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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The comfort of Buster Keaton's short films

Buster with his classic melancholy face.
It all started with Buster--why my blog exists in the first place, and why I'm a classic movie obsessive and evangelist.  Comedic film master Buster Keaton was my gateway drug to the ever-expanding universe that is classic film.  So when Rick of Classic Film and TV Cafe announced the 'comfort movie' blogathon to celebrate 'National Classic Movie Day' on May 16th, I had a flashback to 2010 and my long, cold winter days of enjoying short film after short film of Buster's, and I knew I had my topic.  Happy Classic Movie Day everyone!

[For more reasons to get hooked on classic movies, go here to explore all the great entries in the blogathon]. 

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was a giant of early cinema comedy, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Like those two, physically Keaton was not a giant, but a small compact athletic man, whose trademarks include a 'pork-pie' hat, a flat facial affect that, while never smiling still conveyed a range of emotion, and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts.  To watch a Buster Keaton film is to be transported into a surreal setting that looks rather similar to early 20th century America, only, well, surreal. Keaton's career tanked quickly after talking pictures replaced silent film, and his many-faceted later career is certainly not without interest, but his silent films remain his most visible and beloved legacy.

Keaton's film career started with short films in the late 1910s, made with silent star comedian and mentor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. Keaton starred alongside Arbuckle, but learned film direction as well during this period. Buster then came into his own as an independent filmmaker, and with his New York and Hollywood studios, assembled his stock company of actors and crewmembers and started a prolific period turning out nineteen hit two-reelers from 1920-1923.  The rest of the 1920s he focused on creating silent features, including such classics as Our Hospitality, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.  Keaton was both a brilliant slapstick comedian and creative pioneer of the visual medium of film.  The features are brilliant, but an entire short only requires 20-25 minutes of your time!

So if your idea of comfort is taking your mind off your troubles, you could do worse than to settle down and treat yourself to a few doses of Keaton short film hilariousness.  You will be enraptured by what you see, just as Buster here:
Gif from
Following are just a few reasons I find these short films to be so addictive, with a specific film to highlight each.

Absurdist humor: I don't typically laugh at traditional slapstick humor, with pratfalls, pie-throwing stunts and the like. What I enjoy most about Buster's form of comedy is how he creates a slightly surreal universe and then puts himself into both large and small situations that are absurd, and then reacts appropriately.  Most of his films have this characteristic, but I'd like to highlight The Balloonatic (1923).  In this, one of his last shorts in this period, Buster's character takes an unplanned ride in a hot-air balloon, maroons himself in a wilderness near a river, and finds a young woman who is enjoying her own private camping expedition. Buster is smitten and wants to prove himself to her, and runs into trouble. In this film the outdoors is the primary setting, which Buster returns to in other films (see Battling Butler for one), but there is an absurd assortment of wildlife just hanging around camp to menace our hero and heroine, including, a steer with horns, and of course a black bear.  Buster also finds himself in possession of a trick canoe that breaks into three parts at the most inopportune times. Look closely at the name printed on the canoe -- 'Minnie Tee Hee' - likely a parody of the common native American name 'Minnehaha'.  
Buster in his boat 'Minnie Tee Hee" plays a joke on the viewer. Gif from
my friend Vânia (
Stunts that only Buster could pull off:  Charlie Chaplin was often called 'balletic' in his movements. Keaton was the Gene Kelly to Chaplin's Fred Astaire -- more overtly athletic but still incredibly graceful. In The Scarecrow (1920), Buster is rooming with romantic rival 'Big Joe' Roberts, in a house that consists of one room, converted for multiple uses thanks to a number of mechanical 'marvels'. In a sequence that is just a warm-up for later, but hilarious in its own right, the two men sit down for dinner and all condiments and utensils hang from the ceiling, and the two men start grabbing them and swinging them back and forth to each other in a synchronized motion that clearly was not choreographed in one sitting.  It's stunning.
Gif from

Keaton's love of dangerous stunts is showcased when he is being chased by a dog ('Luke the Dog', who featured prominently in Keaton's shorts as well as earlier in the films he made with Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle).  The extended chase takes them to the top of a hollowed out brick farmhouse, where they literally run around on a narrow foundation raised on walls well above a safe distance to the ground as only one part of a breathtaking chase sequence.  Buster was known for doing his own stunts, and somehow survived breaking countless bones in his career.
Gif from

