hungarian cinema. The films rarely get distributed here, but many of the classic works of Istvan Szabo, Miklos Jancso and Karoly Makk are available on VHS and DVD.

Hungarian cinema actually has a rich history and some true masterpieces have come out of their. I've reviewed several of them already here. One reason "The Corporal & the Others" may not have had great cross-over success in America was because of the filmmaker. The movie was directed by Marton Keleti. His name means nothing to American audiences. I'm not even sure if any of his films are available for home entertainment. In Hungary, in his day, he was well know and had many obstacles to over come.

"The Corporal & the Others" lightly touches on a few of them. Between the war years, 1939 - 1944, Keleti was banned from making films because he was Jewish. Throughout his career he would direct 50 films. His first was Viki (1937) and he continued working right up to his death with the film "Csinom Palko" (1973). His highlights might be directing the first post-WW2 film, "A Tanitono" (1945), "Ket Vallomas (Two Confessions, 1957)" which starred the great Mari Torocsik, considered by many as the finest Hungarian actress. The film was nominated for a palme d'or at Cannes. And "The Corporal & the Others". But even I am not very familiar with his work in the same way I am Istvan Szabo for instance.

"The Corporal & the Others" takes place in the last days of WW2. Hungary had sided with the Germans but the Russians were slowly moving in. This has caused several soldiers to desert. One of them is Corporal Ferenc Molnar (Imre Sinkovits, who won the "Best Actor" award for his performance at Hungarian Film Week). He has actually stolen the pay roll for his battalion and has run off. He finds himself at a deserted mansion which is still being run by the butler, Albert (Tamas Major, who worked with Istvan Szabo on "Colonel Redl" (1985) and "Mephisto" (1981).

What Corporal Molnar doesn't know is that the mansion is currently occupied by other deserters; Eduard Galfy (Ivan Darvas, this is one of his early roles but he would become a very famous actor working with Karoly Makk on his masterpiece "Szerelem (Love, 1971)" and in a way its sequel "A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda (Egy het Pesten es Budan, 2003)" Makk's final film and ranks among his best) and two privates, Imre Gaspar (Laszlo Kozak) and Gyorgy Fekete (Gyula Szabo). These men must band together and hide themselves from the Germans and the Russians by constantly changing uniforms. If some Germans come in, they put on Russians uniforms and scare the Germans away or vice-versa. This leads one character to say this is the history of Hungary, always changing her uniform.

And that ladies and gentlemen is the whole point of the film. Hungary has always been occupied by outside forces; the Turks, the Austrians, the Germans and the Soviets. The only things that separated them was the uniform but when you're the one being occupied all uniforms tend to look the same, so what's the difference?

That may not sound like an Earth scattering message, but, please keep in mind when this film was made the Soviets were occupying Hungary. To make a film condemning Communist would get you in trouble with the censors. Peter Bacso's "The Witness" was banned in Hungary, not being released until 1981.

One of the deserters wants to stop fighting because he is a Hungarian communist and sees no reason to fight his fellow comrades. Initially the others, including the Corporal are disgusted to hear such talk but he proves useful to the group when he suggest they help a wounded Russian soldier, Grisa (Lajos C. Nemeth). The plan being Grisa would serve as good protection. If they are caught by the Russians they can tell them how they helped Grisa.

At times the film moves pretty fast and has some genuine funny moments concerning mistaking identities. Sometimes it is like a wild sex farce with characters running in and out of rooms hiding from others. One of the best scenes is near the end of the film when a soldier is trying to find out who is the real Corporal Molnar, but I won't reveal anything here.

The only downfall to the film is it is too light. I would have liked it to be more forth coming in its critique. I understand the political environment would have prevented that but look at what Bacso did with "The Witness". You simply cannot mistake that film's message. It is totally anti-Communist. As it stands now "The Corporal & the Others" is an enjoyable, light hearted WW2 comedy and a slight political message. It shouldn't be difficult for non-Hungarian audiences to follow. You don't need a deep knowledge of Hungarian history to enjoy it, but, the more you know the better.

You might find it helpful to know how Jews felt towards Hungarians at the end of WW2, what the relationship was like between Germans and Austrians and Hungarians prior to the war and of course we know how it all ended with the Soviets.

Just a quick word about the actors, all of them, I felt, were perfectly casted. The best in the bunch I thought were Major as Albert, who is very dignified and carries himself almost as a cliche Englishmen. And Sinkovits and Darvas are very good. They each have a lot of energy in their performance. Because it is such a broad farce perhaps at times you won't feel these are real people but that is okay. I think these characters are suppose to be symbols not really individuals. The represent different aspects of Hungarians; the communist, the loyal soldier...ect

If you are willing to see something different I would recommend "The Corporal & the Others" to you. As I said, you'll have to find a Region 2 DVD. It is worth seeking. It has several enjoyable moments. Don't walk in expecting a masterpiece and you should be pleased.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Film Review: Trauma

"Trauma" *** (out of ****)

As I watched Dario Argento's "Trauma" (1993), his first American production, a thought occurred to me. Recently I have reviewed a film by Claude Chabrol, "The Color of Lies" (1999). I began to notice a similarity in the world view between these two filmmakers. I think it would make an interesting essay comparing their styles. Naturally I'm not qualified to write such an article, you'll need a more intellectual critic, say Andrew Sarris or David Denby. But there is something about these two filmmakers which suggest a comparison. I suppose it is by no mere coincidence they are two filmmakers whose work I enjoy.

Argento is the more violent of the two. Chabrol's films deal with murder too, but, without the amount of on-screen gore Argento seems to have a fetish for. But both see the world as a dark place. Each filmmaker likes to examine what is beneath society's surface.
This is not the first time I have written about Argento's work. This is my sixth review, making him one of the most discussed directors on this blog (Chabrol and D.W. Griffith tie with him). But in case you haven't read my other reviews for his films, I'll explain a little about who he is.

 In his native Italy he is considered one of the great horror directors. His films are noted for their excessive gore. Though I must say, before some readers may get turned off, the violence in his films are not of a realistic nature. Argento's films are not made on a large budget, so some viewers may find the gore a bit campy. For instance, the blood never looks real.

Argento is best know for his "Three Mother" trilogy. I have reviewed each of the films in the series; "Suspiria" (1977), "Inferno" (1980) and "Mother of Tears" (2008). "Suspiria" along with "Deep Red" (1975) are his best films. That is not merely my own opinion, but is the general consensus among fans and critics. His films fall into two different genres. Films like "Suspiria" and "Inferno" deal with the supernatural. But his best known films fall into the "giallo" sub-genre.

Giallo means "yellow" in English, because that was the color of the covers of the books. They were detective stories which translated on-screen with moments of sexuality and nudity as well as dealing with the occult. "Trauma" is a typical example of the genre and as far as I'm concern is one of Argento's best films coming after "Suspiria", "Deep Red", "Inferno" and "Tenebre" (1982), which I have also reviewed and is another good example of the "giallo" genre.

