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The Count Takes the Count

An almost-countess turns almost-detective
Charles Parrott, billed as Charley Chase, was a veteran at Hal Roach's studio by the time this two-reeler, THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT, was released in the winter of 1936; in fact, Chase had been one of the studio's most prolific properties for well over fifteen years by this time, both as a director, gagman and star of short comedies. Although primarily remembered as a silent comedian today, Chase did the transition to sound without apparent struggle. While his sound shorts may be more uneven in quality than the work of Laurel and Hardy at the same studio at the same time, Chase invariably manages to throw in an additional touch to his films, even when the material appears rather standard on the whole. His talent as singer and dancer was especially utilized on many occasions once sound made its entrance, and these seemingly impromptu (but in reality quite accomplished) vocal performances liven up many of his shorts. In THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT, however, his musical talents are not given opportunity to shine; even so, this remains one of his better shorts of the 1930s.

Here, Chase is employed at an insurance company, and finds himself in a most precarious situation as he has permitted a wedding to be insured for a million bucks; should the wedding be called off, by any chance, the princely sum must be transferred from the insurance company to the father of the girl about to get hitched. The boss of the company orders Chase (with the aid of a death threat) to rush over to the girl's house and make sure that she actually goes through the wedding; but it turns out she's already eloped by car, as she's being forced by her father to marry a count she does not love. Chase quickly outruns her by another car, but she convinces him that she's a detective in search for the eloped girl... And as their mutual, impossible search ensues, they get to like one another quite a bit (as far as that sort of thing goes in two-reel comedies).

The premise of a "heroine" being forced to marry a man she doesn't love for the sake of a noble title was far from new to film comedy by 1936; Chaplin had done a variation on this theme in A JITNEY ELOPEMENT all the way back to 1915, and French comedian Max Linder had taken use of similar plots even earlier. Still, there are enough original touches to make THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT stand out. There's especially the rather sweet instance where Chase and the girl (played by the quite charismatic but by now nearly forgotten Andrea Leeds) find themselves tied up by a rope after being victims of a holdup; being squeezed into one another by force, it dawns on them that they like each other. Later on, after they've both been arrested for "impersonating an officer" and Chase finds himself handcuffed to a cop, there's a pretty funny "silent" routine with Chase and the officer having a meal at the latter's dinner table, Chase trying to enjoy it the best he can as he's forced to adjust his movements (and thus his ability to eat) to the movements of the cop to whom he's handcuffed.

THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT was to be one of Chase's last two-reelers at Roach; later in the same year, his stint of 15 years was halted as Roach decided to make feature-films full-time, Chase signing up to make shorts at Columbia instead the following year. While I believe Charley's work in silents was more consistent, he made several memorable sound shorts as well; if you enjoy him at all, you should enjoy this one.

Papa's Boy

Fragile glasses and rubber-like alligators
By the time this two-reel comedy entitled PAPA'S BOY was released in late 1927, Lloyd Hamilton had reached a point in his career where his output was, at best, regarded as uneven in quality. As his stardom declined, he was also struggling with failing health and a troubling divorce. Circumstances had not always been so dismal, however; just a few years before, Hamilton enjoyed the position as one of Educational Pictures' major attractions, a true comedian's comedian whose inventiveness as performer and gagman was often compared to that of Buster Keaton. Such bold comparisons must've seemed less convincing by the time of PAPA'S BOY, but this still ranks as one of Hamilton's funnier films made after his heyday.

Hamilton plays a slight variation on his usual character, presenting himself as even more pathetic than usual. Equipped with his trademark checkered cap but wearing, for a change, a pair of fragile glasses, he's introduced as a constantly whining "sissy" whose obsession in life is chasing butterflies. His father is less impressed, and orders a sullen acquaintance to "make a man out of him." This is attempted by having Ham travel several miles from home, out to the woods nearby a lake, where he is obliged to embark on presumably character-building activities such as chopping wood and sleeping in a tent. Obviously, the experience turns out to have no discernible effect on the Papa's Boy...

There are amusing moments here, to be sure; Ham's obsessive chasing of butterflies results in inevitable misunderstandings, as he tries to catch items for his collection with less conventional resources than butterfly nets, and a dash of comic suspense is thrown in the second half of the film as an alligator enters (very much rubber-like, but still). Hamilton's facial expressions and recognizable "duck-like" walk add a personal touch which would, no doubt, have been absent had the film been done by a less memorable comic. At the same time, most of the material appears pretty standard; some solid, funny gags and situations, but little which couldn't likely have appeared in a Snub Pollard or Billy Bevan-short instead. Also, Hamilton's performance comes off as less subtle and refined compared to some of his earlier films; he's frequently yelling and screaming in a way which arguably makes him a bit much pathetic.

Even as one admits that Lloyd Hamilton did better stuff than PAPA'S BOY earlier in his career, this two-reeler is still a nice way to spend fifteen minutes or so to a silent comedy fan. Hamilton is easily among my favorites in the so-called "second rank" of silent comedians, and as such I'll gladly watch him also in a second- or even third-rank effort. The film can currently be found on Undercrank Productions' DVD Accidentally Preserved, Volume 2.

Gussle's Day of Rest

Not much of a "Day of rest," even by Keystone's standards
The mutual lives of the two Chaplin-brothers Charlie and Sydney, and how choices each brother made affected the other, are worthy of an examination on their own. It was the elder Sydney who'd got Charlie hired in Fred Karno's music hall troupe, securing Charlie's first rise to stardom; on the other hand, it was Charlie's eventual meteoric success in films at Keystone which had made said studio's boss, Mack Sennett, interested in Sydney. Although eventually treated by history as an (albeit significant) anecdote to the life of his younger brother, Sydney starred in quite a few successful Keystone-films during 1914-15 in his own right. GUSSLE'S DAY OF REST serves as a pretty representative piece of work to anyone eager to check out his brand of comedy in those years. Although of a slightly more robust physique than his brother, the costume with the hat, moustasche and large trousers derives from the same comedy tradition. He is an entirely one-dimensional character here, only interested in drink and gals, but he makes it funny.

If you've seen a few Keystone-films, you'll grasp the essence of this one in a hurry; Sydney had appeared in another two-reeler called CAUGHT IN THE PARK just a couple of months before, and GUSSLE'S DAY OF REST is a strikingly similar comedy. As the former film, this one is set entirely in a park, providing little in terms of story but plenty of situations for the performers to come up with gags. Sydney Chaplin serves as the inevitable center of attention. Being an experienced star comedian from music hall, he arguably appears more focused in his performances than many of his contemporaries; much like Charlie, he is often at his funniest when allowed to halt the frantic action for a moment, to do a gag or two on a smaller scale. One example on this here includes the part where he is about to give his wife a much-needed sip of liquor after a car accident, only to take the sip himself instead…even so, he considerately wipes her mouth with a napkin. Another bit has Syd performing a mindless, but funny prank on his sleeping wife involving a balloon.

Gags such as the ones above could easily have been performed by Charlie in the same period, and implicate why both Chaplins stood out from the rest, so to speak. There's lots and lots of other activity going on as well, involving Sydney's nagging wife Phyllis Allen, Eddie Cline as a Kop, Keystone beauty Cecile Arnold, and the rightfully jealous boyfriend of the latter woman, Slim Summerville. Adding to the madness is a determined T-Ford as well as, for some reason, a real leopard (one should keep in mind that TV and channels like National Geographic didn't exist at this point, so to witness an exotic animal like this in a comedy film in 1915 must've been quite a treat). However, despite amusing bits of business, GUSSLE'S DAY OF REST is still rather standard farce, on the whole. Had this been a one-reeler I wouldn't have given a thought to the total absence of a story, but expectations get higher once we deal with two reels. While any fan of silent comedy is apt to find some measure of enjoyment watching this one, the individual bits would probably have benefited from a somewhat more tightly choreographed entirety. A story as such may not be necessary, but all of the best films at Keystone at least provided a well-established premise, which is lacking in this film. I also found the final gag to be rather macabre (won't reveal it here).

Sydney's brother Charlie had, by comparison, abandoned Keystone a few months prior to this film, and already begun to experiment with hints of pathos and character development in his most recent films at Essanay Studios. It has been suggested that Syd took his work less seriously than Charlie; even so, GUSSLE'S DAY OF REST clearly showcases a very talented comedian and pantomimist.

American Masters: Good Ol' Charles Schulz
Episode 8, Season 21

Interesting in parts, but arguably a rather narrow portrayal
Aired only a few weeks after the release of David Michaelis' book "Schulz and Peanuts" in October 2007, this American Masters-episode "GOOD OL' CHARLES SCHULZ" gives us a portrayal of Schulz rather similar to that of Michaelis; namely, that the cartoonist was by and large insecure and a worrier, who used his comic strip as an outlet for his inner frustrations and anxieties. This is an interesting interpretation, and probably accurate to a certain extent. However, in my opinion, both Michaelis and this PBS-documentary appear to spend a bit much time on the more solemn aspects of Schulz and his strip. Certainly Schulz did have a melancholy side; he said so himself on occasion, and all the loneliness and quiet (and not-so-quiet) despair present in the PEANUTS-strip could not have come out from nowhere. But although Schulz's willingness and ability to openly explore existential questions and problems in his comic strip is one of the reasons why he is considered so influential as a cartoonist, the gang of Charlie Brown and Snoopy consisted of much more. PEANUTS was also extraordinary for its sharp wit and humor, and seemingly simple but highly-expressive drawings.

Perhaps PBS feared that most of their viewers would be bored with too much emphasis on Schulz's incredible artistic skills, such as his ability to visually depict all kinds of facial expressions with the simplest variations with pen and ink, but the decision to focus so extensively on Schulz's melancholy side (and Peanuts' commercial appeal) leaves us with an exploration of Schulz and his strip which feels somewhat incomplete. Schulz's private life also receives a similarly selective approach. One example is the CITIZEN KANE-connection, which seems very speculative; the famous scene where young Foster Kane is taken away from his mother is followed by a still portrait of Schulz's mother, as solemn piano music pours in the background. Apparently, we are meant to believe that the reason why Schulz regarded CITIZEN KANE as his favorite film, was because he somehow identified with Kane's dramatic life story (á la 'young man with an ordinary background becomes a huge success story, yet fails to find true love'). Unfamiliar viewers would not know that this is a very subjective interpretation of Schulz, given that Schulz himself said to have been intrigued with the film due to its cinematography and visual experimentation (like pretty much everyone else, by the way--although narratively and technically revolutionizing, the story of CITIZEN KANE is essentially rather conventional).