Don't look away for five seconds:  Buster's films were chock full of gag after gag, but also the physicality and kinetic energy was off the charts.  As Hal Hinson said in a 1994 Washington Post article, "Keaton's films are like elaborate laboratories set up for research into the physics of slapstick." One of the best examples is The Electric House (1922), in which recent college grad Buster is hired to 'electrify' the home of a wealthy family while they're away on vacation. You often see clips of the escalator-driven staircase with poor Buster being thrown around trying to keep his balance as the mechanism goes out of control. I particularly love the billiard scene, in which the billiard balls are cycled from the pool table bowling-ball style, and the ball rack descends from the wall on an extension arm.  All goes well early in the film, but later a series of malfunctions going on in each room simultaneously sends Buster, and the viewer, into a tailspin of hilarity. The billiard balls start jumping around, the mechanical wall arm socks a houseguest in the jaw, and Buster, trying to escape, gets his head caught in a pair of sliding doors. (Apparently, he actually did break a leg doing the stair stunts for this film). 
Buster showing Joe Roberts how to play 'Electric Pool'
in The Electric House
Warmth of character:  Despite Buster's character's 'stone face', there is never any doubt that he's a good and honorable guy who would not hurt anyone or anything. This does not mean that he backs down from a fight, but that through his exceptional pantomime and emotion-filled eyes, can immediately get you, the viewer, on his side. Many of his misadventures come about for the love of a (deserving or not) woman, and this is nowhere more evident than in one of my favorites, One Week (1920)This short, about the trials a newlywed couple has trying to set up their new home, literally, captures all the stunts and absurd humor that he's known for, but features an unusually warm and loving relationship with his new bride, played by Keaton favorite Sybil Seely.  They share a sweet moment when Buster catches Sybil drawing interlocking hearts on the wall of the home they are building from a kit.  
Buster and Sybil Seely as cute newlyweds.
Gif from
They also are partners sharing the chores.
Gif from
Seriously--marriage goals.
So if you decide to approach Buster to cure what ails you, here's my prescription based on your need using the 'Comfort Scale':

Your ‘comfort need’
Minor Annoyance
One short film (I suggest One Week or Cops). Be warned: stopping at one is very, very hard!
I might need a drink
.... at least three shorts: (add The Balloonatic or The Scarecrow)
The world might end!
You require a marathon viewing of at least 10 shorts. (add The Boat, Frozen North, The Electric House, The Playhouse, The Goat, Paleface)

Where to watch:  The short films have been published on DVD and Blu-Ray in a number of editions over the years. Several of them are available now to stream on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TCM Film Festival 2018 Highlights

Now that I'm effectively back on East Coast time (!), and my memory is returning, it's time to share my personal highlights from this year's Turner Classic Film Festival!  As I've done in past years, I shot a few photos of the screen when the pre-film video montages were running - I am mesmerized by these and I think they capture the dizziness and wonder that is the festival. That, or it represents the imaginings of a brain deprived of sleep.

Pre-Festival Entertainment
Since my friend and I arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and our stomachs were telling us it was dinner time, of course we headed to our favorite restaurant, which is on Hollywood Blvd. right across the street from Larry Edmunds Book Shop (bookstore heaven for the classic film nerd). Why the wonderful restaurant
 ¡Loteria! isn't better known among festival patrons, I can't fathom. They make the best margaritas this side of Mexico, great food and atmosphere as well.  Tuesday evening we took advantage of a presentation by Kimberley Truhler, fashion author, at the Women's Club of Hollywood, on the historic site of the Hollywood School for Girls, which educated budding stars like Jean Harlow in the 1930s.  The talk was fantastic, and attended by many festival-goers. It was fun to see some old friends there!
Ms. Truhler discussing the 'bias cut' dress sported by 1930s
leading lady Kay Francis
1930s Hollywood scale model,
being restored for exhibit.
April Clemmer provides details.
Wednesday we had a tour of historic sites on Hollywood Blvd called 'Old Hollywood Walking Tour' hosted by April Clemmer, film researcher and lover of all things Hollywood. The tour was a lot of fun, as the average tourist would totally bypass the Pacific Theater (formerly Warner's Hollywood movie palace), which is sadly now boarded up. We still got a peek inside, where the famous film that broke the 'sound barrier', The Jazz Singer, had its premiere.  We also saw an original 1930s scale model of Hollywood being refurbished to be exhibited at a local museum. The tour finished up with a coffee inside the Musso & Frank Grill, continuously operating from the 1920s, when Charlie Chaplin worked on scripts there.  The partying started later in the day when we met many members of the TCM Festival Facebook group at a special gathering at the Roosevelt Hotel pool area. We left that a bit early to join our good friends from NYC, Minneapolis, and Toronto, for our annual tradition - dinner at Micelis!
Italian dinner at Miceli's with the gang
Notable films and TV shows
made on Stage 20 at Warners
Small town America, courtsey Warner Bros.
Thursday was notable first for touring Warner Brothers' Studio - the tour specifically focused on the classics, which was well done. I hadn't visited a movie set since I was 14 and my family took a trip to California and we all took the Universal tour. I don't remember much of that! I have to admit that since the Warners tour, every time I watch an old film with a small town setting, I'm reminded of a particularly inviting part of Warner's backlot, and I'm kind of pulled out of the movie. (Hang 'Em High with Clint Eastwood was the most recent example.  I don't think that was filmed at Warners, but I suppose small town settings in studio backlots have a lot in common!).  