"Trauma" stars Argento's daughter Asia as Aura Petrescu, a 16 year old Romanian runaway. Her parents; Adriana (Piper Laurie) and Stefan (Dominique Serrand), have sent her to an institution which she has escaped. She has befriended David Parsons (Christopher Rydell), a graphic designer at a local news station. He stopped her from jumping off a bridge.

A serial killer, nicknamed "the Headhunter" because he decapitates his victims, is on the prowl. He has even killed Aura's parents. Adriana was a psychic and the spirit of a recent victim was going to reveal the identity of the killer to her.

The film throws some connection between all the victims. They all worked at a hospital. All the victims were nurses. The killings seem to be some sort of revenge. Will the killer now come after Aura and David?
I've written about Asia Argento on here several times. I have mixed feelings about her. With the right script and the right director behind her she can turn in interesting performances. One of my favorite films with her is Tony Gatlif's "Transylvania" (2006), which I have reviewed on here. Gatlif turned her bad-ass image into more vulnerability. I would hope they would continue their collaboration. She was also in the excellent Catherine Breillat film "The Last Mistress" (2008), which I called one of the best films of the year. But here in "Trauma" she seems out of place. I think she was too young. At the time Miss Argento was 18 years old. I think Argento should have either made the character older or get a different actress.

The film dabbles into a weird romance between David and Aura. He is much too old for her and it seems sort of creepy for him to love her. Dario Argento doesn't handle the romance between these two very well. This part of the plot doesn't seem very well developed. And could have used some re-writes. We don't sense these two love each other. Something about it seems unnatural.

But who is going to watch a Dario Agrento film for a competent love story? We watched Mr. Argento's films for their twisted world view. The elaborate murder scenes. Here Argento seems to be aiming high, drawing inspiration from the French Revolution, with several references to the guillotine.

I do and do not like the casting choice of Piper Laurie as the mother. She is a fine actress. So talent is not the issue. And her presence makes us think of her mother character in "Carrie" (1976). But, Argento engages in a lot of camp, so in a way it seems beneath her. Argento doesn't usually direct grade "A" actors. His films are not known for their Oscar caliber performances. Supposedly, Ms. Laurie was quite embarrassed by this film and has never seen the finished product due to negative reviews the film received.

But I like the movie. I think this is a solid piece of work from Argento. It is mostly engaging and kept me interested throughout much of the film. It works up some moments of suspense and as I said is a good example of the "giallo" genre.

If there is one thing about the film I dislike, it is similar to my criticism of Chabrol's "The Color of Lies". Both films throw out major plot and character revelations at the end of the film. That is fine, within itself. But Argento never establishes enough clues which would hint to the viewer what is going on. Therefore we can't play along and try to solve the mystery with the characters.

For those readers that have never seen a Dario Argento film, this isn't the best place to start. Watch "Suspiria", "Deep Red" and "Tenebre" before you see this. While most people tend not to like Argento's later films, this one is actually pretty good and isn't as campy as some of his later films like "Mother of Tears". Unlike some of his later films this one actually works up suspense and if you watch it alone in a dark room, might have you look over your shoulder.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Film Review: The Color of Lies

"The Color of Lies" *** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "The Color of Lies" (1999) is a film which exist in a world full of lies, gossip and innuendoes. You simply cannot believe a word any of the characters are saying. One character even says "thank God lies exist". Every character is two-faced. They all put on masks for society. Every character seems capable of terrible acts. And we even see some of these characters engage in suspicious acts.

Those familiar with the work of the great master, Claude Chabrol (considered the French Hitchcock) know that is not new territory for him. His films are often about masks. He even made a film called "Masks" back in the 80s. And like all of Chabrol films these masks usually lead to murder.

The film stars Sandrine Bonnaire and is a follow-up to her previous Chabrol collaboration, "La Cermonie" (1997), which I have reviewed on here. It is one of his long list of masterpieces. In "The Color of Lies" once again she plays a character who may not be what she seems. I was intrigued by her performance. There seemed to be so much going on between the lines. She seems to be constantly thinking. We can tell from her eyes she is always trying to stay two steps ahead of the game. Will her secrets be discovered?

The movie is about the death of a 10 year old girl, Eloise (Wendy Malpeli). She was an art student of Rene Stern (Jacques Gambline). The girl's body is discovered not too far from Rene's home. It is believed the girl was raped and strangled. Because of the proximity to Rene's home he is the lead suspect in an investigation being lead by the town's new chief investigator Lesage (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who was in the wonderful "5 x 2" (2004) and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (2005).

Rene suffered an accident, which is never fully explained. He now depends upon the use of a cane. He and his wife, Vivianne (Bonnaire), live alone in a house next to the sea. Since his accident he has stopped painting. At one time he was known for his portraits. Now he has given up. When the townspeople hear about the girl's death, he is driven into a further seclusion.

One of their neighbors is Germain Desmot (Antoine de Caunes) a very successful journalist and novelist, who has just come out with a new book. He and Vivianne seem to have a mutual attraction for one another. The viewer can clearly guess what Desmot's intentions are but sometimes we can't quite figure out what is going on in Vivianne's head.

Chabrol seems to be pointing the finger at everyone. Who exactly can the murderer be? Each character is hiding something. Chabrol at one point or another allows our imagination to run wild and suspect everyone. People are not always what they seem. "The Color of Lies" shows us both sides of every character. We learn Desmot is a bit of a ladies man. He is divorced and by choice, never sees his daughter. We see Vivianne and Rene love each other yet she flirts with Desmot. And while Rene may seem like a nice guy, we wonder, did he really kill the girl? He says he has given up drawing portraits but the first time we see Rene he is drawing Eloise's portrait during her lesson. As Inspecteur Lesage points out, teacher are known for seducing their pupils.

And what about Inspecteur Lesage. Being new to the town is she trying to make a name for herself? At times she doesn't seem clever. We suspect she is barking up the wrong tree. Clueless how to solve the case. In a way it reminds you of the character Columbo. He always seems to annoy everyone with his thousand of questions, which never seemed to have anything to do with the case, yet at the end of every episode he solved the murder.

"The Color of Lies", which was written by Chabrol and Odie Barski, who co-wrote "Violette" (1978), Chabrol's first film with Isabelle Huppert, is not one of the master's best. But it is not disappointing either. Chabrol suffers from his own greatness. It simply isn't as good as some of his other films, though it does share similar traits of his best work.

But I disliked the ending as well. I felt Chabrol cheated. He resolves the story by bringing up facts that he never seems to have hinted at earlier in the story. There is no way the audience could have guessed what happened. Chabrol has made up his own rules and didn't explain them to us.

It also has some very good visuals. I enjoy scenes near the end of the film which take place in the fog. A clear metaphor for the character's state of mind, very blurry. It is a dinner between Vivianne, Rene and Desmot. The viewers knows things which the others may or not know. Each character is dropping hints, in a way testing the characters to see how much they know. This creates the fog in the air. No one can see clearly.

