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Tag Archives: Raoul Walsh

My Favorite Moment in The Roaring Twenties

I recently finished teaching the gangster movie genre as part of my “World of Cinema” class at Harold Washington College. This included screening one of my all time favorite American films, the 1939 Warner Brothers production of The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (an acting match made in tough-guy heaven if there ever was one). The way director Raoul Walsh continually opens up the narrative of this gangster epic to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29 to the end of Prohibition and beyond) gives it a dazzling breadth and scope. There are also many iconic moments, especially Cagney’s death on the outdoor steps of a church, which prompts his flame (a sad-eyed bootlegger played by Gladys George) to remark: “He used to be a big shot.”

Watching it again with a class reminded me that my personal favorite moment in the film is also one of its quietest and most subtle: after Prohibition has been repealed and Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett has lost his bootlegging empire, we see him in a dive bar, a slave to the booze that he never touched when he was on top. Bartlett exits the bar to go visit his nemesis George (Bogart), knowing full well that it may be his last night on earth. On his way out the door, Bartlett pauses in front of a piano, on top of which someone has set down a mug of beer. Bartlett looks down at the mostly-empty glass and smiles a sad, wistful smile. I’ve always wondered if this moment was indicated in the script or if it was something that Walsh and Cagney worked out together on the set. Whatever the case, this, my friends, is movie magic:

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And . . . Action! Kathryn Bigelow as Heir Apparent to Raoul Walsh or: Why the Contemporary Hollywood Action Movie Sucks

“I know what eats a man who has endured the tension of war for years. It’s like a drug. A man can’t live without it.”
They Died with Their Boots On

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
The Hurt Locker

Even though I thought highly of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker when it was first released in Chicago in 2009, it has only continued to rise in my esteem over the last three years. Prior to its Best Picture Oscar win, I found myself relentlessly championing it to skeptical friends, mostly by comparing it to classic Hollywood movies by John Ford and Howard Hawks. It does, after all, examine group dynamics and the theme of “professionalism” a la Hawks. And, in its unforgettable lead character of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), it also arguably provides contemporary audiences with a 21st century equivalent of The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards: a tragic hero whose “virtues” are ironically what prevent him from becoming a productive member of the very society that he is ostensibly helping to save and thus allowing to perpetuate. (I firmly believe that the film’s controversial and ambiguous ending is an illustration that James will never be a good husband or father.) Now, after going on a binge of watching movies by the great Raoul Walsh, I realize that my analogy was a little off; it is Walsh that Bigelow resembles more closely than his contemporaries Ford or Hawks.

Andrew Sarris (RIP!) aptly, and famously, summed up the heroes of Raoul Walsh by contrasting them with the heroes of Ford and Hawks: “If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks by professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling of adventure. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, never too sure what he will find there.” In other words, Walsh’s heroes, like Walsh himself, were “adrenaline junkies,” a phrase that has also been used to describe Bigelow’s characters. The adventurousness of Walsh’s heroes, whether they are gangsters, cavalrymen, prizefighters or western outlaws, was explicitly mirrored by Walsh himself, who captured their stories through an adventurous brand of filmmaking – usually by shooting on location in exotic locales and favoring sequences involving elaborately choreographed action over dialogue-based scenes. It is precisely this “feeling of adventure,” filmmaking as athleticism, that binds Bigelow and Walsh and that makes the Hurt Locker helmer the old master’s true heir apparent.

The question then arises: why has The Hurt Locker been treated like an “art film” instead of the Walshian action film that it is? This can only be answered by looking at how the action genre has evolved over the last century. It is a sad reality that the American action movie has suffered more than any other single genre since the decline of the old studio system. The very phrase “action film,” as utilized by a great critic like Manny Farber, used to be synonymous with a movie that was made cheaply, quickly and on a small scale. (It now seems incredible but Farber used the phrase “underground film” to essentially mean action movie.) No more. While good unpretentious action films are still churned out on a regular basis by various Asian filmmakers (Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Na Hong-jin, etc.), Hollywood has all but doomed the genre by consigning it to the fate of the bloated, CGI-laden spectacle. The contemporary Hollywood action movie, as exemplified by Michael Bay and his alarming number of imitators, typically clocks in at over two and a half hours, does not exceed the PG-13 rating and has a budget of over 100 million dollars (traits that are all, depressingly, interrelated). What does it say that a film like the original Die Hard, a Hollywood action juggernaut that still probably stands as the finest of the 1980s, now looks both relatively modest and adult by comparison?