The screen poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel
 - wish it were warmer!
After the tour, we quickly headed back to the Roosevelt Hotel for the festival opening party and then our first film. Sadly, I didn't see my first choice, the pre-code Finishing School, as I got wind through social media that the queue was already getting long a full 2 HOURS before the movie started. Not wanting to head over late and risk being shut out (it was in the smallest theater at the festival), I decided to stay put and watch Them! -- the first of the several poolside screenings. This was quite a bit of fun, due to the insect-shaped lights and antennae headgear that we all got for showing up. A bonus was that there was still plenty of food left from the opening party, and servers roaming around with plates of food passed by us on average once every three minutes. We certainly didn't leave hungry! I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Them! - for a 1950s nuclear-age sci-fi flick, the story was well-paced, good acting, and the suspense was just about perfect. 

The rest of this post provides some of my reactions, out of chronological order.
Strange-looking insects grab first row seats for Them

Basil Sydney (left) and Peter Cushing in Hamlet (1948
Unexpected festival pleasures
I missed the Kurosawa version of MacBeth, e
ntitled Throne of Blood, but did make it to Olivier's Hamlet from 1948. I loved it more than I expected I would. It was a semi-theatrical staging, with expressionistic camera work and wonderful black-and-white cinematography. All actors excelled in their roles, but I was especially taken with the subtlety and range of Basil Sydney, a British stage and screen actor previously unknown to me, playing the role of villainous Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and stepfather. I'd definitely like to see more of his work!

It wouldn't be a TCM festival without watching a western.  This year it was Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, a star-studded epic western with the fingerprints of the Italian director in evidence. Henry Fonda was an icy villain, and Charles Bronson and Jason Robards were mysterious rival gunfighters. The love interest was played by Claudia Cardinale, an Italian actress I last saw in I Soliti Ignoti (1958). Considering the film was nearly three hours long, and the first film for a Sunday morning, I stayed awake and enjoyed every mysterious twist and turn.  

An unexpected delight was the short interlude on Saturday, hosted by the folks at the TCM Wine Club. Yes, this is the club that allows you to pair your favorite films with just the right wine! As a club member, I was invited to the reception on the 12th floor roof deck, where the wine was flowing and the views were stunning.  Such a nice afternoon.  
I took advantage of my extra day in LA on the Monday after the festival to make it to ¡Loteria! one final time, meet up with a friend of a friend, and then head over to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery for my first ever visit.  This cemetery, near the Paramount Studios, is one of the best-known burial places of stars.  Rudolph Valentino is interred here, and while I didn't see his final resting place, I was impressed by those of the Douglases Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, and Judy Garland. 
Tyrone Power (1914-1958)

Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1909-2000)

Judy Garland (1922-1969)

So I was really excited for the Roaring Twenties Party on Friday night, but didn't meet expectations. First, hanging outside by the pool on an April night in Hollywood, as I discovered during the Them! screening, can get one quite chilly. I left early and ended up missing the film The Roaring Twenties to go watch Leave Her to Heaven at the Egyptian. The other issue refreshments were served at the party...other than a cash bar. I would have thought this detail would have been attended to. Nevertheless, it was still fun, for a while, to hang out and see everyone's twenties outfit. Friends Andrea and Richard styling in '20s attire:

Films on nitrate are a popular attraction at this and other festivals. Nitrate film was discontinued long ago because of flammability dangers, but due to film preservation efforts and theaters like the Egyptian being equipped to screen nitrate film, filmgoers can watch them as originally produced. Nitrate films have the reputation of captivating audiences with beautiful images and deep colors.  Frankly, I'm not able to appreciate the (to me) subtle distinction. I saw three this year on nitrate: Leave Her to Heaven, A Star is Born (1937), and SpellboundOf these three, I really only enjoyed Leave Her to Heaven. 