I've reviewed a good number of Chabrol's films on this blog. In fact he is tied with D.W. Griffith as being the most discussed filmmaker on here. I wouldn't start off with this Chabrol film as my first viewing experience. You'll want to watch his older titles first such as "Le Boucher" (1970) or "Les Biches" (1968), which I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". I would also suggest watching this after you've seen "La Cermonie". "The Color of Lies" is a good, entertaining film. It is not Chabrol at the top of his game but even when he's not, he's still more interesting than most directors.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Film Review: A Matter of Life & Death

" A Matter of Life & Death" *** (out of ****)

They say "love" is a powerful force. For it, there are those who would scale the heights of the Heavens or the depths of Hell to retrieve it. "A Matter of Life & Death" (1946) is a film which holds this to be literally true.

I have been re-watching the work of British filmmaker Michael Powell and his Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, believed by many to be the most successful writer/director team in Britain during the 1940s and 50s. Some their films I am seeing for the first time however. But surprisingly, nothing has really been able to strike as much as the first film I saw by this team, "A Matter of Life & Death", though released in America as "Stairway to Heaven" (I wasn't sure which title to use).

I knew I had to review something by this team but the problem I have with them is while they are a critically successful team, filmmaker Martin Scorsese raves about them, they never really meant a lot to me. I can clearly see the craft which goes into their films. They are well made. But their films feel too mechanical for me. The style is there but no heart. I never become emotionally overwhelmed watching their films. The closet I have come is when I watched "The Red Shoes" (1948), some say one of the greatest films ever made. But I simply didn't feel like reviewing that movie. The only other gripping film they have made is their WW2 propaganda film "49th Parallel" (1941). That film I gave serious consideration to reviewing, especially since I only recently reviewed another British WW2 propaganda film, "In Which We Serve" (1942). But I settled on "A Matter of Life & Death".

This film doesn't have the dramatic depths which "The Red Shoes" or "49th Parallel" has. But, I think I like it more, or equally as much as those other two. I think the real is because I'm more sentimental about the story. It is more old-fashion. It also has some sly humor and interesting political ideas. I would suggest watching "The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "49th Parallel" and this movie together. "Colonel Blimp" is about the British war culture, "Parallel" is an attack on isolationism, citing the war can follow you where ever you are, and this movie has a bit of an anti-war feel to it. "A Matter of Life & Death" could have been the response to "Colonel Blimp".

David Niven stars as Peter Carter, a British pilot who has radio-ed his tower, a woman named June (Kim Hunter) answers. His plane is about to go down. His crew has upped out of the plane, by his orders, and one has died. He has no parachute and has decided he too will jump rather than burn to flames. June is horrified. There is nothing she can do at this moment except provide some comfort to Peter and hear his story. He wants her to write a letter to his mother and sisters. And so Peter jumps from his plane.

But Peter doesn't die. He landed in the Ocean, where he was rescued and brought to shore, while he was passed out. When he awakes he assumes he is in Heaven and looks around for a place to "check in". But as fate would have it, he has landed near the home of June. Now they are together and claim to be in love.

Though there is a problem. You see, in the "other world" (the word Heaven is never used), Peter was on their list. His time was suppose to be up. Peter has cheated death. What happened was, because of the British fog, death was unable to find Peter and left without him. So the grim reaper, here a Frenchman called Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), is sent back to Earth to collect his soul. Peter will not go and demands an appeal in court to defend his life. He is in love now and wants to live. The Conductor has never heard of just a thing and must go back to the other world and report.

When Peter tells June of all of this, she informs her friend, a doctor, Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey). He agrees to meet Peter and instantly figures out with is wrong with Peter. He tells Peter he should come stay with him so he can run some test and so Peter can tell him when the Conductor arrives again.

I've always thought Peter suffered from Survivor's guilt. His entire crew died and he was sure he was going to die. Why didn't he? It is a question he asks himself repeatedly. But the film plays around with the idea of whether or not what is happening to Peter is real or not. Is Peter going insane?

Events further develop when Peter learns he will in fact have his day in court. He has the right to chose any person, as long as they are died already, to defend him. The prosecutor with be Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) the first American to die by a British bullet during the Revolutionary War.

And here we get to the film's political message. After WW2 relations between Britain and America were strained. Much of Europe felt the Americans waited too long to join the war, especially the British, whom admittedly suffered greatly during the war. But by the war's end, the question was which nation would be the super power. Would Britain stand side by side with America? President Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Gooderham Acheson had this to say; "of course a unique relation exist between Britain and America, our common language and history ensure that. But unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally."

One moment during the court scene as Abraham informing an audience that each member of the jury has been the subject of Britain's vast empire. From America to India. The British empire has had its hand everywhere. This is the reason Peter and June could never be together or really in love. They come from two different cultures. This is what Peter must prove to the court if he is to get his life back. That he does love June.

Jean-Luc Godard once said "in order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie." I don't think Powell and Pressburger wanted to criticize any other movies, but you can compare this movie to a host of others. There is of course the legend of Orpheus, which was made into a wonderful film by Jean Cocteau in 1950. You have "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941). And at one point in the film the Conductor asks Peter if he likes to play chess. Did that trigger something in Ingmar Bergman and give us "The Seventh Seal" (1958)? And what about Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait" (1943)? All of these films deal with either someone cheating death, death following them, or people going to Heaven or Hell for the love of their life. It would be hard for me to believe none of these films impacted one another.

The only problem I have with "A Matter of Life & Death" is it never feels very romantic. Those weren't the moments I remember best. I remember the humor of the court room scenes. We don't really feel these two people are truly in love. The screenplay doesn't fully explore that aspect. It spends greater time on the political ideas.

But there is much to enjoy about the film. The creativity of the idea. The visuals and production designs. The sheer fantastic-ness of the situation. It creates a world where anything can happen. And ask the question, can love over come everything?

Even though I'm not the biggest fan of Powell and Pressburger, you should see their movies. They have had an influence on several filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese. Watching their films you will true a true craftsman at work. Now if only their films had a little more heart, they'd really have something.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes

"Sherlock Holmes" *** (out of ****)

In my review for "The Sheik" (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, I mention how Valentino was actually not my favorite of the male silent screen stars. I thought there were far better actors around, I said John Barrymore was probably the greatest of the silent era. Because of that I decided to review this version of "Sherlock Holmes" (1922).

True classic movie fans should be rejoicing. "Sherlock Holmes" was at one time thought to be lost. I believe some public domain print floated around for some time, but a large population of movie fans have never seen the film. Thanks to Kino, last month, for the first time, "Sherlock Holmes" has been put on DVD, fully remastered from the George Eastman collection. It was part of a four DVD set called "The John Barrymore Collection", which focused on Barrymore's silent film performances.

The other films in the collection were available on DVD previously, if not by Kino than other labels. That is why I was eager to review "Sherlock Holmes" first over the other titles, despite the fact that this film is not particularly good.

