Freaks (1932)

Freaks

Freaks – 1932

Director – Tod Browning

Starring – Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, and Harry Earles

Traditionally in most movies, especially within Hollywood, the portrayal of a group of people with extreme differences (read: Freaks),  is usually done in one of two ways.  Either they are depicted as terrible abominations not capable of human compassion and understanding, or they are misunderstood and extricated by the so-called decent “normal” people of the story.  One paints a portrait of fear, desperation, and anger, and the other, one of an almost saintly devotion to decency, virtue, and humility.

Tod Browning’s appropriately titled film, Freaks, utilizes both the fear and the somewhat more humanistic approach to paint these rather misunderstood characters in a much more three-dimensional way.  Each of the so-called freaks operates on the same instincts and motivations that any of the other characters might, rather than being simple plot modifiers and footnotes.  Jealousy, anger, love, friendship, and loyalty not to mention a good old desire for revenge all come into play in this rather straight forward, yet effective story.

For a film that does seek to humanize it’s characters regardless of their disabilities or handicaps, it also tends to overly rely on the circus sideshow type shock factor of it’s stars.  Even the film’s poster asks “Can a full-grown woman truly love a midget?”, and while the plot of the film makes a bit more headway in making them relatable, it certainly doesn’t forego the sensational nature of the subject matter entirely.

The story is simple enough.  Hans a man of diminutive proportions (or a midget), has fallen in love with Cleopatra, the beautiful trapeze artist who is more than happy to lead him on, all the while plotting just how to get his forthcoming inheritance   Cleopatra’s thinly veiled disdain is clear to all the rest of the circus’ performers, freaks and normies alike, but despite their objections Hans refuses to see her for what she is and asks her to marry him.  In the spirit of giving her the benefit of the doubt, the “freaks” hold a dinner officially welcoming her into their private circle of friends.  When Cleopatra drunkenly laughs at and tells this close-knit group just exactly what she thinks of them (negative stuff!), they hatch a plan to take their revenge.

The acting, plotting, and cinematography on display here is all fairly standard for the time, with nothing extraordinary on display. The difference, and what sets this film apart, comes in the realization of the characters, and the juxtaposition of their visible flaws with the internal flaws of the vain shallow “beautiful” people.  Though that doesn’t remove their desire for fair and equitable treatment.

It’s not that the ending, or the actions taken by the “freaks” was too shocking, or unwarranted, quite the contrary actually.  It was just odd to see from a film that came out in the time frame that this film does.  Once again, like His Girl Friday, Detour, and She Done Him Wrong, I find my conceptions of what to expect content-wise from films of the 30’s and 40’s can be drastically different from what I get.  At this point I don’t think I can pre-judge any of the films from that rather tumultuous time frame in America’s history.

Often times I forget that these years aren’t as homogenized as  early television, and some popular films would have us believe.  For every Jimmy Stewart-esque character, or idyllic suburban homestead on display, there are hundreds of characters who lived through the great depression, watched the buildup to and the active fighting of World War II, and eventually had to deal with the financial and emotional effects of both.

The means and method by which our “freaks” take their revenge may be harsh and  more than a little cold-blooded, but you’ll have to admit, it is overwhelmingly fair at the same time, and it rather accurately paints them as, well, people.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The most unsettling images in the film come out of the last reel of the movie, where Cleopatra is dragging herself backwards through the rain and mud while upwards of fifteen different attackers stalk closer, each with a knife, gun, or blunt instrument.  In the end, it’s really a toss-up whether or not the audience will consider it a happy ending.  Thanks to the care taken in the writing and the time spent getting to know each character, I did.

(***End Spoilers***)

Though it wasn’t my absolute favorite film on this list so far, it is solidly somewhere in the middle, and as such is pretty deserving of its ranking as one of the 1001 films you should see.  Though I think director Tod Browning’s film Dracula is my favorite between the two, Freaks is a really solid film and totally worth checking out!

“In the end, aren’t we all freaks?”  –  Ashley

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong – 1933

Director – Lowell Sherman

Starring – Mae West, Cary Grant, and Owen Moore

Growing up, my window to the greater world was through cartoons.  Through this window, I was able to get a handle on how people interacted with one another, the attraction of the sexes, and I was given a clear visual definition of the difference between good and evil, hero and villain, right and wrong.  It wasn’t until my exposure through daycare, and school that I learned that people don’t really act like that.  There is no man in a top hat, twisting his mustache, plotting the destruction of someone else, no luscious club singer that men are willing to cheat, shoot, and destroy each other for just so they might possess her…at least not that I’ve ever seen.