Expected Pleasures
My schedule for Friday and Saturday consisted of films that were, more than anything, a thrill and joy to see on the big screen.  It was my first time seeing Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1943). This drama and comedy were back to back, making a nice contrast.  The 'don't miss' film on Saturday was None Shall Escape (1944), a wartime noir recently restored and presented by the 'Czar of Noir' Eddie Muller, with special guest, star Marsha Hunt, who still is sharp at 100!  Finally, I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I may have seen this many years ago, but it was pretty fresh. For a childs' film, it was very cleverly done, putting the viewer right inside the minds of the kids. One of the child actors in the film, Cora Sue Collins, was on hand to talk about her career. I wish more people had been in the audience to hear her.

All in all, a wonderful time--I couldn't resist sharing more photos.  Can't wait 'til next year!  
Fun to look at, but I resisted the temptation. Festival
attendees are not known for their healthy dietary habits!
Getting in the mood.
Silent film accompanist Ben Model addresses
the TCM Facebook group, with Kelly Wickersham,
group organizer, looking on. Thanks, Ben, for the DVD!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

My 2018 TCM Film Festival Schedule!

Here it is, folks - my plan for the TCM Film Festival (April 26-29 in Hollywood).  This year's theme is 'Powerful Words, the Page Onscreen', highlighting films that showcase the best of translating the written word to the screen.  For those of you not familiar with what a typical day's schedule looks like, check out the image below.  At any one time slot, you have at a minimum five amazing options to choose from. Multiply this by 4 days, and you'll see why the task of developing the schedule is a significant source of heartburn.

Thursday evening, April 26th
Ginger Rogers and Frances Dee in Finishing School
Because I don't have a pass level that gets me into the Red Carpet opening night event, I won't be seeing The Producers with special guest Mel Brooks.  Instead, I'll attend Finishing School, a pre-code with a young Ginger Rogers.  Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of classic era star Joel McCrea, will be on hand to discuss the film.  My caveat to this is that if it is a particularly warm night, I'll be tempted to attend the poolside screening of the 1950s sci-fi/horror classic Them!It will also be hard to stay away from the first pairing of Bogey & Bacall in To Have and Have Not, but because I've seen this one, I'm inclined to choose the one I haven't seen. 

For the second feature of the evening I'll stick around Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 for Throne of Blood (1957), the famed Japanese director Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  I'm tempted to see another Ginger Rogers film Stage Door in a nitrate print, but since I've recently seen this one, I'll stick with the Bard.

Friday, April 27th, MorningOn the first full day of the festival I'll stick with Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 in the morning.  First up at 9:00 AM is Intruder in the Dust, a 1949 adaptation of the famed William Faulkner novel.  I've not seen this one, and it promises to be interesting, if for no other reason that Faulkner himself was involved with the choice of locations in Mississippi for filming, and one of my favorite classic era directors, Clarence Brown, took the helm.

The second morning film is a choice between:
a) The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) pairing Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in an adaptation of Alfred Tennyson's poem.  Flynn and de Havilland always generate sparks onscreen, and I look forward to seeing this for the first time.
b) The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) will be on the docket if I feel like a Preston Sturges comedy instead of an adventure flick. 
Help me decide, people!

Friday, April 27th, Afternoon
After a quick bite, next up is A Hatful of Rain from 1957.  This one is based on a hit play about drug addiction, not a common topic for films during those years.  One of its stars, the lovely Eva Marie Saint, will be making remarks about the film before the screening. That makes it a must-see for me.  This film will let out with little time to spare before None Shall Escape (1944), a WWII thriller.  Star Marsha Hunt and 'Czar of Noir' Eddie Muller will be present in person. 
Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint in A Hatful of Rain
Friday, April 27th, Evening
This will be easy.  It's The Roaring Twenties, people! Prior to the poolside screening of this 1939 film starring the best 20's gangster in the 1930s, James Cagney, there is a costume party! I can't resist this and need to get shopping, pronto! A bonus is that the film is new to me. If for some reason weather isn't cooperating, or any outfit fails to materialize, the nitrate color print of Leave Her to Heaven (1945) with the lovely femme fatale Gene Tierney, beckons.