Like so many of us, Schulz may have felt a number of unpleasant things at various points in his life, but if his rather melancholy strips confirm this, ideas such as "Snoopy's dance" would prove that he could be quite a merry soul as well.

There's no doubt that Schulz deserves a serious, hour-long documentary to be made about him, but this PBS-effort appears somewhat selective in its depiction of him both as a person and artist. On the plus side, cartoonists Jules Feiffer and Lynn Johnston as well as Schulz's children provide some interesting recollections, and so does Schulz himself, in some archive footage. The last interview with Schulz, recorded in December 1999 when he was very ill and had just announced his retirement, literally made me cry.

In the end, I'm glad I got the chance to watch this TV special, it serves as a decent overview of Schulz's life if taken with some grain of salt, but I do hope a more fully-rounded documentary of Schulz will see the light of day soon.

In the Dough

Roscoe's return at the Slapstick Bakery
When IN THE DOUGH was released in late 1933, Roscoe Arbuckle had sadly passed away months before and this was the second to last new film of his to be screened altogether. During this final year, he had made a promising comeback in six two-reelers for Warner Brothers' Vitagraph-series. The films were generally well-received, but one can imagine that Roscoe himself was more relieved than anyone. Having been unable to perform in front of a camera since 1921, it must have given him immense pleasure to be the star of his own series of films again, standard though they may often appear to be otherwise. IN THE DOUGH stands as one of the funnier efforts in the series. The premise may have been borrowed from a Keystone-film that saw the light of day some twenty years before, but Roscoe handles the transition from pure pantomime to partly dialogue-driven humor very well.

A bakery run by a temperamental immigrant and a rather nervous waitress seeks a new baker, and Roscoe seizes the opportunity. Dressed in his trademark costume from the silent days, pants too short and derby too small, he is immediately assigned. A plot involving some villains eager to blow the shop to pieces soon evolve, quite reminiscent of Chaplin's early effort DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (and plenty of other Keystone-films). The ever-flexible Shemp Howard appears as one of these not very noble gentlemen. However, we witness less use of dynamite (though it certainly occurs) and more of dough; the fights between Roscoe and the villains (and eventually, other unfortunates) are quite in sync with the slapstick-tradition which the public had come to associate with Roscoe.

Even so, a few apparent borrowings from Laurel & Hardy add somewhat more depth to the mayhem than the Keystone-shorts presumably would have done. Rather than having us just laugh at the visual depiction of well-dressed people drowning in fistfuls of dough, the funniest moments are based on the rhythm-and-reaction-style of comedy which, from the late silent era on, had made slapstick appear fresh again. Arbuckle's timing is perfect; nothing suggests that this man had not performed in front of a camera for more than a decade. It should also be added that his deep, expressive voice fits his character very well.

Another funny bit includes the running gag of a mild-mannered but eccentric British customer, who asks for a large cake with a large "S" written on it, as his own name is Smith. Of course, in a dysfunctional bakery as this one, making such an order turns out a not altogether simple task: "Pardon me, gentlemen, but you may remember that I, in my youth, ordered a cake here," the customer finally bursts out. Well-used by now I guess, but still quite priceless. Less fun is the ridiculing of the stammering, nervous waitress; this bit strikes me as just too cruel. Like so many others, however, I'm not always consistent regarding what kind of comedy I find funny or problematic; if I laugh out loud at the most outrageous moments in Larry David's sitcom "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM," I guess I should better be quiet. In any case, IN THE DOUGH remains quite a funny little film, all in all. Great to see Roscoe back, although the comeback, sadly, turned out to be brief.

The Elephant Man

Any biographical inaccuracies far, far less significant than its symbolic impact
I had known about THE ELEPHANT MAN since childhood and been told how touching the film was, but with so many supposedly good and "touching" movies to check out, it was only after I found it mentioned in Marlon Brando's autobiography (of all places) that I decided to see for myself, at 16 years of age. To say that I was touched is accurate, but really too mild; a film has never, ever forced me to cry so hard as David Lynch's interpretation of the life of this unfortunate human being. When I watched it for the first time as a teenager, there were instances when I literally could not see what was going on, as my eyes were too filled with tears…and if I ever believed, in retrospect, this reaction to have been the result of being at a more "tender" age while watching, a more recent re-viewing of the film must now put that possibility to rest. It remains completely haunting, both so ugly and so beautiful that repeated visits should be regarded as obligatory, yet it is very hard on the soul and the stomach to sit through it more than once in several years.

More than just a biographical film that covers the essential story of Merrick "The Elephant Man," Lynch's film is so vehemently sensitive in its depiction of Merrick that his life serves to function here also on a more allegorical level. This is worth pointing out particularly due to some viewers' objection that the film is not factually reliable. It may be so that Merrick's first name was not John, as in the film, but Joseph; also, actual reports suggest that Merrick was far more severely abused by his family than during his engagements as a "curiosity performer." However, in order to provide THE ELEPHANT MAN with more than some provincial interest, and make the issues it covers relevant (and, of course, narratively interesting…) to a wider audience, to focus on undisputed facts throughout would have been a mistake, in my opinion. The pain which Merrick must have felt, his sweet and gentle personality made forever invisible to others due to the body that happened to contain it, cannot be diminished in any case; even though he was not truly haunted by a "master" who whipped him regularly. The film adopts a rather stylistic approach, which in my opinion justifies most inaccuracies and exaggerations; had the film pretended to be a more realistic piece, I might have felt a bit differently, but such is not the case.

One could make the case that a story such as that of "The Elephant Man" is hard not to make touching somehow, but even so, the fact that I still cry at the film so my lungs hurt is in no small part due to the efforts of several talents involved. Lynch's portrayal of the grimmest aspects of Victorian-era London is exceptional, the dirtiness of its streets emphasized further by the black-and-white cinematography. I've yet to discover any film adaptation of Dickens feel so Dickensian as the sets and environment seen here. Upon watching the film again more recently, it also struck me how the ethics of demotic entertainment business in 19th-century England is indirectly being addressed through Merrick, and thus contradicts with how joyful 'n merry the era of music hall is often remembered in other retrospective depictions. First and foremost, however, John Hurt deserves all possible praise as Merrick. It's easy to suspect his role to have been a painless task, given that he's hidden beneath tons of make-up which is apt to have done much of the performance for him. However, while one undoubtedly would have felt sympathy to Merrick's story regardless of how the role was performed in the film, to make him come alive as a character, and make the viewer intrigued by him also for who he is underneath the skin, something special is required for. Hurt's sensitivity shines through in every gesture, and I found myself wanting so often to give Mr. Merrick one big, big hug. Also at hand is a strong supporting cast, including Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves. If there is a "message" to be found in David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN it may indeed be a simple one, but rarely if ever has it been expressed with such vigor.


Decent craftsmanship, but more conventional than necessary
To cover a well-known historical event through dramatization is a delicate matter, to say the least. In order to come off as entertaining and convincing at the same time, a balance must be reached. One must devote painstaking focus as to what should be included versus left out, and decide which details that can justifiably be exaggerated in the presentation for the sake of dramatic effect. It seems that a viewer's demand for accuracy in this regard largely depends on how far a dive into the past the portrayed event requires. It was quite safe for Nordhoff and Hall, authors of the novel "Mutiny on the Bounty" penned in the 1930s, to portray the Bounty's captain William Bligh as a tyrant who regarded whipping of his crew as a kind of entertainment, even though there is no available evidence to support this to have actually been the case. After all, the real mutiny occurred one and a half century before, so by the time Bligh was transformed into a literary character he could not have had any relatives left who knew him first-hand. Still, there is little doubt that Bligh's legacy has suffered due to the novelists' portrayal of him, as few seem to question if the depiction of the captain was truthful or not.

I could not help being reminded of the case of Captain Bligh in the "Bounty"-novel while watching the portrayal of Herman Watzinger in Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg recent film KON-TIKI. Being part of the crew that took off with Kon-Tiki in 1947, Watzinger was remembered by his family and associates as a rather masculine and well-trimmed man, which conflicts with how he is presented in this film; while not unsympathetic, he comes off here as more of an easily-scared caricature, almost as if borrowed from a Disney-feature. Despite criticism after the film premiered, the directors have stood by this portrayal, emphasizing the need for certain artistic freedom in order to make a film interesting. However, what most of all bothers me with the portrayal of Watzinger is not so much its apparent inaccuracy, unfair to his legacy though it may be. After all, I did enjoy the novel about the Bounty as well as its film adaptations. The truly problematic thing here with KON-TIKI, is that apart from Thor Heyerdahl himself, Watzinger is the only person in the film possibly equipped with any trace of substance and depth, in my opinion; and what's more, these traces are hardly much evident if not compared to the even more shallow other characters. Filling the role of a "sissy" who turns out to be perhaps not so much of a sissy after all, Watzinger's function in the film is obviously devised so that he can work as a direct counterpoint to our "brave and heroic" Heyerdahl, whereas the rest of the crew remains quite anonymous throughout. Even if one accepts the film for what it is, a depiction of a real-life adventure that follows a strictly conventional structure, such simplistic characterizations come off as too obvious to me to sustain a feature-length film of this kind.

It may sound odd to phrase it in this way, but KON-TIKI essentially covers a quite claustrophobic story (or agoraphobic, if you will, but I actually think claustrophobic is more accurate), set out on a small hand-made boat, and if such a scenario is to work on film, interesting characterizations are required for, in my opinion. Technically outstanding scenes involving sharks and sea-storms that nearly tear the boat and its crew apart are of limited interest, I think, when the characters involved in these circumstances appear either extremely calculated (Heyerdahl and Watzinger) or not explored at all. Though it's by all means competent craftsmanship, I was honestly somewhat bored much of the time, also with scenes that were supposed to be intriguing (even more so since none of the extremely dramatic stuff with the sharks is supposed to have actually happened). Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen may be a very talented actor, as far as I know, but he is not given that much opportunity to showcase it here, in my opinion. Heyerdahl's complicated relationship to his wife is explored with an approach similar to the adventure at sea; quite conventionally, that is, a love story which is used as a kind of framework to the entirety, being referenced to every once in a while throughout, but also Heyerdahl's wife remains rather anonymous.