Apparently in 1933, when She Done Him Wrong was released, cartoons actually were real, or so this film would have us believe.  In the thirties, everyone is larger than life, uses zero subtlety,  and schemes as easily as the people of today breathe, check their emails, or text.  Mae West is the most broadly painted caricature of them all, and functionally plays the same role as she does in every movie she has ever done.  That voice you get in your head when you think the line “Oooh, big boy, why don’t you come up and see me some time!” isn’t an exaggeration.  That’s how she actually sounds.

The story behind the movie is ludicrous enough that there is really no reason to explain it except to say that the local vampy nightclub singer (West), who inspires such jealousy in all the women, and equal amounts of lust in all the men, manages to find her way into and then out of a lot of mad-capped trouble with a rogues gallery of supporting characters.  One of those characters actually does have a top hat, twists his mustache, and plots the downfall of some of the other characters.  Needless to say the plot, if you could call it that, is just a dab of glue that holds a bunch of set-piece performances together.  Comedic bits, singing and dancing numbers, and an action packed finale come together just as if it were released as a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring the original Daffy Duck, the one who was crazy, not the one who was mostly angry.

Now you may have noticed that one of this film’s stars is the very famous, very popular star of numerous Hollywood classics, Cary Grant, and you’d probably think, “Great!  I love Cary Grant’s charm and charisma”.  In fact, he only makes a handful of appearances in this film, and when he does he is almost instantly blocked from the spotlight by the film’s real star, Mae West.  As Lady Lou, as with every other character she’s ever played, she spends the entire movie strutting around with her trademarked walk, spouting bawdy one-liners, singing, and luring men in by the boatload, and we love her for it.

She sneers out raunchy, suggestive, innuendo in between costume changes from one low-cut, spangly gowns, and an enormous, feather laden hat, to another.  Painted just shy of being a criminal herself, she effortlessly steals other women’s men, leads on and strings along still more men, and tries her damnedest to corrupt any other men who don’t know any better than to avoid her.

Behavior, that would in most other circumstances, annoy the hell out of me, instead has me rapt with attention.  The fact that none of the other characters get much screen time or leaves any impression at all, is actually more of a testament to Mae West’s magnetism, and screen presence, than it is to the quality of the other actor’s performances.  Each of the other actors plays the part they are required to, but it is all in service of the centerpiece that is Mae West.  So much so, after the movie is over you’ll probably say…”Oh, yeah.  I guess Cary Grant was in that.”

Since the film is so heavily based on the performance of its lead actress, the cinematography, directing, screenwriting, and other acting performances cannot be accurately judged or critiqued without diminishing the impact of the film such that it is.  None of these elements is particularly special, or worthy of critique or praise, if it’s even there in the first place.

Enjoy this movie for what it is, a great piece of funny, sexy, escapist comedy in the vaudeville tradition.  See where the cartoons got their inspiration and their flavor, however prepare yourself for the limited depth that’s in store for you with She Done Him Wrong.  A great watch and completely different from anything else you’re likely to see from this time period.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again – 1939

Director – George Marshall

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Brian Donlevy

From the early 30’s on through the late 80’s and early 90’s, when the United States needed someone to look up to, someone to stand strong against adversity, and live up to the wholesome ideals of a bygone era (often regardless of what age they were living in), the world looked to Jimmy Stewart.  Perennially playing roles of such strong moral character, and unwaivering goodness, Stewart seemed to me to be a ham-fisted actor.  Someone lacking the subtlety to play a real person, instead only able to embody a general sense of good and right.

While his career is one filled with good guy roles, and white hats, I may have misjudged Jimmy Stewart the actor.  In Destry Rides Again, Stewart arrives in a lawless town controlled by local muscle and kept in line through temptation and booze (temptation in the form of gambling and Frenchy, a saucy burlesque performer played by Marlene Dietrich).  It becomes obvious, even in my previous sentence, that he is going to at least attempt to clean things up, and save the cow-like townsfolk from their own vices.  He plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., son of the town’s last good sheriff Destry, Sr. 