Most, if not all, movie buffs, probably know Basil Rathbone for playing Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle's famed sleuth. Rathbone first played the character in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939) and played the character 12 more times. The final film in the series was "Dressed to Kill" (1946).

Viewers only familiar with those films may not be pleased with this adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. This film follows the stage play by William Gillette which was based on the novel. Here Holmes (played by Barrymore) is not the sleuth we have come to know. He is only beginning. When we first meet him he is a recent college graduate who hasn't decided what he wants to do with his life. He says he is interested in the "complexities of life". Solving crime seems to be furthest from his mind. What is love seems to be his most probing question.

The set-up for the film is somehow both dull and complex. Don't ask me how this happened. A young Prince, Alexis (Reginald Denny) is third in line for the throne. He plays to marry a commoner, Rose Faulkner (Peggy Bayfield). But he is later accused of stealing money, I believe from the evil Prof. Moriarity (Gustav von Seyffertitz). This will cause a huge international scandal. The prince claims to be innocent, so his roommate at Cambridge University, a young Dr. Watson (Roland Young, making his film debut) suggest that a classmate of his help out, Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes immediately figures out who planted the money on the prince. A man who works for Moriarity, but wanted out of his gang of criminals, Foreman Wells (William Powell, also his film debut). Wells figured he could plant the evidence on the prince, and because of his influence the situation would be swept away. But that is not the case.

Eventually Prince Alexis discovers that his two brothers have died in a car accident, now he must return home to inherit the throne. As a result his marriage to Rose Faulkner can never be. This drives Rose to kill herself, or was she murdered by Moriarity's gang? See, Moriarity wants to get his hand on some love letters the two wrote to each other and use it to black mail the prince.

This immediately sets up one of the problems with the film. What I have just described has taken place over the course of years. But "Sherlock Holmes" doesn't make that clear. This may be due to the fact that footage is still missing. The structure of the story seems too jumbled.

By this time Holmes has devoted his life to capturing Moriarity. Believing that these letters will finally lead him to connecting Moriarity not only to this crime but others he agrees to the case. This will also give him the opportunity to meet with Rose's sister, Alice (Carol Dempster), whom Holmes meet before and fell in love with at first sight.

"Sherlock Holmes" doesn't do a very good job of creating tension and suspense. The film was directed by Albert Parker, not a filmmaker I am terrible familiar with. He did direct another legend of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate" (1926), considered one of Fairbanks best pictures. But here Parker is unable to give the film a proper tone. Events drag along. The viewer doesn't really feel they are part of a great mystery.

Sadly the performances aren't much better either. This is the first time I'm discussing John Barrymore, though I did review "Grand Hotel" (1932), the Oscar winning ensemble drama. This is the first time I'm reviewing an actually John Barrymore vehicle. So I wish it was a better movie and I could tell you, when you watch this you'll see Barrymore at the top of his game. Not so. We see glimpses of his brilliance. Supposedly, and this may all just be Hollywood gossip, Barrymore was drunk during shooting. It is no surprise that he was a heavy drinker, W.C. Fields was one of his drinking buddies. So, if that story is true, it would explain a lot. There are moments when you sense Barrymore is walking through the picture.

The female lead, Carol Dempster, whom I reviewed recently in the D.W. Griffith comedy "Sally of the Sawdust" (1925) with W.C. Fields, isn't much of an actress. In "Sally" I said she was trying too hard to be funny, making silly faces and such. Here she doesn't do enough to be dramatic. The poor girl could never find the right balance for a performance. It was either too little or too much. She never did become a major star. Did you ever hear of her? I rest my case.

It is however fun to see Roland Young and William Powell in their first performances. And famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has a role in the film. She started out as an actress.

Young was a decent choice for Dr. Watson. Though it is difficult for me to see anyone else besides Nigel Bruce play the role. I wonder how Young would have been in sound version of the film. He had such a terrific acting voice. Here though he isn't the lovable timid character actor we know him as in "Topper" (1937) or Ernst Lubitsch's "One Hour With You" (1932). He is rather stiff here. Probably because this was his first performance.

William Powell would of course have a long career in the detective genre. First playing Philo Vance and then greater fame as Nick Charles in "The Thin Man" (1934) and all its sequels. Here he is Holmes true partner. Wearing various disguises to find the whereabouts of Alice and the letters. At one point he even plays a butler. Of course he played another butler in the classic screwball comedy "My Man Godfrey" (1936). I thought he was more at ease in front of the camera. Too bad the part wasn't bigger.

If this is the first John Barrymore film you see, don't judge the man on this one performance. He was widely considered the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. He was an acting powerhouse from a family of acting powerhouses. His brother was Lionel Barrymore and his sister Ethel. Each of them won Oscars; Lionel for "A Free Soul" (1931), a film I don't like as much as others. And Ethel for "None But the Lonely" (1944). Amazingly it was John who never won an Oscar. In fact, he wasn't even nominated for one. And to this day I believe was never given an honorary one either. And people wonder why I feel the Academy has no class!

Barrymore actually first started out in comedies. A friend suggested that he try drama. One of his first major roles was in "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (1920), considered one of the first American horror films, though D.W. Griffith beat them by a few years with his adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Though he did go back to comedy later in the sound era. See him in the wonderful Howard Hawks comedy "20th Century" (1934).

A bio-pic was made about his life, when he was still alive, he even acted in the film (!), "The Great Profile" (1940), which was his nickname. He usually wanted to be shot from a certain side of his face.

While I admit there is more wrong with "Sherlock Holmes" than there should be, I'm still recommending the film. It should be seen by movie lovers. And does make a good curiosity piece for Barrymore fans and it is fun to see Young and Powell in their first roles. This is not great cinema but it has moments which are pleasurable and we can see some craft.

Parker was not a great director. He doesn't move his camera at all, doesn't get close-ups for dramatic effect. He does nothing innovative with this film. I would imagine watching this would make you appreciate what men like Griffith were doing. And how advance his films were over the others.

But I'm glad "Sherlock Holmes" is on DVD and can be viewed by a larger audience. I don't know how many of us silent film fans are around anymore or John Barrymore fans either. But they will want to see this.

I'd also like to make a quick comment about the musical score. It was done by Ben Model, who plays solo organ. The score is terrible. This film deserved a full orchestra score. It may have helped create a better mood. In silent films I find the music is very important. Sometimes it can make the difference between whether or not I ultimately like a movie.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Film Review: Nickelodeon

"Nickelodeon" ** (out of ****)

If I had to pick one filmmaker to sit down and have a cup of coffee with or a drink or just a conversation with, I think I would pick the director of "Nickelodeon" (1976), the great Peter Bogdanovich.

What modern filmmaker has spent as much time as he has trying to re-create the past? Which filmmaker has tried to recapture the charm of old Hollywood for younger generations and preserve its memories?