I hasten to add that the real problem with Bay and his ilk has nothing to do with money spent nor technology used. The biggest problem is that the filmmaking is simply inept (e.g., the axis-of-action rule is mindlessly disregarded, hyperkinetic editing is employed less to complement the action than to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual agitation, etc.). Money and technology do not automatically have to take the place of craftsmanship, as David Fincher’s ingenious and seamless use of CGI proves, and yet the best technology and the worst art frequently do go hand in hand. My first thought upon seeing the relatively lo-fi Hurt Locker (it was shot partly on 16mm and partly on digital), after getting over its initial heart-stopping, visceral impact, was to marvel at just how damn well made it is. I’ll never forget watching, for the first time, the firefight scene with the mercenaries in the desert and having this strange feeling come over me; it seemed almost novel to be watching a new American film involving characters shooting at each other over a long distance where the spatial and temporal relationships between them made perfect sense. More than anything else, I believe it was respect for Bigelow’s craftsmanship that lay at the heart of The Hurt Locker‘s critical love. Sadly, while Raoul Walsh used to direct action set pieces better than anyone, he has still not gotten his critical due and was never even nominated for an Oscar. In the golden age of Hollywood, his basic skills as a director weren’t considered unusual.


Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

“Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.”
– Jack Pickford to Raoul Walsh

Does any major director from Hollywood’s studio system era remain as unjustly neglected as Raoul Walsh? In spite of the fact that I’ve loved a few of his movies forever (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat), the lack of critical writing about Walsh in comparison to some of his contemporaries, as well as the difficulty of seeing a lot of his best work, has tended to make him something of an admirable but shadowy figure for me. Until recently. Following a rare 35mm screening of Walsh’s excellent pre-Code comedy Sailor’s Luck in Chicago last year, I have made it a priority to see as many of his films as possible. The journey I have undertaken to get a fuller picture of Walsh’s career has led me to rent VHS tapes, purchase DVD-Rs from Warner Archives’ “burn on demand” program, watch entire movies on YouTube and even do a little illegal downloading. The result of my findings is that I have no qualms about calling Walsh one of the all-time great Hollywood directors — right up there with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Like all American directors who started in the silent era and whose careers lasted into the latter half of the twentieth century, Walsh was a prolific director who worked for many different studios (though his best loved work was done for Warner Brothers). He also had to adapt to many technological changes in the industry including the coming of sound, widescreen, color and even 3-D. Nonetheless, there are many stylistic and thematic consistencies across his vast body of work. Some of these I will attempt to outline here.

1. His movies are filled with a singularly wild energy.

Raoul Walsh is most often described as a “master of action,” yet precious few critics and scholars have taken the time to elaborate on exactly what this means. Perhaps Andrew Sarris came the closest when he wrote in The American Cinema: “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging ahead into the unknown and he is never too sure what he will find there.” This is a concise description of the propulsive, action-oriented heroes of Walsh’s best known work, many of whom have dangerous jobs: John Wayne’s western explorer in The Big Trail, Douglas Fairbanks’ title character in The Thief of Bagdad, Cagney’s gangsters in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, the long-haul truck drivers played by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in They Drive By Night. What most impresses about Walsh though is his untamed sense of control in capturing the action: the violent movements of his heroes, which tend to occur in spasmodic, occasionally explosive bursts, are perfectly complemented by Walsh’s crisp editing and swift camera movements. This is true not only of action-based genres like the aforementioned gangster and western movies but of Walsh’s comedies and melodramas as well. In a savagely funny scene from Sailor’s Luck, James Dunn tears apart lingerie, newly purchased for his girlfriend, with his bare hands. In the anarchic comedy The Bowery, a bunch of old women destroy a bar with umbrellas. In the serio-comic The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney resembles a pit bull in his attempts to launch himself over a fence to engage his college-student neighbors in a brawl. In the musical melodrama The Man I Love, Ida Lupino repeatedly slaps a male character in the face in a desperate attempt to talk him out of committing murder. The kineticism to be found in these and many other scenes, the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment, arises primarily from the intersection between the choreography of Walsh’s performers and the choreography of his camera, and renders his films 100% purely cinematic.

