Sunday, September 14, 2014

Classics Revisited: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

(1928) Directed by: Charles Reisner; Written by Carl Harbaugh: Starring: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron and Ernest Torrence; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **** ½

“I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.” – Buster Keaton, on filming his famous collapsing wall scene (from Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, by Marion Meade)

It was inevitable I would write about a Buster Keaton movie sometime, but I can’t believe it took so long for me to get around to it. I won’t presume to enter the debate about which silent comedian was the “best.” Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd each embodied a different aspect of the “everyman” archetype. They were all immensely talented, and deserve the accolades they’ve received, and I love them all, so let’s leave it that, okay? On the other hand, of those talents, the one I gravitate toward most frequently is Keaton. Chaplin’s Little Tramp was a populist hero, portraying the underdog with a quiet dignity and style, while helping his fellow man (or woman). Lloyd, with his “glasses man” persona, embraced the “can do” American spirit, confident in his abilities to overcome the ordeals of life and emerge triumphant. Keaton, as “The Great Stone Face,” portrayed another type of everyman, his melancholic expression a Rorschach test for audience members to interpret while he stumbled through life, and eventually found his way. There was always something infinitely relatable about his nebbishy characters. If there’s such a thing as a stereotypical Keaton flick, which incorporates all of these aspects, it must be Steamboat Bill, Jr.     

Bill Canfield, Sr. operates a ramshackle, second-rate riverboat, the Stonewall Jackson. His archrival, Mr. King (Tom McGuire) virtually owns the town – his name adorns the signs of many local businesses, including his fancy new paddlewheel boat. In an early scene, Bill, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) waits for his son’s arrival at a train station. Although he hasn’t seen him since he was an infant, the towering, grizzled steamboat captain imagines his progeny as a chip off the old block. His expectations are dashed when he realizes he’s looking directly at his son, a diminutive* lad with pencil-thin mustache, beret and ukulele. To make matters worse, Bill, Jr. has fallen for King’s daughter, Kitty (Marion Byron). Their romance is doomed from the start, a sort of Romeo and Juliet on the Mississippi, as both fathers take pains to keep the young lovers apart.

* It was a casting coup for the filmmakers to place six-foot-four-inch Torrence’s hulking frame against the five-foot-five-inch Keaton.

Like one of the buildings in the climactic storm scene, Keaton’s independent film company collapsed, thanks to producer Joseph Schenck. As a result, Keaton was left without a production company, and he was effectively reduced to being another contract player for MGM, while his contemporaries had the clout to do as they pleased. Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, Keaton was in top form, contributing some ingenious sequences. Embarrassed by his son’s foppish appearance and demeanor, the elder Canfield attempts to transform Bill, Jr.’s appearance into something a little more masculine. In the ensuing scene, his son tries on a variety of hats (including Keaton’s trademark porkpie), but most of his choices earn his father’s disdain. After a scuffle with King resulting in Bill Sr.’s incarceration, the younger Canfield brings a loaf of bread stuffed with tools to rescue his father from jail, and does a pantomime in a futile effort to inform the elder Canfield about its contents. In one of Keaton’s most famous (and dangerous) stunts, the entire side of a house topples around him, and he’s left standing through an open window.* Keaton, reeling from the news about his company, reportedly claimed he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Fortunately for all involved, the stunt went as planned.

* Keaton stood on a strategically placed nail (or two, depending on which source you believe), providing a scant two inches of clearance around his shoulders when the wall fell around him. Jackie Chan, an ardent fan of Keaton and his stunt work, made his own homage to the famous scene in Project A, Part II.

The cynically inclined might nitpick about Steamboat Bill, Jr. not having much of a plot, or that the film was merely an excuse to showcase a string of elaborate gags, but oh, what gags they are.  Aside from a rather weak plot and a couple (mercifully) short comic bits at the expense of African American characters, the film holds up tremendously well. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not a big hit at the time, following two other Keaton commercial failures, The General and College. Yet, like its protagonist, it has stood against the adversity of a chilly reception to win the hearts of filmgoers. While The General is widely regarded as his masterpiece, I prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Sure, there were other Keaton films with better stories and more elaborate plots, but this riverboat tale is hard to top for pure enjoyment. So much of what was funny then, is funny now. How funny? I recently used a clip from the 86-year-old film (the hat scene) for a professional conference presentation, and instead of blank stares, it received big laughs. Mr. Keaton would have been pleased.

