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Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Welles and Micheaux on Blu-ray / John MacLean’s Slow West

slow_west_still

My latest blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns the two most important surviving Chicago-shot movies of the entire silent era: Charlie Chaplin’s His New Job (the only film he made in my fair city) and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American). Both will be released in newly restored editions on Blu-ray — from Flicker Alley and Kino/Lorber, respectively — in the next year. Read about it here.

At Cine-File Chicago, I have a review of Slow West, a new Michael Fassbender-starring western (from which the above still was taken) by the Scottish musician-turned-filmmaker John MacLean. It opens at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre tonight and I highly recommend it. Peep my review here.

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A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of last week’s list of essential silent American films. The thirteen titles listed here begin with Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven from 1927 and continue through F.W. Murnau’s late-silent swan song, the Robert Flaherty co-directed Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from 1931.

In chronological order:

7th Heaven (Borzage, 1927)

Frank Borzage’s best-loved film details the touching romance between Parisian sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) and waifish prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor), unforgettably set against the outbreak of World War I. Borzage believed in romantic love as a kind of transcendental force and nothing, not even death, could keep his lovers apart. Borzage’s sense of the spiritual aspect of love is conveyed nowhere more memorably than in the remarkable crane shots that follow the lovers in 7th Heaven up seven full flights of stairs to reach Chico’s garret apartment.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

The Unknown (Browning, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ’em and leave ’em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928)

Louise Brooks’ most well-known American film is also Howard Hawks’ first notable directorial effort, although she is given a relatively thankless role as the “love interest” in what is essentially a homoerotic comedy about the adventures of two brawling sailors played by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Nevertheless this is unmissable as an early example of the same plot, themes and even dialogue that the mighty Hawks would continue to rework for the rest of his lengthy career.

Lonesome (Fejos, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1928)

Director Paul Leni (Waxworks) and star Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were major players and collaborators in the silent German cinema before migrating to Hollywood where they re-teamed for this influential Expressionist take on Victor Hugo’s novel. The plot concerns Gwynplaine (Veidt), the son of a Lord in 17th century England who, due to the sins of his father, is denied by King James II of the title that should be his birthright and has a hideous permanent smile carved into his face instead. He ends up becoming a popular stage performer (where his disfigurement is a source of morbid curiosity), but one day his past comes back to haunt him. This is similar to earlier literary adaptations/historical epics made by Universal like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, only it has the virtue of being directed by a real director; Leni, who started out as a set designer, makes the “period” truly come alive in this melodramatic quasi-horror gem.

The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish in one of her finest performances) is a young woman who moves from the East to live with relatives in Texas. Once she arrives she finds that she must contend with a harsh, arid landscape, sinks into a depression and marries a man she doesn’t love (handsome Lars Hanson). The wind that is constantly swirling and blowing the sand into the air is a perfect metaphor for characters whose hearts are in tumult. The climactic sandstorm (shot, like the rest of the film, on location in the Mojave desert) is a thrilling piece of cinema, one of the highlights of the entire silent era.

Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.

City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau/Flaherty, 1931)

F.W. Murnau teamed up with Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty for this independently produced, ethnographic excursion into the lives of native Tahitians. The documentary-minded Flaherty abandoned the project early, leaving Murnau the Romantic Artist to finish it on his own. And it’s a good thing he did: the story of a doomed romance between a fisherman and a young woman deemed “taboo” by the island’s Old Warrior in deference to the Gods – an exotic version of the Romeo and Juliet story – is a fitting epitaph for Murnau (who tragically died in a car accident on the way to the premiere) as well as the entire silent era. The film’s visually stunning images and Paradise / Paradise Lost structure would influence everything from Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.


A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay Podcast!

Last fall I blogged about the fascinating but little known story of the film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago. Yesterday I returned to the former Essanay studio complex (now St. Augustine College) in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood to record a podcast on this same subject with Chicago historian and author Adam Selzer and his trusty sidekick Hector Reyes.

We started off outside the luxurious high-rise building that housed the apartment of G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (where Chaplin bunked for three weeks from late December of 1914 through mid-January of 1915), then retraced Chaplin’s footsteps to the site of Essanay where he went to work every day several blocks away. Incredibly, upon arriving at St. Augustine College, we were not only granted access to the buildings’ interiors but also given a tour of the former studio stages where filming took place and the fireproof vaults in the basement where the original negatives of Essanay’s films were kept. The interiors of both locations have barely been renovated and look almost identical to how they would have appeared when Chaplin worked there.