From there you can just about guess where the story is going to go, Destry arrives, proves himself in corruptible, and is challenged until the very end by the town’s strongman, Kent, played by Brian Donlevy.  Now comes the point where the predictable stuff ends…  Oh, sure, Stewart is still a good guy, and he has right on his side, and he never gives up, but he does it in a subtle believable way.  He doesn’t preach and condemn the actions of anyone.  He simply leads through example, shedding the light of day on the depravity to which the townsfolk had grown accustomed.  Rather than being smug and arrogant, he was likable and most importantly, a natural.

The other huge surprise comes in the form of the character Frenchy.  From the very start of the movie Marlene Dietrich plays her as conniving, opportunistic, and self-serving.  She clearly moves from town to town taking what she can and moving along when things dry up.  Stewart’s Destry presents a huge obstacle to her character’s continued success, and as such it is only natural that she would, at least initially, dislike him.  As the movie plays out, these two characters could easily go one of two ways.  There can either be a confrontation in which one of them loses everything, or one or both of the characters will change and there will be a romance.

I won’t mention here what actually does happen, but rest assured, the movie didn’t let me down.  Each of the characters was true to themselves and the only natural conclusion that could have happened did. 

So, despite being composed of some ingredients that I was less than excited about, Destry Rides Again, surprised me and became far more than the sum of it’s parts.  Not necessarily the best movie, nor one that deserves to definitely be on this list, but far better than I anticipated it to being when I started it.  I understand why it is that generations of American’s looked to Jimmy Stewart when they needed a hero, I don’t know that the film industry has anyone like him today, possibly Tom Hanks, and we may never have anyone like him again.

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

Le Million (AKA: The Million) (1931)

Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931

Director – Rene Clair

Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre.  Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king.  Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again.  Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether.  But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.

The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors.  Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops.  From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.

The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers.  At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed.  Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!

Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props.  The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set.  The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed.   Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance.  Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.

Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today.  A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section.  Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.

The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book.  That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway.  Definitely worth my, and your, time!

A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera – 1935

Director – Sam Wood

Starring – Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, and Allan Jones

The Marx Brothers films are quickly becoming some of my favorite of the ones that I’ve watched for this blog so far.  While I have seen only two now, this one and Duck Soup, I am hoping there are a few more on the list.  If not, I suppose I’ll have to rent and watch them in addition to whatever is next to see on the list.

As with most comedies of this era, the plotline is a simple one.  Groucho’s character is the manager of a small opera house in small Italian town, Harpo plays the unhelpful assistant to the conceited lead singer, and Chico plays the manager for the up and coming young talent who’s currently working as a backup singer in the show.  The plot really takes off when blah blah blah blah blah…blah, blah blah…..  Basically, the story doesn’t matter.  The film is a series of set ups for one-liners, sight-gags, singing, and clever instrumentation.  It doesn’t have a message, and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertaining.

As far as comedians go, Harpo is still my favorite with his innocent yet devilish destructiveness.  Groucho comes in at a close second, often times providing the group a kick in the pants by way of witty dialogue.  This keeps the plot and the action moving forward.  Chico acts as a good in-between man, balancing the loose energy of Harpo and the cynicism of Groucho.  Each is talented in their own rights, but alone they wouldn’t remain as consistently interesting.  Operating as a team they feed off of and support one another.

I’ve read that this film was the first to not feature Zeppo Marx, instead featuring Allan Jones as the straight man come love interest for the lead actress.  Jones’ character is virtually unnecessary to the film, except as a plot device to get the brothers on to the steam ship bound for New York.  The same can be said for virtually every other actor and actress save for one, Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Claypool.  Dumont, a favorite of the Marx Brothers, has co-starred in quite a few of their films, including At The Circus, Cocoanuts, A Day At The Races, and Duck Soup just to name a few.  She always manages to play the put-upon, yet the eternally forgiving upper-crust subject (victim?) of Groucho’s advances, one-liners, and lewd remarks, and she always does it with a straight face.  When describing his and Dumont’s chemistry on-screen, Groucho credits it’s success to the fact that she “never understood what he was saying”.

If this list of films has done anything for me, it has opened my eyes to the fact that my movie education has had some gaping holes in it for sometime.  The Marx Brothers have long been one of those holes, but thankfully they are a gap that is getting filled in.  If you are a fan of the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or W.C. Fields, it is more than a safe bet that you’ll love the Marx Brothers too.  I can certainly attest to that.