(Sources for this article include: The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, by Jim Kline; Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, by Marion Meade; and Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat, by Edward McPherson)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Little American

(1917) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille; Written by: Jeanie Macpherson; Starring: Mary Pickford, Jack Holt, Raymond Hatton, Hobart Bosworth and Walter Long;
Available on DVD

Rating: ***

“It pained Mary Pickford’s thrifty soul to wear a $400 dress splashing around in the waters of San Pedro harbor; I think the ruination of the dress pained her more than her immersion in the chilling waters…” – Cecil B. DeMille (On filming the scene depicting the sinking of the Veritania, from The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille)

I owe a debt of gratitude to Fritzi Kramer of MoviesSilently and Lea S. of Silent-ology for hosting the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon, and for graciously accepting my review of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American. In addition to participating in the blogathon, this entry officially kicks off my second annual month-long exploration of silent film, Silent September, where I attempt to plug the gaping holes in my experience of this vital cinematic era. I have the utmost respect for those who cover silent movies full time, and hope I don’t offend anyone’s sensibilities with my less than scholarly interpretations.

Time hasn’t been particularly kind to DeMille’s second film with star Mary Pickford (after A Romance of the Redwoods), The Little American. Although Pickford spoke highly of DeMille in her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, she barely mentioned the film*. In his autobiography, DeMille devotes a little more space to The Little American, but details are sparse. Consequently, the film almost seems a mere footnote now, as a stepping stone for Pickford’s formidable career, and situated during a pivotal moment in world history (the film was released shortly after the United States became involved in World War I). The film’s relative obscurity today belies a standout performance by the Canadian-born Pickford as plucky American heroine Angela More.  

* Although The Little American didn’t seem to leave much of a lasting impression on Pickford, its subject matter certainly did. Following the release of the film, she became involved in the U.S. war effort, touring around the country with husband Douglas Fairbanks and business partner Charlie Chaplin, to drum up support and entertain American troops.

Set in 1914, The Little American begins with two men vying for Angela’s affection, French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and German Karl von Austreim* (Jack Holt). It’s Karl, however, who wins her heart. The story abruptly shifts when he’s called away to fight for the Prussian army. Meanwhile, Jules leaves for France to fight for the opposing side. The plot thickens as Angela sails off to her ancestral home in France, but her ship, the Veritania, is sunk by a German U-boat (in a scene inspired by the real-life sinking of the Lusitania in 1915). It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, as Angela survives her ordeal and arrives at her inherited chateau, only to learn that it’s about to invaded by Prussian soldiers looking for “old wine and young girls.”

* Modern audiences will likely scratch their heads when Karl teaches a little boy the proper marching technique (“I’ll show you the German ‘goose-step,’ Bobby.”), and he’s joined by Angela.

After a somewhat lackluster first half, The Little American really picks up the pace. The action is brisk, the tension more palpable, as Angela becomes entwined in the war. Once the Prussian soldiers have invaded, she witnesses the violation of her maids, and is subjected to being little more than a servant in her own home (in one scene, she’s reduced to removing the boots of Karl’s commanding officer). It gradually dawns on Angela that her neutral status doesn’t provide a shield from the horrors of war, and her only recourse is to help spy for the French.

Compared to Angela’s defiant nature, Karl is weak. Ever the obedient soldier, he reluctantly toasts the sinking of the Veritania, but his biggest offense is yet to come. When he and his fellow troops invade the chateau, Karl almost rapes Angela before he catches his mistake. This sends a mixed message about his character, as if her apparent death would have excused his behavior (I almost expected Angela to tell him, “You didn’t know I was alive, so I guess I can forgive you.”). Any good that he does in the film is a direct result of her influence. At one point she challenges him: “Somewhere in this house there must be a man who is something more than a splendidly drilled beast.” When he catches her using a hidden telephone to reveal the location of German artillery, he’s frozen with indecision. By the time he makes his speech about dying free, it rings hollow. She has already risked everything to uphold her ideals. In contrast to Karl, Jules’ actions seem more heroic and honorable. When Jules loses his arm in battle, he’s back on the front lines fighting the good fight. Even though Angela has made her choice, Jules does what he can to secure Karl’s freedom after he’s captured by the French. It’s obvious she’s picked the wrong guy, but alas, I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.