I often think Bogdanovich and I are kindred spirits. We both have a similar love for the classics. We admire the great directors of the past and have been deeply influenced by them. We both want to share the style of old Hollywood with today's audience. But I know that lunch date will never happen with Bogdanovich. I've heard people describe him as arrogant and snobbish. I've heard he isn't very kind to his fans. Which, believe it or not, I perfectly understand. I realize he is an artist and simply doesn't want to be bothered with the rest us. And I don't mean that as a putdown.

I mention all of this for several reasons. First of all, this is the first time I'm writing about Peter Bogdanovich, and sadly my first review is a negative one. So I want to make it clear to my readers that I am a great admirer of Mr. Bogdanovich. Secondly because I want to emphasis that there was probably not another director in the 1970s who would have made a film about the early days of Hollywood in the same style that Bogdanovich did.

Peter Bogdanovich came onto the scene in the 1970s, just in time for the "New Wave" of American filmmakers for the new generation. Others included Martin Scorese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman (Altman was actually making films in the 1950s but really hit his peak in the 1970s with "M*A*S*H" (1970), which is when I feel his career really began) and Woody Allen. But while those filmmakers were making films about contemporary issues, Bogdanovich was trapped in a time zone. He wanted to make the kind of films John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles made.

For a while in the 1970s he was a big deal. He really broke out after "The Last Picture Show" (1971) was released. It was nominated for multiple Oscars and even won two in the supporting acting categories. Roger Ebert, at the time, named it the best film of the year. The following years were also very good to Bogdanovich. His follow-up film was the Howard Hawks inspired screwball comedy "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) with Ryan O' Neal and Barbara Streisand. It was basically a remake of Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" (1938). Next was "Paper Moon" (1973) a depression bound light-hearted comedy with O'Neal again and his daughter, Tatum O' Neal, who even won an Oscar for her performance, making the youngest Oscar winner. But then something happened. Bogdanovich had fallen out of taste with the public. His next films were savagely dismissed by both the critics and the public. He's never quite been able to fully recover in the public's eye, as none of his films have managed to have the impact those earlier films did.

And this is the environment Bogdanovich found himself in when he made "Nickelodeon". The film followed two flops, which never deserved the harsh reactions they were met with. His "Daisy Miller" (1974) is actually a fine adaptation of Henry Miller's novel and has a good performance by Cybill Shepherd. His "At Long Last Love" (1975) was a 1930s inspired musical with a Cole Porter score. It doesn't exactly work but people treated the film as if it had the plague. "Nickelodeon" basically was the final nail in the coffin.

Some have suggested the reason Bogdanovich never had the lasting impact that his contemporaries had was because he never really had his own vision. He simply borrowed from others. His films were homages to the great directors of the past. But there was nothing unique about him. I personally don't buy that argument. It is not as if Bogdanovich was merely re-shooting other director's work. It takes a lot of skill to be able to get the feeling of those classic films correct. Not everyone can do it.

I think the real reason Bogdanovich's films were met with resistance was because he, like me, was cursed to be born in the wrong decade. Modern audiences aren't interested in revisiting the past. They don't know it exist and guess what? They are fine with that. If they never see a D.W. Griffith movie in their life it wouldn't matter. If I asked 10 people on the street, "do you know who D.W. Griffith is?" I bet every one of them will say no. There were a lot of issues going around in the 1970s.
Audiences wanted to see films address the current problems of the youth movement. A movie which was going to take audiences back to the 1930s or in the case of "Nickelodeon", 1910, wasn't going to interest them.

"Nickelodeon" was Bogdanovich's homage to the early, silent days of cinema. Right before the time it was emerging as an art form. We were still in the days when literally anyone could make movies. There was no NYU film school back then. People didn't have formal training in cinema. The rules were still being invented. People didn't quite know what to do with films at this point.

The film starts off around 1910. The first image we see is of a lawyer, Leo Harrigan (Ryan O' Neal). He is in court about to lose a case, after some new information is brought in. His plan. Escape. And as he runs out of the courtroom, while his client chases after him, Harrigan, finds himself in front of the office of H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith), an independent movie producer. And before Harrigan can spell his name correctly to Cobb, he is hired as one of the studio's writers.

One of the main plot points in "Nickelodeon" is the "patent wars". The major movie studios felt they had a patent on the movie camera and didn't want any competition from the smaller independent studios. So pressure was put on movie houses or "nickelodeons" not to play their movies. According to "Nickelodeon" these actions resulted in very dangerous situations were henchmen were sent by the major studios to destroy cameras and burn film from the competition.

It is through this environment that Harrigan now finds himself directing films. But before he does that he meets the lovely Kathleen Cook (Jane Hitchcock) and for him it is love at first sight. She is "blind as a rat", so maybe she needs to take a second look. She is going on a train from Chicago to New York when they meet. Their meeting offers a similar set-up in "What's Up, Doc?" where they accidentally mix-up their suitcases. She wants to be an actress, he wants to see her again.
While shooting his first film Harrigan meets Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds, who was also in "At Long Last Love"), who has been sent by the studios to assassinate Harrigan. But Harrigan likes his looks and make him the new leading man, replacing Reginald Kingsley (George Gaynes).
We also have the leading lady, Marty Reeves (Stella Stevens) the cameraman, Frank Frank (John Ritter, whom supposedly Bogdanovich originally wanted in the lead) and Alice (Tatum O' Neal) a 10 year con-artist (she played the same role in "Paper Moon"). She loves to read Shakespeare and eventually becomes the clan's writer. I guess proving the point that sometimes it seems like 10 year olds are writing movies.Both Harrigan and Greenway fall in love with Kathleen, as soon she becomes the stock company's new leading lady. And it is a race to see which man will win her heart first.

A lot of this may make "Nickelodeon" sound pretty good. But unfortunately "Nickelodeon" is not a good movie. One of the film's problems is it is absolutely lifeless. The pace of the film drags. There is not enough energy in the performances. But the real problem with "Nickelodeon" is Bogdanovich doesn't show the joy of film making. The film gets so boggled down in the politics of the patent war. That should have been a very small sub-plot, taking place in the background of the film, if at all. Why do these people want to make movies in the first place? There is never a moment when we believe these people truly love what they are doing. The film doesn't feel like a celebration.

Bogdanovich does a lot of things right with the movie. The musical score is quite good, a ragtime piano score. The film even uses title-cards between scenes and iris fade in and outs. He gets the look of a silent film correct. Bogdanovich even wanted to shoot the film in black and white but the studios ruled against it. However the film was put on DVD in April of this year, it includes the original theatrical version (which is what I saw) and a director's cut in black & white. Some say the black & white improves the film greatly. I can't quite understand how this can be true. It might add to the mood of the film, but, how will black & white cinematography change the story?