P.S.  This review marks the 1 year anniversary of this blog being around (well… one year and a handful of days anyway).  In that time, I’ve seen and reviewed 70 different movies from 1900 through the 2000’s.  I’m very glad to see that I am still keeping up with it, sometimes not as quickly as others, but for the most part fairly regularly.  Thanks to those who comment, and thanks to those bloggers whom I comment on!

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey – 1936

Director – Gregory La Cava

Starring – William Powell, Carole Lombard, and Gail Patrick

When talking about films of the Hollywood studio system from the 30’s and 40’s, one of the first genres that comes to a lot of people’s mind is the screwball comedy.  These zany, farcical, films are usually the farthest thing from realism, with characters so far-fetched and ridiculous that they couldn’t possibly be real.  One prime example of the screwball comedy, and not-coincidentally the only example I had seen up until recently, was the much-loved Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.  I didn’t like Bringing Up Baby, point in fact, I hated it.  And it, being the most prominent example of the screwball comedy, led me to the mistaken impression that I just didn’t like the genre.  Recently, I learned something.  Upon my viewing of the fantastically fun My Man Godfrey, I learned that I was wrong. 

Godfrey follows the rise, and the adventures, or rather the mis-adventures, of the titular Godfrey and the spoiled, nearly detestable members of the Bullock family.  Starting out in the city dump, where Godfrey is living, the flakey and fickle Irene Bullock hires him on as the family’s butler after he is claimed in a scavenger hunt as a “forgotten man”.  The real conflict comes into play when Gail Patrick playing the fantastically poisonous Cornelia Bullock, sister to Irene, sets her mind on ruining Godfrey, and having him fired based on a small slight she received from him during the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

Godfrey, played with ease and charm by the wonderful William Powell, handles both Irene’s romantic advances, as well as Cornelia’s maliciousness with a calm, cool head.  As time passes, Godfrey becomes a trusted and valued member of the Bullock household, but he has no intention of remaining indentured to them for the rest of his life.  Godfrey has other plans, and as these start to become clear, everyone in the Bullock family starts to wonder what they will do without him, even Cornelia.

The writing, by Morrie Ryskind, and Eric Hatch, is lightning quick and very sharp.  The film is essentially a dense, solid wall of humor and heart, pushing forward regardless of what (or who gets in the way).  ***SPOILERS*** The one disappointment I had with the film, was the fact that Godfrey ends up with Irene, and not Cornelia.  The conflict, and therefore the magnetism and attraction between Godfrey and Cornelia was the strongest.  Irene, though likable, and interested in Godfrey in a romantic way, is not smart or deep enough of a character to make a proper match.  Cornelia is just as capable, just as smart, and just as big a personality as Godfrey, not to mention, they each could have taught the other a thing or two.  The story ended up with the wrong pair getting together, but the path getting there was super fun to take, and isn’t any less successful for going off track. ***END SPOILERS***

The real strength of this film lies in its actors performances.  The story is a fine outline, but doesn’t go much beyond the blueprint stage, and the cinematography is fine, but nothing groundbreaking or outstanding.  Powell, Patrick and Carole Lombard as Irene Bullock have a kinetic chemistry with one another that could carry any story pretty far, no matter how good or bad it was.  Powell had already made a name for himself as one of the caustic, lovable, alcoholic main characters of the beloved Thin Man series, and My Man Godfrey only helped to catapult him into further great roles (a lot of them in the Thin Man series).  Lombard and Patrick on the other hand are both new to me, but I’m definitely interested in seeing other examples of each (especially Patrick).

So…what have we learned here today?  Well, I’ve learned not to base my opinion of an entire genre on one crappy movie (sorry to those of you who like Bringing Up Baby).  I’ve also learned that all I have to do to make it in this world, is to move down to my city’s dump, wait to get caught up in some socialite scavenger hunt, go to work for them as a butler, and ride the gravy train on to success and good fortune.  My Man Godfrey was a lot of fun, and is definitely worth checking out.  I recommend it highly!

Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach – 1939

Director – John Ford

Starring – John Wayne, Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell

I’ve talked quite a bit about how I came to the western genre with a negative pre-disposition, and about how that impression was generally wrong.  Well, it turns out, when I was thinking of bad or poor quality westerns, I was thinking of westerns like Stagecoach, John Ford’s epic old west road movie featuring the Duke himself, John Wayne. 