Saturday, April 28th, MorningAfter a relatively early evening (!) on Friday, I should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for His Girl Friday (1940) at the Chinese Theater IMAX.  This one was one of the films used to market the festival, and with the great duo of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and a superb twist (female reporter, anyone?) on the lauded play The Front Page, it is bound to be popular. I'll need to plan to get up early and get in the queue promptly with a large cup of joe. Now I have seen this one, but not on the big screen, and it's been a while.

The second morning feature will be from the renowned French director Jean-Pierre Melville, who would have been 100 this year. I've recently seen two of his films here in Boston, and absolutely love his detached but suspenseful, visually-stimulating style. The film on tap is When You Read This Letter (1953), said to be a blend of romantic melodrama and film noir. It won't be boring!

Saturday, April 28th, Afternoon
Back to Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 for the afternoon.  First up is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the classic era (1938) adaptation of the Mark Twain novel. I have an early fuzzy memory of having watched this one as a youngun, but need to revisit it.  It'll be tough to miss Sunset Boulevard and Wife Vs. Secretary, but both of these are classics, televised quite often, and I've seen both recently.   Next up will be another war picture, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), William Wellman's adaptation of Ernie Pyle's memoirs. It's an early film with Robert Mitchum, who never disappoints

Saturday, April 28th, EveningA quick dinner and it's off to the 7 PM feature, Show People. This one will be my only silent film of the festival, and with live music by pianist Ben Model, will no doubt be a blast.  I'll finish up the day with Hitchcock, and will plan to be Spellbound by this 1945 film, which it appears I've never seen.  I must correct that, and what better way to do that than with a theater full of classic film fans. Bonus-this one's screened in nitrate at the Egyptian theater (note: RUN to queue!), and stars Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.
Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound
Sunday, April 29th, Morning
For whatever reason, Sunday was an easier day for me to plan.  I start with the epic Sergio Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West.  Last year I so enjoyed Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show made around the same time, so I'm anticipating a great sweeping experience with this one.  Nothing else during that time period appeals to me; same for the 2nd morning slot. I think I'll attend the panel discussion at 'Club TCM' with the Mankiewicz siblings talking about their families' Hollywood legacy yesterday and today.  

Sunday, April 29th, Afternoon
First, I'll get a breather before the afternoon slot. While it's tempting to see The Ten Commandments on the big screen, I've seen that one so many times, including just last week, that I can pass.  I'll enjoy a nice leisurely lunch and head over to the Chinese Multiplex 6 to see Hamlet (1948). I've not seen this one, and since I've seen several other 'Hamlets' over the years, it's about time I experience for myself what makes this Sir Laurence Olivier's definitive role.  British actor Alan Cumming will be in attendance. 

Sunday, April 29th, Evening
I'll wrap up this festival, I think suitably, with A Star is Born.  This is the one from the 1930s starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. It's probably sacrilege, but I'm not a fan of the Judy Garland version, and I've only seen clips from the earlier film.  I'm sure this screening will be popular, as it's on nitrate, showing over at the Egyptian.  William Wellman Jr., son of the director, will be in attendance.

So that's my plan as of April 7. Check back after the festival for my full report!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Herbert Marshall, A Biography, by Scott O'Brien

Hooray! One of my favorites finally has a full-length biography: British actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966).  Author Scott O'Brien has once again done a fabulous job with a lesser-known old Hollywood star, and those (like me!) who want to know about all there is to know about the talented, enigmatic Mr. 'Bart' Marshall should pick up a copy.  The biography was published in February of this year, and is available on Amazon, and also through the publisher's website Bear Manor Media.

[Check out my post on my favorite Marshall film performances here]

Mr. O'Brien certainly did his research. He unearthed many interviews published during Marshall's lifetime, but further, was able to talk to many of his friends and colleagues, other authors, and friends of friends, to get further insights into the real Mr. Marshall.  It should be noted that Marshall had a prolific stage career as well. O'Brien's book offers a complete list of his stage as well as screen credits. 