I want to stress that it has not been my intention to appear arrogant or unpleasant in any way in this review. I simply feel that, for a film with such a large budget, KON-TIKI could have benefited from more imaginative solutions, though I suppose a traditional narrative would in any case have been unavoidable, in order for the film to be a guaranteed "hit" at the box-office. On the plus side, however, it should be pointed out that the film's cinematography was very beautiful at times, and Gustaf Skarsgård's portrayal of photographer Bengt Danielsson quite humorous. In the end, I find KON-TIKI to be a film that knows how to do all the well-used "tricks" but unfortunately, in my opinion, it never dares to go beyond them.

Triple Trouble

Hard not to be ambivalent
As the title says. To a Chaplin-fan, it's difficult to decide whether one should loathe or embrace TRIPLE TROUBLE; not only so due to the film's inconsistent qualities, but because its very right to exist in the first place can be debated, if not legally then at least from an ethical standpoint. When the Essanay film company released this two-reeler in the summer of 1918, having very much reached its salad days, Chaplin had in fact abandoned the company since two years back. In the meantime, he had developed remarkably as a film-maker through his twelve short films for the Mutual company, and had behind him his first effort at First National, A DOG'S LIFE. The arguably somewhat "crude" humor which had been present in several of his Essanay-films was now toned down for the sake of a more character-driven, human and slightly poetic approach. It can be assumed that Chaplin, possibly even more so than his admirers, was very aware of this development and felt little need to be associated with his earlier work.

However, the Chaplin-craze was still prominent by the end of the first world war, and Essanay would not let a chance to make an additional buck pass them by, even though Chaplin on his part considered them a closed chapter. They churned out TRIPLE TROUBLE, a two-reel film assembled partly from outtakes that had been left by Chaplin at the studio while he was still working there, as well as new-shot footage by Leo White, known for having played the frequent "count-type" roles in many of Chaplin's films. The result is by and large a mess, and was received unfavorably by critics even at the time. Whereas Chaplin had always, even in his earliest and "crudest" films, gone for simple and relatively down-to-earth plots, TRIPLE TROUBLE serves a story more reminiscent of the crazy antics of contemporary comedy team Ham and Bud. Inventor Colonel Nutt has invented a new brand of explosives, which a foreign agent is eager to get his hands on; unsuccessful in his request for the formula, he puts some bandits on the case. A rather incoherent chase develops, and that's your story; somewhere in the middle of this, Charlie is thrown in as a janitor, and appears in a few scenes with hard-working woman Edna Purviance and at a flop-house.

So we don't have much of a good film, that's for sure, and Chaplin had every right to be infuriated. Still fresh on his mind was Essanay's destruction of his BURLESQUE ON CARMEN upon his departure, and now they had even hired another director to fill in the gaps of a film that was supposed to be his but which he'd never approved in the first place! There was nothing he could do about the situation, as he did not yet legally own his films while working at the company. Still, I must admit, as a die-hard fan of Chaplin, that I somehow, somewhere in a forbidden spot in my heart, am grateful that the film saw the light of day. Essanay closed shop shortly after the film's release, and as Chaplin is unlikely to have been interested in any outtakes he'd made years before, the scenes with him in TRIPLE TROUBLE would in all probability have been lost forever without this project. Chaplin's status as a comic genius would undoubtedly have been secure anyhow, but surely there are some memorable moments to be found here; I love it, for instance, when the Tramp first forces an odd-lookin' fellow to sleep by brutally knocking him down with a hammer, only to then kiss him gently good-night on the head.

The origin of the Chaplin-footage in TRIPLE TROUBLE has been subject of much debate in itself. It seems to be widely accepted that the material was shot by Chaplin in 1915 as part of an intended full-length film entitled LIFE, which was abandoned due to the constant demand for new Chaplin-releases at that time. However, I believe this theory has been treated as more credible than it probably deserves. It seems to be correct that Essanay had announced at one point that Chaplin did intend to make a full-length film by said title, but as far as I know there is no evidence to be found whatsoever that any scenes from this aborted project were actually shot. Yet another theory speculates that the footage used in TRIPLE TROUBLE consists of outtakes from Chaplin's last "official" Essanay-film, POLICE, but this seems even less likely. In any case, the scenes with him in TRIPLE TROUBLE are actually rather funny and memorable, even if the film as an entirety is not.

Krazy and Ignatz Discuss the Letter 'G'

Washington but no Herriman?
It is almost embarrassing for a cartoonist to cite KRAZY KAT as a big influence these days, and ditto the oft-held opinion that it may in fact be the greatest comic strip of all time. One suspects that the many comics fans who know the strip by name only, wonder now and then if the praise George Herriman receives may in part come from cartoonists who merely say what's being expected from them. However, anyone who has bothered to actually read some of Krazy's "adventures" (and preferably more than just a casual sampling of strips) will know what the hype is all about. Herriman created a beautifully unpredictable world of fantasy; while the basic premise may seem repetitive at first sight (that is, Ignatz Mouse throwing bricks at Krazy's gentle scalp), this premise is depicted through twists and variations which make even the expected turn out unexpected in the end. Irresistible art and prose, and especially the Dickensian feel for characterization are some of the reasons, here put very cursory of course, why KRAZY KAT remains an all-time favorite comic strip of so many cartoonists.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not solely in more recent decades that KRAZY KAT has begun to earn wider recognition. Though it's true that few papers carried it towards the end of its run in the 1940s, as the strip became increasingly inaccessible to casual readers, Krazy and Ignatz were initially received with appreciation from the public. In its earliest years in the 1910s, the daily strip was so meticulously drawn that it caught the attention of readers accostumed to the more elaborate drawings of other comic strips of the day. Herriman's boss W. R. Hearst (yes, you know his name) was quick to capitalize on this aspiring popularity, and in early 1916 the strip made its silver screen debut, as an animation series. Apparently, Herriman had no control over these films and his involvement in them was extremely minor. It's easy to dismiss these quickies as an insensitive project, as little if anything of Herriman's uniqueness shines through in them; the roles of the characters could generally be exchanged with Mutt & Jeff and nobody would lift an eyebrow. However, it's important to remember that Herriman himself had still not quite found his formula at this point; when this film KRAZY AND IGNATZ DISCUSS THE LETTER "G" was released, apparently as the third chapter in the series, in February 1916, the by now so famous Krazy Kat Sunday pages had not even started their run. If anything, these films bring to mind a remark by PEANUTS-creator Charles Schulz, when he claimed that syndicates tend to do merchandise with their characters too early, before a creator has had a chance to find his style.

As it stands, KRAZY AND IGNATZ DISCUSS THE LETTER "G" is nothing more and nothing less than the average Krazy Kat Kartoon of the period. The setting has Krazy doing the serving and the cooking at a diner, flipping pan-cakes as Ignatz enters to ask for "goose giblets 'n gravy." This leads Krazy to show off some of his characteristic fascination with "woids;" while proceeding to fix the meal of his "dolink," he points out how many names that begin with the letter - oh yes you guessed it - "G." Starting off with George Washington, he rambles on until Ignatz, seemingly deprived of a brick at hand, tosses a pie at the philosopher in contempt. Just a few minutes long, the short remains amusing enough, and the current charm of the animation may not solely be attributed to its age and value as a curiosity. Still, it's definitely "one of the bunch," and interesting as an early example of animation rather than an alternative exploitation of Herriman's distinct artistic universe. Speaking of Herriman, I must confess that I felt slightly disappointed that Washington was included here to provide his first name rather than the strip's creator....though I do know George Herriman was known as a quiet and modest man, it's tempting to imagine that he somehow would have made a sort of inside-joke about this, had the story been presented by him in strip form.

L'enfant sauvage

A scientific vessel?
Once in a while, one stumbles upon a cinematic work whose presence refuses to fade within you, even after its end credits have served their purpose of bringing one back to the same carefree state of mind as one enjoyed prior to seeing the movie. If scenes from the movie still turn up in your head on a daily basis weeks afterward, and these make you ask new questions each time, I think it may very well belong in that rare category. To me, François Truffaut's L'Infant SAUVAGE (THE WILD CHILD) has provided such an experience. The story is set in the late 1700s, covering the story of one Dr. Itard who is trying to raise and educate a child (eventually named Victor) who is thought to have been living with wild animals for his entire life.

The film may appear to be be quite conventionally assembled, relying as it does on a narrator's voice throughout and following a strictly accessible structure. However, Traffaut's alert use of camera-angles, as well as the beautiful cinematography, often contributes considerably to certain points made in the story, though one may not even realize this at first. For instance, in one of the scenes depicting Dr. Itard's attempts at learning some of the obligatory knowledge of civilized society to Victor, we are positioned from the outside of Itard's house, granted a viewpoint through an open (but still distancing) window. It is a simple effect, but makes us quietly conscious of the fact that we, like Itard, are observing another person's state of mind (that of the "wild child") which we can never expect to understand, and for that reason should probably be resistant of forcing upon our own world-view.

Of at least equal merit as the direction are the performances; Traffaut himself is very convincing as the firm but, it must be assumed, not ill-intentioned Itard, while young Jean-Pierre Cargol strikes me as so unbelievably believable as Victor that it is aching to witness at times. Though superficially most viewers probably identify themselves with Itard's point of view, I believe anyone who's been a child would find it hard not to somehow connect the confusion Victor seems to suffer with some instance of confusion oneself may have experienced in childhood, no matter how mild that case of confusion may appear compared to what Victor goes through. At the same time, it is worth noting that it is not, necessarily, Victor who is most puzzled; Dr. Itard seems equally bewildered as to how to cope with Victor's state of mind, as the other way around. Victor's understanding of the world is not necessarily "wrong;" certainly not from his own point of view.