2. His characters tended to be beautiful losers.

The Walshian hero, “the lost child in the big world” in Sarris’ indelible phrase, tends to be a sympathetic loser. His most memorable characters are ordinary men and women — the blue collar, the downtrodden, the quietly desperate, the past-their-prime and the habitually passed-over: Cagney’s low-rent dentist Biff Grimes, always playing second fiddle to his best friend in The Strawberry Blonde, the ex-prisoners played by Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, trying to make one last score, in Colorado Territory and High Sierra respectively, Gladys George’s aging, sad-eyed bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties, Robert Mitchum as a rancher who is the target of assassination attempts and he doesn’t know why in Pursued, and the hard-luck dames ferociously incarnated by Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night, High Sierra and The Man I Love. Manny Farber sensed Walsh’s identification with his characters when he called the director someone “whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry . . . Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,’ never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.”

3. His use of depth-staging was unparalleled.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh directed the cowboy epic The Big Trail in 70mm. In doing so, he achieved the landmarks of having cast John Wayne in his first leading role and, as Dave Kehr has noted, effectively inventing “the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” The film’s commercial failure meant that it would be another 20+ years before audiences would be able to enjoy widescreen movies again but The Big Trail, as Fox’s new blu-ray attests, remains breathtaking for its incredible panoramic compositions of the American West. Perhaps more importantly, he took the lessons that he learned from staging in deep focus and then immediately applied them to the Fox comedies he soon made after in the standard “academy ratio” (Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Me and My Gal). In particular, check out the swimming pool scene and the climactic dance hall fight in Sailor’s Luck to see how Walsh always has something interesting happening in the background as well as the foreground of the frame. Kehr has said that Walsh gives the impression that if he had moved his camera closer to the background extras, there would be a whole new and just as interesting movie going on. The use of depth-staging continued throughout Walsh’s career and is perhaps most brilliantly realized in the cosmic long shots of the title location that serve as the climax of his masterpiece Colorado Territory.

4. He had a terrific understanding of women.

It is well known that Walsh directed many iconic male movie stars in some of their most memorable, star-making or persona-defining roles (especially Fairbanks, Cagney, Bogart and Wayne for the performances already cited above). What’s too-little commented on is that Walsh “the man’s man” likewise directed many of the best Hollywood actresses in important roles. My god, just look at this list: Anna Q. Nilsson in Regeneration, Theda Bara in Carmen, Mary Pickford in Rosita, Anna Mae Wong in The Thief of Bagdad, Pola Negri in East of Suez, Dolores del Rio in What Price Glory?, Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Fay Wray in The Bowery, Mae West in Klondike Annie, Claire Trevor in Dark Command, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia de Havilland in They Died with Their Boots On, Dorothy Malone in Colorado Territory, Virginia Mayo in White Heat and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. And Ida Lupino? Raoul Walsh was Ida Lupino. This is a far more impressive roster of female talent than what Howard Hawks or John Ford worked with in careers spanning roughly the same time frame. I once read a quote by Ford where he said he thought Walsh was a bit like him, only “more appealing to women.” At first I thought he meant that Walsh’s movies were more appealing to women because they focused more on romance (which is typically marketed more towards women). But I’ve come to realize that what Ford meant was that Walsh was more interested in exploring the feelings of his female characters. Unlike the Hawksian woman, who proves her worth by acting just like a man (only with breasts — but not too big) and the women of Ford, who tend to be desexualized mother-figures, Walsh was interested in women as women. See again the remarkable The Roaring Twenties, which is a Cagney vehicle that achieves its genuinely tragic quality primarily because of the poignant performances of Priscilla Lane and Gladys George – as the women who are too good for Cagney and not good enough for him, respectively. As is often the case with Walsh, the women make the film.