The book uses a chronological approach, and blends detail about his stage and film engagements with events from his personal life.  O'Brien adopts a matter-of-fact tone, and steers clear of drawing psychological inferences or embellishment.  The biography may have benefited from a bit more probing into the drive and ambition that Marshall would have mustered to overcome his disability, as well as the psychological toll over the years. The sources being ultimately limited most likely do not allow for that. 
When I first became a Marshall devotee a few years ago, I watched nearly all his films that could be found, and read as much as I could about him. Sadly, there wasn't much.  But I felt that I was pretty thorough in my own personal research, if frustrated with the lack of detail and contradictory reports.  So, I will admit with a modicum of pride that I was familiar with much of the detail of Marshall's life in the book.  Yet, there was much that I didn't know.  Here are just a few facts that were of particular interest to me:

War Injury:  Most classic film fans know Marshall lost a leg in World War I, and worked in Hollywood using an often painful prosthesis.  Many accounts state that he lost his *right* leg.  Thankfully, O'Brien confirms it was actually the LEFT, which is what I suspected all along after, as I mentioned, having watched nearly all of his available films. I can't explain why this is important to me, as Marshall, while not exactly hiding his injury, preferred not to talk much about it.  It's perhaps the laziness of other writers or researchers to be careless with facts that annoyed me whenever I came across this little error.  O'Brien even specifically cites author Mark Vieira as the source of this information.
1930s Hollywood glamor: Marshall with Trouble in Paradise
co-star and friend Kay Francis
Longevity:  Marshall worked his entire life, making his last film just a few months before he died at age 75.  According to O'Brien, Marshall never considered retirement.  This I find particularly interesting. It is not entirely clear if there were financial reasons, or Marshall just loved to work.  

Complicated personal life:  Having married five times and a carried on a significant relationship with Gloria Swanson during his adult life, it's natural that his personal life must have been complicated. But what I didn't know was that, according to comments by those that knew him, he was more of a ladies' man than even his documented relationships may have had you believe. His immense personal charm was a valuable asset in this regard.  That said, by all accounts, he was a generous, kind, and self-effacing person.

His connections with other stars:  Marshall was close to many in his profession. He was a lifelong friend of fellow British character actor Eric Blore. Marshall and Blore starred together in the comedy Breakfast For Two (1937), in which Blore played Marshall's valet. Barbara Stanwyck was the leading lady. It's a lesser known but still fun screwball comedy. Ronald Colman was also a close friend.  Both stars died before Marshall, and he grieved when he lost his old friends.
Eric Blore (left) and Marshall relax while making Breakfast for Two
(Picture featured in O'Brien's biography of Herbert Marshall
Love of Trouble in Paradise:  What is one of my favorite films was apparently a favorite of Marshall's as well.  This gem from 1932 is a classic Ernst Lubitsch pre-code sophisticated European comedy. 

His middle-class upbringing: To those of us on this side of the Atlantic, a British accent often connotes education and/or breeding.  Marshall had a fabulous voice and terrific use of the 'Queen's English'. He was admired his entire life for that, and for his brand of 'Britishness' and gentlemanly manner. He sometimes bristled at being labeled a 'gentleman' because in the UK he was decidedly middle-class, having been born in a family of working actors.

Marshall's life and career arc have the advantage of extending through the full first half of cinema history, on two continents. For that reason alone, the biography is a fascinating read - how one person navigated serious setbacks, cultural barriers, etc., to find consistent work in the industry until the mid-1960s. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Agnès Varda's turn at an Oscar

As a classic film enthusiast, I consider "classic films" and "films of today" two different animals.  Despite the connective thread through film history, this is at least partly because the great filmmakers of the past aren't typically Still. Making. Films.  Enter director Agnès Varda, one of the rare exceptions.  This pioneer of the French New Wave began her film career in 1954, and at 89 years old her 2017 film Faces Places (Visages Villages in French) is her first to be nominated for an Oscar--we'll know in just one week if she will be the oldest living filmmaker to win any competitive Oscar.  This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend two very special screenings at the Harvard Film Archive, with Ms. Varda in person to answer questions after both screenings.  This post will summarize my thoughts about the films, with emphasis on Faces Places, and some insights Ms. Varda provided her enthusiastic fans at the screening.

As soon as the opening credits of Faces Places started rolling on Friday evening it was immediately apparent that we were going to be witnessing filmmaking at its very best. The clever use of animations brought us right into the whimsical world we were about to enter.
From opening credits of Faces Places (screengrab from film's trailer)
The film documentarians, Varda and her visual artist/collaborator JR, would not only tell the stories, they would BE part of the stories.  After the film, Varda commented that in her documentaries, she never believed that the filmmaker could or should be remote from her subject, and thus she is comfortable being in front as well as behind the camera: "When you do a documentary, you are part of it."