The best scene in "Nickelodeon" is at the end. The gang gets together for the premier of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of A Nation" (1915). They are in awe of the film. Harrigan simply wants to give up film making after seeing it. He feels it is the greatest movie ever made (I've reviewed it on here). We see the audience's reaction as they watch the film. It is the only moment where we see how powerful the movies can be and why audience's loved them. It is the only moment of celebration and joy. And we also see that these people love movies. This is what Bogdanovich's film should have been about.
Some have suggest the film was actually loosely based on Cecil B. DeMille's career. I personally don't know enough about DeMille's career, I haven't even reviewed something by him. I promise to do so. But the credits have a special thanks to Raoul Walsh, whose work I have reviewed, and Allan Dwan. Both were contemporaries of DeMille. Maybe they told Bogdanovich stories about DeMille or maybe Bogdanovich based elements of the film on their lives.

Either way, while one can appreciate what Bogdanovich wanted this film to be, too much doesn't work. The comedy isn't inspired. It doesn't feel as if the humor grows out of the situation. It seems contrived at times, too well staged. And the performances are the same way. Too cliched. These aren't real people just functions of the plot.

I really wanted to enjoy "Nickelodeon". I looked forward to seeing this film for years. It was never available on VHS or DVD, so I had to wait all these years to see it. I'm glad I finally got it out of my system, but I'm greatly disappointed. If you chose to watch Bogdanovich's films (and you should) see "What's Up, Doc?", "Paper Moon", "The Last Picture Show" and "The Cat's Meow" (2001) first. See this after you've developed a taste for his work. Also if you love silent films and early Hollywood as much as I do, see it too, just for curiosity sake.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: In Which We Serve

"In Which We Serve" **** (out of ****)

When you think of David Lean you probably think "master of the epic". His best known films are "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and "Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957). I like those movies just as much as the next person, maybe even more. What you might not have known however is Lean wasn't always working on giant-scale productions. I'm a great admirer of his earliest films, which were collaborations with Sir. Noel Coward.

The two men worked together on four films. Each of them is worth seeing and have elements which make them special. There is the sentimentality of the WW2 love story, "Brief Encounter" (1945), perhaps their best known film. The charming comedy "Blithe Spirit" (also 1945). And the everyday struggles in "This Happy Breed" (1944). But my favorite of the pack just might be "In Which We Serve" (1942), their first collaboration.

In the beginning "In Which We Serve" was intended to be a one man show with Sir. Noel Coward taking full control of the project. He produced the film, wrote the screenplay, composed the musical score, acted the lead part and was set to direct the film.

Since this is a movie blog, some readers may not know who Sir. Noel Coward was. He was given the nickname the "Wonder Boy", others called him "the master". He was foremost known as a composer. It was said of Irving Berlin that he was America's songwriter. If that was true of Berlin then Noel Coward was Britain's songwriter. His ability to write both lyrics and music has most often drawn comparisons to Cole Porter. Both men had an ability to write witty lyrics and simple but memorable melodies. Some of his best known songs are; "I'll See You Again", "Mad About the Boy", "A Room with A View" and "Someday I'll Find You".

Coward was also a distinguished playwright, an actor, singer, TV personality and a painter. He could wear many hats at once and do all jobs equally well. Thus the nickname "Wonder Boy".

Before "In Which We Serve" was conceived, Noel Coward was approached to help out with the war effort. British morale was starting to dwindle. Prior to the release of "In Which We Serve" was the infamous "Blitz on London", for 57 consecutive nights bombs were dropped on London. An estimated 43,000 civilians were killed. Imagine the emotional toll that had on the people. Every night to be bombed.

So the government had to do something. Films were a major part of the propaganda effort. Released before "In Which We Serve" was William Wyler's Oscar winning masterpiece, "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), another film aimed at boosting British morale. "In Which We Serve" is pure propaganda. An attempt to show the hard working Brits all united. Notice the first image of the film. A voice-over (done by none other than Leslie Howard) tell us "this is the story of a ship" as a montage begins showing us a ship being built. Lean shoots this sequence in a long shot so the viewer understands just how many people are involved in this process. How all these people band together, all the skill and discipline involved.

But "In Which We Serve" is of course more than the story of a ship. It is a story about Britain and her people. It is a story about love of country, patriotism and heroism. The film was inspired by the sinking of the HMS Kelly, led by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, at the Battle of Crete. Coward and Mountbatten were friends and Coward thought since this incident was fresh in everyone's mind it would serve as a good subject matter for the film to incite nationalistic pride.

The main plot of the film takes place at the Battle of Crete. The HMS Torrin as been hit and is about to sink. The crew and the captain find safety holding on to a raft. The film now is primarily told in flashback as we come to learn the story of who these men were. What were their lives like before the war?

The characters we follow most are Captain Kinross (Coward) and his wife, Alix (Celia Johnson, who was also in "Brief Encounter"), Petty Officer Hardy (Bernard Miles) and his wife Kath (Joyce Carey), "Shorty" Blake (John Mills) and his wife Freda (Kay Walsh).

What draws the viewer emotionally into the story is the fact that as we learn about these men and who they are, we know their fate. We learn how Capt. Kinross wanted to rush the ship into commission, giving his crew just three days to prepare. And again we get another montage, this time showing us the dedication of the sailors and their optimism.

We see how "Shorty" and Freda met on a train and it is love at first sight. We see Officer Hardy express concern to his wife about what he feels is an inevitable war.

The film keeps shifting back and forth between time frames. Showing us a sailor's life and then where they have ended up.

The acting by the entire cast is actually quite good. Each performance does exactly what it is suppose to do, incite sympathy and pride. Celia Johnson has a memorable moment when she gives a speech at a party discussing the life of the wife of a sailor. How she will always be second to her husband's first love, his ship. The speech is suppose to make women understand their role and realize the sacrifice their husbands are making.

John Mills, who would later win an Oscar for a David Lean film, "Ryan's Daughter" (1970), is good at playing the "everyman". The only life he knows is that of a sailor. When his country calls, he doesn't ask questions. He merely does what he is told. Just as all good Brits should do in time of war.

And Coward signifies the restrained dignity of the British people. The stiff upper lip mentality. Prior to filming the studio had expressed concern with Coward in the lead, Coward was already an established figure on the London stage and had built a reputation as a dignified English gentleman, always with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another. Would the public accept him as a sea captain? But Coward insisted on playing the role due to his friendship to Capt. Mountbatten. In the end the performance is successful. Coward seemed to know his limits and doesn't play the character as a hulking brute. Coward wasn't John Wayne so he presents the captain as a family man first and foremost.

Once filming had begun, it became clear to Coward that staging the battle scenes were a bit much for him and placed him out of his element. When asked who he can get to assist him he was told to get 'the best editor" in England, David Lean.

Lean has secured a reputation as an accomplished editor working on such films as "Pygmalion" (1938) and the Powell and Pressburger war film "The 49th Parallel" (1941). But Coward soon noticed Lean was very skillful and decided to share directing credit with Lean, though if you notice the film is always billed as Noel Coward's "In Which We Serve". But this was after all Lean's first film, Coward was the heavyweight.