Though generally said to be based on truth, it has been noted that THE WILD CHILD does not quite follow the story as written down by the actual Itard. For one thing, Itard was in fact still a student when he took it upon him to take care of Victor, and not an educated physician, and it has in later years been heavily doubted if Victor actually was brought up by wolves (wolves taking care of another species seems very improbable in itself, and even if it did occur, Victor would hardly have survived ten years in the woods under such circumstances; furthermore, Victor reportedly wore some clothing when found, if only barely). However, more interesting than how much of what we see presented here is indisputable truth, I think, is how the film raises its questions and dilemmas. Itard needed to be portrayed as an educated physician for the sake of symbolic effect, and whether or not Victor was raised by wild animals, it still remains a fact that he understood the world vastly different than most human beings, and was discovered at a time when it was not considered an inevitable alternative to give him a "diagnosis" (a strong case of autism has later been suggested).

Was it right to bring Victor into the civilized world, though one assumed him to have lived by the laws of the animal kingdom for most of his life? Granted, this question is perhaps not so interesting to discuss from an ethical standpoint. After all, any reasonably empathic human being who found a naked, seemingly abandoned child in the dark woods would instantly conclude that s/he should be brought to authorities of the civilized world to be taken care of, irrelevant of whether such an act would deprive the child of the existence which s/he had come to view as normal due to his/her unusual circumstances. However, one question worthy of discussion, perhaps, is whether the intentions behind the attempts of civilizing Victor were sufficiently justifiable?

At the time Victor was found, in the late 18th century, still during the era of the French revolution, parts of France suffered from poverty and uncertain prospects, with families starving on the streets in the larger cities; these were merely unfortunate ones. At the same time, Victor from the woods was granted entrance into upper middle-class existence and its comforts, and on what condition? That he could prove a valuable vessel to scientific experiments? If so, the gradual development of Victor's emotional life is particularly tragic, because though he learns to cry, he is not able to handle emotions that reach beyond his natural instincts from a rational perspective. If it was right to force "civilization" upon Victor, it was arguably done on the wrong basis.

Anyhow, these are just some of the questions I found myself asking. You may also watch the film for its fine performances and cinematography; THE WILD CHILD can be enjoyed on several levels.

Welcome Danger

The magic is not as evident, perhaps, but not gone altogether
Until just a few days ago, WELCOME DANGER stood out as the sole feature in Harold Lloyd's catalogue I had yet to watch. This one notch in the chronology had not kept me up at nights, taking for granted as I did that every inch of its shoddy reputation had to be accurate, but the completist in me still surrendered when an opportunity to see the film finally appeared. As the very first scene unveiled, introducing the character of Harold Bledsoe on-board a train to San Fransisco, I expected, quite literally, to feel disgusted at his every move, being confident that this figure of the mortal world of sound shared only the exterior attributes of the silent Harold (such as the horn-rimmed glasses). To my surprise (and slight embarrassment), the first few gags actually made me chuckle, as Harold's character was established as an inventive and well-meaning, though perhaps sometimes overly eager sort of fellow; an impression quite synonymous, I think, with how he often presented himself in the silent years, as well as in his later, slightly more acclaimed talkies. Even so, a neat enough beginning was not enough to win me over, and anxiety arose as I expected the dreadful parts of the film to turn up. As the sweet scenes depicting Harold's first encounter with Barbara Kent and her wrecked vehicle developed, however, I could do little else than realize that the film I was watching seemed to provide me with something so ghastly as an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. This is not to say that the film gave me the same, more or less uncompromising amount of pleasure that characterizes Lloyd's best silent work; but then, that is a high standard to go by.

Only a few months had passed since Lloyd's latest success SPEEDY hit theaters in April 1928, when he embarked on his next project WELCOME DANGER. Lloyd had found a first-rate talent in director Ted Wilde, whose style possessed a level of sophistication similar to that of his previous director Sam Taylor. Sadly, at this point Wilde fell seriously ill, and a replacement was found in Mal St. Clair (who, among other things, had once co-directed some of Buster Keaton's most inspired shorts). Reportedly, St. Clair wound up directing an astounding twelve reels of finished film, turning out a vehicle for Lloyd nearly twice as long as any of the comedian's earlier films. The mere length of the film should have made WELCOME DANGER quite a challenge for Lloyd and his crew, not only because more gags were thus required for, but as much due to the expectation of stronger, believable characterizations than in shorter films. However, Harold Lloyd was not one to half-heartedly undertake a project he believed in, certainly not as a character on film and no more so, it turned out, as a film-maker. As shooting went on, Lloyd discovered the recent triumphs of films with synchronized sound; though the technology had in fact been available for years, it was not until THE JAZZ SINGER starring Al Jolson premiered in early '28 that the world of silent films began its visible, rapid decline in public consciousness. By the next year, all major studios in Hollywood had installed the new equipment required for in order to make their stars express themselves through spoken words. However, none of the three major comedians of the day had yet adapted themselves to this new existence; Buster Keaton had recently joined MGM, but was still blessed from dialogue to interfere with his pantomime, and Chaplin, of course, remained reluctant to make the transition for another ten years. Lloyd, on the other hand, surprised everyone by suggesting that WELCOME DANGER should be a talking film, and as the film reached its completion, he hired old-timer Clyde Bruckman to redirect several sequences with synchronized sound.

Make no mistake: the result is a film which does, indeed, suffer from many typical, technological limitations of very early sound films. On several instances, Lloyd and Bruckman decided to reuse the silent footage for the sound version, a method which may have saved considerable time and money, but the dubbing work done afterward is often extremely unconvincing and, doubtlessly, unintentionally funny. I also cannot get around that the film, even if restored and remastered to appear as crisp as when originally released, is far less aesthetically enthralling than earlier Lloyd-features, notably GIRL SHY and THE KID BROTHER. This is an odd tendency common to many early sound films; late silents often look less dated. Part of the reason to this may have been that the visual abilities of film tended to be less relied on for a while after dialogue could be brought in to "do the job" of moving a story forward. Even so, a first viewing of WELCOME DANGER convinced me that the film deserves a better reputation. There are plenty of solid gags and comic situations in it throughout, which Lloyd performs gracefully; little truly remarkable, perhaps, but at least I chuckled at the odd friendship and interplay between Harold and the cop Noah Young, as well as the smaller bits such as Harold's reaction when he discovers who the girl he's been annoyed at while stuck in the woods r-e-a-l-l-y is… Some strong supporting players are also at hand, notably lovely Barbara Kent as leading lady, Edgar Kennedy as another, more gruesome cop, and highly- unforgettable Charles Middleton as John Thorne. Unexpectedly, the story takes a relatively dramatic turn in the latter half of the film, which arguably adds some depth to it absent from Lloyd's later talkies. In sum, WELCOME DANGER may be a flawed film, and less magical than Lloyd's best silent work, but in my book still an enjoyable comedy which filled its presumed purpose of entertaining me.

Our Relations

Experimenting with their own concept, with much success
Is there a more appropriate way to inaugurate a much-hankered weekend, than to slightly overindulge in a bag of chocolate as Laurel & Hardy, meanwhile, do their funny business in your very home, thanks to home video technology? As a child of ten or eleven years old, I would have barely cared to question the superiority of this pastime to almost anything else, at least as far as plain, uncomplicated coziness was concerned. My local video store had quite a few of the boys' titles for rent, and OUR RELATIONS may have been my favorite at the time. Part of the reason why just this film appealed so much to a youngster, was probably that it provides, literally, a non-stop feast of fast-paced, rather violent antics guaranteed to not make anyone sleepy; the mayhem is not hampered by the fact that we are here introduced to t-w-o sets of Laurel & Hardy's, as their quite identical twin brothers suddenly turn up in town. Whereas their next feature, WAY OUT WEST, would offer several sequences which, if compared to standard slapstick farce, come off as rather subtle, this tale of mistaken identity leans more towards the broad and blunt approach. Tender moments such as the boys doing an impromptu dance, as seen in the later film, are here absent.

However, it must be stressed that Laurel and Hardy are not being deprived of opportunity to develop more spontaneous, less frantic routines in this film. In the very first scene, we are introduced to our familiar Stan and Ollie having a (relatively) quiet breakfast with their wives, establishing to us viewers that the boys here, for once, seem to be (relatively) happily married. As the wives leave the room, Ollie suddenly receives a telegram from his mother, reporting that his and Stan's respective twin brothers, Bert and Alf, have been hanged due to involvement in a mutiny. Before these sad (though inaccurate, as it turns out) news are unveiled, an hilarious quiet routine develops, as Ollie orders Stan to clean his glasses, so he can read the telegram properly...and, expectedly, such a supremely simple foundation for a joke turns into one of the highlights of the film, which depends not so much on the material in itself, but instead on how it is executed by these two very distinct characters. Almost any pair of comedians could have thought of and performed the jokes in this scene; but few others than Stan and Ollie could have dared to let the effect of these jokes depend so seamlessly on their individual on-screen personalities. The routine does not merely give the boys opportunity to do funny stuff; the funny stuff in this opening sequence is used as an opportunity to truly define these gentlemen to us viewers, with Stan scratching his head in mystification as Ollie turns increasingly impatient (yet perhaps less so than is to be expected; he must, after all, be quite accustomed to Stan's notable sense of logic by this time).

The aforementioned routine, simple though it may seem, stands as one of my favorites with the boys. Even so, I'm surprised that it tends to disappear from my memory after each repeated viewing of the film. One explanation to this may be that the plot of this film is rather complex for a Laurel & Hardy-vehicle (or for a 73-minute-long comedy film in general), making a viewer more apt to recall the significant turning points in the story rather than stand-alone sequences. The two sets of Laurel and Hardys make the tale somewhat hard to follow at times, if one doesn't pay quite enough attention; especially so towards the end of the film, where even Stan and Ollie themselves, still unaware that their twin brothers are very much alive, mistake the other's brother for being his own pal. Wow, I get somewhat confused myself, just trying to write about this. However, it could be argued that a somewhat complicated plot was required for in order to do this kind of film; more simple, traditional Laurel & Hardy-predicaments would possibly not have justified, in the eyes of the public, the somewhat obvious device of serving the duo with a set of "doppelgangers." In any case, I find it quite fascinating how Laurel & Hardy, throughout their 13-year long stint as a team at Hal Roach's studio, made a point of often experimenting with their own concept; in an earlier film, the two-reeler BRATS, they were blessed with offspring completely identical to themselves, while in another short, TWICE TWO, they have taken the bold (?) step of marrying each other's strikingly similar, respective sisters! I guess it was just a matter of time before twin brothers had to be brought to the table, and the feature-length format does justice to the idea, whereas the plot of the aforementioned two-reelers would have come across as way too cartoonish for a journey of six reels.

In sum, though I've come to regard the more gentle WAY OUT WEST as perhaps my favorite feature of the boys in recent years, OUR RELATIONS still holds up as one of their better longer adventures; accolades should also be paid to James Finlayson, playing his usual, unforgettable villainous type ("I wouldn't say YES and I wouldn't say NO!"), as well as Alan Hale as the waiter and Arthur Housman as the "drunkard" (just try watching the scene in the telephone booth without laughing!). Though research will tell us that this film was not so literally a "Stan Laurel Production" as indicated in the opening credits, it is clear that the boys still had a great degree of creative control at this point.


"El Dorado" is still a far way ahead, but...
To the casual viewer, this loose, low-budget adaptation of a Zane Grey-story may not appear to be worthy of any particular attention, but NEVADA did have a significant impact on the career of a young "Bob Mitchum," as billed in the opening credits. Prior to this, Mitchum's later so iconic figure could only be glimpsed here and there in bit parts, but after four years of struggle, he had apparently impressed RKO enough to be considered a valid replacement for their B-western star Tim Holt, who'd just enlisted in the army. It's not hard to grasp just why the company sought Mitchum. Though some of my impression may be colored by his later output, he's definitely got a certain "something" about him also at this early point, charismatic even when the main focus is not on him in a scene. In private, Mitchum was by this time was a married man and a father, and must have been relieved that his career was finally going somewhere.

Even so, it shouldn't be illegal to note that NEVADA proved a limited opportunity for Mitchum as far as showcasing the range of his talent was concerned. Granted, Mitchum may not have been quite confident as a leading actor himself at this point, so a ginger debut as this western was, perhaps, fitting in a sense. But one is almost tempted to encourage Mitchum, while watching the film, to go further with the role; as noted, some of the unfailing charisma is definitely present, but one finds little of the dry, ironic wit (or simply "coolness") which was to become a vital part of Mitchum's style and image. Then again, the script, which does not seem to regard Grey's original novel as much more than bare bone material for a story, hardly calls for nuanced characterization (the inevitable brevity of the film certainly contributes to this as well).

However, it would be ridiculous to judge NEVADA out of context; if accepted as what it is, a low-budget western telling the tale of a not supremely law-abiding but honest cowboy, who is wrongly accused of murder, it works just fine. There's a smooth interaction between the suspense and the more humorous bits, typical for westerns of the era. Guinn Williams and Richard Martin appear as a sort of sweet comedy team (possibly in part to emphasize Mitchum's masculine appeal), and the scene involving young Harry McKim doing a terrible job at faking that he's in pains actually had me laugh out loud. Robert Mitchum would go to much greater heights than this, both in and outside the western genre, but NEVADA remains an entertaining enough way to spend an hour on a rainy day.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

A well-used subject receives Porter-treatment
In one respect, it's funny how people complain that nearly all commercial film has to offer these days is a never-ending range of special effects, rather than focus on characterization in order to move a story forward. I won't exactly defy this opinion, but I find it interesting because one may say that's pretty much how narrative cinema began its course, attracting audiences with its ability to go beyond physical laws and still let the special effects remain a mystery. Surely the earliest films of a Méliès or a Porter could not offer much depth in terms of characterization, which was one reason why they could never, according to most at the time of their making, be considered a threat to the art of live theater. Even so, these films were still bound to fascinate as their fantastic visual extensions seemed to require no compromises.

Initially based on a comic strip by Winsor McCay and featuring vaudevillian Jack Brawn, THE DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND may not strike one as Edwin S. Porter's most outstanding achievement. He had behind him THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, which for its time was remarkably complex in structure and photography, so by comparison, the nightmares of a man-about-town who has allowed himself too much food and drink in one evening appears rather anchored in the vaudeville-tradition, less uniquely suited for the possibilities of film. At least it's easy to think in that direction at first. However, Porter does not disappoint; through inventive, unpredictable use of the camera, he did in 1906 make a strong case as to just why film deserved to be estimated as a medium on its own terms, rather than being compared to the theater stage. Certainly the feeling of intimacy provided by live actors performing on a real stage cannot be obtained with film, but Porter's recognition of film's advantages to the theater stage is one of the things which make his films so enjoyable to this day, THE DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND being no exception. Plotwise it may be rather ordinary, but it's what Porter does with this much-used topic that is the point. The clever effects have a close to dazzling effect at times, and it's not hard to see why it has later gained a reputation as a "surreal" work. That Porter, like Méliès, chose to explore the technical aspects of film- making in the earliest days, rather than consider more advanced methods of telling a story, may simply have been because even they were unable to foresee the full potential of the new medium; but seen in retrospect, to let technique come before dramaturgy was in fact a necessity. Every creative medium is a handcraft in essence, and the rules must be settled before they can be questioned.

The Artist

A lost world reemerges
The cessation of silent films, Leslie Wood acknowledged in her book "Romance of the Movies," is a tragedy which "will probably not last." Thus sounded her prediction in 1935; by that time, five years had passed since silent films were declared prehistoric, but Wood was still bold enough to estimate its possibilities of a comeback as probable. Sadly, in this case being bold was being far too bold. Although there has emerged certain film-makers since that time confident (and powerful) enough to make films visibly influenced by the silents, such as Jacques Tati, 'silent films' has remained a term to define a bygone era. I suppose Michel Hazanavicius' THE ARTIST came as a slight surprise to most of us, then; even more unexpected was its commercial success. But the one thing that truly astounded me was how the film managed to give me that same explicit, unexplainable "feeling" which my favorite authentic silents do; witty in some places and dark in others, THE ARTIST reminded me of just why I love silent films so much.

The story is quite easy to summarize. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of motion- pictures' hottest attractions, handsome and irresistibly charming in high-budget adventure films of the day (obvious Douglas Fairbanks-association here). However, his success seems doomed after the arrival of "talkies" towards the end of the 1920's, combined with the outburst of the Great Depression. As his own popularity fades, a young actress whom he once helped rises to superstardom; Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is declared the new "sweetheart" of the movies, as she fondly embraces the new aspect of the medium (her charm brings Clara Bow to mind). However, she has not forgotten how Valentin once helped her; and there, in essence, is your story. The relationship between John Gilbert and Greta Garbo is an inevitable association; Gilbert had enjoyed a phenomenal career as a leading actor during the late silent era, but vanished from the screen after it turned out that his voice did not match his image (or so, at least, the official story goes). Garbo made him do a comeback, albeit with limited results.

Some reviewers of THE ARTIST have objected to the apparent simplicity of its plot, claiming that the sole reason for its success has to do with its status as a novelty. This claim, I think, misses the whole point; yes, the story of a fading celebrity is very basic, and hardly new (Chaplin's film LIMELIGHT comes to mind, as well as Hjalmar Bergman's 1930's novel "Jac the Clown"). But THE ARTIST would never have achieved such success as it has only due to an aspect of freshness; a less clever director could easily have ended up doing a parody on the medium, and thus provided more nutrition to the myth that silent films merely consist of funny-lookin' jabbernowls running at an impossibly high speed-rate. Despite some meta-references to the medium of silent films throughout (a title card saying "BANG!" being one example), director Hazanavicius has not made a parody, but a beautiful film which made me laugh in some parts, and so teary-eyed in others I almost felt pathetic. By using a relatively simple story as its foundation, Hazanavicius demonstrates that 'silent films,' contrary to common belief, is an art form that deserves to be evaluated on its own terms, rather than being viewed as a primitive fore-runner to talking pictures. For if the depth is not so dominant within the story, it is certainly present in the visual narrative; every shot, angle and gesture is significant, and both the witty comedies of King Vidor (THE PATSY and SHOW PEOPLE, both 1928) and the expressionistic work of F.W. Murnau frequently come to mind. The performers are of equal importance, of course, and both Dujardin and Bejo are phenomenal, sensitive and extremely charismatic at the same time. A special mention should also go to Valentin's dog; both Rin-Tin-Tin and Roscoe Arbuckle's Luke the Dog would have bowed in respect.

One final question worth asking, perhaps, is whether Leslie Wood's prediction, that silent films are likely to reappear on a regular basis again, will come true after the success of THE ARTIST? Probably not. But at the very least, I do hope the film will encourage more people to seek out the very best silent films. If you cared for THE ARTIST, I see no reason why you would not appreciate films such as THE BIG PARADE (1925), SUNRISE: A LOVE STORY (1927) or THE CROWD (1928). By the mid-1920's, the best of film actors and directors had, once and for all, begun to trust the intelligence of viewers; understatement had become the trend in pantomime, whereas directors less relied on title- cards, instead more often conveying depth and subtle nuances through purely visual expression. Much of this was sadly lost again when talkies arrived, as all too many film- makers then adopted a use of dialogue reminiscent of the exaggerated frequency of title- cards in the early silent days. Of course, thanks to CITIZEN KANE and a handful of other films, visual experimentation was eventually re-discovered, but THE ARTIST still reminds us that while talkies may have lots of advantages, the decline of silent films was indeed a very sorry thing.

A Place in the Sun

Can't beat Clift in his prime
When A PLACE IN THE SUN was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress forty years after its initial release, their motivation read that the film provides "cultural, historical or aesthetic significance." It's pointless to argue that all of these three terms are relevant in the case of this film, particularly whereas the last one is concerned; from a technical point of view, this is George Stevens's most interesting film, to my knowledge. Although it is not really true (contrary to what has sometimes been reported) that this is the first instance where a director made considerable use of slowly-fading camera-shots towards the end of a scene, Stevens arguably extended the expected boundaries of the technique up to that time. The Academy Awards may have taken notice on this, as the film earned Stevens his first "Oscar" as best director. Also the cinematography remains delicate and interesting six decades later, and definitely appears to be another major reason why the film is still held in such high regard.

In other ways, however, A PLACE IN THE SUN has been visibly affected by the inevitability of age. Every now and then the dialogue appears too theatrical; the adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel has not been entirely successful in this regard. It is notable how George Stevens here, as with his later, perhaps more widely known film GIANT, managed to rise above the soap-opera-like tendencies in the script and turn out a film which still appears relatively modern, its time of making taken into consideration. Just as with GIANT, however, this accomplishment must also in A PLACE IN THE SUN be equally attributed to a remarkable cast; in this case, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and, to some degree, Shelley Winters. I find it hard to call Clift's performance as George Eastman his crowning achievement, simply because he was so good in nearly everything he did throughout his career, but I may say so much as that his interpretation of the troubled individual provides me with one of these rare, rare instances where I am left wanting to grasp every single gesture and delivery of a line, obsessed with a desire to understand what this person really is about. Is he a villain or a victim of circumstance, or both? I was not sure the first time I watched the film several years ago, and if anything, I feel even less able to give a definitive answer now; reading the novel has helped me to understand what the author originally had in mind, but Clift's interpretation of the character is so acutely subtle, seemingly contradictory that it deserves to be analyzed also out of context with its origins.

Also Elizabeth Taylor is given more to do than "just being beautiful" in her first starring role as an adult; the edgy unpredictability which would coin most of her performances in the future is very much present here, and the chemistry between her and Clift is dazzling (as every movie-buff will know, this was partly a result of their off-screen relationship). Winters plays, here for the first time, the type of character she would forever be associated with pretty much for the rest of her career, notably in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and LOLITA; a desperate, forsaken woman. Although less iconic than Clift and Taylor, she, too, is perfect for her role, and it made her first Academy Award-nomination. Clift, on his part, was nominated for a second time, and the fact that he (or Marlon Brando) did not win may be viewed as proof that the Academy Awards should, perhaps, not be taken so seriously after all (which is not meant as an insult to Humphrey Bogart, who did win that year). Everyone's free to disagree, of course. But either way one cannot deny that Clift's performance stands as perhaps the foremost reason why A PLACE IN THE SUN remains so watchable to this day, along with the accomplishments of his co-stars and Stevens's directing.

Heavy Love

A Ton of Havoc, some imaginative and some foreseen
Mention of a comedy team nicknamed "Ton of Fun" could not be expected to evoke much of a reaction today from the average movie-goer; and if a response of familiarity did occur, it would probably be taken for granted that the team in question was that of the Howdy Doody TV show of the 1950's, known as "The Tons of Fun." However, still before TV, there was another group of obese triplets around causing havoc. Consisting of Frank "Fatty" Alexander, Hilliard "Fat" Karr, and Kewpie Ross, the Ton of Fun made a number of two-reelers for F.B.O. for a couple of years in the mid-1920's. HEAVY LOVE is probably the most well-known of these films today, and also among the funniest. Yet, there are a few things which prevent it from being among the most memorable short comedies of the period, in my opinion.

Hired to build the house of a young woman, inevitable potential for comedy ensues; the boys prove as incompetent as one would expect. The gags are purely mechanical, obviously inspired by Frank Alexander's days as a supporting player in Larry Semon's films, and some work very well, whereas others, I think, could have been more imaginatively elaborated. One part which made me laugh out loud had Alexander struggle with a pile of carpet, and the ending, while somewhat predictable in essence, provides an unexpected twist in the final few shots. There are also some "larger-scale" gags present here which look quite impressive for a two-reel comedy. On the other hand, there are also instances when you get exactly what you had anticipated; we may devote a second's comparison to Buster Keaton's short ONE WEEK, made some six years before, or for that matter Laurel & Hardy's mishaps in the later FINISHING TOUCH, where the immortal comedy subject of constructing a house is provided with gag after gag and stunt after stunt with the viewer almost completely unprepared. In HEAVY LOVE, on the other hand, some of the business halts when you thought it would go further. When Alexander crosses a plank of wood in between two podiums, it breaks instantly; apparently, we are expected to find mirth in his girth, but it is just what we expected, or even less. The good ultimately makes up for the less good, however, and the film remains a pleasant way to spend some twenty minutes.

As a final note, the most interesting aspect of HEAVY LOVE, perhaps, is to note how Alexander obviously has adopted several of the mannerisms of Roscoe Arbuckle, his way of walking and grabbing a wheelbarrow; Arbuckle, of course, had by this time been forced to abandon the screen, and it may be tempting to interpret Alexander's Roscoe-like quirks as a sort of tribute, though I realize this would probably be wish-thinking at best.

A Dangerous Method

Quite straight-forward, though somewhat interesting to compare with earlier portrayals of Freud
One may wonder whether the basic story of Sigmund Freud requires another cinematic interpretation. Has not the essence of his theories, contradictory and diffuse though they might appear at times, been sufficiently summarized by a number of directors already? While I'm sure that opinions will differ, my personal estimation is that there is, indeed, little need for another encyclopedic coverage of Freud's life and work. Not surprisingly but disappointing nonetheless, David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD is fearsomely close to being a total waste, in my opinion; even so, a few things do save it from such a doom in the end, however hesitantly.

Don't get me wrong: the professional disagreements between Freud and Jung, as well as the relationship between Jung and Sabina Spielrein should be interesting enough a subject for an entire mini-series on TV, given that the interpretation provided an unexpected twist of sorts. The disturbing thing with this film, then, is perhaps not so much its very subject, even though we have seen these events brought to light in other films; the problem is rather how narrow it turns out to be in its presentation of matters which most of us have, at the very least, some basic acquaintance with already. Even in the presence of competent performers such as Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, and Michael Fassbender, what should serve as a complex story, the relationship between Jung and Spielrein which was seemingly crucial to his (and, in time, her's) development as a psychiatrist, is ultimately reduced to a romance. And even if accepted as such it fails, as the script barely explores Jung and Spielrein's relationship any further than through a superficial angle, turning the two of them, and also Freud, into little more than caricatures. We are made aware that Jung revolutionized the perception of modern psychology, being less reluctant than Freud to evaluate possibilities differing from his own personal theories, but in the process, Freud's initial influence more or less seems to be denied; whatever one may think of Freud, a glance at what others suggested we might do with the mentally ill prior to his entrance should make his impact inevitable. Which is not to say that I think Freud's theories, on a general level, have aged favorably, but without Freud being there in the first place, there would possibly have been no Jung either, and this film fails to even hint at this, in my opinion.

So what are the more pleasing aspects of A DANGEROUS METHOD, then? For one thing, it is quite magnificent to look at; the sets look quite authentic, and provide a stimulating aesthetic experience, complimented by an occasionally beautiful soundtrack. I also found the film interesting to compare with earlier portrayals of Freud; especially one film, simply entitled FREUD (1962), proved an interesting comparison as to how the presentation of Freud seems to have largely changed in popular culture in the last fifty years. Directed by John Huston and starring genius actor Montgomery Clift in the title role, FREUD covered the early professional years of the psychoanalyst, portraying him as a sort of "misunderstood rebel," far more sympathetic (if not compromising) than the bombastic gestalt of this present film. In A DANGEROUS METHOD, Carl Jung has to a large degree taken the role Freud had in Huston's film, which one may or may not like, but it does in any case reflect the popularity Jung has come to enjoy in our present time as opposed to the more arbitrary Sigmund Freud. Despite all my reservations, I do not think A DANGEROUS METHOD is a truly terrible film. It might work as a fair presentation of Freud and Jung to the completely unfamiliar. However, a friend of mine remarked that the film felt quite "unnecessary," and I find myself agreeing with this. The often beautiful sets and locations could have been used to better avail.

Big Business

Having a "bad day" in their heyday
Released the very last year before silent films (at least in Hollywood) once and for all were declared definitely prehistoric, Laurel and Hardy may be said to have made, if one omits Chaplin's two features of the 30's, the final comic masterpiece in the silent medium with BIG BUSINESS. They had proceeded to make pie-throwing appear fresh again a couple of years before in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, and this little two-reeler confirms perhaps even more bluntly why the boys, once teamed up, are often thought of as the last great innovators of silent comedy.

Trying their luck as wandering salesmen of Christmas-trees, Stan and Ollie predestine the eventual doom of their "business" when ringing the door-bell of James Finlayson. Annoyed as usual, James slams the door in front of the salesmen, causing their tree to get hopelessly stuck. Hardy rings the bell one more time, in order to get James to re-open, so he and his partner can get their object loose, and leave; James interprets this second call as a further intrusion, however, and what follows may be said to be the quint-essential demonstration of the "eye for an eye"-philosophy which so very often characterizes all types of comedy without the public even realizing it. Laurel and Hardy, in BIG BUSINESS and on many later instances, make us painstakingly conscious of this tendency in comedy, and what's more: they make a point of making us conscious of it.

It starts off with the tearing of clothes, and goes on to involve furniture, windows, a car and Christmas-trees; all in the name of sweet revenge. As with THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, Laurel and Hardy does little here that had not been done (and over-done) plenty of times before, if one watches the film superficially. Had not audiences been fed with frustrated maniacs going berserk on all thinkable objects since the rise of the Mack Sennett Studio one and a half decade before? Definitely. But the oldest of jokes can still be funny, if made funny. These three men—Stan, Ollie, and James—are not maniacs, but reasonably respectable gentlemen finding themselves in an unfortunate misunderstanding, which gradually builds up to a series of spiteful acts going beyond the powers of anyone involved. And it's breathtakingly funny.

When I was a child, an acquaintance (approaching ninety by now) recalled howling with laughter at this film when it was originally released, and, already a fan of Stan and Ollie, naturally I longed very much to see it for myself. Getting hold on Robert Youngson's cavalcade WHEN COMEDY WAS KING on video, eventually I did; and howled.