Varda (from Le Monde, 2017)
I'll admit right now that until a couple of months ago, I was a Varda newbie. I attempted to address that quickly by watching two of her most critically acclaimed earlier films, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) and Le Bonheur (1965). Cleo is the film that put her clearly in the French New Wave camp, and yet her place in that camp was special -- as a woman filmmaker telling a uniquely woman's story. Her contemporaries were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard (with whom she remains friendly), Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, and Jacques Demy, who became her husband.  She also had the distinction of coming to film from photography; born in Belgium in 1928, she moved to France early in her life and devoted over 10 years to her photojournalism career.  This perspective allowed her to craft intimate and compelling stories from everyday life and put them movingly on film.  

With a bit of background behind me, I can postulate safely that Faces Places is an amalgam of what makes Varda so great.  First, it's not just her film; she collaborated with a young French artist known only as 'JR', with whom she developed a strong artistic partnership. JR is a muralist, who takes black-and-white photos of people and places, enlarges them, and plasters them on the sides of buildings or other large inanimate objects as way to comment on the world.  Under the tutelage of master Varda, he embarks on a journey around France, capturing photos of everyday life, mostly of working classes or the marginalized, and makes them literally larger-than-life to bring attention to their causes, or just their humanity in an overly mechanized world. 

The journey, and the work, is beautifully filmed and edited by Varda, although she shares directorial credit with JR. A particularly poignant vignette contrasts two goat-milking farms. One farm has mechanized milking machines and all the goats have their horns burned off at a young age to prevent them from fighting. The proprietors of another, smaller, farm allow their goats to keep their horns, and milks the goats manually. Varda and JR, without being preachy, challenge the prevailing societal opinion that productivity is king; goats should be allowed to keep their horns.  This is illustrated no better than in their mural as shown below.

A number of such compelling stories of everyday life are illuminated in the film, a Varda specialty. At the Q&A Varda was asked about the extent of her planning ahead what she captures on film.  She answered, and I paraphrase, "I am mainly curious about people. In my documentaries, I get to know people by just being curious and wanting to learn. I plan where I want to go, but then I am ready for chance to provide direction."  In another moving scene, Varda and JR plastered the oversized images of three striking dockworkers' wives at a construction site at Le Havre, to give them a presence in their man's world. She elaborated in the Q&A by saying, "As a feminist, I want to move the needle, but we need to work with the men to change the circumstances." And also, "I never ask (her subjects) about politics, but I go quietly to these people."  

Although the focus of the film was mostly on others, it turned internal at times. On film, JR and Varda had a conversation in a cemetery about death, and Varda said she's not afraid of death, but wonders what is on the other side, and feels it getting closer. She elaborated a bit about mortality in the post-film discussion, saying her memory had holes in it, like swiss cheese, but that she has come to terms with that. "We are made as a mixture of memory and discovery."

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond (1985)
Vagabond (1985) was screened on Saturday night, and unlike Faces Places, has a dark, existential tone. Sandrine Bonnaire shines as the titular character, a 17-year old vagrant in France, who tries to fit in society but ultimately it rejects her--and she it. The film feels in many ways like a documentary, as all scenes were filmed in real locations, and most of the supporting cast were not actors.  To better connect with her character of Mona, Varda spent time driving around rural France and picking up hitchhikers, learning about their lifestyle and their habits, "even what was in their backpacks," she said.  

The theme of  'journey' also connects the two films.  In fact, characters on some sort of physical, as well as symbolic journey, are common to Varda's writing. When asked about this at the end of the screening, Varda commented that the theme of 'walking' in particular was prevalent in the French New Wave.  (Cleo from 5 to 7 follows a young woman walking around Paris.)  "People walk as a reaction to society," she said.  

I'm so so glad I've discovered the films of Agnès Varda, and even more thrilled to have seen her in person, two extraordinary evenings in a row.  While I've not seen any of the other Oscar-nominated documentaries, I want Faces Places to win on March 4. I want to see Varda, along with JR, on the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood--the difference in their ages and heights poignantly on display--accepting an award that celebrates unheralded film history as much as one film.  This would be a significant step in bringing Varda's 70-year distinguished career into a brighter light, and further chipping away at the limitations and discrimination faced by women in film history for longer than that.

This post is part of the '31 Days of Oscar' Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club.  Click here to check out all the other great posts honoring past and present Oscar films and stories.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Volcanos and fiery conversation: An afternoon with Werner Herzog

When you have the chance to see a film never before shown on the big screen AND to see its celebrity filmmaker live, you don't turn it down.