The battle scenes are impressive and you can tell a lot of money was thrown at the film to get things rights. These battle scenes show the will of the sailors and the British people in general. They do not back down in the face of adversaries. Even after the Torrin is hit we see sailors firing back. They won't go down without a fight. These scenes, as far as battle scenes go, are very well staged. And for their time probably appeared as realistic as any before.

Once the film was released it was a tremendous success. The film actually went on to be used as a recruiting tool for the Royal Naval, to whom the film is dedicated. And it won two Academy Award nominations. One for "Best Picture" and one for Noel Coward's screenplay. It lost both awards to "Casablanca" (1943). But the film is hardly forgotten today by the British. Back in 1999 when the BFI (British Film Institute, the counter-part to the American Film Institute) issued their list of the 100 greatest British films, "In Which We Serve" made the list.

Besides these David Lean films, if you are interested, other Noel Coward works have been adapted for the screen. In 1933 his play "Cavalcade" won the "Best Picture" Oscar (I have reviewed it already). MGM also did adaptations of "We Were Dancing" (1942) with Norma Shearer and Melvyn Douglas, though Coward's songs were removed. And Shearer starred in another Coward adaptation, "Private Lives" (1931) with Robert Montgomery, again minus the songs. But there was the Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald version of "Bitter Sweet" (1940) which did retain many of his songs and most recently "Easy Virtue" (2009) was brought to the screen (which I have also reviewed).

This is of course the first time I have reviewed a David Lean film. If you have an idea of who he is, you may not find this film to be what you were expecting, still, I find these earlier films much more intimate. They feel more personal than some of his later works, as great as those are.

"In Which We Serve" is an amazing heartfelt, emotionally rewarding film. It is one of the masterpieces of cinema.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Film Review: My Darling Clementine

"My Darling Clementine" *** (out of ****)

As I continue to try and review all the great films and great directors, it has occurred to me I haven't really spent time reviewing westerns and I've never reviewed a movie directed by John Ford.

If any one director best represents the genre it is John Ford. He devoted himself to the genre, pretty much setting the standard for what all other westerns are measured against.

It has been said of him no other director shoots landscapes like him. Thinking it over in my mind, I cannot think of another filmmaker who does it as well. It has also been suggested, that he, along with Frank Capra, best represent American values in cinema.

John Ford holds the record for most "Best Director" Oscar wins in history. He was nominated 5 times and won 4; "The Informer" (1935), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "How Green Was My Valley" (1941) and "The Quiet Man" (1952). The one time he lost was for "Stagecoach" (1939).

Looking over his credits, like so many other great filmmakers, it was hard to find a starting point. Which title should I review first? But there was another challenge and one I must admit to my readers in the order of fairness. I haven't seen many of Ford's films. I have only seen a small handful. Among them my favorite is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). But I didn't feel like re-watching that movie, especially when you consider there are so many other films by Mr. Ford I've yet to explore. The only films I have seen are; "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939), "How Green Was My Valley", "The Quiet Man" and "The Searchers" (1956).

But I settled on "My Darling Clementine" (1946). It is a fine choice I feel. It is highly regarded and is viewed by many as one of Ford's greatest and most influential films. It is very typical of what I find in Mr. Ford's film.

"My Darling Clementine" is about the fight at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and the Clanton family (headed by Walter Brennan). Earp and his brothers; Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond) and James (Don Garner) are headed for California when they run into the Clantons. The father wants to buy the Earp's cattle, he is even willing to pay $5 a head. But Wyatt refuses. This makes father Clanton very mad.

After returning from the town of Tombstone, Wyatt and two of his brothers find their cattle is missing and the youngest brother, James, is dead. Wyatt suspects it was the Clanton's but has no proof. He decides to stay in the town of Tombstone to get his revenge.

Tombstone doesn't seem to be a safe place. And after a violent incident with a drunk Indian, Wyatt is named the town's Marshall with his brothers as his deputies. Though some people, like saloon singer Chihuahua (Linda Darnell) show resistance to Wyatt. They feel the town is really run by "Doc" Holliday (Victor Mature).

But I don't think Ford cares one iota about any of this. What makes "My Darling Clementine" so striking is the visuals. The way Ford films the landscape. One very impressive scene is near the end of the film. Old Man Clanton (Brennan) as he is credited, is waiting for Wyatt and his gang to arrive. It is night time. Suddenly we see the light come through from the clouds. In a single unbroken shot we go from dark to light. Pay attention to another shot in the same scene. Wyatt is headed towards the Clantons. We see the empty town behind him with Wyatt walking towards the camera. If you freeze the frame I swear it is so beautiful you could make a post card out of it.

In this sense Ford reminds me of the European directors like Antonioni and Tarkovsky. Ford's film is not so much about plot. It is about emotions and moods. Ford isn't interested in making a typical western, he goes against type. He seems more concerned with the visuals.

"My Darling Clementine" is a slow moving film. There is no action. It is not a fast shooting western. If you want excitement watch Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966) or "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964). I also like "The Magnificent Seven" (1960). But Ford has other things on his mind here.

Henry Fonda gives us one of his folksy "aww shucks" kind of performances like the ones given in "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Young Mr. Lincoln". Linda Darnell, who was in Preston Sturges' classic comedy "Unfaithfully Yours" (1948) and Rene Clair's "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944) has never looked sexier playing a Mexican saloon singer whom we suspect is a prostitute at night. That was usually the only profession for women in westerns. That and a school teacher. Victor Mature I thought was mis-casted. He was a good actor, maybe best known for his biblical roles, but doesn't look like a tough guy brute to me.

Now I said Ford doesn't seem interested in telling us a conventional story. I think that is true, but notices how he plays around with the genre and the usual cliches. We get the stranger riding into town (Wyatt). We have the lawbreakers (the Clantons). The whore (Chihuahua). And the Lady (Clementine Carter, played by Cathy Downs), who appears to have been "Doc"s great love, whom he has left behind. And of course we get the gunfight showdown in the finale.

And look how Ford shoots the finale. He clutters the frame. The viewers feels closed in with objects places in front of us like horses and fences. This helps put us in the same state of mind as the characters who can't see clearly over the objects.

But I wonder how many of these little artistic touches will please most viewers. Will they notice? Will they even care? Will they expect more excitement? I have warned you, "My darling Clementine" doesn't have lots of blood and violence. It is not a fast moving picture. It is more meditative. If you want a fast moving Ford western watch "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". Watch "My Darling Clementine" if you want to soak in the atmosphere and stare off into those wide open spaces.

Film Review: Sally of the Sawdust

"Sally of the Sawdust" *** (out of ****)

The impact Charlie Chaplin has had not only on comedy but simply on cinema seems everlasting. His special blend of comedy and pathos entertained audiences when the comedy legend was at the height of his powers and entertains those brave enough to watch silent films today. I have said it before and I'll say it again. Chaplin was the greatest thing to happen to the movies since the invention of the camera. His legacy is greater than that of the director of "Sally of the Sawdust" (1925), D.W. Griffith.