It’s easy to dismiss The Little American as an anti-German propaganda piece, designed to incite moral outrage and make the patriotic blood of American audiences boil, but that assessment would ignore an excellent performance by Pickford at the film’s core. Yes, the film is none too subtle, with lines like “…I stopped being neutral and became a human being,” but it’s effective nonetheless. When it’s Pickford who’s delivering the line, she sells every word.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

August Quick Picks and Pans

The Mystery of Rampo (aka: Rampo) (1994) Naoto Takenaka stars as notorious Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (his nom de plume was a play on “Edgar Allan Poe). After his latest book is banned by a censorship board, he falls into a slump, but subsequently finds inspiration in a turn of events that seem inextricably linked to his story. He becomes enthralled by a strange woman who was accused of murdering her husband, using the exact same methods his story described.  Directors Rintaro Mayuzumi and Kazuyoshi Okuyama do a good job of skirting the line between fiction and reality, and with the help of cinematographer, Yasushi Sasakibara, display a strong eye for visuals. While the story is a bit thin, it’s a great looking modern film noir that rewards with beautiful imagery and a plot that will keep you guessing.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

The Devil Doll (1936) If you ever wanted to see Mr. Potter in drag, now’s your chance. This curiosity from director Tod Browning, based on Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch Burn, might be one of his silliest. Lionel Barrymore plays escaped convict Lavond, a former bank executive convicted of embezzlement. After serving 17 years in prison, he vows revenge against the three bankers who framed him. Along with skunk-haired mad scientist Malita (Rafaela Ottiano), Lavond plots an elaborate scheme involving tiny people (people shrunken to doll size) that obey his bidding. He appears as a kindly old lady (similar to Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three) to hide his identity, and sets up a toy shop as a cover. In the process of exacting his revenge, he attempts to re-connect with his estranged daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan). Although it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for his disguise, Barrymore is always watchable as the bitter Lavond. Despite a ridiculous plot device and iffy special effects, it’s impossible not to submit to the film’s earnest charms.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Santo y Blue Demon Contra Dracula y El Hombre Lobo (1973) The fact that my knowledge of Spanish is spotty at best and the DVD didn’t have English subtitles did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this Mexican wrestling flick with a horror twist. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil, with our hero Santo and his buddy Blue Demon going toe to toe against the dark forces of the night. Dracula (Aldo Monti) and The Wolfman (Agustín Martínez Solares) are revived and on the prowl, with the assistance of their loyal minion, and only our masked heroes (seriously, they never take them off) can stop them. The plot is something like a wrestling match. Just when you think Santo and his tag team partner Blue Demon are down for the count, you know they’ll prevail in the end. Good stuff.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Werewolves on Wheels (1971) It’s Easy Rider with werewolves. At least that’s what director/co-writer Michel Levesque would have you believe with this genre hybrid featuring an abundance of wheels, but a shortage of werewolves. When the members of a motorcycle gang, Satan’s Advocates, stumble into a ceremony with some demonic monks, predictable consequences ensue. While the movie is only 79 minutes long, you’ll wish it ended sooner, with interminable scenes of the annoying bikers wandering aimlessly in the desert, getting drunk/stoned, and arguing. The title creatures don’t make an appearance until roughly half-way through the film, and even then you only catch a momentary glimpse. Many scenes are so dark, poorly shot and edited that I had no idea what was going on. As a biker film it’s weak, and there are too many decent werewolf movies to justify watching this, even for die-hard enthusiasts. My advice: keep looking.

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Where the Green Ants Dream

(1984) Directed by: Werner Herzog; Written by Werner Herzog and Bob Ellis; Starring: Bruce Spence, Wandjuk Marika, Roy Marika and Ray Barrett; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“Dreams and dream time are very complex religious and cultural Aboriginal concepts that are hermetical and almost inconceivable to us.” – Werner Herzog (from DVD commentary for Where the Green Ants Dream)

Many thanks to lover of all films great and small, Todd of Forgotten Films, for hosting the 1984 A-Thon. Be sure to check out his week-long tribute to one of the finest years in film (at least in my lifetime), featuring reviews of 1984’s best and worst. For my part, I chose to re-visit one of the lesser-known offerings to come out that year, Where the Green Ants Dream.