And now, for my edification as well as yours, dear reader, here is a countdown of my top 20 personal favorite Raoul Walsh movies in order of preference:

20. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
19. Regeneration (1915)
18. The Enforcer (1951)
17. What Price Glory? (1926)
16. Sadie Thompson (1928)
15. The Big Trail (Grandeur Version, 1930)
14. They Drive By Night (1940)
13. The Bowery (1933)
12. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
11. Me and My Gal (1932)
10. Pursued (1947)
9. Sailor’s Luck (1933)
8. The Man I Love (1947)
7. The Thief of Bagdad (1925)
6. High Sierra (1941)
5. Gentleman Jim (1942)
4. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
3. White Heat (1949)
2. Colorado Territory (1949)
1. The Roaring Twenties (1939)


Odds and Ends

This is the second installment of “Odds and Ends,” wherein I make brief observations about a bunch of different movie related things:

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater has described his latest movie as his version of Fargo, an intriguing analogy that makes sense when you consider what they have in common. Both are black comedies based on “true crime” stories whose central purpose is to portray a tightly-knit small-town community whose unique regional flavors have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood — rural Minnesota in the Coens’ case, behind the “pine curtain” of northeast Texas in Linklater’s. The most crucial difference is that Linklater has taken the warmth that the Coens only showed to Francis McDormand’s police chief character and courageously extended it to his entire cast of local yokels (many of whom are playing themselves). The result is a deceptively light film that poses complex moral questions about the interrelationships between individuals, the society in which they live and criminal justice. Is Bernie a diabolical manipulator or an essentially decent person who was pushed too far by his victim? To what degree should the answer to that question have influenced his sentencing? Should public sentiment ever be allowed to play a role in a criminal trial? Rare among contemporary American directors, Richard Linklater respects the audience enough to allow viewers to make up their own minds. Yet another way to describe Bernie via a movie analogy would be as an alternate universe version of Sunset Boulevard where William Holden kills Gloria Swanson instead of the other way around. Did I mention this is a Jack Black vehicle?

David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – Streaming / Rating: 5.0

Making a very quiet local premiere this past Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center was David Wants to Fly, a feature debut doc by young German director David Sieveking that fascinates and irritates in equal measure. This begins with unemployed film school grad Sieveking on a quest to meet his idol, the great, eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, at a Transcendental Meditation conference in Fairfield, Iowa, but then transforms into an exposé and denunciation of the entire “TM movement.” The film is given a degree of credibility by the fact that Sieveking started out as a true believer who only gradually became disillusioned with the cult-like movement during the three years he was in production. But Sieveking’s arty persona (he wears fedoras and occasionally plays the harmonica in public) can be annoying and, speaking as someone who also attended the 2006 Fairfield conference, I long ago came to the same conclusion he did about TM after only a few minutes of Googling. Still, David Lynch fans will want to seek this out, especially those who haven’t yet learned to separate the artist from the art. Anyone who missed the screening can stream the film for free for a short time here: http://www.linktv.org/programs/david-wants-to-fly

The More the Merrier (George Stevens, USA, 1943) – DVD rental


This superior example of the “genius of the Hollywood studio system” may not be as well known as screwball comedy classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH, BRINGING UP BABY or THE LADY EVE but is every bit their equal as a battle-of-the-sexes masterpiece. Connie Milligan (the glorious Jean Arthur) is a single, working woman living in Washington D.C. who ends up with two male roommates due to a World War II housing shortage. She finds herself bickering relentlessly with Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), the younger of the men, which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man, the much older Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes THE MORE THE MERRIER stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. A scene where Carter walks Milligan home late at night, temporarily forgetting that he’s also going to his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, more importantly, interact physically; while sitting next to one another on a stoop, McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, creatively paws at Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly feigns disinterest. THE MORE THE MERRIER was very well received in its time but is probably less known today only because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it. 

Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director – Nonfiction book by Marilyn Ann Moss

To accompany the Raoul Walsh retrospective that’s still ongoing in my apartment, I recently read with relish Marilyn Ann Moss’ superb 2011 biography of the very colorful and self-mythologizing man who directed, among many other classic titles, The Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and White Heat. The fact that this is the first such book written about this old Hollywood master, whose life was as interesting as his movies, is just one indication of how sadly undervalued his massively important and influential body of work continues to be. Although I could have done without the dollar-book Freud of the opening chapter, which imagines Walsh’s grief over his mother’s death as the catalyst for his adventurous brand of filmmaking, this is still an impressive work of scholarship and analysis (I particularly enjoyed her observations about Walsh’s female characters) and an essential read for anyone who loves classic Hollywood movies. I will have two lengthy posts concerning Walsh in the coming weeks.


A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 1

As I grow older, I am becoming more and more enamored of the silent film era. Even a bad silent movie will typically have a certain “lyrical” quality that I find myself admiring due to the necessity that bound all silent filmmakers of having to tell stories primarily through visual means. The silent cinema in America was a particularly fecund period, in which the rules of “narrative continuity filmmaking” (the predominant mode of filmmaking in the world today) were first invented and popularized; it was an exciting, experimental time when talented directors could improvise on the nascent language of movies in much the same way that Shakespeare riffed on verbal language in Elizabethan England. In Hollywood during the late silent era, this visual language had become almost impossibly sophisticated, as evidenced by films as disparate as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. After studying – and teaching – this period in depth, I can only concur with the old Hollywood masters who lamented that something was irretrievably lost when the transition from silents to talkies was complete.

The silent film era in America also saw the formation of Hollywood’s studio system, which paved the way for the “golden age” of Hollywood that began in earnest in the 1930s. As with the posts I made about that era, this list (consisting only of feature-length movies), has been supersized to include 26 titles and will be broken into two parts. Part one begins with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915 and continues through Buster Keaton’s immortal The General in 1926. Part two will be posted next week.

In chronological order:

The Cheat (DeMille, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)

D.W. Griffith is mostly known today for creating The Birth of a Nation, a film whose unfortunate racism has had the side effect of dissuading budding cinephiles from exploring the director’s filmography in depth. But everyone should see Intolerance, an insanely ambitious, epic movie consisting of a quartet of intercut stories set in different historical eras united by the common theme of “love’s struggle through the ages”. The film’s audacious pageantry and complex structure show off the narrative cinema’s first true master at the height of his considerable powers.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

Oscar Micheaux was the first African-American director of feature length movies and the Chicago-shot Within Our Gates is both his earliest surviving film as well as his best. A convoluted melodrama about a northern woman’s attempt to raise money for a struggling school in the Jim Crow south, this film’s shocking climax contains an extended flashback to a white-on-black lynching and a near-rape that serve as an explicit rebuttal to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Low-budget and technically crude, this is nonetheless an invaluably authentic look at black life in early 20th century America, one of only a handful of movies about which that can be said.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (Ingram, 1921)

In 1968’s The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris listed director Rex Ingram as a “subject for further research” based solely on this masterpiece – an epic World War I/family drama that builds on the innovations of Griffith in its incredible painterly images and dynamic cutting, but which adds a more naturalistic acting style to the mix. Rudolph Valentino, in his first starring role, plays a rich ne’er-do-well who enlists in the French Army to impress the woman with whom he’s having an affair. But, once on the battlefield, he finds himself face to face with his German cousin . . . Sadly, Ingram is still a subject for further research; his movies, including this one, remain virtually impossible to see. Needless to say, this should be viewed at all costs whenever the opportunity arises.

Our Hospitality (Keaton/Blystone, 1923)

Buster Keaton hit his stride as writer/director/star with his second feature, a riotously funny version of the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Not as well known today as The General, this is for my money Keaton’s funniest film and the one with the most impressive physical stunts (the climactic waterfall rescue has never been equalled). Our Hospitality remains the most modern of all silent comedies due in part to Keaton’s hilariously blank facial expressions as actor as well as his beautifully engineered physical gags as director, which he always profitably captures in immaculately composed long shots. One of the best places to start exploring silent movies period.

Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor, 1923)

As far as silent comedians go, Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in terms of popularity. Safety Last! is his most famous film and one that anyone who cares about comedy movies should see. Lloyd plays his famous, can-do “Glasses Character” as a country bumpkin who arrives in the big city and gets a job in a department store. He concocts a publicity stunt to bring in more customers, which involves him scaling the exterior of the high-rise building where he works. This leads to a jaw-droppingly funny and amazingly acrobatic climax featuring one of the most iconic images in all of cinema: Lloyd suspended from the hands of a giant clock face near the top of the building.

Greed (von Stroheim, 1924)

Erich von Stroheim’s nine hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ classic American novel McTeague was brutally cut down to its present two hour and twenty minute running time by MGM executives, who also unconscionably destroyed all of the excised footage. Remarkably, the remaining shadow of Stroheim’s original vision (an excoriating indictment of the destructive power of money about a dentist, his wife and best friend who find their lives torn apart by greed) is still a deathless masterpiece. The powerhouse performances and shot-on-location Death Valley climax are unforgettable.

He Who Gets Slapped (Sjostrom, 1924)

Victor Sjostrom is best remembered today as the lead actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries but he also directed a couple of the best American films of the silent era – this Lon Chaney vehicle and 1928’s Lillian Gish-starring The Wind. Here, Chaney plays a scientist who is betrayed and humiliated by his wife and a wealthy benefactor. He consequently resigns himself to a life of self-flagellation by becoming a circus clown whose wildly popular act consists of being repeatedly slapped by the other clowns. Chaney was known for suffering for his art through the application of painful prosthetics but it’s the subtle emotions that play out on his face when he’s not wearing make-up that provide the high points of this awesome morality play.

Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith, 1924)

Polish refugees struggle to survive in post-World War I Berlin in D.W. Griffith’s final masterpiece, a deeply moving family drama shot almost entirely on location in Germany. Among the narrative strands is an exeedingly poignant subplot involving the courtship between Paul (Neil Hamilton), a war veteran whose lungs have been damaged by mustard gas and Inga, an orphan played by Carol Dempster (Griffith’s real-life love interest). A prototype of Neorealism, it is frankly astonishing that Griffith could extend such sympathy to the plight of a people who had been a much vilified enemy of the United States only a few years previously.

The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh, 1924)

The greatest of the 1920s swashbucklers, Raoul Walsh’s adventure epic stars Douglas Fairbanks as a thief who falls hopelessly in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. In order to win her hand, the thief endeavors to best her other suitors by bringing back the rarest treasure before “the seventh moon.” This allows Walsh, one of the most astute directors of action ever, to execute the narrative as a series of exciting, self-contained set pieces, the elaborate special effects of which still impress and charm today.

The Big Parade (Vidor, 1925)

The highest grossing film of the silent era is King Vidor’s anti-war tour-de-force about Jim (John Gilbert), a callow rich kid who is shamed by patriotic friends into enlisting in the army during the first World War. Leaving his American fiance behind, Jim travels to France where he romances a peasant girl before heading to the front lines. The intense, realistic battle scenes were extremely influential on subsequent war movies (including All Quiet on the Western Front) but the highly emotional homecoming scene remains the most memorable in the film.

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926)

John Ford’s first masterpiece is an epic western about a cowgirl (the splendid Olive Borden) who recruits the title trio to help her avenge the death of her father as well as find her a suitable husband. These twin plots unfurl, as happens so often in Ford, against the backdrop of a real life historical event – in this case the Dakota Land Rush of the 1870s. The climactic land rush sequence is presented as an exhilarating, fast-paced montage that rivals the best montage scenes coming out of the Soviet Union during the same period.

The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926)

Buster Keaton’s best-loved film tells the story of Johnny Grey (Keaton), a Civil War-era engineer from the South who ventures behind Yankee lines to rescue his beloved train after it is stolen by Union spies. Not only a very funny film and one that features Keaton’s amazing trademark stunt work, this is also notable for being one of the most authentic recreations of the American Civil War (influenced by the famed photographs of Matthew Brady) ever committed to celluloid.

To be continued . . .


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 . . .


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.


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