You can look at pictures from our tour and read Adam’s thoughts at his excellent Chicago Unbelievable blog (formerly the Weird Chicago blog) here: www.chicagounbelievable.com

You can download the full 28 minute podcast here: Chaplin Podcast

You can listen to a two-minute audio file of me discussing the significance of Chaplin’s His New Job here: MGS on His New Job

Inside the Essanay vault:
Photograph by Adam Selzer


Like Dylan in the Movies

Something’s always happening in the world of Bob Dylan, even if you don’t know what it is, but this fall sees an unusual amount of activity on the part of the Bard of Minnesota. Before the end of the year, he will exhibit new paintings in Denmark (and release an accompanying coffee table book, “The Brazil Series”), as well as release two new CD sets: the 9th installment of the official Bootleg Series, focusing on demos recorded in the early ’60s, and an 8 disc set of his first 8 albums in mono (the way they were originally meant to be heard), all on compact disc for the first time. And of course, his never-ending tour will roll on with fall dates across the U.S., including a show in Champaign on October 22nd.

To commemorate, here is an essay I wrote about Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s unjustly maligned 2003 movie collaboration with director Larry Charles. The original version appeared in the English Dylan fanzine “Isis” but this has been substantially reworked.

Masked and Anonymous Unmasked

“I’m in the amusement business, along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows.”
– Bob Dylan

“What’s so bad about being misunderstood?”
– Bob Dylan

You would probably have to look to Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless Bob Dylan has cited as the kind of film that made him feel like he could make films himself, to find a movie as audaciously perverse in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s 2003 (and presumably final) foray into fictional narrative filmmaking. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum might as well have been describing Masked and Anonymous when he wrote in the late 1980s that Godard’s King Lear “. . . has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form – director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics – look, and presumably feel, rather silly.” Like most of Dylan’s post-Don’t Look Back filmic output, Masked and Anonymous was considered a mess by most critics upon its initial release while simultaneously being hailed as a masterpiece by members of the Dylan faithful. Larry Charles, the film’s director, would later split the difference, pronouncing the film a “messterpiece.”

When news broke in 2002 that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus (his starring role in Hearts of Fire in 1987 being the arguable nadir of his career in any medium), it was couched in the disingenuous terms that Dylan was “in negotiations” to star in a new film. It was soon discovered that Dylan was in fact responsible for the film’s conception and that he and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Yet right up until the film’s Sundance premiere, many Dylan fans thought it was some kind of elaborate hoax. And who could blame them? Prior to production, press reports suggested Dylan would play the ridiculously named “Jack Fate,” a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, the aim of which was to “save the world.”

The curiosity and confusion aroused by the film’s seemingly outrageous concept was then exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film’s production and the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and so on) who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan. Shot on digital video in just twenty days in the summer of 2002 and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result turned out to be a dense collage of image and sound, a film that almost overwhelms the senses but never quite does, regularly threatening to plunge the viewer into some horrific, unfathomable abyss but continually pulling back from the brink in a strange spirit of shaggy-dog-tale charm.

The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal and portentous, all adjectives we’ve come to associate with Dylan’s work as a recording artist. Larry Charles has been quoted as saying, “I tried to make it like a Bob Dylan song,” which appears to be the strategy of anyone directing a Bob Dylan film, including Todd Haynes and Dylan himself. Whether or not this is desirable or even possible is open to debate but Masked and Anonymous is probably more successful in capturing the “feel” of Dylan’s music than any other Dylan movie. This is no doubt in part due to a cut-and-paste style of screenwriting that mirrors Dylan’s own songwriting process; in describing the writing of the film, Charles said, “He [Dylan] had a pile of scrap paper with little notes written on them. He threw them down on the table like a jigsaw, and we started playing with the pieces. . . . One thing about working with Dylan is you learn to trust your instincts.” Charles also confirmed that lines that began as dialogue in Masked and Anonymous ended up as lyrics on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album and vice versa (“I’m no pig without a wig” from the song “High Water” being one such example).

Of course, songwriting and filmmaking are vastly different art forms and Dylan-the-songwriter’s latter-day fondness for allusion, quotation and theft doesn’t always successfully translate into film dialogue as meant to be spoken by coherent, three-dimensional characters. But in a risk-averse age where more and more American indie films function merely as Hollywood calling cards, Dylan and Charles’ complete lack of interest in creating Screenwriting 101-style characters is so pronounced that they should be applauded for the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the demands of commercial narrative cinema alone. Unfortunately, Dylan’s status as an interloper from another medium, even if a legendary one, has made it all too easy to write Masked and Anonymous off as nothing more than a “vanity project,” as Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics have done.