It isn’t that I disliked Stagecoach, far from it.  It was a completely passable, formulaic western.  The problem may be that I am coming to it a little over 70 years after it was made.  I’m sure that in its day, it was fresh, exciting, and brand new.  However, from my position here in 2010, it seemed like a story that could have easily been a TV serial, and probably was in any number of forms, but the one thing it doesn’t feel like is new.

The characters, though conventionally acted, seemed paper-thin and sparse, lacking any real conflict or emotion.  John Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, is supposedly freshly broken out of jail and on his way to even the score with the thugs who done him wrong.  But instead of being driven and angry, he seemed rather cheerful, and nonplussed about everything that happens throughout the entire film.  The character arc of Thomas Mitchell as the drunkard doctor, is limited to becoming slightly less of a drunk so that he can barely help the rest of the passengers in the coach when there’s trouble.  Immediately after the crisis, he bellies back up to the bar and has, you guessed it, more to drink.

The gruff sheriff, the smarmy gambler, and the prostitute with a heart of gold are all equally superficial and un-changing.  None of the characters seem to learn anything or grow even the slightest bit.  In fact  ***SPOILERS*** the closest anyone comes to growing or changing is when the gambler dies, and then he only changes because he’s dead, and isn’t in the story anymore ***END SPOILERS***. 

Another beef I had with the film, was all the hullabaloo that was made about it being the first of John Ford’s westerns to be filmed in Monument Valley.  I’m surprised it was such a selling point to the film that it was shot there, especially seeing as how it is so very rarely seen on-screen.  The trivia on IMDb sheds a little light on the reasons for filming it there, and they are mostly so Ford could keep the studio out of his hair, which makes a certain amount of sense.  Ford’s desire for solitude, however, doesn’t make the film beautiful to look at.

It is to be expected that films that set the bar initially, today, will seem a bit dated and a tad un-impressive based simply on the fact that so much has come after it.  Unfortunately for Stagecoach, most all of its flash and innovation has long since worn off, and been replaced by other films that were able to make more of a lasting impression on me through strong characterization (Ox-Bow Incident), fantastic visuals (Once Upon A Time In The West), and iconic performances (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Proposal).  Stagecoach left me more than a little disappointed.

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times – 1936

Director – Charles Chaplin

Starring – Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard

Not having seen much from the cannon of Mr. Chaplin, I only had the few clips I’d seen in film school, and the similarities of his peers (Keaton, Three Stooges, Fatty Arbuckle, The Marx Brothers, etc.) on which to form my initial impression of him.  Modern Times marks my first opportunity to form an opinion based on work that I had actually seen from start to finish, and while the man clearly has vision, talent, and comedic range, it seems to me that the hype about Chaplin being the greatest performer of his generation may have given me some over-the-top expectations for him.

Please don’t get me wrong…I don’t mean to say that he is overrated, nor do I think his films are lacking any crucial element.  I guess I just wouldn’t consider the tagline that I found in IMDb to accurately describe him…(“He stands alone as the greatest entertainer of modern times! No one on earth can make you laugh as heartily or touch your heart as deeply…the whole world laughs, cries and thrills to his priceless genius!”)  This is high praise for a man who came out of the same time frame as the Marx Bros., and Buster Keaton, and to a new viewer it sets the bar very high.

The story is simple enough, Chaplin’s Little Tramp is trying to make his way through the world of burgeoning technology, and industry.  He tries in vain to keep up at his assembly line job tightening bolts, managing to consistently cause problems for his co-workers, and bosses alike.  After his disastrous run in with a new automated feeding machine, his bosses have reason to believe that he has gone a little mad, and they send him away to a mental hospital.  Once he gets out, he runs into a series of problems with the police who alternately believe that he is a communist, a thief, and a troublemaker.  When in custody, he meets a young woman who is also struggling to survive in the modern world.  Together they attempt to create a little place for themselves in the world.

I thought that the film’s set-pieces were it’s greatest strength, allowing Chaplin to really explore the ridiculous nature of the crazy mechanized world, the nature of and need for infrastructure, and the simplicity inherent in it all.  It is very clear that Chaplin’s films (along with those of Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers) with their wide variety of visual appeal combined with storytelling and heart went a long way in inspiring a whole crop of successful visual filmmakers such as Jacques Tati, Terry Gilliam, and I’d even guess Peter Jackson.  The intimate nature of the Tramp’s interaction with his physical surroundings speaks volumes about his curiosity, resilience, and compassion.  Chaplin must have firmly believed that it wasn’t the fancy machinery that made modern living great, but it was instead it was the strong connections possible because of these innovations.

