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Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Bird People in China (Miike)
2. The Player (Altman)
3. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
4. Chungking Express (Wong)
5. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
6. The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
7. The New World (Extended Cut) (Malick)
8. The Player (Altman)
9. Sailor’s Luck (Walsh)
10. Days of Heaven (Malick)

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Bringing It All Back Home (Sailor’s Luck and When Movies Mattered)

Last Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a rare 35mm screening of Raoul Walsh’s uproarious but little seen 1933 comedy Sailor’s Luck at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. It was screening as part of the conference “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” and was introduced by current New York Times DVD critic and former Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr. Unfortunately, it was the only part of the conference I was able to attend (I had college film classes myself to teach in the suburbs on all three days it was being held) but the experience was revelatory; not only is Sailor’s Luck one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, the screening served as a bracing reminder of how many classic American films remain sadly unavailable on home video and how much my knowledge of film history has been shaped by what the home video divisions of the major studios have deemed worthy of being released on DVD.

Some guys have all the luck – James Dunn in Sailor’s Luck:

One of the most surprising aspects of Sailor’s Luck is the degree to which it can be described as quintessential Raoul Walsh. Even though the film is basically an anarchic sex comedy about sailors on shore leave, it is also marked by the same sense of propulsive energy that drives the action-oriented films for which Walsh remains best known (such as The Roaring Twenties and White Heat). One example is the scene where the protagonist, Jimmy (James Dunn), shows up at the apartment of his new girlfriend, Sally (Sally Eilers), bearing gifts of lingerie. Upon finding evidence that he believes proves her unfaithfulness, he tears her new undergarments apart with his bare hands. There is something both savagely funny and unnerving about the scene, not unlike the similar moment in White Heat where James Cagney kicks a stool out from under Virginia Mayo. (Of course, Sailor’s Luck being a comedy, we know that Jimmy’s momentary insanity is merely a symptom of his love sickness and that, unlike the couple in White Heat, the characters here will end up happily together in the end.) Another surprising aspect of the film is its bold and risqué “pre-code” humor. Not only is Sailor’s Luck loaded with politically incorrect but frequently hilarious ethnic and gay stereotypes, it also features a memorable shot of Harrigan giving a hand gesture that Kehr estimates wasn’t seen again by American audiences until “well into the 1970s.

Like all Walsh films, Sailor’s Luck is of incredible visual interest. The film’s use of depth staging is impressive, with scenes set at a public pool, a Hawaiian restaurant and a marathon dance all utilizing multiple focal points in the foreground, middle-ground and background. Kehr sees this as the result of Walsh’s experience shooting the early widescreen western The Big Trail three years earlier and applying the lessons he learned there to the standard square aspect ratio of the time. The idea that the activity in the background could be of as much interest as the activity in the foreground inspired Kehr’s memorable formulation that if Walsh had decided to move the camera closer to the background extras, he would have a whole new and just as interesting movie on his hands. This is particularly true of the marathon dance climax where dozens of characters square off against each other (sailors vs. mobsters!) in a riotously funny orgy of violence. Also adding to the visual interest is a charming use of wipe transitions in which one image replaces another by spiraling out from the middle of the screen, a technique I can’t recall seeing in another movie.

This being a Chicago-centric blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t also spare a few words for Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a collection of his long form reviews for the Reader recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Not only does the book finally give cinephiles a chance to read crucial, previously unpublished analytical writing (whether the subject is late Godard or Blake Edwards) by one of America’s finest critics, there is additional value for Chicago residents as the book tracks film distribution and exhibition patterns in the Windy City over a 12 year period. Check out Kehr in 1979 on the failed attempt to bring George Romero’s truly independent Dawn of the Dead to the suburban Chicago theaters that have typically been a Hollywood stranglehold:

“But when Dawn of the Dead opened in some of Chicago’s most prestigious outlying theaters, it withered and almost died. The film was outgrossed, ironically, by another horror movie from the hinterlands (Oregon, this time), Don Coscarelli’s moderately interesting Phantasm. The distributors of Phantasm had the conservative wisdom to open their film in the conventional way: in a large number of theaters, mainly urban, backed by an intense exploitation campaign on television. Phantasm took away Romero’s hard-core audience and left Romero’s film to flounder in its own ambitions. It did do well where tradition might dictate – in the Loop and on the near north side – which suggests that the horror film audience simply feels a natural reluctance to drive ten miles and pay four dollars for a sensation that is available more cheaply and conveniently elsewhere.”

While that quote suggests that not much has changed in terms of the moviegoing habits of Chicagoans, When Movies Mattered is also studded with references to independently owned theaters that are either no longer in existence or no longer being used to exhibit movies – the Clark, the Village, the Fine Arts, the Biograph, the Carnegie, the Cinema, etc. – so much so that the book will read like a eulogy to anyone who has lived in Chicago long enough to witness this changing landscape. (Even the “Film Center” that Kehr writes about is the old single-screen theater located in the back of the Art Institute before it changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center and moved to its ritzy new digs on State Street.) The ultimate irony is that the gradual, inexorable shuttering of independent theaters and repertory houses in Chicago is a direct result of the boom in popularity of home video that began in the mid-1980s (around the time Kehr’s last pieces were published in the Reader). The idea, I suppose, is that distributors and exhibitors feel there’s less of a need to show theatrical “revivals” of old movies in the wake of VHS, DVD and, now, blu-ray. However, as Kehr points out, a lot of films that used to be readily available in the now defunct format of the 16mm print (like Sailor’s Luck) have never been released on home video at all and thus have sadly fallen through the cracks.

So thank you, Mr. Kehr, for coming back to Chicago and bringing Sailor’s Luck with you. It was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life.


Selig Polyscope Podcast!