One thing we didn’t know in 2003 that has since become obvious in hindsight is that Larry Charles, a veteran Seinfeld writer making his feature film début with Masked and Anonymous, developed into a very interesting director, a kind of “invisible auteur” along the lines of Raul Ruiz. Although all of Charles’ movies share stylistic and thematic similarities, he is hardly ever credited as the dominant creative force behind these films; due to his habit of collaborating with co-writers/lead actors with bigger than life personalities, Masked and Anonymous is seen as a “Dylan film,” Borat and Bruno are seen as “Sasha Baron-Cohen films” and Religulous is a “Bill Maher film.” Yet all of these movies are unified by their status as subversive political satires that attempt to blur the line between documentary and fiction. Masked and Anonymous is especially interesting as a companion piece to Borat in this regard since both films are essentially about the creation of government-sponsored, made-for-television documentaries (the aforementioned “benefit concert” and Baron-Cohen’s foreigner’s eye-view work of video journalism).

If Borat and Bruno seem like quintessentially 21st century, YouTube-age films (especially by way of enticing audiences into google-searching anecdotes about their methods of production so as to determine what is “real” and what is not), Masked and Anonymous melds fiction and documentary in a way that looks more to Hollywood’s past. In writing about the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, film scholar John Belton has noted, “Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity – the narrative – and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle: in this fantasy world, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others drop the pretense, for a moment, that they are playing characters and perform for us simply as Astaire and Kelly.”

A similar shift occurs in Masked and Anonymous whenever “Jack Fate” plays a Bob Dylan song with Dylan’s touring band, and Charles and Dylan muddy the waters further by self-consciously studding the film with references to Dylan’s life and career. The result is a fascinating self-criticism of the myth by the author, perhaps the only kind possible when the author is a “living legend.” In this respect, the film most comparable from the history of cinema may be Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, another highly personal and thinly disguised self-portrait by a master in his autumn years. (One obvious allusion to Dylan’s career is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan’s own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman’s size and boorish demeanor don’t give it away, the Coke-bottle glasses do. And a similar case can be made for Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid, who bears a strong resemblance to Dylan’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth.) Ultimately, what these personal references suggest is that, like Chaplin’s Calvero, Jack Fate the washed up troubadour is both Dylan’s fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.

The story: in an alternate-reality, civil war-torn America, Jack Fate, a legendary singer jailed for unspecified crimes, is released from prison on the condition he agrees to play a benefit show live on television. As he gradually makes his way to the sound stage where the show will be held, Fate’s first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young soldier played by Givovanni Ribisi. The soldier regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream; it’s the story of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets a tone and a narrative pattern that the rest of the film follows; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as the taciturn Fate encounters a series of eccentric, speechifying characters, each of whom reminds him in some way of his past. Flashbacks are introduced to Fate’s childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of America’s dying, dictator-like President.

Subplots involving the President’s former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed destined for Fate, indicate that Charles and Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. Apparently without trying to be perverse, Charles has mentioned Shakespeare and John Cassavetes in the same breath as influences on Masked and Anonymous. As befitting such a wild hybrid, the film’s structure is alternately “loose” (a bunch of actors wandering around warehouse-like interiors and shouting cryptic, occasionally meaningless dialogue at each other) and “tight” (a surprisingly elegant symbolic use of staircases in the film’s most crucial scenes). To direct the heavyweight Hollywood cast to speak the script’s poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors, for the most part, do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony.

Everyone that is except for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and Charles gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Dylan’s deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it’s like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the 1940s and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science fiction landscape – the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remain hilariously intact. Of course, Dylan’s non-acting was offered as Exhibit A by most critics who wanted to write the film off as a folly but I would give most of post-9/11 American cinema for that one shot, “badly acted” but infinitely moving and worthy of Robert Bresson, in which Fate visits his father’s deathbed and looks toward the heavens with glycerine tears streaming down his cheeks.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him not to worry about the film “in the short term.” The film was indeed a critical and commercial disappointment in 2003. But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, years later Masked and Anonymous is holding up just fine on DVD, looking better and more interesting than most of the acclaimed American films that surrounded it at the time of its release.


Me and director Larry Charles at the film’s 2003 Sundance premiere

For  a list of Dylan references in my own short film, At Last, Okemah!, go here:

http://www.atlastokemah.com/2009/10/dylan-fans-guide-to-at-last-okemah.html/

Works Cited

1. Gunderson, Edna. “USATODAY.com – Tell It like It Is.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 09 Sept. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.

2. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Importance of Being Perverse”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

3. Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.


The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay

While on a recent trip to the Chicago History Museum, I found (much to my embarrassment as a film studies instructor and longtime Chicago resident) that the role Chicago played in early motion pictures was considerably larger than I had ever realized. Most film histories, even reliable ones, tend to describe New York and New Jersey (home of Thomas Edison’s studio, the Biograph Co., the Solax Co., etc.) as the birthplace of American movies, before charting the migration of production talent to southern California in the mid 1910s. However, this glosses over the fact that Chicago was arguably equally as important as the northeastern United States as a center of American film production prior to the rise of Hollywood. Two of the most significant American film studios in the first two decades of the 20th century were located in Chicago: Essanay Studios and Selig Polyscope. Today’s post is the first in what will be a series about the little known history of early film production in Chicago.


Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson (Photograph: Chicago History Museum)

Between the first, primitive slapstick comedies he made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company in 1914 and the immortal comedy shorts he made at the Mutual Film Corporation from 1916 to 1917, Charlie Chaplin made 15 short films for Chicago-based Essanay Studios in 1915. These films were an important evolutionary step for Chaplin as both performer and filmmaker. Fourteen out of these fifteen films were shot at the Essanay studio in Niles, California. This post will focus on His New Job, the first and only movie Chaplin made entirely at Essanay’s studio in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Essanay was founded in Chicago in 1907. Originally titled The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, the name was soon changed to a corruption of the initials of the last names of founders George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson (“S-an’-A”). Between 1907 and 1917, the studio churned out an astonishing 2000-plus shorts and feature films. Among the movie stars under contract to Essanay were Anderson himself (performing under the name “Broncho Billy”), Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Chaplin. Among the screenwriters under contract were future director Allan Dwan and future gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Among the most significant films produced by Essanay were the first film version of A Christmas Carol (1908), the first American Sherlock Holmes (1916) and the first film about Jesse James, The James Boys of Missouri (1908).

Today the studio is best remembered, if at all, for the Chaplin shorts, of which the Chicago-shot His New Job happily remains a high point. When Chaplin first arrived in Chicago in December 1914, he bunked at Broncho Billy’s luxurious apartment at 1027 W. Lawrence Ave, a building that still stands today. Chaplin’s optimism about living and working in Chicago is reflected in the first newspaper interview he gave to the Chicago Daily Tribune’s film writer, the splendidly and pseudonymously named “Mae Tinee”: “I think I’m going to like it here,” Chaplin told her in early January 1915. “Nice people, nice studio, etc. With conditions favorable, a man can do so much better work, you know.”

Unfortunately, Chaplin’s enthusiasm would not last and he would end up moving back to Hollywood in less than a month. Chaplin recounts in his autobiography that Spoor intentionally avoided coming to the studio, perhaps furious that Anderson had promised Chaplin a $10,000 signing bonus. To make matters worse, Chaplin was horrified when it came time to watch daily rushes of His New Job and realized that Essanay technicians, in an effort to save money, screened the original negative instead of striking a print.

Charlie slept here: Charlie slept across the street from here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

On the other hand, Chaplin was given carte blanche by Spoor and Anderson to use all of the studio’s facilities and complete creative control over his productions. This allowed Chaplin to try new things, in particular the blending of comedy and pathos that would be the hallmark of his mature masterpieces of the 1920s and 1930s. The aptly titled His New Job was shot on Essanay’s impressively large studio complex. Located at 1333 – 1345 W. Argyle St., the buildings, now owned by St. Augustine College, also still stand today.

The Internet Movie Database claims Chaplin and Louella Parsons as co-authors of His New Job but it was most likely improvised. In the film, Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character shows up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios” (an obvious dig at former employer Keystone). The interior stages at Essanay essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent movie-making, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy.

One of the film’s gags features the Tramp and co-star Ben Turpin rolling dice while waiting for production to begin. This was apparently inspired by the real life dice games played by the cast and crew while lunching at Al Sternberg’s bar and restaurant on the corner of Broadway and Argyle (the loser had to pay the bill). Although His New Job is still quite funny by modern standards, its most interesting aspect today is probably the dramatic moment in the film-within-the-film when the Tramp tearfully pleads for the leading lady not to leave him. From here, the tear-jerking theatrics of The Kid are just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Charlie worked here:

Photograph by Michael Smith

Chaplin’s Essanay contract expired in January of 1916. When Essanay refused to meet his new salary demand of $10,000 per week, Chaplin was signed to Mutual where he went on to achieve greater fame. Essanay, meanwhile, was among the companies sued by the United States Justice Department for violating antitrust laws as part of the Motion Pictures Patents Company. During this time, most of the country’s filmmaking talent permanently settled in southern California where the moderate climate and diverse geographical terrain was ideal for year-round shooting. In 1918, Essanay closed its doors for good.

All of Chaplin’s Essanay films are available on a triple DVD set from Image Entertainment. His New Job can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube (look sharp for a young Gloria Swanson as the stenographer):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIIuhlruc14

Photogaph by Michael Smith


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