Modern Times was Chaplin’s last silent feature, and it was only sort-of silent.  It is filled with sound-effects, some voice acting, and lots of music.  It a time when most of the industry had already converted over to the “new” talkie format, I wonder if Modern Times was itself a commentary on the nature of change in his own industry? 

Despite the fact that it may have been a bit over hyped for me, I still really enjoyed what Chaplin had to offer in Modern Times, and I look forward to seeing more of his work (this time with a bit more moderate expectations).

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) (1938)

Olympia Festival of Nations

Olympia Festival of Beauty

Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) – 1938

Director – Leni Riefenstahl

Starring – Adolph Hitler, and Jesse Owens

Notorious darling of the nazi propaganda machine, Leni Riefenstahl, once had a legitimate career as a filmmaker.  Starting off as an actress, she moved her way up the ranks to produce and direct both narrative as well as documentary films on varying subjects.  This film, split into two parts, is a documentary of the 1936 Olympic games which were held in Nazi controlled Berlin (this was, of course, before anyone knew that was a bad thing).  With both parts clocking in at nearly 4 hours together, it is a daunting watch, but is it worth it?

The Festival of Nations is the first part of the duo, and it is introduced by a long montage of shots panning and dollying through the ruins of classical Greek architecture, and featuring dramatic lighting, a fog machine, and classical statuary.  From there we move on to the running of the Olympic torch from the past into the future (1936), into the stadium in Berlin where the legions of people from each nation proudly march in formation and wave their country’s flag, and await the beginning of the games.  Afterwards we are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your view), nearly two solid hours of footage from the numerous contests of the games itself.  The Festival of Beauty is very similar in structure and length but features a different variety of events, and then at the end rounds out the games with a closing ceremony.

The pros and cons of this film are all weighed out fairly evenly, and in some ways cancel each other out when considering the value of this film historically.  Firstly the black and white imagery is very captivating, alternating between slow motion and full speed  footage of the athletes and with grand sweeping shots of the stadium and the crowd.  The images captured here are completely focused on the relationship between form and function of the human body.  The slow motion shots recall the photography of Eadweard Muybridge in the way they dissect and analyze each and every detail.   Riefenstahl’s camera lingers on each athlete, highlighting the raw power that comes from their muscles working together.  Unfortunately this introduces one of the main problems with the film.  There are only so many different ways to show the same action over and over and over and over and over again.  A guy running is a guy running no matter if you have 2 shots of him doing it or 20.  Likewise, since a lot of the different events are visually very similar, it would have been nice to condense them down to about half of what they were (there is only so much you can do to show track events in interesting ways without getting in the runner’s way)

Second, the film presents an interesting view back in time to what it was like before the Nazi party was as vilified as it is (and clearly deserves to be) today.  This olympics, while hosted by the Nazis, was attended by all the major players in WWII (with the notable absence of the Russians), England, France, Poland, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Japan, and of course the US.  There are numerous scenes of large crowds saluting Hitler (who appears numerous times throughout), German athletes saluting, and lingering shots of a proud waving Nazi flag indicating the winner of the event.  It is in this film, that exists the footage of America’s Jesse Owens dominating each event he participated in.  Unfortunately, there were a number of references referring to him as “…the best of America’s negros…” or talking about pitting his prowess against that of the “white race.”  This provides some interesting questions, “Does the history of what happened after the games, deface and ruin what happened at the games?”  “Is the film art, propaganda, or both?”  With the exception to how the African American athletes are referred to, each nation seemed to get equal billing and equal credit for their contributions to their events.  Does this mean that it should be viewed without the stigma of what the Nazi’s did?  Whether or not it should be judged without bias, it never will be.

Finally, the best part of this documentary comes from watching these men and women at the top of their game, doing what it is they are best at.  This is somewhat marred by the fact that there is an announcer giving the play by play.  The film would have worked better with more of the montage elements of the athletes performing, and less minutia on who was winning.  Also, the symbolism and pageantry was a little heavy handed, and could stand to have been edited down quite a bit.  The main focus of the film (and consequently, the most successful part) is the study of movement, and form found in the mechanics of the human body, not in the history of what actually happened.  I suppose I understand why these elements were included, but they are distracting, and slow.