Selig Polyscope week at White City Cinema concludes with a podcast of a trip I recently made to the lone original Selig Polyscope building at 3900 N. Claremont Ave. on Chicago’s northwest side. Following our recent Essanay Expedition, I headed to the former site of the Selig Polyscope Co. with my fellow Traveling Mystery Solvers Adam Selzer and Hector Reyes. Although the building has recently been converted into condos, we were granted access to the interior by Mike, one of the current tenants, who graciously agreed to give us a tour.

Inside Selig Polyscope!

The top two floors of the building have been extensively renovated. When it was being used as a film studio a century ago the roof was made entirely of glass (not unlike a greenhouse). This was because the monochromatic film stock of the time was notoriously insensitive to light; interior shooting required massive amounts of light in order for the early cinematographers to achieve a proper exposure.

3900 N. Claremont circa 1907 (note the glass roof):

The same building as seen today (note how the bottom two floors are nearly identical to the photograph above):
Photographs by Adam Selzer

Listen to the podcast of Adam, Hector and me discussing the building as we tour it: Colonel Selig’s Moving Picture Plant Podcast

Also, check out Adam’s post on the same topic at his terrific Chicago Unbelievable blog


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Unknown (Browning)
2. The Man Who Laughs (Leni)
3. Breathless (Godard)
4. Days of Heaven (Malick)
5. He Who Gets Slapped (Leni)
6. Days of Heaven (Malick)
7. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Ingram)
8. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
9. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
10. True Heart Susie (Griffith)


Selig Polyscope’s Pointers on Picture Acting

Selig Polyscope Week continues both at White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable!

Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:

ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.

LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.

EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.

MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.

LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.

READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.

KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.

GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.

STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.

SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.

IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.

SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.

GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.

PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you ow it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.

MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49” miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.

BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.

SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.

PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.

USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.

PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employer the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope

It’s Selig Polyscope week! Today’s post is the first of three in which I will be examining one of the most significant film studios, not just in Chicago but in all of America, during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Selig Polyscope week is a collaborative effort between White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable – their first post of the week concerns the first Wizard of Oz movies (shot by Selig in Chicago) and can be found here: Chicago Unbelievable: The First Oz Movie.

The following was written in collaboration with Adam Selzer.

“Colonel” Selig and a smoking chimpanzee:

One of the most colorful motion picture pioneers of the 1890s and early 1900s was William Selig, a native Chicagoan and traveling magician who conferred the title “Colonel” on himself while touring the minstrel show circuit. After seeing one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes in Dallas, Texas in 1894, Selig became obsessed with moving pictures – and with finding his own way to create and exhibit them (and, hence, get around Edison’s patents). Selig eventually formed the first major movie studio in Chicago, Selig Polyscope, and set up shop at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. (in the neighborhood known today as North Center/St. Ben’s).

A true innovator, Selig produced such notable films as a re-creation of Theodore Roosevelt’s African Safari (during which a real live lion was shot and killed in the Chicago studio), the first Wizard of Oz movies and The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first popular cliffhanger serial. A movie he made about Columbus even earned him a medal from Pope Pius – a singular honor for a protestant!

Selig also worked tirelessly, using all of his old vaudeville showmanship, to raise the public’s opinion of movies, which were still seen as terribly low-class in the early 1900s – he envisioned a day when movies would enrich the lives of everyone in a day when most people still thought of them as novelties. In 1907, Selig began a massive publicity campaign in an attempt to make movies acceptable entertainment for people outside of the working class. The Chicago Tribune had been vocally against them, fearing that they would lead children down a path to degradation. “There is no voice raised to defend the great majority of the five cent theatres,” one Trib staffer wrote, “because they cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad.”

Selig fired back with a five-page ad in which he took on a voice like that of Professor Harold Hill to tout the educational virtues of movies. One day, he claimed, movies would keep children in school, off the streets and out of the dance halls and saloons. Rather than leave their idle minds to the devil’s hands, he wrote, they would be in the theatres, filling their minds with knowledge about exotic travel, ancient history, and great literature. Years later, Selig finally won the Tribune over by contracting with them to print the “novelization” of The Adventures of Kathlyn, which not only catapulted the cliff-hanger serial to new heights of popularity, but greatly raised the Tribune’s circulation as well. The Tribune’s embrace of movies in turn helped the film medium to become more acceptable to the middle and upper classes.

In 1909, Selig became the first film producer to establish West Coast operations, opening a second studio in Los Angeles with director Francis Boggs. Among the significant Selig Polyscope films made at the California studio were the earliest westerns starring legendary cowboy Tom Mix. Around this same time, Essanay, Selig’s chief rival studio in Chicago, made a comedic star out of their cross-eyed janitor Ben Turpin. Selig didn’t have the same luck – his janitor tried to murder him in a drunken rampage that killed Boggs and left Selig with a gunshot wound in the right arm. Selig recovered and hired a new janitor. He eventually turned his California studio into the “Selig Zoo,” a sort of prototype Disneyland. During the Depression, it drove him to bankruptcy and he switched gears to become a literary agent instead.

William Selig was given an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering film work in 1947. He died the following year at the age of 84. Today the southeast corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. in Chicago is occupied by a BP gas station with no indication that hundreds of movies had ever been produced there.

The Selig Polyscope studio at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. circa 1914:

The corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. today:

The only original Selig Polyscope building still standing today is located at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Byron Street. It has been converted into condominiums:

The original Selig Polyscope logo (an “S” inside of a diamond) can still be seen above the building’s main entrance:
Photographs by Michael Smith


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Le Samourai (Melville)
2. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
3. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
4. Breathless (Godard)
5. It (Badger)
6. Shutter Island (Scorsese)
7. Breathless (Godard)
8. Yi Yi (Yang)
9. Mildred Pierce (Haynes)
10. Ravenous (Bird)


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