Oh, I know Griffith's reputation as a pioneer of cinema. I know it is generally believed he invented the language of cinema with his epic masterpiece "Birth of A Nation" (1915), which I have reviewed already. But, the reason I feel Chaplin has a greater legacy is because, I feel more people have seen Chaplin's films than Griffith's. Chaplin's vision has reached more people and lives on longer. When you think silent cinema, most movie fans probably think of Chaplin first, unless of course you are a hardcore Griffith devotee.

I mention all of this because "Sally of the Sawdust" was Griffith's attempt at a Chaplin picture. During Chaplin's time there were many imitators, did you know Harold Lloyd started off as one? But here we see Griffith not necessarily trying to duplicate the Chaplin character, just the combination of comedy and pathos.

The story concerns a rich family which has disowned their daughter, after she follows the man she loves and joins the circus. Together they have a baby. By the time of the baby's birth the husband has died and the mother is not in good health. Her only friend is Prof. McGargle (W.C. Fields), whom I assume runs the circus. She wants him to notify her parents of her health and inform them of her daughter's existence.

McGargle writes the note to tell the parents their daughter has died but never reveals she had a baby. The baby grows up to be Sally (Carol Dempster). Who worships her "father". He never tells her where she comes from and as the years go on and young Sally grows up he begins to wonder if he should take Sally to her grandparents, where she can lead a better life.

When they arrive to the town of Sally's grandparents they learn the grandfather is Judge Foster (Erville Alderson) and he hates show people, since his daughter chose that life over him and his wife, (Effie Shannon). Now McGargle must decide whether or not to tell Sally the truth. Will she be happy with these people who look down upon the life she has been leading?

"Sally of the Sawdust" wants to be a sappy, sentimental story of the bond between McGargle and Sally. Would they be able to adjust to their new lives? Can Sally ever see anyone besides McGargle as her family? It throws in these moments with bits of humor. Griffith doesn't seem interested in telling one of his morality stories, some of which I have reviewed on here; "Broken Blossoms" (1919), "Intolerance" (1916) and "Way Down East" (1920). Though "Sally" does have elements similar to those, though they are not given the same dramatic weight.

It is hard to say what exactly the appeal of this film was upon first release. Carol Dempster wasn't a star. She had appeared in a few Griffith films uncredited. I read she was his girlfriend, but, I haven't found proof of that. The only major film she appeared in before this was "Sherlock Holmes" (1922) with John Barrymore (I'll review that in the future). She did appear in later Griffith films, the now lost "That Royale Girl" (1925), also with Fields and with a similar story. And "The Sorrows of Satan" (1926).

Fields wasn't exactly an unknown when the film was released. He was probably best known to those familiar with the New York stage. He was part of the Ziegfeld Follies. But if you didn't live in New York, chances are you probably didn't know his name. He wasn't a major comedy star at this point. He had appeared in the 1915 comedy short, "Pool Sharks" which surprisingly still exist. I saw it on a Criterion DVD set of Fields' comedy shorts.

So since we have two generally unknown actors I can only assume the appeal of the film rested on Griffith's name. People may have simply been interested to see his latest work. Today however, I think those that do watch this are probably doing so because they are W.C. Fields fans. They will be somewhat disappointed.

If you walk into this film expecting the child-hating, non family man, heavy drinker, smart alec, you won't find it here. Though to expect those things is a bit unfair. Try to keep in mind this was 1925. Fields hadn't made the comedy classics "It's A Gift" (1934), "The Bank Dick" (1940), which I have reviewed, "Never Give A Sucker An Even Break" (1941), his final film or "The Golf Specialist" (1930), his first sound short. So audiences of that time weren't expecting those now familiar traits.

Watching "Sally of the Sawdust" from that perspective, I have to say, I never would have guess Fields would become a comedy legend. I see no real seeds of greatness. He seemed to be doing standard comedy routines. He had the basic persona of most comedians. Good nature but a failure, a coward, quick with the one-liners, a loner, misunderstood. Nothing really stands out though about the character. I don't know if Griffith didn't realize what he had in Fields, or if he just didn't want to take the film in different directions. Fields though seems to have had some hand in his character. Some of his comedy bits were re-used in his sound films such as mistakenly putting his hat on the tip of his cane not realizing it is not on his head. He gets in some juggling. Fields started off as a juggler. And a bit with a cigarette when we first meet him. So Griffith did allow him to insert some of his comedy. But not enough.

Carol Dempster I'm afraid fares a little worst. First I'm not sure what Griffith wanted her to be. A leading lady or a comedienne. If it was the latter, she is not suited for it. She may look funny, but, I felt she was trying too hard to get laughs. Her approach is too forced. She doesn't allow the comedy to flow naturally. She almost looks like the kind of man-child character Harry Langdon or Stan Laurel played in their comedies. Though she reminds me most of Beatrice Lillie in "Exit Smiling" (1926).

The idea of an orphan softening a grumpy old man had been done before and many times since. And comedians had usually paired themselves with children. Griffith must have seen Chaplin's "The Kid" (1921) prior to this. Laurel & Hardy had a similar movie, "Pack Up Your Troubles" (1932) where an army buddy tells the boys to find his baby and inform his parents, who happen to be well to do. The grandfather's name is Mr. Smith. Imagine how many people they go to. Then there was the king of sentimental weepers, "The Champ" (1931). All of these films in one way or another influenced each other. Some with greater success than others. "Sally of the Sawdust" is middle of the road.

The film works best in the more sentimental moments. Comedy was not Dempster's strong suite, judging from this one film. And Fields doesn't engage in the comedy we expect him to. So all we are left with is the story. And it works most of the time, though it could have used some edits, the film runs nearly two hours. Fields remade this film under its original stage title, "Poppy" and told the story in under 80 minutes.

"Sally of the Sawdust" isn't Griffith's best work. If you want to watch his best films see "Birth of A Nation", "Broken Blossoms" and "Intolerance". Those are generally seen as his finest films. If you want to watch Fields at his best, watch the sound two-reelers he made, "The Dentist" (1932) among them or his feature films. And if you want to watch classic silent comedy stick with Chaplin, who in 1925 made "The Gold Rush", Harold Lloyd, who also in 1925 made "The Freshman" or Buster Keaton, who in 1924 did "Sherlock Jr.", arguably one of his best and one I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". Those men were more suited for silent cinema. Fields' humor was more verbal. His voice was funny. It would be the same thing if Groucho Marx appeared in silent movies. By taking away sound you diminish their talents.

But if you want to see a somewhat sweet, lightly entertaining film which mixes humor and sentiment "Sally of the Sawdust" is worth viewing. It is no masterpiece but holds up rather well after all these years. If Griffith wanted to make a masterpiece he had two options. Abandon the comedy and make one of his moral preaching films. Or add more humor and attempt to make a flat out slapstick comedy. Unless you're Chaplin, don't play with fire and mix the two.