Last Thursday was the day that Werner Herzog visited The Coolidge Corner Theatre to accept his Coolidge Award, and although that specific event was in the evening, in the afternoon he attended a screening of his 2016 Netflix documentary Into the Inferno, and had an extended Q&A after.  A memorable afternoon it most certainly was! 

As a Coolidge member, I had reserved a ticket weeks ago, got there early, and saved a seat for my friend.  I shot this photo while waiting for her, but when she arrived we moved closer several rows.  Then the fun began.
First up was the film, and I loved itIt follows the Herzog blueprint of exploring distant and dangerous lands, this time sharing the lens with British volcanographer Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog has had a longtime friendship.  The film isn't about the science of volcanoes, although there is some of that; it isn't about the search to uncover volcanic secrets, although there is that; it isn't about capturing the violence and cinematic beauty of volcanic eruptions, although there is that as well.  In reality, it's a little of all those things, with perhaps humankind's odd and wondrous relationships with volcanoes being the primary theme.  Herzog himself traveled to locales like Indonesia, North Korea, and the Danekil desert in Ethiopia, developing relationships with and seeking insights from those that live on the edge of volcanic worlds. I found the segment with an inside view of the North Korean society, along with their country's volcanic origin story, to be particularly fascinating, especially today.  
North Korean children instructed in music (from Netflix Into the Inferno trailer)
The film successfully weaves scientific, personal and sociological explorations seamlessly with the characteristic Herzog editing finesse.  I didn't mind that a single theme wasn't deeply explored - which was a criticism by at least one reviewer I read.  The film was varied enough that whatever your interest, you were left wanting more, in a good way.  Another feature of a Herzog film in abundant evidence here, to this fan's delight, was the choice of music.  Choral music by Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, and Schutz, along with the prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and traditional vocal music by Russian monks from the Kiev Pechersk Monastery, enhanced the magic and awe that we were taking in visually.

At the end of the film, Herzog was formally introduced by Katherine Tallman, Executive Director at the Coolidge, and was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out crowd.

With a slightly raspy voice, he answered questions from moderator Professor Herbert Golder (Boston University).   For those interested, the entire Q&A was captured via Facebook Live and archived here.

Naturally, many of the questions related to the film we had just seen. I was surprised when he expressed that one of his main motivations to make the film was to get young audiences excited about science.  "If young people are inspired to become scientists, then the film will have been worth it." 
Herbert Golder from Boston U. and Werner Herzog.
There was also discussion about the larger themes, especially religious and spiritual, that are included in this and much of Herzog's work.  He acknowledged that while not adhering to a specific religion, he is fascinated by 'belief systems' and inspired to reach the sublime that is beyond everyday realities.  Considering much of his chosen music was religious, he told of a difficult negotiation with the Russian Orthodox church, which objected to sacred music with reference to 'voices of angel's being superimposed over images of volcanic eruptions.  In deference, Herzog left out some of the music he wanted to include. 

Herzog touched on his career of getting close to 'the edge' in many of his films.  He laughed and said he's still around because he balances his awe of nature with appropriate prudence.  The conversation naturally turned to the future of our planet, and his remarks were balanced--no doomsday view from this filmmaker.  "We are on shaky ground, but that doesn't mean we should roll back progress or go back to being hunters/gatherers."  And, "The Amish would be the only survivors on the planet if the internet went down for two weeks." (!)

Finally, he was asked his views, somewhat indirectly, about the current political climate in the U.S.  This is when the conversation turned fiery, and Herzog didn't hold back: "Trump was elected in a democratic process. We have to live with this.  The problem is not Trump, but the culture and the alienation felt by many in the heartland of the U.S.  The problem is not Steven's Point, Wisconsin, the problem is Boston."  A respectful hush came over the cinema then.  Herzog apparently feels that those in the audience at the Coolidge should work harder to develop a discourse with those in 'flyover' country.  I won't comment further, as my role is film blogger, not political commenter.  

I was glad that before this event, I took time to watch more of Herzog's work, including Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), as shared in last month's blog; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and the fascinating documentary My Best Fiend (1999) about his relationship with volatile, unstable, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski.  It helped me better appreciate the skill and uniqueness of this still active auteur, with whom I shared an afternoon.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the evening conversation and award presentation, but for those interested, that is also available on Facebook here: