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  • 11/10/14--15:47: Musings on André Deed
  • The Fashionable Sport (Gli sport alla moda) (1910)

    I offer today's blog post as a tribute to André Deed, who is the first comedian spotlighted in my book Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I continue to be fascinated by Deed, who may be the most unjustly overlooked performer in the history of film comedy.  Just the fact that he was the industry's first comedy star should grant him prominent status in film history.  But few people are aware of Deed or are willing to acknowledge his significance.

    Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano (1916)
    Not long after Deed made his film debut, a decidedly different comedian established himself as Deed's most formidable rival.  That comedian was the irrepressible Max Linder.  Deed and Linder were the yin and yang of early film comedy.  But, at first, Linder did not seem as influential as Deed, who spawned far more imitators than Linder.  There was, however, a good reason for that.  Linder derived comedy from his distinct charm and personality.  How could anyone really be Max Linder except for Max Linder himself?  Deed played a bungling idiot who created destruction wherever he went.  That was an easier formula to replicate.

    Foolshead, Telegraph Boy (Cretinetti fattorino telegrafico) (1911)

    The first two American comedy stars were modeled after Deed and Linder.  Essanay designed Ben Turpin to be the American Deed.  Turpin performed Deed's sort of foolish antics in several films, including The Crazy Barber (1909) and The Energetic Street Cleaner (1909).  Biograph designed John Cumpson to be the American Max Linder.  The first official film in Cumpson's "Mr. Jones" series, Mr. Jones at the Ball (1909), was a remake of Linder's Mon pantalon est décousu (1908). 

    Deed, a protégé of Georges Méliès, is the missing link between Méliès and Mack Sennett.  He achieved popularity with camera-trick gags and slapstick chases.  An early success for Deed was The Wig Chase (1906), which was written by André Heuzé.  This film, which was about a woman's wig floating away with balloons and a mob of people climbing up the Eiffel Tower to retrieve it, established an effective formula of fantastic comic anarchy for the comedian.  Heuzé later applied the same formula to The Runaway Horse (1908), a highly successful comedy that was quickly remade by Biograph as The Curtain Pole (1909).  The Biograph film starred Mack Sennett as Monsieur Dupont, who was made up to  resemble a grotesque version of the dapper Linder.  This funny and energetic film set Sennett on a path that would eventually lead the young filmmaker to launch the Keystone studio. 

    Let's look at a few stills from Deed's films.

    This is a still from the 1910 comedy Foolshead, Victim of His Honesty (originally released in Italy under the title Cretinetti vittima della sua onesta).  In the film, Deed finds a handbag on the street and attempts to turn it in as lost property at a police station.  Unfortunately, the police have little interest in the handbag and compel Deed to wait among a menacing rogue's gallery.

    Foolshead, Victim of His Honesty (Cretinetti vittima della sua onesta)

    This is a still from the 1911 comedy Foolshead, Lady of Company (released originally in Italy under the title Cretinetti dama di compagnia).  The plot was not the comedian's most original.  A wealthy man will not allow Deed into his home to spend time with his daughter, which drives the young woman into a state of melancholy.  The father is determined to cure his dispirited daughter of her loneliness.  He dispatches a note to an employment agency to provide his daughter with a lady companion.  However, the daughter intercepts the note and notifies Deed that they can be reunited if he comes to her home disguised as the skirted companion.

    Foolshead, Lady of Company(Cretinetti dama di compagnia)

    Here are further stills from this period.

     Foolshead's Christmas (Come fu Che l'ingordigia rovino il Natalie di Cretinetti) (1910)

    Foolshead Marries Against His Will (Cretinetti sposo suo malgrado) (1910)

    The Fashionable Sport (Gli sport alla moda)(1910) 

    Foolshead Receives (Cretinetti riceve)(1910)

    Foolshead as a Porter (Cretinetti facchino)(1910)

    Foolshead, Volunteer of the Red Cross  (Cretinetti volontario della Croce Rossa)(1910)

    Two Girls Are in Love with Foolshead (Le due innamorate di Cretinetti) (1911)

    Foolshead, Wrangler for Love (Cretinetti attaccabrighe per amore)(1911)


    By 1914, Deed's films were no longer being exhibited in the United States.  The success of the Keystone comedies prompted Hollywood studios to accelerate the production of comedy films and American exhibitors were more than content to occupy their programs with this new homegrown product. 
    At this time, Deed made an effort to grow up on screen.  He went from playing an aimless, childish idiot to playing an uptight, obsessive bourgeois gentleman.  This type of character is on display in the 1914 comedy Boireau enragé fumeur.  Deed feels compelled to smoke cigars incessantly, but his fiancé insists that he refrain from smoking during a visit to her parents' home.  Deed, no matter how hard he tries, cannot resist smoking.  He puffs furiously on a cigar whenever no one is looking and, every time that he is suddenly confronted by his fiancé or her parents, he acts quickly to find someplace to hide the cigar.  At one point, he hides a cigar under his hat, which causes smoke to emit from the top of his head.  He later drops a cigar down the boot of another guest, which burns the poor fellow's foot. 

    Obsessive behavior is also on display in Le Rocking-chair de Boireau (1914).  Deed expects to relax in a rocking chair during a transatlantic voyage on a luxury cruise ship.  Unfortunately, he finds himself repeatedly dislodged from the chair through a variety of mishaps and disagreements.  Still, he cannot be dissuaded from enjoying a nap in the cozy rocker.  At one point, he wrests the chair away from a woman and runs off with his prized possession rather than give it up.  His dizzying race around the ship causes a great deal of disruption for other passengers.  The quartermaster is furious when he finally captures Deed.  Without a hint of mercy, he shuts the undesirable passenger and his chair into a barrel, which he proceeds to toss overboard.  The film ends with Deed quietly napping in the chair on the sandy shores of a tropical island.

    The comedian's style in one-reel comedies had been frantic, but he managed to relax his style to a slight extent when he graduated to two-reel comedies.  One of his two-reel comedies was the 1915 film Fear of Zeppelins (originally released in Italy under the title La paura degli aeromobili nemici).  By this time, the German military was making extensive use of Zeppelins in bombing raids on the Allied Powers.  Deed, who saw nothing wrong with transforming widespread panic into riotous humor, devised a plot based on the Zeppelin threat.  Deed starts out in the film as a joyful groom, but his joy turns to fear when he comes across a poster warning of a potential Zeppelin attack.  While guests prepare for the wedding dinner, Deed gathers buckets of water to put out any fires that might be caused by the bombs.  Not sure that he has collected enough water in the buckets, he fills a bathtub with water and pushes the bathtub into the middle of the dining room.  The dinner is interrupted by a horde of delivery men who, on Deed's instructions, have brought sandbags to fortify the building against a bomb blast.  A member of the wedding party is upset by these disruptions and gets into a shoving match with Deed.  A melee erupts as others become caught up in the battle.  As people clobber each other with the sandbags, the sandbags split open and spill sand onto the banquet.

    Later, when Deed carries his bride over the threshold of the wedding suite, he must maneuver around an obstacle course of water-filled buckets and basins to get her to the bed.  Before he has a chance to kiss his bride, he hears a cab driver honking his car horn, which he mistakes for an air raid alarm.  He panics believing that the city is now, for sure, under attack by Zeppelins.  He desperately persists to follow the instructions in a Zeppelin defense flier, but everything he does brings about further havoc for himself, his bride and his guests.

    Deed's ability to refine his style was put to the test when, in 1916, he produced a 4-reel feature called Cretinetti and the Brazilian's riding boots (originally released in Italy under the title Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano).  The film is lost today, but production stills suggest that the film was punctuated by the comedian's usual frantic action.  The film provided Deed with a formidable adversary, Bartolomeo Pagano.

    Cretinetti e gli stivali del Brasiliano (1916)

    Pagano was a muscular action star who, at the time, was appearing as a Hercules-like hero, Maciste, in an immensely popular sword-and-sandal series.  It was, in a way, a circus routine - strongman versus clown.  Other films had shown that no good could come from trifling with Pagano.

    Film historian Gino Moliterno reported in his book The A to Z of Italian Cinema that Cretinetti and the Brazilian's riding boots turned out to be "extremely popular" in Italy.  Here are additional images from the film.


    Deed was overshadowed by the many comedians that followed him, but he was a funny and inventive filmmaker who inspired a number of popular comedians.  His direct influence can be found in the work of Buster Keaton and Larry Semon.  Any destructive bungler in films owes a debt to Deed.  It is to give Deed appropriate recognition that I have persistently written about him in books and articles.  Deed will be a prominent subject in my forthcoming book on the history of the manchild comedian, I Won't Grow Up!.

    The photos featured in this article were taken from the digital online photo archive of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema.

    Also, I have added strangely intriguing photos from Una strana avventura di Cretinetti (1911) to a previous article, "The Surreal and the Satirical: Early European Comedy Cinema."  Click here.

    You can read more about Deed in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.

    Let Us Die Together (Moriamo assieme!)(1910)

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    This was an exceptionally good year in film.  My favorite film was Boyhood,which many  critics have put at the top of their lists.  Today, I would like to draw attention to other quality films of the year that have not gotten as much attention.

    Two Days, One Night was one of the best films of the year.  The plot was simple and direct.  A factory worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), is recovering from a debilitating episode of depression.  Factory managers have told Sandra's co-workers that, if they allow them to eliminate Sandra's job, they could provide them with a substantial cash bonus.  Sandra now has 36 hours to lobby her co-workers to vote on her behalf to preserve her job.  She must rise above feelings of sadness and self-doubt to find inside of herself self-respect, confidence and determination.  She must fight for what she believes is right to avoid becoming a victim.

    This year, an excellent film program could be created with The One I Love, Honeymoon and Coherence.  The theme that these films share is clear.  These are three trippy horror indies that deliver shock and dread by combining the dangers of a cabin-in-the-woods horror film with the tensions of a marital breakup film.  The films feature troubled couples who are not sure that they know each other as well as they thought.  How well does any husband or wife know the person lying next to them at night?  Several classic horror films, including Rebecca (1940) and Rosemary's Baby (1968), explored the dread, the treachery and the paranoia of marriage.  The same premise also made Gone Girl a worldwide success this year.

    No time for a triple feature?  A pair of films that could be matched for an intriguing double bill is Cheap Thrills and 13 Sins.  Both films present desperate people who are willing to endure escalating dares and degradations for a big cash payoff.  These dark-humored films are nasty, bloody versions of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  To be honest, the nastiest and gore of these films would normally be too much for me (and I did in fact fast-forward through the more violent scenes), but the dilemmas were engrossing and the characters were sympathetic.

    It is rare that I could become so engrossed in a film that I wasn't bothered by the excess blood.  Yet, it happened again with The Rover, which features a grim and brutal loner (Guy Pearce) traveling through a post-apocalyptic Australian outback to recover his stolen car.  His cold, single-minded pursuit of the car thieves is much like Lee Marvin's cold, single-minded pursuit of his traitorous confederates in Point Blank (1967).  The Rover could have been titled Point Blank: The Apocalypse Edition.  Pearce is so single-minded that no other reasonable thought can find space in his head, which at times makes him come across as a comically brutal oaf.

    This was, in general, a good year for trippy low-budget films.  Other notable films in this category are Open Grave and Predestination.

    I am usually unmoved by big-budget CGI action films, but this year I found myself captivated by Dawn of Planet of the Apes.  Great story, great characters, and great special effects.

    This year was full of surprises for me.  Nothing was more surprising than the number of new feature comedies that made me laugh this year.  For the last few years, I have been grateful if I found one or two films that made me laugh.  This year, I found nine!  Let me provide a roll call.   

    Guardians of the Galaxy

    The Leggo Movie

    St. Vincent

    Land Ho!

    Trailer Park Boys: Don't Legalize It

    Dead Snow 2

    The Grand Budapest Hotel

    Knights of Badassdom


    The best documentary that I saw this year was Finding Vivian Maier, which presents a fascinating portrait of an immensely mysterious and immensely talented street photographer whose abundant work (over 100,000 photographs filling up several storage lockers) wasn't discovered until shortly after her death.

    It was a good year.  I hope that this trend continues through 2015.

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  • 12/30/14--16:35: Burn the Old Films

  • Appreciation for classic films is rapidly diminishing.  The greatest and most frustrating reason is that classic films have become incompatible with modern day political correctness.  This is the clear message delivered by the new guard of film critics that have come into prominence on the Internet.  This group is increasingly hostile to old films, which they believe promote evil notions and need to be relegated as quickly as possible to the nearest dustbin.  The more fanatical ones are eager to build a great bonfire with every old film they can find so that they can be rid of this pernicious material once and for all.

    I was never more aware of the looming threat of massive film burnings until I encountered the outrage over NBC's recent revival of the 1954 musical "Peter Pan."  Internet critics immediately amassed in full force against the project because any theatrical property that is sixty years old has to be insensitive, intolerant and wrongheaded.  Salon's Sonia Saraiya didn't mince words.  She condemned the "Peter Pan" story for one great problem - it was "overwhelmingly white."  She said that the story, which was adapted from a 1904 London play, could not help but reflect the "social norms of a bunch of long-dead white Brits." She thought that it would best serve society if this old white man's story was forgotten altogether.  "Why on earth did NBC decide to do this show?" she asked.  She advocated for children’s fables to be "unpacked and retold to include more female and minority perspectives."  Her comments reflect an opinion held by the "us vs. them" types in her community that female and minority perspectives are the true and only driving force in today's culture. 

    It is racist and stupid to complain that "Peter Pan" is overwhelmingly white just as it would be racist and stupid to complain that The Seven Samurai is overwhelmingly Japanese.  This is the person who wrote the original "Peter Pan" novel and play.

    He is, as you can see, a white man.  He did, as one would expect, provide the perspective of a white man.  Why should that be wrong?  Saraiya comes across as more than a little racist.  The writer's racism has turned up in other articles.  She expressed a clear aversion to white people in her review of HBO's The Leftovers, which provoked a response from the Washington Free Beacon.  Last month, Saraiya let it be know that she dislikes Christmas films in which angels walk around on earth "mostly to set white people up in small-town romances." 

    When the "Peter Pan" musical was originally staged in 1954, director Jerome Robbin emphasized the comical aspects of the story's Indian characters.  Activist critics who now look back on this production deem its portrayal of Indians as intolerably offensive.  I would call these critics oversensitive, but this would suggest that they have actual compassion for Indians.  The truth is that, when these people note the violations listed in their official political correctness handbook, they are acting as coldly as a traffic cop who cites a regulation for a broken taillight.  For all their sound and fury, they lack a true emotional attachment to the many rules that they espouse.  The protests have become nothing more than the cranky noises of privileged people who have no real problems in life.  I can no more see an Indian being threatened by Neverland's Indian princess, Tiger Lily, than I can see myself, as an Italian American, being threatened by Chico Marx. 

    The notion that "Peter Pan" is a threat to Saraiya and others gives you some sense of the kind of people we’re talking about here.   Didn't President Obama say something like that about North Korea's overheated opposition to Sony's The Interview

    Let me lay out the specific complaints against "Peter Pan."  Willa Paskin of Slate was offended that the Indians in the musical wore loincloths.  Presumably, it was her concern that the loincloths made the Indians look primitive.  But Indians did, in fact, wear loincloths.  Besides, Peter Pan doesn't look any more ready for modern civilization dressed in his green breeches.  Many critics were offended that the Indians said "ugh."  But evidence exists that Indians did say "ugh."  Detractors expressed their displeasure that Sondra Lee, the actress who so wonderfully portrayed Tiger Lily, was blonde.  But these Indians were never intended to be seen as fully realized, authentic Indians.

    Having Indian characters say "how" and "ugh" is seen by the sensitive folk as demeaning because it reduces Indians to monosyllabic savages.  Eva Gruber, author of Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness, believes this limited vocabulary "denies Native people communicative abilities."  As a child, I assumed that the Indians had no reason to speak fluently to a white man because the white man did not understand their language.  I perceived Indians as savage because they scalped people.  Tiger Lily, who does not scalp a single person, is sweet and lovely and not at all savage. 

    I resent being told that I am evil if I enjoy this musical number.  If loving you is wrong, Sondra, I don't want to be right.

    It was mostly Indians featured in comedy films that said "ugh" and "how."  These characters drew laughs in interactions with Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges, and Ma And Pa Kettle.  The stereotypical Indian was further exaggerated in cartoons, including a 1938 Popeye cartoon called Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh.  If we banned all of the films that have Indians speaking crude English, we would be getting rid of a significant portion of our film history.  And for what?  No one, not even a six-year-old child, can take this Hollywood Indian-speak seriously. 

    This is not to say that "how" and "ugh" did not have legitimate origins in American history.  Several American Indian tribes, including the Muskogee, Creek, Seminole, Omaha and Sioux, used "how" to express affirmation or assent.  The word was spelled in a variety of ways, including ho, hau, hvo, howo and haugh.  The last spelling was used a number of times in James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel "The Last of the Mohicans."  The bestselling novel popularized the word.  It is similar to what happened to a line of dialogue included in Charles Dickens' novel "Great Expectations."  Very British Joe Gargery is so happy to see his old friend Pip that he cries out, "Pip, Pip, old chap!"  This innocuous remark became a stock phrase used by comedians to caricature old British gentleman.  No one is safe from the satirist's daggers.

    Some have said that, over time, Fenimore's "haugh" got transformed into "ugh."  But this is not necessarily true.  The word "ugh" may have been another separate word used by Indians.  Michael Johnston Kenan, who assisted U.S. treaty commissioners at Broken Arrow in the Creek Nation, made mention of the word in his writings.  He wrote, "I was particularly surprized by the simultaneous — & clearly, expressed responses or guttural ‘ugh’s, of the entire Council.  This appeared to be the word of assent or approval that every member uttered, as the speakers rounded or clinched as it were, their statements or inferences — It was as much as ‘yes’ — ‘that’s so’, or their equivalent meaning."

    As a boy, "Pan" creator J. M. Barrie was influenced by boys' adventure novels, including "The Last of the Mohicans" and R. M. Ballantyne's "The Coral Island."  The latter novel detailed the story of three boys shipwrecked on a South Pacific island.  While trying to stay alive on the island, the boys endure dangerous encounters with pirates and cannibals.  Adventure novels of this sort inspired role-playing games among boys.

    These clamorous critics either don't understand or don't approve of boys' fantasy stories.  But that's all that "Peter Pan" really is.  A popular theory exists that the fairies who brought Peter to Neverland created the various inhabitants of the island as playmates to the rambunctious little boy.  This is the reason that the characters are something out of a little boy's imagination - Indians, mermaids and pirates.  This supports the notion that the Indians are not authentic Indians.  What would authentic Indians be doing on Neverland island?  The Atlantic's Sarah Laskow wrote, "This was the cast of characters that populated turn-of-the-century playtime in Britain, and in the play, as one New York Times reviewer wrote in 1905, 'Mr. Barrie presents not the pirate or Indian of grown-up fiction but the creations seen by childish eyes.'"  The upcoming feature film Pan will make it clear that these Indians are fantasy characters.  Laskow described the new natives' dress as "a sort of outlandishly bright array of pinks, purples, browns and bright blues that manages to be fantastic enough that no one would ever confuse this tribe with an American Indian tribe." 

    We keep being told by the media that the white man is becoming extinct and that his views are no longer relevant.  It follows in this line of thinking that all of the literature created by white men must become extinct as well.  The only chance that this work has to survive is if it manages, in some way, to be disguised or transformed.  This brings us back to the media's focus on the perspectives of women and minorities.  Many critics were delighted that NBC's "Peter Pan" included what they saw as gay subtext.  Saraiya approved of Walken "mincing up a storm during the dance numbers."  Paskin wrote, "[A]s people on Twitter had endless fun pointing out, there was the homoerotic subtext of the Lost Boys (who share one bathtub) and the very muscular pirates, who dance with each other in pantaloons.  Even the ticking crocodile, played by a person in a purple spandex suit, was suggestively slinky."  Saraiya was intrigued by the fact that the young women in the play "want[ed] sex" from a male character portrayed by a female actor (although she was bothered by the fact that this sexual attraction was, in her words, "depressingly unintentional").

    The idea of a gay Captain Hook is appealing because the work of old white men cannot, in any way, be allowed to survive in old white man form.  James Bond is the creation of another old white Brit, Ian Fleming.  An Internet campaign called for Sony to install a black actor, Idris Elba, as the next Bond so that Bond could continue to be relevant.

    Of course, the politically correct will get their black Bond and later complain that the image of a black man shooting guns and screwing women is racist. A Strong Female Character was created in the form of Modesty Blaise, a comic strip heroine who was designed to be a female James Bond. But, recently, a scientist was called sexist for appearing on television in a shirt that featured a Blaise-inspired design.

    You're damned if you do and damned if you don't with this group, which proves that their complaints are just a lot of noise.  I once owned a shirt with an illustration of hula girls. I suppose that makes me racist and sexist.

    I was sickened by something that I read in an Internet forum.  A young man complained that the only people he knew who voted for Mitt Romney was his grandfather and his grandfather's friends.  He said that he couldn't wait for old people to die.  He was so fanatically opposed to the Republican Party that he wished his Republican grandfather would die.  If a young person is so eager to bury his grandfather, how easy would it be for him to bury the books and films that have kept his grandfather amused?  Political zealots are the new religious zealots.  Man needs a grand belief system as much as he needs air to breathe.  It is man's greatest curse to be plagued by that terrible question, "What does it all mean?"  Turn away from Judaism or Christianity and something else is bound to take its place.

    The enthusiasts of gender politics have upended the traditional action film to give female characters a piece of the action.  It is an artistic issue as well as a money issue.  Where did this start?

    Feminists have long expressed their adoration of bad-ass female warriors, including Ripley, Xena and Buffy, and they demanded more of the same from filmmakers. The filmmakers, as they are wont to do, complied with the demand by turning out multiple carbon copies of these characters.  But now the feminists are unhappy.

    Tasha Robinson wrote about a "cultural push" to, in her words, "get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films."  The "cultural push" that Robinson talks about has in fact been an aggressive, no-holds-barred campaign to force change through pressure, manipulation and intimidation.  It is, in the very least, a cultural shove.  The most forced and stupid scene in the Strong Female Character category appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

    But Robinson takes issue with the Strong Female Character that is seen in so many films today.  She sees this type of character as a simplistic marketing device rather than a meaningful character.  She finds that the film companies are giving audiences "the Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character."  She quotes a number of other critics who have taken up this cause. 

    That's the problem when something becomes a trope.  All that a trope is, in the end, is a simplistic marketing device.  Give the people what they like and they'll come back for more.  But who is at fault for this?  This shallow, politically correct cut-out character known as the Strong Female Character only exists due to the protests of feminists.  No one likes these characters.  It's what happens when you mix political argument with art and entertainment.  It is a bag of salt poured into a cake mix.  The fact that the feminists who protested these characters into existence now want to protest these characters out of existence makes my head spin.  Protests do not produce characters.  Protests do not produce art.  Protests produce appeasements.  And, now, what do appeasements produce?  More protests.

    For the record, men don't want the leading lady of a film to be, as Robinson suggests, a "sex toy."  People who go to sit in a movie theatre want to be told a good story and a good story is not possible without well-developed characters.  Every character, whether major or minor, usually needs to have purpose and identity for a film to be effective.  It is great when a filmmaker creates the illusion that every character in his film, no matter how minor, has a real and full life outside the scope of the scene.  Personally, I enjoy when the haggard film noir hero stops at a luncheonette and says to the man who runs the place, "Hi, Charlie, how's the kids?"  Then, Charlie says something funny about his son or daughter.  Let's call it the S.Z. Sakall Principle.  If the luncheonette owner must have an inner life, you can be assured that the leading lady should have one, too. 

    Robinson said that she is concerned with the way that women are portrayed today in mainstream films, but what she meant by the examples of films that she provided was that she was concerned with the way that women are portrayed in mainstream action films.  But, admittedly, women have traditionally played a less substantial role in the action film.  It's just the nature of the story.  In action films, conflicts are externalized, physical threats are prevalent, and muscular solutions are required.  Robinson touches on this point, but she ultimately rejects it.  She demands inclusion and equality for women in action films as if it is a Constitutional right.  Oddly, this issue does touch on the matter of equal pay because action films are the blockbuster films.  This is where women in the film industry can make big money.  If women cannot play key roles in the production of action films, then it could have a drastic affect on the money they earn compared to the money that their male colleagues earn.  That argument would make total sense except for the fact that the traditional elements of storytelling have nothing to do with back-end revenue. 

    Robinson identified the true Strong Female Character as "someone with her own identity, agenda, and story purpose."  But she also acknowledged that storytelling involves a hero's journey.  This is, in the end, a personal journey that requires a hero to assume responsibility to resolve an important conflict in their life.  In a film with a male action hero, it can create an unwanted distraction to allow the wife or girlfriend to have her own agenda. 

    Action films have for the last hundred years been male-oriented entertainment.  Action films and now video games stand in place of the boys' adventure novels that Barrie had loved so dearly in his childhood.  But, wrongly, boys are no longer allowed to have their adventure stories.  They are not allowed their own private space to indulge their desires and fantasies.  These women insist on an aggressive expansion into this male-dominated territory.  This has become, in this cultural war, a form of Lebensraum.  When CGI gets good enough, they will alter The Dirty Dozen to substitute Trini López with a buffed-up Reese Witherspoon.

    Society has long made it a man's job to prove his strength and capability to prospective mates.  For centuries, a man was burdened with the responsibility to be provider and protector and the stories that he read were designed to provide him with the inspiration and direction that he needed to take on these difficult roles.  It has also been argued that video games can provide young men with a catharsis for their natural aggressive impulses.  It is fine if women do not like these games because women are not supposed to like these games.  These games are not for them.

    Can a woman find the same release and direction when she watches an action film or a violent video game?  Manohla Dargis of The New York Times remembered a time in the 1970s "when my sisters, mom and I would convene in front of the television to watch Wonder Woman fighting for our rights in her satin tights, as the goofy theme song put it."  She added, "I don’t remember much about the show, but I do know that the vision of this strong woman triumphing with flowing hair and bulletproof bracelets delighted us."  I don't know if this story convinces me that a six-year-old girl can become enthralled watching an old John Wayne war movie.  The Duke's Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) was specifically designed to appeal to boys and men.

    It would have seemed ridiculous at the time if the film's leading lady, Adele Mara, proved her strength by punching out Forrest Tucker.

    What is happening with these action films is a lot like what has been happening with video games.  Take a look at the GamerGate controversy, a feminist conspiracy to destroy the male-dominated world of the gamers.  The logic of feminists was, plainly, that video games in their current form promote violence and sexism and this meant that video games must be destroyed.  Journalists went on a campaign to insult and shame gamers for their preferences in entertainment.  Milo Yiannopoulos, an Associate Editor at Breitbart London, brought up emails that were leaked to him from a secret mailing list called GameJournoPros.  He wrote,
    The emails proved that dozens of senior journalists from competing publications were colluding — as in the JournoList scandal in 2010 — to push political and “social engineering” agendas in their coverage and blackball writers who tried to speak out about corruption in the press.

    This was the proof that gamers had been waiting for: the gaming press really was rotten, as they had suspected for years.  For a decade, games journalists had been insulting their own audience with lofty put-downs and boring them to death with earnest political treatises.  The GameJournoPros disclosure provided momentum for GamerGate, which became a full-scale consumer revolt against malpractice in the games press and a rejection of that vindictive, politicised coverage.

    Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Look closely [at Gamergate] and you can see all the promise of our hyperconnected society devolving into a shrill cacophony of endless infighting.  What a waste of an era."

    The publishing field is dominated by women.  But this field is treated differently.  No one monitors the publishing field to assure diversification.  No one criticizes a female agent or a female editor who makes it clear in submissions guidelines that they will not consider male-oriented novels.  Why?

    It should be made clear that women in no way had a bad year in films.  A woman's perspective was provided in several acclaimed films, including Wild, Still Alice, Obvious Child, Big Eyes, and Two Days, One Night.  The women in these films acted admirably in resolving serious personal problems.  What did men get?  They got the dark Birdman and the darker Nightcrawler.  If this is a competition (which I don't see it as), women are winning.

    Classic films are now defined mostly by their treatment of women and minorities.  These new critics are unable to review Swing Time (1936) without devoting a large portion of the review to discussing a blackface number performed by Fred Astaire.  Film critic Alex Cranz titled his review of the film "Swing Time: A Gorgeous Film Complicated By Racism."  So, now, someone going on the Internet to learn about Astaire will come away thinking that Astaire was an old racist who went around high-stepping in blackface.  The Dissolve's Matthew Dessem claimed that Buster Keaton's The Playhouse could not be particularly beloved today because it featured a blackface routine.  Personally, I refuse to be shamed into disliking Keaton because he performed a blackface routine.

    Movie Morlocks, a blog sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, is designed for classic movie lovers.  I expect to come to this blog to get away from the classic film haters.  But, the other day, I was taken aback by a review of Bachelor Mother (1939) written by Movie Morlocks' Susan Doll.  The plot of Bachelor Mother involves a salesgirl (Ginger Rogers) who sees an abandoned baby on the steps of an orphanage and acts quickly to take the baby inside the orphanage before it can roll down the steps.  The problem is that, once she takes possession of the baby, she can't get anyone to believe that the baby is not her's.  Doll took time out of her review to make the following qualification: "As much as I love Ginger Rogers, and as accepting as I am of old-school gender politics from the Golden Age, there are scenes in this film that make me cringe."  Doll was outraged that none of the other characters were willing to listen to what this woman had to say.  She found herself unable to laugh at a film in which a woman was so powerless.  Is this really a serious complaint?  No one listens to what Cary Grant has to say in Arsenic and Old Lace.  No one listens to what Eddie Bracken has to say in Hail, the Conquering Hero.  This is something that happens in a farce.  I could not watch a classic film sitting next to someone who is periodically cringing and spouting off their views about "gender politics."  The cringers are worse than the haters.

    A film doesn't even need to be seventy years old to be dumped into the dustbin along with all of the other films deemed by these critics as unpleasantly outdated.  In 2014, the staff of The Dissolve had a roundtable discussion about The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005).  The group generally admitted that they found nothing discomforting about the film when it was originally released in 2005, but they had very different feelings about the film now that they came to examine it "nine years after the fact."  Nathan Rabin insisted, "[T]here are a lot of things in 40-Year-Old Virgin that are just plain offensive from the standpoint of 2014."  Rabin indicated that, to see the film "through the prism of 2014 identity politics and cultural sensitivity," it felt like a "period piece."  He pointed out particular scenes that would not "[make] the final cut in 2014."  He said that, because "the culture has evolved and become more sensitive," a film that he thought was "sweet [and] fundamentally gentle" in 2005 now came across to him as abrasive.  Scott Tobias suggested that, because we are living in a "much more culturally sensitive time," we cannot look back at a film from a bygone era without opening "cans of worms."  Of course, the idea that 2005 is a bygone era indicates that the world is changing faster than we can absorb it, which cannot be a good thing.  A culture that undergoes rapid and severe fluctuations cannot possibly sustain a legacy as evocative as motion pictures, which delivers a wide variety of ideas and messages.  What I find discomforting is the idea that, after nine years, a popular comedy film could be subjected to a radical reassessment and ultimately be abandoned for the alleged vice of regressive humor.  Tobias made reference to the "cultural-thinkpiece apparatus" that is in place today.  These are the torch-bearing fanatics that want to burn old films. 

    Be assured that, as society becomes more sensitive, dialogue and situations that are inoffensive today will be offensive tomorrow.  Buy a DVD to a film made twenty years ago.  Listen to the director's commentary and count the number of times the director says, "We couldn't do that today."  The leading man grabs the leading lady around her shoulders and, while the woman squirms in his grip, he thrusts himself forward and roughly kisses her.  Despite her initial resistance, the woman becomes pleasantly excited and kisses the man back passionately.  "We'd be killed if we did something like that today," says the director.  The  sexual politics of the eighties gave way to the sexual politics of the nineties, which gave way to the sexual politics of the new millennium, and so on and so forth.  And who knows what sexual politics will be a few years from now?  Art needs to be immune from constant social upheaval.

    Political correctness affects a wide range of films.  How about film noir?  No way, Bogart smokes too much.

    How about the musicals?  This M-G-M musical, Neptune's Daughter (1949), is now taboo because it features a musical number that is, in the words of one critic, "date-rapey."

    You show them a film and they will find something wrong with it.

    Some old people are no better, believing that any film that is made today must be crap, but at least old people avoid the films that displease them rather than engage in a bitter campaign of censorship.

    Reference Sources

    Cranz, Alex.  "Swing Time: A Gorgeous Film Complicated By Racism."  FemPop (March 1, 2012).

    Dargis, Manohla.  "In Hollywood, It’s a Men’s, Men’s, Men’s World."  The New York Times (December 24, 2014).

    Dessem, Matthew.  "The Gag Man."  The Dissolve (April 24, 2014 ).

    Doll, Susan.  "Christmas with Ginger Rogers."  Movie Morlocks (December 22, 2014).

    Koski G., Rabin N., Robinson T. and Tobias S.  "Sex, improv, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin."  The Dissolve (July 30, 2014).

    Laskow, Sarah.  "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe."  Smithsonian Magazine (December 2, 2014).

    Lepore, Meredith.  "Is Publishing The Most Competitive Industry for Women?"  The Grindstone (April 12, 2012).

    Paskin, Willa.  "Peter Pan Live! Was So Bad and Also So, So Good." Slate (December 5, 2014).

    Robinson, Tasha.  "We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome."  The Dissolve (June 16, 2014).

    Saraiya, Sonia.  "From 'A Royal Christmas' to 'Merry Inkmas': Your guide to the hellscape of Christmas-themed programming."  Salon (December 14, 2014).

    Saraiya, Sonia.  "The boggling mixed signals of 'Peter Pan Live!': Why on earth did NBC decide to do this show?"  Salon (December 5, 2014).

    Schwyzer, Hugo.  "Why the 'End' of White Men Is Actually Good for White Men."  Jezebel (November 13, 2012).

    Yiannopoulos, Milo.  "I'm Writing a Book about #GamerGate."  Breitbart London (December 15, 2014).

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  • 05/31/14--19:41: Merry Jerry

    George Ovey starred as "Merry Jerry" in more than 100 Cub Comedies from 1915 to 1917.  He stood with both of his feet pointed inwards just like a later Jerry. 


    Here is a few production stills, ads and articles for the series.



    An Oriental Spasm (1915)

     Jerry's Busy Day (1915)


    The Hold-up (1915)

    Taking a Chance (1915)

    Jerry in the Movies (1916)

    Jerry's Big Game (1916)

    Jerry's Millions (1916)

    Be Sure You're Right (1917)

    Jerry's Brilliant Scheme (1917)

    As clever reveal gag opens an unidentified Ovey comedy from 1917.

    This is an older and wiser Ovey in a Three Stooges comedy.

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    Wise-cracking Ted Healy, whose comic performances enhanced vaudeville programs, Broadway productions and major motion pictures, was a prominent, well-respected entertainer of the 1920s and 1930s.  But even the most talented and esteemed stars can easily be forgotten by the public.  This is a good reason to extol Bill Cassara's Nobody's Stooge: Ted Healy, a well-researched new biography that places the long-neglected Healy back into the spotlight.

    Healy is best known today for his association with the Three Stooges, but Stooges fans have had a hard time agreeing on the importance of his role in Stooges' history.  Healy has been called the originator of the Stooges.  He's listed that way in his Wikipedia profile.  Some prefer to use the word "creator," but this offends people as it suggests that Healy was a god-like figure who endowed the Stooges with their very life while cloistered away in a desolate mountain laboratory.  Others will only acknowledge that Healy brought the Stooges together by hiring them as his comic foils.  This group refers to Healy as the organizer of the Stooges.  Still others refer to him as the Stooges' mentor, which means that he simply worked with the Stooges and a few of his notions about comedy rubbed off on them.  Originator, organizer, mentor.  We will never know for sure how important he was to the Stooges. 

    Healy likely contributed more to the Stooges' act than most Stooges fans imagine.  To start, the Stooges started out as part of a vaudeville entertainment package that was carefully conceived by Healy.  He designed the Stooges to be clownish gremlins, causing mayhem as they repeatedly disrupted his act.  Didn't they remain clownish gremlins throughout their career?  And look at Healy's work.  When you watch him in his MGM films, Healy spouts lines that later became catchphrases of the Stooges - "Spread out!" and "I'm a victim of circumstance!"  He displayed the sort of gruff mannerisms that were later adopted by Shemp.  Moe, Larry, Shemp and Curly no doubt developed their comic personas on their own.  Moe is credited with having written much of the Stooges' early material.  But Healy no doubt contributed significantly to the shape and form of the team.  You can see from the following clips that these performers were cut from the same cloth.


    The Stooges were fortunate in that they had a number of clever individuals who helped to bring their unique talents to the fore.  What would the Stooges have been without Columbia director Del Lord?  The Stooges truly created magic when they teamed up with Lord, who combined the Stooges' stage personas with a freewheeling style of comedy that he had perfected in his days at Sennett.

    Healy had busy career in Hollywood.  He appeared in thirty feature films in four years.  The book makes it clear, though, that Healy was too unsociable and self-destructive to maintain a long-lasting career in Hollywood.  He died of acute toxic nephritis, a condition that was caused by his excessive drinking. 

    Much information is provided in Cassara's exhaustively researched book.  It was intriguing to learn that one of Healy's friends was Frank Fay, another big-time stage comedian who did not know how to play well in Hollywood.  If they had stuck around, Healy or Fay could have been wise-cracking their way through The Ghost Breakers (1940) or My Favorite Blonde (1942) instead of their protégé Bob Hope.  This is not to diminish Hope's talent.  He was more likable and engaging on screen than either the abrasive Fay or the even more abrasive Healy.  But the point could be made that Hope rose out of their burnt ashes.

    Cassara is to be especially commended for putting to rest false rumors that Healy was murdered by a mob enforcer for gambling debts.  The official investigation was credible and thorough.  The rest is just gossip and myth. 

    This book deserves attention for offering a rediscovery of the forgotten Ted Healy.  The author provides the straight and complete story of Healy, which makes this book worth reading.

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  • 02/04/15--08:19: The Marcel Perez Collection
  • Robinet Is Jealous (1914)

    My boundless love of silent film comedy made it impossible for me to resist purchasing The Marcel Perez Collection.  The collection includes ten short films starring and directed bythe funny andclever Marcel Perez.

    Robinet makes a tour of Italy cycling (1912)
    The first five films were produced in Italy between 1911 and 1914.  European entertainers played a dominant role in the early history of film comedy.  Perez stands out among his vastly talented peers by combining the expressiveness and charm of Max Linder with the goofiness and aggressiveness of André Deed.

    Robinet is a Real American (1914)

    The best of the DVD's Italian films is Robinet is Loved Too Much By His Wife (1912).  At the start of the film, Perez expresses his growing frustration with his overly attentive wife.  His wife has, for all of her care and affection, become an annoyance to him.  The worst part of having his wife cling to him is that he is unable to enjoy his occasional dalliances with other fair ladies.  French and Italian comedies of the period were more liberal on the subject of adultery than American comedies.  A charming, likable fellow could breezily cheat on his wife and the filmmakers would not find it necessary to have the character punished for his actions.  It makes this type of film seem, by modern standards, subversive.

    Robinet Is Jealous (1914)

    The remaining five films were produced in the United States between 1916 and 1921.  A Bathtub Elopement (1916), which was filmed in Florida, is a curious effort by Perez.  The filmmaker, who had specialized in European boulevard farces, was trying his best to approximate the rural comedies that were popular in the United States at the time.  Any comprehensive study of special effects in film comedy should include an examination of A Busy Night (1916), which uses split-screen photography along with clever editing and staging to feature Perez in sixteen different roles.  I regard this film so highly for its technical aspects that I wrote about it at length in my last book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.

    The American comedies of this group are longer and better developed.  In You're Next (1919), Perez is tossed out of a boarding house due to unpaid rent.  Police arrive on the scene when they learn that Perez's furniture is blocking traffic.  The genial officers take pity on the gregarious evictee and allow him take up residence in one of their jail cells.

    Perez means to bring levity to the jail by banging out a lively tune on his piano.  Men and women are released from their holding cells for a merry dance party.  The most amusing part of the scene occurs when Perez has to greet the jail's unnerving collection of robbers and murderers, including a notorious "mother-in-law strangler."  The women look even rougher than the men.  Perez swallows hard when a sturdy little gal named Baby Lobster gives him a flirtatious wink.  But, because the inmates are more interested in a breakout than a ballad, Perez's effort to create frivolity only succeeds in creating a riot.  Good fellowship has its limits.

    Later, Perez meets up with a pretty young woman (Dorothy Earle) who has also been evicted from her home.  Earle, who was Perez's wife, adds a great deal of charm to the comedian's American films.  It is surprising that the actress didn't work outside of the Perez series. 

    The picture quality of these restored prints is exceptional.  I have, in my study of silent comedy films, seen so much terribly degraded prints that it is a relief to enjoy prints of this high quality.

    I have been interested in Perez's work for the last five years.  It was not that I sought out his films at first.  The truth is that my introduction to Perez came about by mistake.  I was conducting research on André Deed when I came upon a film on YouTube that, according to the poster's description, featured Deed as a novice aviator.  The aviator, who is as clumsy as he is cocky, tears across the Paris skyline in a fish-shaped aircraft.  The film was imaginative and it was funny.  I later learned from Cole Johnson, a major authority on silent film comedy, that the errant aviator who made me laugh as he smashed up the City of Love was in fact played by Perez.  Cole sent me other Perez comedies that he had in his collection.  I will always be grateful to Cole for his generous support of my books and his kind efforts to better educate me on the subject of silent film comedy.  I benefited greatly from the photos that he contributed to my Lloyd Hamilton biography and my Funny Parts book, but I also valued the encouragement that he provided (always with affection and good humor) and the advice that he provided (always with knowledge and attitude).  I make a point to say this because, on January 23, Cole Johnson passed away.  I could not help but think of this good man as I was watched Marcel Perez, as clumsy and cocky as ever, create mayhem in the comedies featured on this DVD.

    Love gave strength to Robinet (1914 )

    Other highlights from the DVD:

    Robinet is Jealous features Perez being subject to a violent rubdown (much like Chaplin would later experience in his 1917 Mutual comedy The Cure).

    Perez secretly pursues a suspected spy while disguised as a pile of trash in Camouflage (1918).

    Perez gets a job at a film studio by imitating Chaplin in You're Next (1919).

    Perez plays a beaten-down husband in Sweet Daddy (1921).  As he admires the image of a beautiful woman featured on a billboard, the image magically comes to life.  Perez remained a fantasist throughout his career. 

    This is the box cover to The Marcel Perez CollectionClick here to purchase.

    I also recommend this biography of Perez written by Steve Massa.  Click here to purchase.

    From the press release: "DVD has 10 rare comedy shorts. . . sourced from the Library of Congress and EYE FIlmmuseum seen in new digital transfers and with new musical scores by Ben Model, who also produced the DVD.  The 100-page book has more than 50 rare photos from Perez's films."

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    My research on comedy routines had me poring through 1908 to 1921 editions of Moving Picture World to glean plot details from the magazine's "Stories of the Films" and "Comments on the Films" sections. It was fascinating to see the way that the trends in comedy films changed from year to year. Pivotal changes were clearly evident in the 1908 releases.

    A Pathé Frères comedy Une Belle-mere emballee (released in America as Runaway Mother-in-Law) is a slapstick style mother-in-law joke. The film opens with a mother-in-law barking orders at her family as they move into a new home. At one point, the woman pauses to take a rest on a two-wheeled cart loaded with family possessions. The woman accidentally slips the cart's brake loose and proceeds to ride the cart at rapid speed down a steep incline in the street.

    A trend in prank comedies produced a Vitagraph comedy called Buried Alive. A young man, bored with the sun and sand at Coney Island, has his friends hide him under a mound of sand so that he can play pranks on the other sunbathers. When a baby is placed on the mound, he heaves his stomach to make the baby bounce up and down. When sweethearts sit on the mound to kiss, he pops out of the sand and stares blankly at them until they have become thoroughly unnerved.

    An unlikely hero comes to the fore in the Lux comedy The Bewitched Tricycle. A thief looks to make a getaway by stealing a tricycle delivery cart, but he finds that he is unable to turn the handlebars to steer. The cart takes the thief on a wild ride through busy streets and finally delivers him into a lake, where he is apprehended by the police.

    A number of other fantasy comedies on the schedule made use of the novel effects offered by the film medium. In Wonderful Fertilizer, fertilizer gets into a little girl's drink and causes her to grow to the size of a giant. These imaginative and outright silly films are the forerunners to many later films. The Bewitched Tricycle and Wonderful Fertilizer can be linked, respectively, to The Love Bug (1968) and Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

    The general release schedule for 1908 shows that effects-driven comedies, the sole objective of which was to present impossible spectacle, were on their way to being replaced by slapstick comedies. The Bewitched Tricycle is interesting in that it attempted to combine the two forms - it had the wild action of Runaway Mother-in-Law and the magical action of Wonderful Fertilizer. But the magic was to contribute more subtly to the comedy in the coming years.

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  • 02/14/15--09:26: Bad Grief!

  • A person grieving the death of a loved one will resort to desperate measures to cope with their loss.  This idea has been explored in strange and disturbing ways in two recent films, Wake Wood and I Saw the Devil.  These films differ vastly from the more true-to-life Rabbit Hole (2010), in which people get past tragedy and heal in a a reasonable fashion.  Rabbit Hole is an excellent film (one of my favorite films of last year), but its realism worked against it in some quarters.  A number of critics numbed by the CGI that passes for modern drama or content with the immoral and emotionally flat characters of The Social Network were offended, maybe even threatened, by a film that showed characters working through deeply painful emotions and maintaining with love and duty the most significant relationships in their social network.  The film, for all its real emotion, was dismissed by many as grief porn.  But those haters in the mood for a film that addresses grief in a more fantastic manner need look no further.

    Wake Wood, with its ominously quiet townsfolk, fiery pagan rituals and child-coming-back-from-the-dead-wrong, is a combination of The Wicker Man and Pet Cemetery.  The strength of the film comes from its ability to be creepy and heartbreaking at the same time.  Like Rabbit Hole, Wake Wood is set into motion by the death of a young child.  The grieving parents, portrayed movingly by Aidan Gillen (The Wire) and Eva Birthistle (Waking the Dead), move to a distant town to escape memories of their daughter's death and start their lives anew.  But the couple soon learn that the local squire is able to conduct a ritual that can bring their daughter back to life for three days and allow them the closure necessary for them to accept her death and move on.  The viewer is given the sense from the start that something bad is going to happen to this couple for daring to play with fate.  As evil doings unfold, a grave lesson, or a lesson of the grave, is to be learned.  Insert your own Crypt Keeper cackle here.

    I Saw the Devil, unlike Wake Wood, disregards poignancy and moral to focus strictly on blood and gore.  Any message that is offered quickly becomes lost in pools of blood.  Wake Wood takes the terror approach, which is designed to provoke fear and suspense, while I Saw the Devil takes the horror approach, which is designed to provoke revulsion. 

    The film starts with a young woman (San-ha Oh) getting her car stuck on a dark, desolate road and calling on her cell phone for a tow truck.  While she us waiting for the truck, a hooded figure appears outside of the car and suddenly raises up a sledgehammer to smash open the windshield.  The director, Jee-woon Kim, is skillful in building up the tension.  The superbly stylishness cinematography provided by Mogae Lee further enhances the haunting mood of the scene.  But all of this talent can do nothing to elevate a story as gruesome and muddled as this one.  In the end, the terrifying opening promises much more than the film can deliver.

    The woman is tortured and murdered.  Her fiancé, played by Byung-hun Lee, is devastated when the woman's head is found floating in a river the next day.  Lee, a highly skilled and well-regarded federal agent, decides that he will hunt down the killer himself to enact revenge.  The agent soon gets hold of the killer and beats him mercilessly.  But then, after planting a GPS device on the psychopath, he lets him go so that he can catch him at another time and punish him all over again.  It is obvious from the start that Lee's catch-and-release scheme will go wrong.  Planting a GPS device on Choi hardly gives Lee control of the situation.  The plan might make sense if the killer had his hands chopped off so that he no longer was a threat and real escape was never possible.

    Min-sik Choi provides a chilling performance as a hulking homicidal maniac as unstoppable as Jason and as morally perverse as No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh.  Although Lee is supposed to be a super-cop, he seems greatly outmatched by Choi.  Lee's beating only makes the killer angry and, the angrier he gets, the more dangerous he becomes.  Unleashing this enraged beast on the general public cannot serve anyone's sense of justice.  The killer now, in this cat-and-mouse game with Lee, is able to come into his own and willfully slaughter anyone unfortunate enough to come into his blood-soaked path.  To be honest, I became so disgusted by all of the killings that I never made it to the end of the film.

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  • 03/30/15--11:58: Hollywood Madness!

  • Hollywood has been less than realistic in its depiction of mental illness.  This can be seen clearly in two films, A Beautiful Mind (2001) and As Good As It Gets (1997).

    A Beautiful Mind (2001) is a biopic of Nobel Award-winning mathematician John Nash.  The film opens at Princeton, where Nash is studying mathematics.  Nash is clearly withdrawn and unsocial.  He tends to avoid eye-contact with his fellow students. He often grins to himself as if he is enjoying a private joke.   Nash claims, in his defense, that people don't like him and he would do better to avoid them.  This, however, is not a notion supported within the film.  Those around Nash mostly express admiration of the math prodigy.  At first, students and teachers simply assume that he is too obsessed with his work to have interest in social interaction.   Even his most serious rival is generous in his assessment of Nash, who he simply sees as "mysterious."

    Nash continues to keep to his own thoughts until he meets his new roommate, Charles.  He becomes relaxed enough with Charles, who is funny and encouraging, to divulge to him his more intimate feelings and aspirations.  The film surprises viewers when it is later exposes Charles to be imaginary.  By then, Nash has fabricated other imaginary acquaintances, including Charles' young niece Marcie and a Department of Defense agent named William Parcher.  On the basis of these delusions, Nash is diagnosed with schizophrenia.

    People with schizophrenia do have difficulty telling the difference between what is real and what is imagined, but they do not have the spectacular hallucinations depicted in the film.  A schizophrenic person will not see, hear and touch people who do not exist.  Their hallucinations are generally auditory, usually represented by a chorus of voices.  The voices serve no purpose other than to berate the schizophrenic.  Louis Sass, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, explained, "[I]f I were schizophrenic, I might hear John and Mary saying, 'Okay, so why is Louis doing that now?' and then Mary would say to John, 'Oh, he's just a jerk, he always does that kind of thing.' They go back and forth, but sort of a commentary, often critical, on my ongoing behavior."  This critical commentary is only slightly evident in the film.  When Nash tries to ignore Charles, Charles tells him, "It's never going to work.  It's pathetic.  I'm ashamed of you."  A schizophrenic will not see a person who isn't there, but he may see an object, let's say a tree stump, and misinterpret it as being a person.  A schizophrenic described seeing a line of cars in the street and believing it was a giant caterpillar.  But auditory hallucinations are not as dramatic as the visual hallucinations that dominate the film.  A filmmaker will sacrifice the truth for drama every time.

    Like most schizophrenics, the real-life Nash did hear voices that mocked and argued with him.  At times, he thought the voices were coming from angels.  He came to believe that he was the Pope and the angels wanted him to come up with a mystical number that would prove the existence of God.  Grandiose delusions and paranoid delusions are common with the schizophrenia sufferer.  Nash's greatest delusion among many delusions was a longstanding belief that he was finding messages from extraterrestrials hidden in newspapers.  A friend and colleague asked Nash, "[H]ow could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof. . . how could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?"  Nash replied, "Because. . .the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did.  So I took them seriously." 

    In his portrayal of Nash, Russell Crowe exhibits clumsiness as an early sign of the disorder.  He becomes anxious and distracted after he loses at a board game called Weiqi.  When he stands up, he clumsily knocks over the game board.  This is misleading.  Medication for schizophrenia impairs coordination as a side effect, but the illness itself is not responsible for these type of actions.  Crowe is more authentic in his failure to look directly at other people.  It is due to deficits in attention processing that schizophrenics often fail to demonstrate common eye tracking.

    As the story continues, Nash grows increasingly violent and paranoid.  Frustrated by the slow progress of his work, he smashes his head through a window pane and pushes an oak desk out of a third-story window.  He reaches the climax of his violence and paranoia when he is confronted by a psychiatrist, Dr. Rosen, and becomes so aggressive that he must be restrained.  Dr. Rosen decides that he must forcibly institutionalize Nash to remove him from stressful environments.  The doctor initially medicates him with an antipsychotic, Thorazine, but after a violent episode, in which Nash slits open his wrists in search of an imaginary government implant, he subjects him to electroshock therapy five times a week for ten weeks.

    Nash can no longer rationalize his delusion when he realizes that one of his imaginary friends, the little girl Marcie, never grows old.  This is pivotal in getting Nash to cooperate with treatment.  The antipsychotics enable him to ward off the delusions, but they paralyze his intellect and make him sexually impotent.  This man, who once found great meaning in his work, feels lost and depressed when he is forced to stay home and do nothing.  His wife, having lost the trust and intimacy that she once had with her husband, grows distant from him.  Nash eventually refuses to take his medication, which triggers a relapse of his psychosis.  Parcher, the imaginary Department of Defense agent, now returns with a whole team of codebreakers, who set up their headquarters in his garage.  These delusions distract Nash while he's caring for his infant son.  The infant, who is left unattended in the bathtub, nearly drowns.

    In working through this crisis, Nash abandons his medication.  Nash and his wife decide to do their best to live with the peculiarities of his disease.  Nash allows the delusions to persist, but he fights off their control of him.  He later explains to a friend that he has simply become used to ignoring them.    The film was roundly criticized for simplifying schizophrenia in the same way that Rain Man (1988) simplified autism.  New York Times critic A.O. Scott criticized the film for turning Nash into nothing more than a "shy, lovable genius."  Dr. Ken Davis, chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said, "[T]he notion that willpower can really overcome schizophrenia is ludicrous."  

    A Beautiful Mind is similar to Silver Linings Playbook (2012), in which Bradley Cooper stops taking his medication and controls his behavior through force of will.  Silver Linings Playbook manages in its depiction of bipolar sufferer to focus on manic episodes and completely ignore depressive episodes.  It makes sense from an entertainment standpoint.  Manic episodes are so much fun that we should put a bunch of those in the film.  Depressive episodes are so terribly dreary that we should just leave those out.  But it simply isn't accurate.

    The message of A Beautiful Mind is that people with schizophrenia can be productive and successful with the proper support, but that support is defined as social support rather than medical support.  This is an issue that has been debated by experts in the field.  Dr. Steve Lamberti, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester, is the one lone medical authority who defends the film.  He alleges that the schizophrenia sufferer does have some control over the illness.  He said, "While one cannot simply will the disease away, many people do learn to cope effectively with schizophrenia." Lamberti added, "An environment that is structured, predictable and supportive is helpful for most individuals with schizophrenia. . . The importance of family support has been increasingly recognized in the field of psychiatry over the past 20 years, and new forms of family education and treatment have been developed."

    As Good As It Gets (1997) also emphasizes the importance of social support.  The main character, Melvin Udall, is tactless and self-obsessed.  He spends his day concentrating on his work and offers little in the way of social interaction.  He panics when another person reaches out to touch him.  He must regularly wash his hands with steaming hot water and a freshly unwrapped bar of antiseptic soap.  He checks and rechecks his door locks.  He goes to the same diner every morning, sits at the same table, and orders the same breakfast.  He sets aside the diner's utensils in favor of wrapped, disposable utensils.  He cannot walk down the street without avoiding cracks in the sidewalk.  His obsession with avoiding germs causes him to keep away from coughing children and to put on disposable plastic gloves before he touches a pay phone or opens a cab door.  In packing for a trip, he is fussy about folding and organizing his clothing.  Melvin, we learn, has been diagnosed as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    A person afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder experiences a continuous cycle of intrusive thoughts that urge them to perform various rituals.  The person knows that these rituals are meaningless and unreasonable, but avoiding the urge to perform them incites overwhelming stress and anxiety.  These intrusive thoughts tend to consume a great deal of their time and interfere with their daily lives.  They can, if allowed, get out of control and take over a person's life.

    Hollywood usually depicts people with this disorder with violent or comically affected behavior.  The latter was evident in the television series Monk, which derived inexhaustible comedy from the quirky behavior of obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk.  Like Melvin, these characters typically display grouchy dispositions.  They are sarcastic, bitter, and testy.  However, such behavior is not related to OCD, but a similarly named disorder known as Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder.  This is a personality style characterized by a harsh conscience and rigid behaviors.  These people have, based on their orderliness, parsimoniousness, and obstinacy, what Freud described as an "anal character."  Dr. Michael Jenike, a Harvard psychiatry professor, maintains, "No personality type is associated with OCD."  It is in fact the rituals, like avoiding cracks on a sidewalk, that strictly put Melvin in the OCD category.

    The National Institute of Mental Health reports that several medications have been proven helpful for people: clomipramine, fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, and paroxetine.  The institute also recommends therapy in which "the patient is exposed to whatever triggers the obsessive thoughts, and then is taught techniques to avoid performing the compulsive rituals and to deal with the anxiety."  Growing evidence indicates that OCD represents abnormal functioning of brain circuitry, most likely involving a part of the brain called the striatum.

    Melvin, though, is not receiving treatment.  He admits to having seen a "shrink," but the man became so frustrated and exhausted with Melvin that he stopped treating him.  Melvin emphatically refuses to take medication, at one point saying, "My doctor. . . told me that in 50 to 60 percent of the cases, a pill really helps.  I hate pills.  Very dangerous things, pills.  I'm using the word 'hate' here about pills."

    Melvin befriends Carol, a waitress, and Simon, a neighbor who is recovering from injuries that he suffered in a robbery.  His fixations diminish as he focuses on these other people.  He doesn't think to avoid sidewalk cracks or recheck his door locks.  Melvin tells Carol that she makes him "want to be a better man."

    The protagonists of A Beautiful Mind and As Good As It Gets are similar in many ways.  They are both work-obsessed.  They both do poorly interacting with other people.   They both find social talk exhausting.  They both find that they can be drawn out of their shell by a loving woman.  The films even include similar scenes in which the woman quietly caresses the man's cheek and kisses him.  The filmmakers set aside medical treatment to focus on personal relationships.  Film critic Darren Mooney called this a "conventional life-affirming narrative."  It is much like the overused plot in which a depressed widow or a bitter divorcee meets a wonderfully nurturing person and learns to love again.  A film cannot present satisfying drama when, ultimately, the hero is a prescription.  Filmmakers are willing to serve a story's dramatic needs by advocating personal strength and human contact as cures more effective than medication.  It doesn't matter to them if this significantly distorts reality. 

    Mental health issues are complicated.  When it comes to the care and treatment of mental health patients, the efficacy of medical science to bring about results remains questionable.  No magic pill can be used to rid a person of these terrible disorders.  But medication and therapy are far more useful than Hollywood films indicate.  It is more important to know that love will not cure bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, or OCD.

    Reference Sources 

    The American Experience (2002).  A Brilliant Madness.  A Yellow Jersey Films production.  Downloaded March 15, 2006, from

    Biondo, Brenda (1998, June 19-21).  OCD: The Doubting Disease.  USA Weekend Health.

    Fuertes, Janine R.  As Good as it Gets?: An Examination of the Mechanism and Mode of Treatment of Obessive-Compulsive Disorder.  Bryn Mawr College. 

    Schizan (anonymous schizophrenic) (2002, April 7).  A Beautiful Mind - A nice, brilliant, but misleading movie.  Downloaded from 

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  • 03/30/15--12:17: A Fat Kid and a Thin Kid

  • For years, I wanted to see Fireman Save My Child (1954).  The film was developed as a vehicle for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, but Costello got sick before principal photography began and Universal executives decided to continue production with other actors.  The actors that replaced Bud and Lou were fresh-faced studio contractees, Buddy Hackett and Hugh O'Brian.  O'Brian said that not much thought went into their casting.  He said that an executive essentially said, "Let's get the fattest kid and the thinnest kid."  The idea of Hackett and O'Brian acting as junior stand-ins for this iconic comedy team made this a film that I had to see.

    Last month, I was excited to find a DVD of Fireman Save My Child available on eBay.  After waiting forty years to see the film, all that I needed to do to get a copy was to click on the "Add to Cart" button.  I have to report, after finally seeing the film, that it was not worth the wait.  The film is sadly dull and predictable.

    The film, which is set in San Francisco during the 1910s, involves a rookie firefighter who has invented a fire extinguisher that he is sure with revolutionize firefighting.  Its comic business relies on every prop that you would expect to find in a firehouse.  Hackett first tangles with a fire pole, then a hose, and finally a trampoline.  The film has one original routine, which centers on a married couple played by former wrestler Henry Kulky and former beauty queen Adele Jergens.  Every time the fire truck swerves around a sharp curve outside the couple's apartment building, one of the firefighters is sent soaring into the couple's home.  The fact that these strange men keep turning up in his home increasingly upsets the hot-tempered husband, who is convinced that his pretty wife is having a multitude of affairs.

    Hackett does his best to approximate Costello's attitude and mannerisms, but he fails to be as funny or sympathetic as Costello.  Hackett convinced the director, Leslie Goodwins, to let him do part of his stand-up act during a dinner party scene.  This grim monologue may have gotten laughs in a nightclub, but it is out of place with the rest of the light-hearted film.  The pudgy, marble-mouth comic abruptly stands up in the middle of dinner to tell the other guests about his childhood.  He starts out talking about his birth.  He gripes that he and the other babies were not allowed to smoke in the nursery.  Then, he describes his poor relationship with his parents, who were always trying to get him to run away from home or jaywalk into a busy street.

    O'Brian said that the film made money for Universal and he and Hackett were asked to team up for a series of films.  Hackett's responsive was unequivocal.  "I work solo," he grumbled.  O'Brian, himself, told the executive that he wanted to be a serious actor.

    I mentioned on Facebook that I could not find anything about this film worth writing about.  Bart Rosenberg, a Facebook friend, pointed out that the film has the distinction of featuring two future cast members of the Batman television series.  Madge Blake plays the fire commissioner's wife and Stafford Repp makes a brief appearance as a coachman.  That's about as notable as Fireman Save My Child gets.

    Here are a couple of lobby cards for the film.

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  • 03/30/15--12:32: A Sneeze

  • Ben Turpin in He Looked Crooked (1917)

    Laurel and Hardy in Bonnie Scotland (1935)

    Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) 

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    Frank Daniels, an illustrious stage actor, came out of a brief retirement to make his film debut for Vitagraph in 1915.  In his association with Vitagraph, he starred in two feature films and nearly four dozen short comedies from 1915 to 1917.  He played a variety of regular characters, including Captain Jiggs, Kernel Nutt and Mr. Jack.

    The National Film Preservation Foundation posted one of Daniels' rare comedies, Captain Jinks, the Cobbler (1916), to their website.  If you would like to know more about Daniels, I recommend that you read the highly informative film notes that are provided.

    Here are a few other photos of Daniels.

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  • 03/30/15--13:25: *** ARTICLE BLOCKED ***
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    *** Note: Article removed by member request. ****



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  • 03/30/15--13:32: The Russian Reversal Joke

  • Lily Rothman recently outlined the history of an old stand-up joke on the Time website.  The joke is first known to have turned up on the 1958 Oscars.  Bob Hope, who had just returned from a tour in Russia, noted that there had been televisions in all the rooms of his Moscow hotel.  "Only, in Russia," he quipped, "the television watches you."  Arte Johnson later revived the joke on Laugh-In.  Johnson, in the guise of Eastern European immigrant Piotr Rosmenko, remarked, "Here in America, is very good, everyone watch television.  In Old Country, television watches you!"  In 1985, Yakov Smirnoff brought the joke into the Reagan era.  He said, "In America, you watch television.  In Soviet Russia, television watches YOU!!"  Variations of the joke eventually turned up.  One of the favorite variations went as follows: "In America, you can always find a party.  In Soviet Russia, party can always find you!" 

    Reference Source

    Rothman Lily.  "In Soviet Russia, the Oscars Host You."  Time (February 22, 2015).

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  • 03/30/15--13:54: Feminism in Middle-earth

  • In 2001, I went through an acrimonious divorce.  I was so devastated by the experience that I couldn't be bothered to maintain proper grooming habits or keep to a healthy diet.  I became so unkempt and out of shape that I frightened people wherever I went.  When I went to see The Lord of the Rings, kids threw popcorn at me because they thought I was a Balrog.  But I found myself heartened by The Lord of the Rings, which was able to move me on a deeply personal level. 

    Let us briefly examine the story.  Central to the story is an evil ring.  It is just a plain band of gold but it terrifies the hell out of everyone.  People see the ring and they sweat buckets.  Of course they do, is it lost on anyone that the ring looks like a wedding band?  This poor guy, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Woods), has been burdened with the ring and he's desperate to get rid of it.  After sharing a few hits on a bong, a group of manly buddies risk their lives to help Frodo take the ring to a fiery pit so he can pitch it in.  This is the only way to destroy its evil powers and be freed.  At the time, I imagined that the man who wrote the script must have gone through a divorce as bad as my own. 

    I realized that I misread the Ring trilogy by the time that I saw the last film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).  The trilogy was not at all about the vows and symbols that bind a man and a woman.  The films managed, by adopting decidedly feminist perspective, to wholly reject the notion of men and women engaging in committed relationships.  Marriage, what's that good for?

    I should at least be able to escape the harangue of feminists when I sit down to watch a fantasy adventure movie about knights, wizards, elves and dragons.  But, no, that’s not how it worked in this case.  Screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh worked tirelessly to interject feminists propaganda into Tolkien’s Middle-earth trilogy.  They were on a sacred mission.  One feminist blogger felt such devotion to Boyens‘ efforts that she dubbed the screenwriter "St. Philippa of the Screenplay."  

    Boyens made herself hero to feminists early on.  While writing the first movie, she decided that Tolkien had made elf princess Arwen too passive and she simply had to do something about that.  So, she took a heroic rescue scene performed in the book by a male swordsman and reworked the scene for Arwen, thereby transforming the enchanting royal lady into a sweaty, muscular Xena Warrior Princess.  Fans protested when they heard about this, which prompted director Peter Jackson to abandon the scene.  However, this did not deter Boyens and Walsh, who would continue to pursue their feminist agenda in less obvious ways. 

    Dominant in the feminist dogma is the belief that women are cheapened and fooled by romantic devotion to men.  This presented a problem for Boyen and Walsh as the story’s two leading ladies, Arwen and Eowyn, are willing to risk their lives for the love of a nobleman, Aragorn.  In the book, Eowyn confronts Aragorn as he prepares to ride toward the Paths of the Dead.  She fears for his death and wants to join him on his dangerous journey.  Eowyn falls into despair when Aragon rebuffs her.  Boyens sought to lessen Eowyn’s heartbreak and indicate factors other than Aragorn’s rejection as the reason for her tearful mood.  Boyens said that it weakened this woman to be “suicidal that some guy had ridden off and left her.”  Walsh added, “We didn’t want to victimize her in that scene.”  Let the feminist message go out to the world: To give your heart to a man and to shed a tear over his potential death is to be a victim.

    An important moment in the book occurs when Arwen decides not to flee to the safety of Rivendell and remain in Middle-earth in hope of Aragorn’s return from war.  She refuses to believe the two of them will never be together again and she is willing to wait for him even if it means sacrificing her immortality.  Boyens and Walsh changed this significantly in the movie.  They had Arwen leave for Riverdell and, en route, have a vision of a child she will bear if she marries Aragorn.  She decides to turn back and remain in Middle-earth not for Aragorn but for the child.  Boyens said that, without this vision, she could not see “why the hell” Arwen would have reason to stay.  A woman can never be motivated to make a great sacrifice for a man, even though it’s acceptable for a man like Aragon to repeatedly risk his life to protect his loved ones.  Devotion and sacrifice are serious burdens and serious burdens are to be born only by men, who are too thick-skulled to know better and too useless to otherwise matter.

    And this came from two women who admitted that, in reading the Tolkien books, the female character they related to the most was Shelob the giant spider.

    Films can be highly influential.  It is dangerous and immoral to sneak insidious propaganda into a seemingly innocent film.  Even when its message is out in the open, protest drama is invariably limited in its artistic value and its understanding of human character.  Protest drama is at most times boring and at other times irritating.

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  • 03/30/15--16:05: Scary Mirrors

  • Early films exploited an old superstition that a mirror could be a portal to a demon netherworld.  A demonic mirror could absorb human energy and even steal a person's soul.  It was believed at one time that an infant, whose soul was most vulnerable to a mirror's draw, should never be allowed to cast a reflection in a mirror. 

    In the early days of film, Pathé Frères produced a number of frightening mirror fantasies.  I recently came across three of these films while browsing the company's exhibitor catalog.  In the 1905 comedy Ah! la barbe! (later released in the United States under the title A Funny Shave), a man trying to shave is stunned to look into his bathroom mirror and see a big monstrous head staring back at him.  The man becomes so distressed that he finally smashes the mirror.

    In Miroir pour fiancés (1910), a loving young man and woman who are engaged to wed encounter a beggar, who presents them with a mirror that allows them a glimpse into their future.  The couple is distressed by the apparitions that materialize in the mirror.  The wife appears in these apparitions as a fat, red-nosed drunkard.  It is noted in the exhibitor catalog that the young "rose" has shed her leaves and petals and now displays "only thorns."  She has become, according to the catalog, "harder than an old crocodile."  She has seven children, one of which is black (an indelicate sign of infidelity).  At the same time, her husband has become bitter and nasty and he thinks nothing of beating his once blushing bride.  The couple is so appalled by what they see that they quickly break off their engagement.

    Les Reflets vivants (1908) was an imaginative slapstick comedy.  A young inventor produces a liquid which can, when applied to the surface of a mirror, cause any human image in the mirror to come alive and step out into the real world.  At first, the inventor's own image comes alive and performs all of his gestures.  Was this an early film version of the classic mirror routine?  The inventor manages to make his double vanish by wiping the liquid off the mirror.  The inventor then takes the mirror into the street.  A police officer who looks into the mirror is forced into a gun battle with his double.  A street washer is so disturbed by his double that he fires a hose at him.  An angry mob chases the young inventor to his home.  When they attack him, he suddenly wakes up in bed and realizes that his fantastic adventure was only a dream.

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  • 03/30/15--17:22: Bits and Pieces
  • I wanted to share a few images and film clips that I came across recently.  Many of the film clips came from a YouTube channel created by film collector Tommie Hicks, Jr.

    Here is Harry Langdon featured in promotional stills for Flickering Youth (1924).


    In 1933, old-time film stars gathered to promote a documentary called March of the Movies (formerly titled The Film Parade).  The comedy stars included in this group are Kate Price, Bud Duncan, Flora Finch and Ben Turpin.

    Here is a lobby card for Hazel from Hollywood (1923), which was one of Dorothy Devore's most popular short comedies.  When I wrote about Devore in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film, it was my understanding that Hazel from Hollywood was a lost film.  However, film critic Hal Erickson recently reported on Facebook that he got to see a print of Hazel at a film archive.

    Lloyd Hamilton uses explosive ostrich eggs to battle savage tropical natives in his most highly acclaimed short comedy, Robinson Crusoe Ltd. (1921).

    Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan are up to their usual hijinks in Ham and the Jitney Bus (1915).

    Sid Smith flees a firing squad in an unnamed comedy.  The scene was filmed on Universal's Hunchback of Notre Dame set.

    I overlooked a couple of flying car comedies in an earlier post.  Jerry Lewis, as an alien from outer space, avoids rush hour traffic by causing his car to levitate in A Visit to a Small Planet (1960).

    Bob Hope is trapped inside a rocket-powered flying truck in the spy spoof Call Me Bwana (1963).

    I have always said that the Final Destination films owe a debt to silent film comedy.  This scene from "Big Boy" comedy Kid Tricks (1927) could easily be reworked into Final Destination death scene.

     Director Charles Lamont kept the action moving quickly in Kid Tricks.

    Hank Mann derives a uniquely absurd routine from an exceptionally long dress train in Hot Dogs (1920).

    Let us take a look at two early comedy teams in film history.  The first is Oscar and Conrad, comic Dutch characters played by Claude Cooper and Frank E. McNish.  In this clip from Guiders (1916), Oscar and Conrad are attacked by a variety of animals as they work as tour guides in Florida.

    This is Lyons and Moran struggling with a dilapidated jalopy in Give Her Gas (1918).

    A popular vaudeville novelty act was Dronza, a mechanical talking head that answered questions from audience members.  The audiences were amazed because they could detect no signs of ventriloquism.  It seemed as if Dronza was actually talking on his own.

    I found these lobby cards for Beery and Hatton features on an auction site.

    This is a photo from a 1912 Edison comedy, Uncle Mun and the Minister.  I believe that the actors are, from left to right, Edwin O'Connor, Arthur Housman, Fred I. Nankivel and Shirley Mason.

    This screen capture from the1923 Sennett comedy Skylarking features Harry Gribbon riding a whale out to sea.

    Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey are enjoying a joke at the expense of Edna May Oliver and Edgar Kennedy in the prison comedy Hold 'Em Jail (1923).


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    Publishers prefer to feature a photograph on the cover of a film book.  It isn't an unreasonable idea.  After all, film history is mostly about images.  Dramatic tableaus and photogenic faces leave a strong impression on film fans.  An actor's friendly smile can be an attractive welcome to prospective readers. 

    But I wanted something different for my book Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I wanted to have an illustration on the cover.  At first, I had something like this group portrait in mind. 

    This is the work of the incomparable Drew Friedman.  But this illustration features seven comedians.  My book, as the title indicates, celebrated a diverse group of eighteen comedians.  It would be a tall order to squeeze another eleven comedians into the limited frame of a book cover.  A book cover offers much less space than a wall mural or a magazine centerfold, both of which have been known to support large group portraits.  A pioneer of the Hollywood caricature was Miguel Covarrubias, who made this famous group portrait for a Vanity Fair spread. 

    John Decker created this mural for the Wilshire Bowl Restaurant in 1941.   

    How about a mob of Jerry Lewis?  Sam Norkin painted this mural for Brown's Hotel & Country Club in Loch Sheldrake, New York.

    Bob Harman's Hollywood Panorama, which was five-feet wide and nine-feet tall, featured more than a thousand caricatures of classic film stars.  That's more than a thousand character designs!  Harman created this ambitious work in a span of ten years.  This is just one of many panels from the panorama. 

    Sorry, I needed something far less ambitious than this.  A man's reach does sometimes exceed his grasp.  Besides, it was ludicrous to dream of a Drew Friedman cover on a stick figure budget.  But, then, maybe stick figure representations of the comedians was not a bad idea.  I worked with an illustrator named Henly Sukandra to develop this cover.

    I have always enjoyed caricatures of celebrities.  During my childhood, celebrity caricatures were everywhere.  They could be found in comic books.   

    Mad magazine delighted readers with caricatures from the amazingly talented Jack Davis and Mort Drucker.  Davis would have had no problem crowding eighteen comedians onto a book cover.  No better proof can be provided than the poster art that Davis provided for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which is the illustrator's single most popular work. 

    His covers for TV Guide never failed to boost the magazine's circulation.  I, myself, made a point to save every TV Guide issue adorned with a Davis cover.

    Illustrations do more than excite interest in a film or book.  Illustrations excite the imagination.   Seeing a Davis poster outside of a theater could draw me into the fantasy of a film before I had even seen the first frame.

    Here is a celebrity gathering created by Drucker.

    I am not the only film book author who prefers to use an illustration instead of a photo.  Take, for instance, the writers who recently put together this book about the Thin Man film series.

    They could have easily used the photo on which the illustration was based.

    Or they could have used this welcoming portrait.

    But they chose an original illustration.  I have to say that it got my attention and I did, as it turned out, purchase the book.

    It fascinates me that the art of caricature can be accomplished in so many different ways.  Let us examine the many ways that illustrators have drawn Laurel and Hardy.

    Al Hirschfeld

    Robert Grossman

    Achille Superbi
    Sebastian Krüger

    I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge other caricaturists that I admire.

    Jack Benny by Bruce Stark

    Frank Sinatra by Edward Sorel  

    Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca by John Johns

    James Montgomery Flagg, 1935

    Now, let me talk about caricatures that I don't like.  This level of distortion and exaggeration is unappealing to me. 

    Today, this type of caricature has become commonplace due to Photoshop, which allows users to grossly manipulate photos of actors. 

    Using Photoshop to enlarge an actor's ears, inflate their nose or stretch out their chin may make the image surreal and silly, but it does nothing to convey the personality of the subject.  That takes the very specialized skill of a free-hand caricaturist.  Compare a portrait of Carol Burnett created by John Johns to a similar portrait created by a Photoshop artist.

    I could never get the idea of a group caricature out of my head.  I got the idea to promote my upcoming book, I Won't Grow Up!, with illustrations of famous comedians dressed as children.  I hired an illustrator to create three separate character illustrations and a fourth illustration that combined the characters into a single image.  The finished montage features a rattle-shaking Seth Rogen strapped into a high chair, a mischievous Jerry Lewis yanking on a cat's tail, and a genial Lou Costello riding through the frame on a tricycle.  But this trio looks thin compared to the teeming group portraits of the past.  I can't stop imagining a slew of comedians dressed in kiddie attire tearing apart a day care center.  I hope that, when my budget allows, I can work with an illustrator to make this image happen.

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    I am proud to have been interviewed for this film. I am even prouder to say that I lost a great deal of weight since the interview. So, don't be too distracted by my big belly.

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    We interrupt this film blog for a serious message.  If you came here today for film criticism, film analysis or film history, I must report that my usual ongoing discussion of films has been suspended for a day.  It's not that this article is completely unrelated to films.  The following article will delve, in part, into the image that a Hollywood entertainer has to carefully design and maintain for their public appearances.  A prominent aspect of an entertainer's image is race.  But everything about race, including attitudes toward race and expressions of race, has gotten complicated and treacherous. 

    We spend too much time and energy arguing about race.  No one with a bare amount of intelligence cares about a person's skin color.  At first, we mostly judge a person by the way they dress and the way they talk.  We evaluate, consciously and unconsciously, a person's various personal characteristics.  How do they carry themselves?  Do they listen to what I have to say or do they constantly talk over me?  When a long-term relationship develops, we do better to focus on the person's wit, honesty, dependability and compassion or their lack thereof.  Who cares about their skin color at this point?  I have seen diverse work groups easily adapt to working together.  Men and women having so many distinct qualities that are more interesting than skin color.  But we react differently to other races in a group context.  In general, self-interested people assembled in a political block are no longer people.  They are a snarling, yowling mob that wants to tear apart anyone who stands in their way.  The Internet has proven to be a dangerous outlet for this type of mob rule and mob hysteria.

    Civilization demands that we assume a rational and measured approach to our differences.  Otherwise, we are surrendering to tribal impulses and behaving like savages.  It never fails to get ugly whenever tribalism kicks in.  Too many people feel compelled to assert their moral superiority with a furious display of primate chest-beating.  Conflict over the matter of racism has become the most convenient excuse for showing off in this way, but harm is caused by reckless and unfounded accusations of racism. 

    When I was twelve years old, I was starting to get interested in girls.  One day, I was sitting with a group of friends.  I couldn't help but take notice of a girl who was visiting from another neighborhood.  I thought she was pretty and I wondered if a pretty girl like her could like a guy like me.  I was in the middle of saying something when the pretty girl sneered at me and asked why Italians always have to talk with their hands.  I felt humiliated.  For years, I always made sure when I was talking to keep my hands folded in my lap.  This was not the first time that I was mocked for my race and it was not the last. 

    Many years later, co-workers would call me "Tony Soprano" and ask me if I had "whacked" anyone that week.  I admit that it irritated me more than it should have.  The recent PBS documentary series The Italian Americans aptly explored the struggle that Italians had assimilating into American life.  The biggest obstacle to the Italians' assimilation was the unfavorable prejudices that many held towards them.  So, no, I don't like racism.  But, today, the definition of racism has been expanded to an irrational, unworkable and harmful degree. 

    People who work together in a social group cannot afford to be overly sensitive.  We need to be more accepting and understanding of other person's opinions and perspectives.  We need to accept some amount of racial tension as reasonable and inevitable.  We shouldn't attack every unfavorable race-related comment like Gallagher attacking a watermelon.

    For the vast majority of people, racial tensions do not relate to skin color.  They relate to cultural differences.  We all have different tastes and values based on our culture.  How could that not create tension? 

    Yes, Italians use their hands when they talk.  They regard this as an expressive and passionate way to communicate.  This is a cultural preference.  People of other races might believe that a person talking with their hands is unreserved and unmannered.  That's fine, too.  You don't have to like a person gesturing while they talk, but you need to tolerate it.  It's not as if it's doing you any harm.

    We learned from a recent episode of Fashion Police that Giuliana Rancic is repulsed by dreadlocks.  Rancic was reviewing photos of Hollywood stars on the Oscars red carpet when she came upon a photo of Zendaya Coleman, a star of the Disney sitcom Shake It Up.

    As you can see, the young black actress arrived at the Oscars with her hair arranged in artfully braided dreadlocks.  Rancic joked that she could imagine the actress smelling of patchouli oil and marijuana.  A lengthy post on Coleman's Twitter account slammed Rancic for the comment.  This set off a three-day firestorm.  The rabid Internet community could not have been more incensed if Rancic had called the actress "Brillo head."  It was an overreaction that is made even worse by the fact that these same people tend to overreact about something new every day.  Not surprisingly, the interpretations of Rancic's comment went in an extreme direction.  Some said that Rancic was saying that straight, silky Caucasian hair was superior to black people's rougher, curly hair.  Some accused Rancic of saying the black people's hair was dirty. 

    I want to first say that attacking a hair style is vastly different than attacking a hair type.  The former relates to culture and the latter relates to race.  You don't have to like a black person's hair.  But, if you find a black person's hair to be too rough and kinky to your liking, you should probably keep it to yourself.  In either case, I don't know if the same sensitivity should be applied to dreadlocks.  Dreadlocks is an exotic and archaic hairstyle that is rightfully associated with patchouli oil and weed.  I am not sure Rancic's comment (which, for the record, was scripted by a staff writer) represents an all-out attack on black people.  As far as I know, a small minority of black people have ever had dreadlocks or have known anyone who has ever had dreadlocks. 

    It later came out that the way that the show was edited took the comment out of context.  Rancic was trying to make the point that the hairstyle didn't suit Coleman, who had looked much better in the past with less radical and more high fashion hairstyles.  Rancic said in her defense that, at this point in time, the dreadlocks style is a bohemian statement that has nothing to do with race.   

    Coleman may have had her own reason to feel outraged by the remark.  The actress, who has a black father and a white mother, may feel that her racial identity has become a distraction in her career.  She was accused of being too white when she was cast to play black singer Aaliyah in a biopic.  She was quickly replaced in the role by another actress, although she insisted that she dropped out of the project due to scheduling issues.  She wore dreadlocks to honor her black heritage (her father has worn dreadlocks for years), but she was caught off guard by this unexpected attack by Rancic.  Rancic indicated that the actress has a delicate frame and delicate features and the dreadlocks were, in contrast, "really heavy."  "It overwhelms her," Rancic said.  Was Rancic making a point that the hairstyle was too black for the light-skinned actress?  Or it could be that I, too, am overthinking this matter.

    These issues, admittedly, can get complicated.   The Shaiva Nagas, ascetics of South Asia, once rubbed cow dung into their dreadlocks as part of a sacred ritual.  Should everyone have to tolerate dung-coated hair?  I wonder if Rancic would have gotten into trouble if she simply said that she imagined Coleman smelled like patchouli oil, which I understand has a nice scent.  Was it the weed reference that made it offensive?  Most of the people who attended the Oscars that night probably have smoked weed and think that weed is a good thing. 

    In any case, let us not give too much importance to these dreadlocks, which were a simple fashion choice that Coleman had made for the evening.  The actress has been known to adopt eye-catching hairstyles for awards ceremonies.

    Coleman showing up at an awards show with dreadlocks is no more significant than Miley Cyrus showing up at an awards show with blue hair.  It was meant to get the actress attention and it was not guaranteed that all of that attention would be positive.  It was not as if Rancic said that Coleman had an ugly nose or fat legs.  It was just an arrangement of hair.  For the record, Coleman was back to her normal hairstyle the next day.  Reports came out later that the dreadlocks had been fake hair extensions.  Blogger Sandra Rose wrote, "As a British woman born to Jamaican parents I agree that the remarks were offensive.  But even more offensive is Zendaya walking around wearing FAKE dreadlocks and then having the nerve to act insulted when white people call her out for being phony."  That's the problem about setting off a bomb, you can't always control who or what gets damaged in the blast.  Coleman was soon tired of answering questions on the subject.  She told an interviewer, "It's over. . . Let's let it go." 

    I strongly suspect that Coleman's message on Twitter was written by a management representative.  If this is the case, I think that the writer who scripted Rancic's upsetting joke and the writer of Coleman's Twitter denunciation should meet face-to-face and get all of this controversy hashed out.

    Don't get me wrong, I abhor the casual rudeness of Fashion Police and I would be happy if they took this show off the air, but this dreadlocks business was blown way out of proportion.  Racism is the belief that you have the right to segregate, dominate or oppress people of another race because you believe that your own race is biologically superior.  I don't know if a person saying they dislike dreadlocks meets the standards for racism.  An alternate definition of racism is a person expressing hatred or intolerance of other races.  That definition is too broad for my tastes.  You can go so far in your interpretation of racism that you become intolerant of another person's views and preferences. 

    It would be great if we could feel nothing but love for one another, but man evolved in dangerously competitive environments and he was only able to survive by looking after himself and the others in his group.  The Walking Dead appeals to a large television audience because it taps into our time-tested group loyalties and our primal kill-or-be-killed instincts.  The series strips away the burdens and pretensions of civilized behavior and allows its characters to fiercely indulge their natural survival instincts.  Everyone outside of the group is the Other and poses a threat to their existence.  Nowadays, political party affiliations allow people to convert primitive hostilities to a socially acceptable form.  We can, in this way, see ourselves as part of a group and feel justified to attack everyone outside of that group.  If you are not part of our group, then you must be an enemy and we can destroy you.

    What is the Other?  The Other is the Other.  Skin color provides a distinct marker but it is otherwise irrelevant.  I can't tell the difference between Danish people and Swedish people, but these two groups have been bickering for 900 years.

    These are young Swedish ladies.

    This is a young Danish lady.

    Can you tell the difference?

    But here is a list of the wars in which the two countries fought against each other:

    The Dano-Swedish War (1470–1471) 
    The Dano-Swedish War (1501–1512) 
    The Swedish War of Secession (1521–1523) 
    The Northern Seven Years' War (1563–1570) 
    The Kalmar War (1611–1613) 
    The Torstenson War (1643–1645)
    The Second Northern War/Dano-Swedish War (1657-1660)
    The Scanian War (1675–79) 
    The Great Northern War (1700–21) 
    The Theater War/Russo-Swedish War (1788–1789)
    The Dano–Swedish War/Napoleonic War (1808–1809) 
    The Dano-Swedish War/War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-1814)

    War, in one form or another, is the nature of man.

    Too many comments on the Internet manage to, as the headlines often say, "spark outrage."  It bothers me the most that this indignation never feels real.  It comes across as something else - maybe misplaced anger or maybe stress relief.  Rage can release built-up anger from past traumas.  A distressed person can make themselves feel better by inflicting their frustrations on others.  Rage increases the body's adrenal output, which dulls sensations of pain.

    Let us return to the Oscars red carpet.  I find it odd that the Internet's many politically correct young commentators adamantly oppose potentially racist comments but think nothing of expressing unbridled hatred of their elders.  Every year, they complain bitterly about the many old people who attend the Oscars.  Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has spoke of "the creaky, crusty demographics of the Academy."  O'Hehir and others would ban this group from the show and the Academy if they had the power.  Ageist young people will not hesitate to say that an old person smells bad.  They don't say that they smell of patchouli oil and weed.  They say, bluntly, that they smell bad.  They don't really believe in treating everyone fairly.  Their message is simple: Screw old people.

    But ageism is just as bad as racism.  The most terrible form of racism occurs when a person is denied a job or denied housing simply on the basis of their skin color.  But how many of these young people would deny a person a job based on the wrinkly texture of their skin or refuse to rent an old person an apartment because they assume that the person would make the apartment smell of Ben-Gay?  It is upsetting to see hatred between generations.  Hate is hate, but it is particularly disturbing to see hostility between a father and son.  This type of family infighting is nasty and perverse.  So, why is ageism socially acceptable and racism is not?  This makes political correctness too arbitrary to be taken seriously.

    I talked to an old man the other day.  He said that he stopped watching football because he is repulsed by, in his words, "the long hair."  I didn't ask him to elaborate, but I can assume that he thinks that long hair looks ugly and maybe even dirty.  You know, it doesn't look too good to me, either.  That doesn't make me a bad person.  If I say that I prefer the old-fashioned, clean-cut football players, it doesn't mean that I prefer old-fashioned, white football players.

    I am not a person who ever speaks in code.  I have a right to my personal taste in regards to hairstyles.  But who am I kidding talking about my preference in football players?  I could never relate to football.  A game more to my tastes is Trivial Pursuit.   

    I want to end this article with a small bit of advice.  Excuse me if I come across as Woodsy Owl dispensing a public service message.  But my message is simple and it could be helpful.  If you think that someone has made a racist comment, hold your breath and count to ten.  Once you feel calmer, take the time to carefully consider the nature of the comment.  Do not erupt in protest unless you are sure that the comment is racist and it poses some sort of threat.  Our survival as a society depends on our ability to talk openly and calmly about our feelings and impressions on issues of race.    

    I will talk about my personal feelings and impressions on race in the next installment of this article.

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