Aside from submarine movies, another type of flick I’m powerless to resist is anything taking place in the Australian outback. If it’s set in the outback (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Road Games, etc…), I’m there, at least from the safety of my living room. After the mental, physical and financial ordeal of shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon jungle, director/co-writer Werner Herzog decided to set his follow-up project amidst this desolate, foreboding landscape. While Where the Green Ants Dream (aka: Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) didn’t present the logistical challenges of its predecessor, it’s no less fascinating. Filmed in the northern South Australia* town of Coober Pedy, the story was based on a real-life trial between Aborigines and a mining company.

* The Aborigine actors featured in the film actually hailed from a town in Northern Australia.

It’s a clash of cultures when village elder Dayipu (Roy Marika) and his spokesperson Miliritbi (played by Roy’s real-life brother, Wandjuk Marika) bring a halt to a mining company’s exploitation* of their tribal land. They contend that any further action by the company will threaten the dreaming of the green ants that reside there. The Aborigines believe the ants are inextricably linked to their existence, and further disruption would result in their collective doom. Caught up in the middle of this conflict is company geologist Lance Hackett.

* Although not expressly stated in the film, Herzog confirmed that the mining company was likely surveying the ground for uranium deposits.

Bruce Spence, notable as the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, takes a rare turn in a leading role as the reflective, melancholy Hackett. With his tall, gangly frame, he towers over the other actors. By accident or design, his stature lends a certain degree of poignancy to the film, as he rises above the disputes of both parties to perceive the big picture. At first, he sees the Aborigines as a hindrance to his work, but does what he can to placate them. In the process, he begins to experience a change. He’s a lonely man with only his thoughts to keep him company, and doesn’t seem to belong in either world. In a futile attempt to bridge the cultural gap, he discusses non-Euclidean Geometry (don’t ask me) with Miliritbi, to illustrate his concept of the true shape of the universe. Miliritbi simply responds, “You white men are lost…” Looking back on the scene 20 years later, Herzog commented he didn’t like the scene or its “righteous tone,” but in this case I have to differ. Taken into the context of the film, the scene worked well to underscore the vast divide between the men’s respective philosophies.

Some have taken Herzog to task regarding the fabricated mythos of the green ants he constructed for this film, as if his artistic choice were somehow disingenuous. Because this is a work of fiction however, and not a documentary, Herzog was not obligated to rely on the facts alone to tell his story, but chose to create a focal point that distilled the conflict between the known and unknown worlds. The green ants are emblematic of a mystery, which so-called “civilized” society is incapable of comprehending. When Hackett meets an entomologist studying the life cycle of the green ants, he learns that some will take wing to establish a new colony. This links to the big green plane that figures prominently in the plot, which the Aborigines wish to appropriate for their tribe’s survival.

Where the Green Ants Dream features what could only be called Herzog touches. Cinematography by frequent Herzog collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein captures the feel of the remote, dust-choked locale. In a non-sequitur side story, an old lady (Colleen Clifford) enlists Hackett’s aid in searching for her lost dog. Although her scenes do nothing to advance the plot, it’s an interesting tangent. Her fruitless quest parallels Hackett’s peripatetic search for meaning. As he wanders off into the desert, surrounded by countless anthills, we’re left to form our own conclusions. The anthills in Herzog’s film are as enigmatic as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are reminded there are things outside our sphere of existence that we can scarcely understand.

The downbeat ending and esoteric flourishes probably ensured Where the Green Ants Dream would fail to resonate beyond the arthouse crowd. Aside from some quirky characters and a few humorous bits, it’s not the “feel good” sort of experience most people wanted to see. That’s unfortunate, since audiences missed out on an opportunity to see a well-crafted film with fine acting (especially Spence’s understated performance), and themes of cultural imperialism that are still as relevant as ever. While it may not be one of Herzog’s best films, it’s a solid effort that deserves to be re-discovered.