Visual and emotional, even musical, despite its lack of soundtrack
First, let it be emphasized, as stated above, that this review contains spoilers, some quite major ones at that, so if you have not seen this movie and intend to do so, I'd advise you to skip this piece for now.

Last year I had the good fortune of seeing the rarely-screened (albeit often-praised) Brazilian silent film LIMITE, and it left me in a state of mind where it seemed quite stupid to say anything about it, as no written word could do it justice. (This reaction is not necessarily a negative thing, providing that you defy it and write something anyway.) The next time a film had this effect on me was a few days ago, with Lee Chang-dong's POETRY. Made some eighty years after the former, I won't compare the two films, other than noting that I think both, at least indirectly, cover a sort of identical inner subject; beauty within ugliness. Both films are extremely visual, LIMITE inescapably so as it is a silent film, whereas POETRY confirms that also in this day and age, the power of the spoken word is ultimately dependent on our ability to use it sparingly, and let what can only be seen, felt and smelled, remain only seen, felt and smelled. Lee Chang-dong, one of the most promising Korean directors around these days, understands this, as he brutally deprives us of the comforting accessibility found in who-knows-how-many Hollywood-films; and instead, presents to us something which is maddeningly cruel and frustrating, but equally inspiring and peaceful.

Mija (brilliantly portrayed by Jeon-hie Yun in what seems to be her first performance in a number of years) is a poor, elderly woman who is trying to raise her much-troubled grandson. Being a victim of the largely male-dominant society still present in some Asian cultures, she is unable to respond with much else than personal frustration when realizing that the fathers of a group of boys responsible for the raping of a girl, which led to the latter committing suicide, are concerned about nothing else than the futures of their own sons; her own grandson is among the suspects. Apparently, the fathers are incapable of feeling any genuine sorrow on behalf of the girl and her family, and arrange it so that the relatives of the victim are paid a certain sum of money, to "get the problem out of the world," and avoid that the police gets involved. While Mija undergoes this extremely difficult time, she tries to complete a poetry course, but feels unable to write satisfactorily. She is explained by the teacher, a well-known poet, that writing poetry should not be about seeking a moment of inspiration, but to SEE THINGS, experience their shapes and forms. She tries to little avail…for a considerable time.

This leads me to one of the most poignant scenes in the film, and one that tempted a few tears out of me. During one of the poetry lessons, the attendants are asked to share their most beautiful moment in life. As we hear their experiences, it is startling to notice that several of the stories consist of things which, if solely observed from the outside, would appear sad or even ugly; but when said memories are being projected through the minds of their beholder, they will often become beautiful, in some confusing, inexplainable manner. As Mija realizes this, she manages to write one profound, deeply moving poem dedicated to the poor girl who committed suicide; she finds beauty within ugliness. I do not need to stress that a suicide, the earthly departure of an unfortunate soul as a result of terrible circumstances, is NOT, in any possible way, a beautiful thing. But when the immediate shock and frustration following such a tragedy has begun to fade, and the gradual distance between the present and the tragedy makes the victim reappear in our consciousness again as something more than a victim, but as the smiles, laughs, shapes and colors which also once defined this person, it may evoke a feeling of beauty. I wasn't very conscious of this while the movie played, but I did indeed begin to think of sad, but beautiful memories as this scene went on and afterwards.

POETRY is a film which invites you to enter a certain state of mind, and demands that you stay there at least as long as the film running. At two and a half hours, it may sound long, but the fact is that I didn't think of the time. One thing worth noting is that the film does not have a soundtrack, beyond occasional noise from the records of the grand-son, yet I felt that it largely gave me a sort of musical experience; if I was to do something so banal as to compare it to a musical piece, I'd probably choose Shastro's "Tale of the Sands." Much more could be said, but, well…I feel stupid enough already!

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life

Still quite funny

It is fascinating to note how most people of today take it for granted that acting in silent films consisted of purely melodramatic overplay, worthy of little more than unintentional laughter, when, in fact, what may have founded this impression in a lot of people are excerpts from films which were supposed to poke fun at that kind of acting. Released in the summer of 1913, the Keystone comedy BARNEY OLDFIELD'S RACE FOR A LIFE has become one of the most iconic films of this sort. Although its initial success may be largely explained with the appearance of the real Barney Oldfield, a celebrity in the early days of "auto-racing," the film still remains quite funny, and the story, although ridiculously simple (as well as simply ridiculous!), is well accomplished.

Mabel Normand is kidnapped by Ford Sterling, as the latter seeks revenge on the girl as she refused to flirt with him. With the help of two assistants, she is being tied to some railroad- tracks, whereupon Ford hastily locates a locomotive and sets off to complete his evil plan. In the meantime, however, Mabel's boyfriend, played by Mack Sennett, is made aware of the situation, and he gets hold on Barney Oldfield in order to save her before the locomotive arrives at Mabel's spot...and there you got your race. Yes, a ridiculous story, but no less a spot-on, somewhat heartless parody on the tear-jerking melodramas that bombarded theater stages throughout the 19th century, and which had recently begun to blossom again in the still-new medium of film.

Inevitably, the strength of the cast is highly significant if such broad parody is to work, and BARNEY OLDFIELD'S RACE FOR A LIFE provides at least two of Keystone's most accomplished talents with Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling. The latter performs perhaps one of his most memorable acts ever; although I do know Sterling's tendency to overplay is not everyone's cup of tea, this is one of the instances where it works superbly. He is no less than brilliant here; his character may be the quintessential villain of melodrama, as his characteristics would probably seem familiar even to people not well acquainted with silent films. A favorite moment of mine occurs early on, when Ford whistles for his assistants to turn up, which they do instantly; as he whistles a second time, they disappear equally fast. Mabel Normand is also good; overplay she does, but that is, as stated, the point. Mack Sennett is far less colorful, though; although reasonably competent, Sennett was simply no actor, in the sense that he was unable to vary the behavior of his screen character depending on the context of the film. He is barely any different here, in the midst of a parody on melodrama, than he is in any other film in which he appeared.

As a final note: some reviewers have expressed disgust with the last part, where the entire troupe of Keystone Kops is shot to death, but while I did not find this bit to be the least funny myself, it is crucial in order for the final gag to work; the Kops tumble down in realistic manner, which is shocking as the film up to that point has been quite cartoonish, but this is typically followed by the most cartoonish instance in the entire film, with Ford committing suicide by strangling himself to death. Dramaturgically speaking, the final gag would not have worked as well without that brief contrast.


Read a decent biography if you want the life story; watch the film if you want snippets of it brought to life
It may appear superfluous to remark that more than a mere 143 minutes are required for if the life of Charles Chaplin is to be dramatized successfully on film. Chaplin, who passed away at the age of eighty-eight, not only witnessed and experienced the enormous changes which took place during the twentieth century, both in cultural, sociological and technological ways, but he himself actually turned out to become one of the most influential personalities of his own time. Director Richard Attenborough, no doubt, understood this when he set out to make the film CHAPLIN, having been a huge fan of the comedian since childhood. However, although responsible for a reported amount of four hours of footage, Attenborough was seemingly forced to cut the film down considerably. As a result, the finished film is a mixed experience; but there certainly are good things to be found in it, as well.

Inevitably, many candidates turned up with the hope of playing Chaplin, but the one that apparently possessed "that special something," was a young Robert Downey, Jr. His performance has received unanimous praise through the years, and made him an Academy Award nomination. Indeed, there is no doubt that Downey did a phenomenal job; I cannot imagine anyone doing it better than him. Having been trained by first-rate pantomimist Dan Kamin, Downey nails the character of the Tramp quite well; and he deserves all possible praise for handling the many emotional situations in Chaplin's life so convincingly. Yet, I must admit that to me personally, Downey doesn't really resemble Chaplin, certainly not physically and his voice is so distinctively different that it somewhat affects the credibility of his general appearance in the film as well. I don't mean these words to be insults, because as said, I can't think of anyone doing it better than him; but I don't quite believe he truly IS Charlie Chaplin, in the same way that I may be fooled to believe that Ben Kingsley truly IS Ghandi.

The rest of the cast is generally excellent; particularly Chaplin's eldest daughter Geraldine delivers a convincing, sensitive portrayal of her own grandmother (and also a quite distressing one, considering the pain this poor woman had to suffer in her life). Dan Aykord's portrayal of producer Mack Sennett (the one who first hired Chaplin in films) may seem to be a caricature, but this is not necessarily in conflict with how many of Sennett's associates remembered the man; Aykord behaves just the way I would've expected Sennett to do, based on interviews I've read with the man and his autobiography. Kevin Kline is also worthy of great praise, bringing silent era playboy Douglas Fairbanks to life in a charming performance. One reason why several of the portrayals of Chaplin's associates work so well, may be that they are surrounded by such authentic sets; Geraldine Chaplin expressed in an interview that a shock came over her as she witnessed her father's studio being rebuilt, "exactly as it was." No less successfully have the home quarters of Chaplin's childhood, in the slums of the late-Victorian era, been reconstructed.

Unfortunately, all these rewarding aspects of the film are somewhat haltered by the feeling that they could have been used to greater effect, and more thoroughly, than what we see in the finished film. Clearly, the film has suffered from the large cuts which Attenborough was forced to make, as there is a nail thin structure to talk about; several of the incidents that occur in the film would, I imagine, be difficult to understand to anyone not that familiar with the life of Chaplin. Much like the more recent film about Nelson Mandela and the circumstances around Apartheid, GOODBYE, BAFANA, we are, with CHAPLIN, given an opportunity to see the most central aspects of the life of a famous person being brought to life with authenticity, but without the length required in order to analyze or even fairly explain these aspects. The scene changes from one period of Chaplin's life to another without really exploring any of them, and leaving out many high-points of his life and career; for instance, Chaplin's making of the Mutual-films, which many consider to be his noblest work, is barely referred to. Furthermore, the film suffers from factual errors, some of which may be forgiven for the sake of dramatic effect, but they are also often annoying as many viewers are likely to take his film thoroughly as fact. For instance, when Chaplin receives a telegram from the Keystone studio, inviting him to join the medium of films, he appears quite amazed; in his autobiography, Chaplin admitted that he had been rather disappointed with the telegram, as the Keystone-films had not impressed him. Most disturbing of all is how certain characters are portrayed, particularly Mabel Normand and Chaplin's brother Sydney. Mabel and Chaplin did have a fight at a set early on, but what is not mentioned in the film is that they reconciled shortly afterwards, and remained friends thereafter. In the film, Mabel comes across as quite unsympathetic, which is not synonymous with the sweet- natured (and talented) girl most of her associates remembered. Even more disturbing is how Sydney Chaplin is presented; Sydney was generally very supportive of Charlie and his artistic decisions, yet this film claims otherwise. Nothing I've read about Chaplin (and I've done my research through the years) indicates that Sydney ever tried to convince his brother not to make THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Despite several short-comings, CHAPLIN is worth to watch due to some memorable performances, as well as the many handsome, authentic sets. And, in case I forgot to mention it, the musical score by John Barry is magnificent, beautiful beyond the spoken word, among my favorite soundtracks of all time. However, to anyone seriously interested in Chaplin, I'd rather recommend David Robinson's highly informative biography on the man (or the comedian's own memoirs), or to watch Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's brilliant documentary UNKNOWN CHAPLIN.

Spite Marriage

More Studio, less Spontaneous, but still a lot of Keaton
It is true that by the time SPITE MARRIAGE was released in 1929, Buster Keaton had already made just about all of his best work, and this film may be said to mark the beginning of a fast decline, as the artist Keaton was forced into the role of an ordinary, hired actor at MGM. Even so, in this last silent film of his, he still managed to display the material with enough of the former Keaton Magic that it stands out, in retrospect, as a worthy swan song. The story is nothing spectacular: Buster (here named "Elmer" for the first time) is in love with stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian), and regards it as a truism to see every single one of her appearances in an ongoing Civil War drama. Several events, notably Buster's brief and utterly unsuccessful stint as a stand-in actor, leads the two to marriage. Unbeknownst to our hero, however, this is only Trilby's way of getting a revenge on her boyfriend, who has suddenly become engaged to someone else. A "Spite Marriage" if ever there was one. Expectedly, Trilby is soon forced by her manager to leave Buster. Several more odd coincidences lead up to Buster and Trilby being reunited alone on a yatch, however, where our hero is finally given opportunity to demonstrate that he really is a man, as he struggles to beat up a group of boot-leggers who take command over the yatch.

Like his first film at MGM, THE CAMERAMAN, SPITE MARRIAGE was based on a carefully prepared script, written by employees at MGM who only vaguely, one would imagine, followed Keaton's original story synopsis. This must have been frustrating to the comedian, whose former films (including classics such as OUR HOSPITALITY and THE GENERAL) had never been "written" in a literal sense, but were the results of story conferences with trusted and experienced gag-men such as Clyde Bruckman, with Keaton always having the final say. As a result, SPITE MARRIAGE has a sort of "studio feel" to it, which is probably its most unfortunate aspect; it doesn't really feel spontaneously playful in the way Keaton's previous work had. One of the most pleasing aspects with films such as OUR HOSPITALITY is that the story appears to be well thought out, following traditional dramaturgy rules as much as required for in order to make an engaging story, but keeping enough open room for improvisation that it doesn't feel too revealingly organized. By contrast, SPITE MARRIAGE appears to follow an A-B-C-D-formula which seldom suits comedy well.

The good news is that Keaton at this point had still not given up. Although he sometimes had to fight hard for it, he convinced his producers to keep in some of the material which they felt was inappropriate. The best example of this is the sequence where newlyweds Buster and Trilby arrive at their hotel suit, the lady being dead drunk. Keaton is transformed into his former, imaginative self as he struggles to get the unconscious lady to bed. The bit was largely, if not completely improvised, and remains the most memorable part of the film. Keaton would return to the sequence many times later, including at least one time on TV in the 1950's with his wife Eleanor. Other highlights include the final part with Keaton outwitting the dangerous boot-leggers; I name that sequence with some hesitancy, as Keaton himself reportedly fought to have it omitted, feeling that a simpler ending would be more fitting. However, there's no way of getting around that he did the best he could out of the material.

As Keaton's swan song in silent films, SPITE MARRIAGE all in all remains a worthy finale. Notably, Keaton had in fact been eager to make it a talkie, but MGM refused (which, if we take a look at the majority of his soon-to-be talking films at said studio, we should probably be grateful for). For all the creative freedom he had now lost, what we tend to forget is that Keaton even in his heyday was never independent to the same degree which Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were. He occasionally had to appear in productions he didn't totally believe in himself even in those years, such as COLLEGE; I rank SPITE MARRIAGE to be somewhere on the same level as these. Finally, Dorothy Sebastian is definitely worthy of a mention as his leading lady in this film, being more believable and complex than most of Keaton's former leading ladies.

Jour de fête

Fast and furious, but to what avail?
Postman Franqouis has been introduced to the fast and effective life of the modern American postman through an educational film, making his own existence as a slow-witted, easily distracted postman of a French village appear quite pale in comparison. He is determined to follow the American example through the few resources granted him; and fast it sure goes, but how much BETTER………really?

By the time JOUR DE FÊTE was released towards the end of the 'forties, Jacques Tati had appeared sporadically in films for nearly two decades, so the medium was by no means alien to him. Even so, it was with this film that he was finally able to develop his own rhythm and style as a film-maker; even though the iconic character Mr. Hulot had still yet to emerge, this film starring the inept postman Franqouis must be said to offer a sharply flourishing Tati. The preference for the absurd to dominate rather than a coherent story is established, and also at this early point Tati makes sure to avoid audible dialogue whenever possible. Furthermore, he treats us with several clever cinematic twists and turns in his manner of choreographing the gags and situations in the film; one example occurs early on, when Franqouis is introduces to us while riding on his bicycle, clearly disturbed by a furious wasp that stalks him. We see him arrive in long-shot below us, as our viewpoint is positioned from the top of a slope. As he waves the wasp away and finally regains peace, our focus shifts to a farmer standing at the spot of the slope from where our viewpoint is located; the wasp, of course, hastily flies to the farmer to seek his attention instead, which the poor man won't deal with, so he, too, waves it away--leading it back to Franqouis, who all the while has remained in sight in the distance. This sequence, obviously funnier when seen than read, serves as a neat demonstration of how Tati was able to conjure a promising gag into a side-splitting highlight of a film, through his astute visual understanding. Granted, it is less obvious here than in his later films, one has to be more alert in order to notice the truly special moments, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage.

Yet another archetypal Tati-ingredient present in his first full-length feature, is the sheer focus on humanity. None of the characters involved are particularly well- developed, which one might miss in one way, but this makes the ultimate "message" of the film more abstract; you don't have to consider it if you don't want to. To viewers who like to engage in analyzing, however, the central theme of JOUR DE FÊTE is the same as in almost all of Tati's films; more precisely, the many alienating effects of a modern society. This was a topic which had become increasingly hot in literature and other fiction since the late nineteenth century, after the growing industrialism had defined the social-economical structures of the entire modern world, and its less pleasing aspects had begun to unfold in the consciousness among common people. The relevance of this topic is likely to endure, as I see no immediate end to the obsessive development of technology present today (good and bad). However, Tati's approach is, here as later, much less grim than that of George Orwell's futuristic novel, or even Chaplin's MODERN TIMES; while watching the mishaps of poor postman Franquois, one can't be expected to think of much else than what occurs in the moment, as he is constantly surrounded by characters of the same traditional clown-world as himself, as well as merry, often harmonious music. I suspect that the values which the film may possess in other terms than mirth- making are likely to be ignored, to a large degree, by viewers who don't give the film some thought afterwards.

JOUR DE FÊTE may not be Tati's best film; for one thing, the character of Franqouis does not, although funny, bear the kind of charisma or individuality which made Mr. Hulot into an icon. One does also get the impression that some of the gags and bits in the film, when compared to Tati's later output, would have benefited from more polish. Even so, it's definitely well worth tracking down, for a number of reasons which I've here tried to summarize the best I can. Finally, I might add that I've only watched the original version in (mostly) black-and-white, not the much later, restored and colorized one.

One Week

If you want a job to be done properly, then do it yourself!
Although usually credited as Buster Keaton's first film as an independent artist, following his successful partnership with Roscoe Arbuckle who by this time had moved into features, ONE WEEK was in fact the second to be shot. Keaton did not consider his first two-reeler THE HIGH SIGN to be quite sure-fire enough to let it serve as his first release. This may reveal more than a tiny bit of Keaton's discipline as a comedian, as THE HIGH SIGN by any standards is a very funny film. However, Keaton may have been wise in his decision after all, as ONE WEEK provides such an extraordinary sparkle of energy, one clearly sees through that the people behind this film had great fun doing it, which made it impossible to ignore even in the stream of comedy films that came to life through the first year of the Twenties.

The premise is simple enough, but one with inevitable possibilities for comedy; and it gets even funnier if you know its initial source. With ONE WEEK, Keaton is reported to have done a parody on a commercial he had seen (in a movie theater, of course), where it was demonstrated how a cozy house easily could be built in just one week, if one follows the instructions of a "build-it-yourself"-set. So much for that: newlyweds Buster and Sybil Seely (beautiful leading lady who would only appear in two more of Keaton's shorts) received said set as a wedding gift, but things turn out differently than predicted when "the one she turned down," Buster's rival, changes the packing crates. Day by day we follow the couple's struggles throughout the week, who refuse to declare their house inappropriate for living even when it clearly is a mess; that is, until the brutal ending which takes place on peaceful Sunday, which I won't reveal here.

With ONE WEEK, Buster Keaton made it to the top-ranks among comedians in two-reelers almost overnight, and predestined an extraordinary career in the years to come. The characters may barely be explored, and end up appearing quite one-dimensional in the midst of all mechanical objects and "trick-property," but for pure fun and laughter, the film must rank among the best of all silent comedies. As a final mention, note that this film marks the first appearance of Joe Roberts, whom Buster had known since his years in vaudeville; though given only a minor role here, he would soon function as a Goliath-like creature to Keaton in his films, much like Eric Campbell did to Chaplin in the Mutual-period of the latter.

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